If the local newscast (egged on by local retail merchants) tells me one more time exactly how many "shopping days" are left until Christmas, I'll scream! No matter what the count, there are never enough days to shop for/buy/craft/bake gifts for family and friends--and this year of all years, disposable income is in short supply.
Solution: Christmas Cheats. These spending short-cuts save time, money, energy and aggravation during the holiday season. With clever solutions for gift-giving, they're the frugal way to celebrate like Santa but spend like Scrooge. Ready to outwit that old Christmas shopping demon? Try these strategies to get the most delight from your holiday spending dollar:
Back to Basics
Some basic principles underlie the concept of a Christmas Cheat. First and foremost:"special" means more than "expensive." Better a tiny, beloved jewel than a big, costly item that'll end up in the recipient's next yard sale.
[Rule of thumb: avoid all gift items displayed on red-covered tables that block every aisle at the department store. Nine times out of ten, you're looking at Yard Sale Inventory, come July.]
Second concept: consider time, not just money. The classic Christmas Cheat is both inexpensive and quick to produce. You'll have to get over the idea of hand-embroidered guest towels, plastic-canvas tree ornaments, and crocheted anything. Ditto hand-iced and decorated cookies, elaborate multi-step fruitcakes, and anything requiring a pastry tube.
The obvious corollary: think multiple! What you do for a Christmas Cheat, do a lot!
Last point: presentation is everything. This does not mean investing a fortune in overpriced holiday-colored this and holiday-decorated that, or sweet little baskets that cost more than the gift inside. Even simple drop cookies have more impact presented nestled in a foil-covered candy box than a zipper food storage bag!
Cheat Central: Catalogs
How do we put these principles to work? For inspiration and guidance, go to the source, the fountainhead, the wellspring of the Christmas Cheat: mail order catalogs. Preferably from Gumps, Neiman Marcus, or tiny over-priced boutiques.
No, we're not going to buy from these fine commercial entities! As Cheaters, we're here to rip off ideas, plain and simple.
Take a perfect Christmas Cheat: pint-sized canning jars filled with colorful layers of dried beans. The lid's been embellished with a simple cut circle of Christmas fabric and tied with a bow. A gift tag lists the recipe for "15-bean soup"--and the catalog price--$5.95 plus shipping, handling and sales tax.
So we'll make our own! You'll need a case of half-pint jelly canning jars (and do get the decorated jelly jars), a half-yard of Christmas fabric, two rounds of inexpensive Christmas ribbon from the craft store, and 10 to 15 bags of dried beans. Choose the beans by the color, including yellow and green split-peas, white kidney beans, red kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans--as wide a selection as you can obtain at the super-market. Add a jar of beef bouillon cubes to the shopping cart, and you're ready to Cheat.
Open the jars, and fill them in layers: a half-inch of green split peas, a half-inch of red kidneys, and so on. Choose the most colorful beans for the bottom layers, as they'll show the most. Toss any leftovers in a zipper storage bag for your family's 15 bean soup! Toss two foil-wrapped bouillon cubes on top of each jar of beans.
Lay the inner lid on top of the jar. Cut 12 6-inch circles from the Christmas fabric and place one fabric circle over each jar. Screw the outer lid over the fabric
Now to apply Cheat Concept Three: presentation is everything! Go to your computer, and use any word processor to make small gift tags. Include a basic recipe for bean soup, but be sure to name it after yourself! Add a nice little graphic and use your fanciest font. (Or print out our own Confetti Bean Soup Gift Tag to save even more time!)
Punch a hole in the corner of the tag, and tie to the jars with a ribbon. Voila! Christmas Cheat: twelve gifts you can give anyone, teachers to neighbors, with a minimal investment of money, time and effort. A classic!
The same catalog that led to the Bean Soup Cheat also featured--for $12.95!!!--quart canning jars containing oatmeal and chocolate chip cookie ingredients. Also prettily layered. Also topped with holiday fabric and clever gift tag. Also a perfect candidate for the Christmas Cheat!
Banish Baking Blues
Are you baking this year? Don't fall for the iced sugar cookie routine! Unless you schedule cookie-baking as a child-centered activity, frosted sugar cookies violate principle two: they take too much time. Ditto the more-is-merrier idea--baking tons of different kinds of cookies. Long hours on weary feet, and have you priced nuts this year? Yikes!
Perusing our catalogs, though, we can identify two Christmas Cheats for baked gifts. First recommendation: biscotti. Now, I thought everyone knew that biscuit are twice-baked Italian cookies, made for dipping in coffee or chocolate. Wrong
So I will tell you: these easy-to-make, cheap to bake goodies are hot, hot, hot. Biscotti have an espresso/cool quality that makes them suitable candidates for a Cheat. Pair them with a bag of good coffee beans, and you've created the ultimate--and desirable--Christmas cheat.
Check any recent Christmas cookie magazine for recipes.? You'll make dough, shape it in a single big flattened log shape, and bake it once. Then you'll cool your log of dough, cut it into 1/2-inch slices, and bake again until the slices are dry and crisp, but not hard.
Applying "Presentation is Everything", you'll stand eight or nine biscotti on end in an inexpensive coffee mug and wrap with plastic wrap or cellophane. Stop there for a modest gift, or add a half-pound of gourmet coffee beans for a heftier treat. Result: a city-chic Christmas Cheat!
Here's Baking Cheat Number Two: dip things in melted chocolate chips. Christmas cookie magazines are full of dipped goodies this year, but I'll share the secret.
Use 1/2 cup of white chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate or milk chocolate chips. Place them in a Pyrex measuring cup or small batter bowl. Add one teaspoon solid shortening, no substitutions! Microwave for 30 seconds on high, stir, and repeat the cycle until the mixture is melted and smooth. Dip away! Short, sweet, and you'll look like Cordon Bleu material.
Dip one end of biscotti in melted white chocolate chips for a fancy touch. Pedestrian oatmeal cookies turn Gourmet Snob Cookies when they've stuck their toes in some melted chocolate. Add some dried apricots half-dipped in white chocolate, line both cookies and apricots up in rows on a foil-covered piece of shirt cardboard, and top with plastic wrap. If Presentation is Everything, this cookie plate is mega-everything--and quick, and cheap!
Get the Goods on Gift Wrap
A confession here: I hate gift wrap. It's expensive and it's wasteful and it takes too much time and it's just thrown away and if I could do without it, I would. But I can't. So here are some hints for getting your time and money's worth out of gift wrap
First, keep it simple. Why buy a box, fancy printed tissue for the inside of the box, fancy printed paper for the outside of the box, a cardboard mailing carton, and separate gift cards?
Check into the U.S. Postal Service's new innovation: decorated mailing containers. Buy white tissue paper, wrap it around the gift, plunk the gift in the decorated mailing box: an instant Christmas Cheat!
When you do have to buy paper and tissue, stick with solid colors. A thick package of white tissue will cushion birthday, wedding, and baby gifts all year long, but you can't get away with that Cheat if your tissue says "Merry Christmas!"
Ditto wrapping paper. Solid red can be used throughout the year with different-colored ribbons. Mickey Mouse in a Santa hat just doesn't have the same universal appeal.? Slickest Cheat I found this year: nicely printed gift boxes, 3- and 4-for-a-dollar. Wrapping couldn't be easier!
With bows, you're on your own. At most, I wrap glossy gold ribbon (also multi-occasion; red ribbon is just too saved-from-Christmas for me) once or twice around the box. But I acknowledge that others may be of a different bow persuasion--so do your best to get the most dash from your ribbon purchases!
Stretch-Tite(tm) Saves the Day
Here is my number one packaging Cheat: Stretch-Tite brand plastic wrap. It's hard to find, and costs about $4 a roll, but Stretch-Tite is the best single food wrap going. (It's also designed for the microwave, but that's another article.)
Use Stretch-Tite to wrap stacks of cookies. Stretch it over baskets. Tape it to food plates. It has an elastic quality that looks almost professional, doesn't tear, and won't wrinkle or shift. Pedestrian cookie plates will look professionally shrink-wrapped. Bonzer stuff!
Look for Stretch-Tite at warehouse stores like Sam's Club and Costco, buy Stretch-Tite online or ask your grocery store manager to add it to the plastic wrap and bags section.
Packaging Cheat number two: "foil" gift wrap works for baked goods as well as holiday gifts.
Buy several rolls and use the foil to wrap hunks of cardboard for cookie trays.
Tuck pieces of fudge or Aunt Bill's Brown Candy in small squares of foil gift wrap, and they'll keep nicely, yet add a gala Christmas flair to gifts and candy dishes.
Who said you had to buy metal tins and fancy "goodie" boxes for your baked goods?