Last Christmas marked the third year that Em Hart's nearest and dearest received the "Team Pretty Bake" hamper. Wrapped in a fresh, gingham tea towel and tied with brown string, the 2010 edition did not disappoint. Medical researcher by day, food blogger and obsessive baker by night, Hart's home-made hampers are a generous annual assortment of goodies conjured from the recipes of her favourite chefs.
Stephanie Alexander's sesame-coriander dukkah might feature, and Greg Malouf's baharat mix. Last year there was tomato-chilli jam and home-made granola, too. Sweet tooths were not forgotten with florentines, triple-ginger cookies, macarons, treacle pecan caramels and panforte thrown in for good measure. But the icing on the cake, Hart says, was her home-made vanilla extract.
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"People who enjoy baking particularly loved that." Fresh vanilla beans were preserved in bottles of vodka from late August. By Christmas, the heady concoction was ready to be poured into Alice In Wonderland-esque bottles (bought in bulk one year from a wholesale glassware company).
Across Victoria people like Em Hart are preparing for this year's great Christmas cook-off. Some bake, harvest and preserve Christmas gifts because they find it more meaningful, or enjoyable, than hitting department stores, bookshops or the internet to find gifts.
Hart, 29, says baking like this began as a therapeutic pastime. She started her teamprettybake blog in 2008 after her fiance died. Three years on and the cooking is a little less about therapy and a bit more about experimentation; the Christmas hampers exemplify the year's kitchen adventures (the successful ones, at least). "There's a bit of expectation now," Hart says of the hampers. "People can't wait to see what's in them. I love cooking and I enjoy sharing. It's lovely to see the reaction."
Hart says that when a gift reflects the giver, everyone gets something out of the process. Andrew Sutherland agrees. His family — wife Deb and sons Tas and Gus — literally stamp themselves onto the Christmas gifts they produce in their Hawthorn backyard; pots of pungent honey collected from their own beehives. The packaging is another work of art.
"In the corners [of the label] are our initials . . . The 3122 is our postcode and S285 our beekeeping registration," explains Sutherland.
He collects the honey (40-50 kilograms, twice a year) while Deb and the kids filter and decant it into jars, many of them bought at garage sales and returned when empty by relatives and friends keen for their share of next season's bounty. Sutherland says it is a "messy, sticky process with lots of faffing about," but there's no denying the pleasure his family derives from it each year.
Far less sticky, but arguably more raucous, is Jess Baillie's traditional shortbread bake-off. Each December, when the weather is right to handle the six-or-so kilograms of butter required to make 60 rounds of shortbread, the Baillie clan of Warburton gathers. The tradition goes back four generations.
"My poppa's father was a baker in Scotland," Jess says. These days Jess, her parents, brother Gabriel and Auntie Nance (Gran died a little while ago) make the shortbread.
"When we all get together it is usually in the evening as it's too hot in the day. We bake late into the night for three-to-four nights running. It really does herald the coming of Christmas," she says.
The Baillie shortbread recipe is a closely guarded secret. Jess says she will be disowned if she shares it with Epicure readers. But each year the rounds, decorated with a press and carefully packaged, make their way to grateful recipients across the state.
Family history also plays a part in the gifts Pip Lincolne distributes to friends and customers each year; she draws on her grandmother's ginger beer recipe to spread Christmas cheer — about 20 litres of cheer, to be precise.
Lincolne, owner of Fitzroy craft store Meet Me at Mike's, says the ginger beer reminds her of summers spent sipping "Nanna Icky's" fizzy concoction at a beach shack at Tinderbox south of Hobart.
Lincolne likes the idea of her three children growing up with similar, ginger-soaked memories, although the actual brewing is a solo endeavour. "I like to take all the credit," she says.
"It's delicious, not as super-sweet as the supermarket varieties [and] it has a certain nostalgic charm; a sort of Enid Blyton 'lashings and lashings of ginger beer'."
Lesley Trumble and Nell White have been running their own Christmas cook-off for about five years. Friends since their first day at Melbourne University together in 1973, this weekend in November is more about spending quality time together than cooking, though there's plenty of that.
The fruits of their labours include jams, tomato chutney, kasundi, cordials, sweet breads and biscuits. Says White, a documentary producer from North Fitzroy: "We do all the shopping and spend the rest of the day cooking. We gossip, and solve the problems of the world."
Ingredients will be a little easier to come by this year, as Trumble recently bought an old orchard in the Warby Ranges with nearly 100 established fruit trees. An acquisition of chooks, says Trumble, means lemon butter will be added to the gift-giving list this year.
Of course, many have the best of intentions but don't always hit the mark. On the prowl for suitable foodie gift stories, we encountered many tales of woe: never-opened jars of chutney left to wither in the far, far reaches of a relative's pantry; strawberry jam so runny it was re-christened "sauce".
Without mentioning names, there was even this gem, sent via email. "One year we bought little chocolates and put them in decorative pots and they got infested with ants. Instead of chucking them out we just wiped the ants off. Merry Christmas."
Surely, though, a home-made jar of chutney or a bottle of Nanna Icky's ginger beer is never less than warmly received? At the very least, as they say, it is the thought that counts.
Homemade goodies for the Christmas gift basket.
Nanna Icky's ginger beer (recipe by Pip Lincolne)
Angela’s onion jam (Lesley Trumble and Nell White use this Caroline Velik recipe, published in Epicure in 2008. They say it is always a winner. Caroline Velik recommended it be eaten with cheese, or dolloped on sausages.)