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Wine & Dine

The ultimate no-fuss food hamper

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In times of festivity, the spirit of joy and celebration invariably find expression in the kitchen - especially for those of us who love to cook. Cooking is act of love, a way of communicating with loved ones that you care and spoiling them with food that they enjoy. It's the reason why food has always been an integral part of all special occasions, not just in Indian culture, but the world over. 

It is in joyous times like these that I find myself entering the kitchen to put together little gift hampers full of handmade goodies for loved ones. A kitchen full of appliances and a pantry stocked with raw material is all I need to get lost in the world of creation. It isn't exotic ingredients, expensive condiments and fancy cooking appliances that make an edible gift special. It's the time spent and the effort put into these gifts that makes them special. The beaming smiles I receive when a bottle of my jam is opened for the first time, the heartfelt "thank-yous" and the warm hugs of appreciation make all my effort worth it. Besides, a bottle of jam, herbed butter or spiced sugar can be enjoyed over a long period of time, prolonging a beautiful memory.

No special occasion is complete without a cake. Whether it's Christmas, an anniversary or even the celebration that follows an A+ on a dreaded math test, a cake must be baked! Every Christmas or birthday my mother, who is an amazing baker, would bring out all her trusty whisks and mixing bowls for a speed baking session. It's a tradition we made our own, even though I come from a Gujarati family. Kilos and kilos of cake would come out of the oven, much to the delight of all the children in our large extended family. These Christmas cakes would bring us all together. For years I watched my mother customise cakes and other confections for special people, at special moments in their life. I picked this habit from her, after seeing the joy and love she was able to share with her little culinary gestures.

If you aren't comfortable around an oven, pick a food item you are comfortable with. Every one of us has some special recipe or a dish we prepare with flair. It could be a pasta dish, a casserole, a gajar ka halwa or even a simple salad dressing. All you have to do is serve it in a beautiful vintage bowl or a one-of-a-kind, quirky little jar, slap on a pretty bow and you'll have a unique, memorable gift. If you have a friend who loves coffee, home-made cookies make for a lovely gift. They'll be able to savour your gift every time they sit down to nurse a cup of coffee. You can even give them a special spiced sugar - perhaps a cinnamon and star anise sugar - which they can sprinkle on their coffee, giving every sip a warm festive aroma.

For those of your friends who don't have a sweet tooth - yes, such people exist - you can consider savoury items;like flavoured oils, spice mixes, salad sprinkles, spicy dips or even readyto-eat pasta sauces. During the festive season, we often suffer from a sweet overload. Whereever you go, you are served sweets and all kitchen shelves get crammed with sugary snacks. During such times, a savoury food item can come as a much needed relief. It happened to me just this Diwali. After a week of binging on sweet treats I had had enough! All I wanted was some spicy chilli oil or a hot stir fry full of peppers. I really wished someone had gifted me a jar or home-made Maharashtrian thecha;it would've made me jump around in glee.

If you have friends who love to cook, they will also appreciate being gifted cooking ingredients;condiments, spices, oils, exotic vegetables or seasonal fruits. You need not spend a bomb and buy the most expensive ingredients off the shelf. Instead of randomly putting together a bunch of items, pick a theme. Maybe you have a friend who enjoys cooking Thai food;you can put together a bottle of fish sauce, kafir lime leaves, galangal, jasmine rice and some palm sugar. Maybe even make them a small batch of Thai curry paste for some inspiration. Pack this in a pretty basket, and throw in a small recipe book with Thai recipes which use the ingredients from the basket. Instead of buying a recipe book, you can make them one. It's easier that you think! Just put together your favourite recipes or browse through some magazines and newspapers and cut out a few recipes, bind all of these together with a ribbon and voila! Your Thai hamper is complete.

A gift hamper must look special;after all the festive season is all about decoration, sparkle and tinsel. You don't have to buy the best gift-wrapping paper or spend on fancy ribbons. Packaging can be simple and easy on the pocket, yet beautiful. How you ask? Recycle! Rummage through your pantry and you're bound to find an old shoe box, cookie tin or jam jar. They can all be used. You can remove the old worn off labels from pickle jars and jam bottles. Clean them well and leave them in the sun so the smell of the previous contents completely vanishes. Then you can make your own customised label;describing what you've made and paste it on. You can even write a personal note, which will peep out at your friend every time she opens the fridge.

Bring out your inner artist. Pick up some paints and brushes from the local stationary store and you can paint old boxes or bottles, to make them colourful and festive. Don't be afraid to try. Even if you get a little paint smudge or tear a corner it doesn't really matter. The appreciation for your effort will most definitely outweigh the small blunder. Doing little projects like these for your loved ones is extremely rewarding. Besides it gives you the time to unwind, do something creative and fun which you wouldn't ordinary do. I doubt you'll think about work deadlines and pending paper work while you stir a pot of jam or watch your cake rise in the oven. I speak from experience;try making edible handcrafted gifts this season, and you'll find yourself waiting for the next festive season, anniversary or birthday for a chance to do it again!

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