It's that "neighbor gift" time of year. I think I must live in the most creative neighborhood in the USA, because my neighbors continually come up with ideas that are fun, flavorful and heartfelt.
Already our family has received a holiday-themed plate bearing a small package of Ritz crackers, a mini-cheese ball and a cute little holiday knife for spreading the cheese. We've also received jars of homemade jam. (My husband's favorite gift to get!) One had a pretty fabric topper with a festive embroidered flower. Another friend uses her own backyard-grown raspberries. Another neighbor makes a wallet-size card with the phone numbers of everyone in the neighborhood. I can't tell you how many times that has come in handy!
I am writing this after spending a few hours today making neighbor gifts of chocolate-drizzled popcorn. I'll admit, it's not unique, but I've never felt any particular pressure in my neighborhood to "keep up with the Joneses."
Mass-producing treats is a big temptation for me. I tend to nibble here and there, and the calories add up. Some years I've given a non-sweet gift, or I make treats I don't enjoy eating, or I'll buy something already packaged so that I can't sample "just a few" before they go out the door.
A couple years ago I did a "seasonings greetings" theme, making an Italian blend from herbs I grew that summer. Another year, I did baking mixes with mixing spoons attached, with the tag line, "Not a creature was stirring."
My sister-in-law, who lives in Virginia, has complained to me, "Why do people in Utah always have to have some little pun or joke to go with their gift? Why can't they just give a gift and be done with it?"
I don't know if it's just a Utah thing, but I enjoy some of those fun tag lines.
A few days ago I was strolling the aisles at the Michael's craft store in Bountiful looking at all the cute containers and thought of all the yummy goodies that could be packaged in them.
Somehow chocolate-drizzled popcorn came to mind. It's sort of elegant, and (with apologies to my sister-in-law) popcorn lends itself to some fun tag lines, such as "Just poppin' in to say Merry Christmas" or "Merry Christmas from your corny neighbors!" or, in the case of white chocolate popcorn, "Here's wishing you a white (chocolate) Christmas."
I already had an 8-pound container of Orville Redenbacher popcorn kernels sitting in my food storage, and an air-popper waiting in my kitchen, so I was in business.
Drizzling the popcorn turned out to be a pretty simple process.
It was also fairly inexpensive (although I don't want my neighbors reading this to think I'm being a cheapskate!). I was able to make 20 bags of popcorn (about 4 cups each) with about $25 worth of chocolate, and that includes some nibbling here and there on my part.
I'm glad I didn't use microwave popcorn; for one thing, it costs about 10 times more than the old-fashioned kernels that you air-pop yourself. Consider that a $2 bag of plain kernels yields 112 cups; while a $3 three-pack box of microwave popcorn will yield only about 10 cups.
Microwave popcorn also tends to have a lot of unpopped kernels that need to be weeded out so that someone doesn't break a tooth.
Air-popped popcorn has no added butter or oil, so it's like a blank canvas for the chocolate, and the kernels don't get soggy. An air-popper costs about $20-$25, and the investment pays off quickly if your family eats lots of popcorn.
I used Guittard chocolate for the milk chocolate coating, because I love its deep, almost-caramelized flavor.
But I saved some pennies by using white candy coating, or "almond bark" for the white chocolate. It's made with vegetable fats instead of cocoa butter. Frankly, I think most white chocolate tastes kind of "fake" anyway, and I knew the candy coating would melt and drizzle easily. I also tried using green mint-flavored chocolate chips to get some festive color going.
I popped a batch of popcorn and spread it out on a rimmed baking sheet lined with waxed paper, making sure to pick out any unpopped kernels. I melted the chocolate on medium power in the microwave in a glass measuring cup, allowing for about 1½ to 2 cups melted chocolate per baking sheet. I poured the chocolate over the popcorn in thin ribbons.
Then with a spatula, I moved the popcorn around a little to get it more evenly coated. Then I set it outdoors on my deck for a few minutes to cool and harden. Meanwhile, I popped another batch of popcorn to coat with a different flavor of chocolate.
I packed the popcorn in big clear plastic bags tied with a red ribbon, giving each bag a few handfuls of each flavor of popcorn. You could do all the popcorn in one flavor, depending on your preference. I liked the white chocolate the best, but my husband preferred the mint flavor.
This was a pretty simple process — no baking, no mixing, no candy thermometer required. If you have older kids and teens at home, this is something they could easily help make. And my daughter will be helping me crank out some more this weekend.
If, unlike my sister-in-law, you enjoy getting gifts that include some type of pun or joke, here are some more ideas that have been passed around many a neighborhood:
A two-liter bottle of soda pop with one of these tag lines: "May your holidays bubble over with fun!" or "Pop, pop, fizz, fizz, oh what a great neighbor you is." Or "May your Christmas be merry and Sprite" or "We're soda-lighted to have you as our neighbor."
A bottle of 7-Up with an attached "Seven Up-Lifting Thoughts," that were indeed, uplifting and positive.
Windshield scraper: "Amid snow or sleet or hail or slush, Merry Christmas from all of us!"
Almond Joy candies: "Here's wishing you joy at Christmas."
Long-handled grill matches or gas lighter: "To a matchless friend, may your Christmas be bright."
Muffin mix: "You're getting muffin for Christmas!"
Ice cream scoop: "Have a cool yule!"
A box of Ho-Ho cupcakes: "Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas."
A can of nuts: "I just go nuts at Christmas."
A scented candle: "Scenting you holiday greetings!" or "May your Christmas be bright!"
Holiday washcloth: "We wash you a Merry Christmas!"
Frozen cookie dough: "Here's a little extra dough for Christmas."
Flavored butter or a jar of jam: "Spreading cheer this time of year."
Dried or frozen pasta: "Have a pasta-tively happy holiday!"
A hunk of cheese and grater: "To a grate neighbor from your cheesy friends."
A basket with herbal tea, cocoa mixes or bath items: "For when you feel like a basket case."
Hershey's Kisses in a wire whisk: "We whisk you a Merry Kiss-mas."
Oven mitt filled with candies: "We ad-mitt you're a great neighbor!" or "Thanks for your helping hand" or "Merry Christmas from our pad to yours."
Chex Party Mix: "Santa always Chex his list."
Juice pitcher filled with candy canes: "We pitcher you raising a little cane during the holidays."
A loaf of bread: "We're not loafing around! Merry Christmas!"
Ready-to-bake pizza: "To someone with pizzazz."
Oranges (or a chocolate orange): "Orange you glad we're friends?"
Homemade divinity: "May your holiday be divine."
Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.
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