Some people might be content with a nice sweater as a holiday gift, but foodies know that the only way of truly capturing loved ones’ hearts is through the stomach. Even better if your gifted goodies are made by hand.

Let these budget-friendly gifts, inspired by the flavors of Israel and the Middle East, say it all for you.

Whether you place them in cellophane, wrap them with a bow, jar them or present them alongside a decorative plate or ceramic bowl, one thing is for certain: They will be remembered. And you will remember how you didn’t break the bank, or lose your mind, coming up with unique gifts for all your friends and family.

Quince in Spiced Syrup

Spiced quince in syrup. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Makes about 3 8-ounce jars

There is a certain romantic quality in Old World recipes. They are often made best by chubby babushka fingers, with love and patience. Here is a recipe not often seen outside of Savta’s kitchen, but one whose aroma draws people in.

Quince, the wobbly perfumed cousin of the pear, is the perfect celebratory gift because of the bright cheery pink tone of the finished syrup. Wait for the hue to deepen, and you’ll know your sweet and spicy gift is ready to share.

Ingredients:

4 large quinces, peeled with a paring knife and cut into medium thick slices
Medium bowl filled with water and the juice of 1 lemon to place slices of quince while working
3 cups sugar
5 cups water (or enough to cover the quince)
1 cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
4 strips lemon peel

Instructions:

Bring all the ingredients to a boil, then simmer for 1 hour or until the syrup turns a lovely rosy shade. Pour into jars, let cool, and store in the refrigerator.

Orange Blossom-Scented Strudel Cookies

Strudel cookies ready for gifting. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Makes about 2 dozen cookies

Nothing could be more Eastern European than strudel cookies. Often found with poppy seed or walnut fillings, swap in date spread and orange blossom water, and it brings this cookie to the exotic Middle East.

Every bit as delicious as the original, this celebratory cookie is ready to be devoured or savored with a hot cup of robust tea or coffee.

Dough:

2½ cups + 1 tablespoon flour
Pinch salt
Pinch baking powder
1 cup slightly softened butter
½ cup powdered sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
Few drops orange blossom oil

Filling:

1 cup date spread, available online, or make your own by blending 1½ cups pitted Medjoul dates in a food processor until smooth
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Zest of ¼ lemon
1 cup finely chopped walnuts, for sprinkling

Topping:

Powdered sugar for sprinkling

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine all the filling ingredients. Set aside.
  3. In another medium bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder. Set aside.
  4. In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides with a silicon spatula, and add the egg and extracts. Mix to incorporate.
  5. Add the flour mixture all at once, and mix until the mixture forms a dough.
  6. Remove dough from mixer, split into two, and form each half into a rectangle.
  7. Lightly flour the surface and roll out half the dough to create a long rectangle approximately 1/8 of an inch thick.
  8. Spread with half the filling, and sprinkle with half of the chopped walnuts.
  9. Roll up into an even jelly roll and cut into thick slices, two fingers wide.
  10. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until cookies are golden at the edges.
  11. Let cool, then sprinkle liberally with powdered sugar.

Marinated Galilean Olives

Makes 4 8-ounce jars

Marinated Galilean olives. Photo by Jessica Halfin

These marinated olives can be adjusted to your taste and personality, to transform boring canned olives into a festive party-ready snack. Make sure you use high-quality olive oil in the marinade, so your guests can enjoy the flavored oil left behind, either for cooking or to sop up with fresh bread.

Ingredients:

2 12-ounce cans brined olives
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
6 small cloves garlic
½ teaspoon ground sumac
½ teaspoon ground oregano
5-6 strips lemon peel
High-quality olive oil to cover

Instructions:

  1. Wash 4 jam jars in warm soapy water, and dry well.
  2. Strain olives from their original brine, and rinse lightly with water.
  3. Fill the jars with olives, leaving enough space to add the spices, herbs and lemon peel.
  4. Top off the jar with olive oil, seal tightly, and shake to evenly distribute the spices.

Olives can be stored at room temperature and enjoyed immediately, but are best after a few days of marinating.

Turkish Coffee Liqueur

Makes enough for about 4 8-ounce liqueur jars

Homemade Turkish coffee liqueur. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Cardamom-laced Turkish coffee makes a traditional finish to any good meal, and is often offered on the house in hummus shops around Israel as your plate runs low.

Add a sweetened alcohol base to create a liqueur, and you elevate the coffee to the realm of an elegant digestif. Sip it as is, for an after-dinner jolt, or mix it into a drink to get a delicious white Russian or coffee-flavored martini.

Ingredients:

2 cups water
2 heaping tablespoons Turkish coffee, or other finely ground strong coffee
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 750ml bottle vodka (about 3½ cups)
2 teaspoons vanilla
Cheesecloth or coffee filter

Directions:

  1. In a large saucepan bring the water, coffee, cardamom and sugar to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until sugar is completely dissolved.
  2. Remove from heat, let cool to room temperature, then add vanilla and vodka.
  3. Stir to combine, then pour through a strainer lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter over a large bowl.
  4. Let the coffee slowly drip through. Repeat the process with a fresh filter should any coffee grounds remain.
  5. Pour clean mixture into a decorative jar with a seal, and store in a cool dark place for at least 1 week before using.

Cranberry Pistachio Halva

Cranberry-pistachio halva. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Makes about 3 dozen squares

Simply the word for “candy” in Arabic, halva can be found in an endless variety of flavors these days throughout Israel.

The combination of brightly hued and deeply savory whole pistachio nuts and sweet –and-tangy dried cranberries is a festive mix that anyone would be happy to receive.

The process, though exact, is actually quite easy and quick if done right, making it an ideal choice for a DIY food gift, even for beginning candy-makers.

Ingredients:

2 cups tahini paste (stir the tahini before measuring, in case the oil has separated from the solids during storing)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Few drops almond extract
2½ cups sugar
1 cup water
1 cup shelled pistachios
½ cup dried cranberries

Instructions:

  1. Line an 8×8-inch baking pan with baking paper, and set aside.
  2. In a microwavable bowl, warm the tahini for 1 minute in the microwave. Stir in the vanilla and almond extracts. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer, attach bowl to mixer, and leave to cool slightly.
  3. In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and water. Gently simmer until a candy thermometer shows the mixture has reached 235 degrees F (soft ball stage), about 5-10 minutes.
  4. Using a paddle attachment, turn on mixer and carefully pour the hot syrup down the side of the bowl.
  5. Beat on low to combine, then switch to high and continue to beat for about 5-7 minutes, until the mixture forms a dough-like consistency and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
  6. Stir in the pistachios and the dried cranberries, and press evenly into the lined baking pan.
  7. Place in the fridge for 36 hours to set and crystalize.
  8. Cut into squares and wrap up for a festive gift.

Sfinge (Moroccan Donut) Mix

Sfinge made from homemade mix. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Makes 4 large jars, with enough mix for about 2 dozen donuts each

When it comes to making donuts, breaking out the ingredients can be half the battle. Gifting this Moroccan donut mix negates the giftee’s need to track down yeast and crack open (or even worse, buy) a bag of flour for their mandatory Hanukkah treats.

These donuts, famous throughout Israel, are rolled in orange sugar straight out of the oil for the sparkling sweetness to adhere. Sfinge are best enjoyed warm, and soon after making. To make the gift complete, include the instructions with the per-batch specifications on a handwritten card, which can then be attached to the jarred mix.

Mix:

2 kilos flour
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons yeast
½ teaspoon salt

Topping:

3 cups sugar
The zest of 2 oranges

To make the sfinge, add 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 cup water, plus more as needed per jar; or 4 cups water and 4 teaspoons vanilla for the entire batch, plus safflower oil for frying. Have on hand a small bowl of water for wetting hands.

Instructions:

  1. In a medium bowl, mix sugar and orange zest with a fork until evenly combined. Set aside.
  2. Add water and vanilla to the dry mix, and mix until a dough forms.
  3. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic (5-10 minutes).
  4. Place ball of dough in the bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm spot for at least 2 hours, or until the dough reaches the top of the bowl
  5. Punch dough down, and let rise in the bowl another 30-40 minutes.
  6. When dough is ready, fill a medium saucepan halfway with the safflower oil; heat until very hot. (To check if it is ready, place the handle of a wooden spoon in the oil. When the oil is hot enough it will create a ripple effect around the wood.)
  7. Place a small bowl of water next to your dough bowl, wet hands lightly, and take a golf ball-sized ball of dough.
  8. Poke a hole through the center of the dough using your finger, stretch slightly into a donut shape, and gently place in the oil.
  9. Fry 4 sfinge at a time until golden brown, remove from the oil, and immediately roll in the orange sugar.
  10. Serve immediately.

Tip: For cold winter mornings, your dough will rise faster when placed in an oven that has only the light turned on.