Friday, February 11, 2011

In defense of the homemade

A Homemade Exchange is a simple concept.

Last fall, I sent an email around to folks who might be interested in making something homemade - anything at all - to distribute to everyone else on the list.  Six women signed up for the project, and we set a date to exchange gifts.

Does this sound complicated and time-intensive to you? Even though I had come up with the suggestion, I found it a little overwhelming, and couldn't seem to get started on it. I worried about it, in the back of my mind, for months. What should I make?  Would it be nice enough? How could I carve out time to do it?

In the end, I found an easy recipe for chocolates and made two varieties with items left from recent foraging trips: one with dried candy cap mushrooms and one with candied orange peel and dried rose petals. I was tying the last bow on the packages five minutes before we were scheduled to meet.

Our long-awaited Homemade Exchange happened last week. After a delicious potluck dinner, I received a little pile of treasures including a Dead Sea salt scrub with geranium essential oil, spice mixes from Iraq and Ethiopia, chocolate macaroons, jars of pickled Brussel sprouts and pickled onions and a personalized apron. 

The dirty secret that everyone ended up confessing was that they'd all made their gifts either the night before or the day of the exchange. Like me, everyone else had been a bit overwhelmed by the thought of making gifts for five other people, and had put it off until the last minute. 

What I took from that confession was that we are so much more capable and creative than we realize. Projects take up far more mental energy than they actually do to execute. 

I ended up blown away by everyone's creativity and with a renewed appreciation for having things in my life that are homemade. It felt possible again. We were inspired to try to hold quarterly Homemade Exchanges instead of the annual event we'd pictured.
The exception, of course, was the maker of the personalized aprons - a phenomenally-organized woman, who started her project at least a month before we met. I don't think anyone could have pulled that off in just a few hours!

Bringing homemade back

Want to start your own homemade exchange? After you put the call out to friends and friends-of-friends, be sure to limit the final list to 10 or fewer people so it feels less daunting.

Set a deadline. Ours was roughly Jan. 1, but we pushed the date back a few times to find an evening when we could all get together.

You don't have to have a final party, but I really enjoyed oohing and aahing over everyone's handiwork. A few years ago, I participated in a homemade exchange where we didn't have a potluck, so the gifts trickled in over the course of a few months. I made plum jam, and I remember receiving homemade crackers, coconut lime candies, olives, granola and more. It worked fine that way, but it's so nice to give gifts face-to-face.

It can be done any time of year, but the fact that we pulled it together around the holidays felt like a breath of fresh air, a step away from the commercialized frenzy of the season. If you end up creating your own Homemade Exchange, let me know how it goes!

How did you make those weird chocolates?

I was wondering what I was going to do with all of those dried candy caps in the last Foraging Report, and I ended up being inspired by this blog post at ingredients, inc. which offered a chocolate recipe with endless possibilities for adaptation and variation. The recipe I improvised is a savory and sweet mix of earthy, maple sugar mushroom scents and dark chocolate, which got rave reviews. I received several surprised texts from people over the next week as they broke into their stashes.

I know you're thinking - melting chocolate, I'll need a double boiler, yuck - but what I never knew before was that microwaving the chocolate works just fine (sorry to the purists and anti-microwave folks out there).

Candy Cap Mushroom Chocolate Recipe
  • 1 12 oz. package semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate morsels (I used Ghiradelli)
  • 1 cup dried candy cap mushrooms, plus 1/4 cup to sprinkle on top
  • Package of foil candy cups (which can be hard to find - I got mine at Michaels)

My mushrooms had gotten slightly soft since I'd dehydrated them about a month beforehand. For this recipe, I wanted them to be nice and crisp, so I toasted them first. (This resulted in a texture almost like puffed rice, which was very nice.)

On a baking dish, set out about 25-30 foil baking cups.

Empty the chocolate chips into a glass or ceramic bowl and microwave for 1-2 minutes. Stir to melt any remaining chunks. Obviously the timing will vary depending on the strength of your machine, but you don't want to overdo it.

Pour in the cup of candy cap mushrooms and fold them gently into the chocolate. 

Fill the cups with a little more than a spoonful each of the chocolate-mushroom mixture. Sprinkle the remaining dried mushrooms on top. Refrigerate for at least an hour, and they're ready to eat.

In the next Foraging Report, I'll discuss the main ingredient in my other type of chocolate - candied orange peel, from foraged oranges, of course!

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