By Lois Abraham
Michael Smith wants his children to understand that the Christmas season is about using their time and talent to bring joy to others.
Cookies and butterscotch sauce by chef Michael Smith are part of this Christmas gift basket. — Photo by The Canadian Press
The Canadian chef has been assembling baskets of mainly foodie gifts to give to close family members and friends for about a decade, and putting them together has evolved into an activity that he and his children enjoy together.
“I think the spirit of these baskets is teaching your kids that giving is more important than receiving,” he said in a telephone interview from Fortune, P.E.I.
“I know that’s where the whole idea started for me was years ago just frustrated with all the stuff flowing one way into the house for the kids and not necessarily feeling like they were engaged with the giving side of things and really trying to figure out a way for them to create a tradition.”
Making a basket for someone you care about is personal and perhaps easier in some ways than braving the shops. It can be tailored to the person and your economic situation and need not be expensive.
Smith puts six to eight items in each basket and makes up about 25 of them for close friends and family, then delivers them just before Christmas.
“Anybody can go out and spend 100 bucks and buy some fancy new cookbook or something for your kitchen or some nameless whatever, some anonymous sort of gift — maybe it’s special, maybe it’s well thought out, but you know what I mean,” he says.
“There’s nothing more precious than giving your time, than giving your talent.”
Smith will be seen as a judge on “Chopped Canada,” premiering on Food Network Canada on Jan. 2, and currently hosts the instructional cooking series “Chef Michael’s Kitchen.” He’s also hosted “The Inn Chef,” “Chef at Home,” “Chef at Large” and “Chef Abroad,” so it’s not surprising that his baskets take on a food theme, but he says they can be tailored to the interests of the giver or recipient.
A standard item in his baskets is his most recent cookbook. This year it’s his seventh, “Back to Basics: 100 Simple Classic Recipes with a Twist,” published by Penguin earlier this fall.
Each basket always contains a handmade ornament created by him and his children. Gabe, 11, and Ariella, 5, play an active role, and Smith expects one-year-old Camille will take part in future.
They often use different coloured clays and bake them into shapes, such as snowmen, wreaths or Christmas trees. Last year it was a small box gift-wrapped with ribbons.
“We know we have friends who can look at their tree and see six, seven, eight years worth of ornaments that the kids have made for them. It’s pretty cool.”
Another staple is Smith’s Sparkle Cookies.
“I think they’re the best cookies I’ve ever baked and people look forward to them and talk about them, and when the basket arrives a couple of days before Christmas, they get all excited because of the Sparkle Cookies.”
He likes to tuck in homemade butterscotch sauce. “I’ll make 35 Mason jars and with real caramel, no corn syrup, no brown sugar, real old-fashioned butterscotch.”
Last year Smith concocted candy cane-flavoured marshmallows that were rolled in ground candy canes.
He’s also made a grown-up variation on peanut brittle, a confection incorporating whole spices.
“I also like to include what I call the foodie find,” says Smith, who led the team of chefs that cooked at the Whistler athletes village during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games and helped make the Canada Summer Games athletes village a junk food-free zone.
“Over the run of the year I run into a lot of really cool food items and some of them really stick out and are so good that I really feel like sharing them with my friends.”
This year he’s chosen Cherry Lane concentrated tart cherry juice from Ontario’s Niagara region. A personalized dark chocolate bar sprinkled with sea salt and nicknamed The Islander, in a nod to Smith’s role as food ambassador for P.E.I., will be included.
“And then outside the world of food I like to do a gag gift in there every year, something silly. This year it’s actually going to be candy insects. We found earlier this year a company that sells five different cans of canned insect protein, like a can full of crickets sort of thing. Totally edible, totally legit.”
During his frequent travels, he keeps his eyes open for fun or unique gifts. In Thailand a few years ago he ran across inexpensive leaf-shaped temple decorations coloured silver or gold. He bought a bunch to adorn his friends’ Christmas trees.
Another foodie item going into the baskets this year is a frozen pie made by a local community centre as a fundraiser.
“I was able to convince them to make me 20 special pies,” Smith says. “I went to my spice merchant and got a batch of extremely expensive Vietnamese cinnamon, the world’s very best. I mean, this is crazy delicious cinnamon, and gave it to them and asked them to make me 20 pies using that cinnamon. They deliver them frozen and you bake them from frozen. So I’m in a position to slip in a cinnamon pie into the works.”
For anyone contemplating making up gift baskets, Smith recommends visiting a craft store for inexpensive baskets, fun labels and other decorations.
“Keep it simple and really understand that first and foremost you’re giving yourself and you’re giving your time and it doesn’t need to meet that sort of over-the-top standard of Martha Stewart or the pictures you see in the magazines,” he says.
You can get funky popcorn boxes, little folding boxes reminiscent of Chinese takeout in bright colours or Christmas-themed canisters for cookies and confections. Mason jars can be adorned with fancy stickers or beads from craft stores.
“Gabe’s handwriting is now very good, so he’ll do all the lettering on the labels. Ariella, my five-year-old, will take the stickers and stick them all over the jar. Even cutting a little piece of gingham and some twine and putting it around the top of the jar. You do the math — we’re talking pennies for each gift.
“But it’s not about that. It’s about the time it takes the kids to take that gingham and cut it into squares and put it on each jar and get the string and tie it around. That’s the point ... the pride they take in doing it.
“I think the kids enjoy it, I really do. I know it’s a tradition now. It’s a well-established tradition in our family. I think it’s working. I think it’s the one thing we do over the season that really helps focus their attention on we’re giving ourself to someone else.
“We’re giving now, not taking.”