Last-Minute Gifts From Your Kitchen

Quick and easy to make, a joy to receive and soooo delicious.

Hot Chocolate on a Stick from chef Hank Barrett of the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn

There’s extra love in a gift you make in your own kitchen, but it doesn’t have to take extra effort. Here are some terrific edible last-minute gifts you can quickly create, courtesy of three fine New Jersey chefs and yours truly.

Hank Barrett of Ho-Ho-Kus Inn and Tavern has been making Hot Chocolate on a Stick since he was a kid. Skewer marshmallows (store-bought or homemade) on a candy cane and dip in melted chocolate. “I used to savor them after playing outside in the snow as a kid,” Barrett says, “and they make a great gift accompanied by a holiday mug.”

Chef David Martone, owner of Classic Thyme Cooking School in Westfield, makes a potent drink for friends and family. His Orancello and Limoncello liqueurs were adapted from a class recipe taught years ago by noted cookbook author Arthur Schwartz.

The sweet and citrusy libations “make nice gifts packaged in decorative bottles,” says Martone. “They can be sipped ice cold from the freezer, or at room temperature, or over ice. For a special treat I float a bit of heavy cream on top. It makes the most decadent dessert cocktail.” He also recommends drizzling the liqueur over fresh  fruit or desserts. (It’s great on cheesecake.)

At Avenue in Long Branch, pastry chef Stuart Marx is busy making batches of his Peanut Brittle. “This candy has been a staple of mine since I began working with my former chef and mentor David Burke over 10 years ago,” says Marx. “With five simple ingredients and a few easy steps, you can easily make homemade peanut brittle and impress your friends and family with a special holiday gift.”

The last-minute go-to for Craig Polignano, executive chef of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, is Parsnip and Coconut Bread. “It’s sweet but savory,” he says, “nutty from the coconut and earthy from the parsnips.  It makes a great breakfast item or a snack with coffee.”

Lowery's Irish Cream

Lowery’s Irish Cream

My own fail-safe last-minute kitchen gift dates to when I was a newlywed. I’m not saying when that was. But I knew I was truly in my husband’s family when my mother-in-law gave me her secret recipe for Irish Cream Whiskey. Believe me, it is easier to make than a smoothie and it tastes like liquid candy. I’ve been giving my Lowery’s Irish Cream for so long that most of my kids are now old enough to request a bottle of their own each year.

Whether your gourmet gift is adults-only or kid-friendly, it’s not too late to get it to everyone on your last-minute gifts list.



Hot Chocolate on a Stick

Adapted from Hank Barrett of Ho-Ho-Kus Inn and Tavern

Makes 2 dozen

24 ounces                    high quality chocolate (in chips or bars), chopped

3/4 cup                        natural cocoa powder, sifted

1 1/2 cup                     confectioners’ sugar, sifted

24                                Candy canes at least 6 inches long


24                                Marshmallows (homemade or store bought)

  1. Place the chocolate in a double boiler or heat- proof bowl over a sauce pan filled with boiling water.  Melt the chocolate and add sifted sugar and cocoa powder until fully melted.  Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag or Ziploc bag with the corner snipped off and pipe into ice cube trays.  Tap trays on the counter to get rid of bubbles.
  2. Skewer a marshmallow cube onto a candy cane stick and place into middle of each chocolate filled cube.  Let set for at least six hours or overnight.  You may cover and put into the refrigerator until time to wrap or use.



(Italian Liqueur)

From David Martone of Classic Thyme Cooking School

Makes about 2 quarts

12-14 large lemons, washed or 5-6 large oranges, washed

1 quart grain alcohol (Everclear)

Simple Sugar:

6 cups water

2 1/2 cups sugar


  1. Peel the fruit with a vegetable peeler. Be careful not to remove any of the white pith which is bitter. Put the peels into a large jar with a tight-fitting lid. Pour in the alcohol. Let stand for about 1-2 weeks in a cool dark area. Shake the jar gently once or twice a day.
  2. When the peels are pale and crisp, you have extracted all their oil. Strain the liquid and discard the zests. The liquid will be colored yellow or orange.
  3. In a saucepan, combine the water and sugar and stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the liquid is clear. Do not overheat or allow to boil. Let cool to room temperature. Add the simple syrup to the flavored alcohol. The mixture will turn cloudy. Pour the liquid through a funnel into clean dry bottles and seal with a cork.

Peanut Brittle

Adapted from Stuart Marx of Avenue

8 ounces                      unsalted butter
2 cups                          sugar

2 tablespoons              light corn syrup
2 tablespoons              water
2 cups                          salted peanuts

  1. Place the first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan and gently melt them together over a

low-to-medium flame, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon until everything is

melted together.

  1. While the ingredients are melting, crush the nuts slightly with a rolling pin.
  2. Once the mixture is melted, cook until the thermometer reads 300°F. Do not stir once you put the thermometer in. Remove the thermometer and gently stir in the nuts carefully with the wooden spoon until combined. Pour the mixture onto a silicone pad; cover with wax paper and press gently to the desired thickness. Take the paper off and let the brittle cool completely. Break in pieces.

Homemade Marshmallows

Makes 24

Equipment:  9×13 metal sheet pan, sifter, offset knife or spatula


1                                  Stick of butter (for greasing pan and knife)

1/2 cup                        Cornstarch, for dusting

1/2 cup                        Powdered Sugar, for dusting

3 ounces                      Unflavored Gelatin

1 cup                           Cold Water, divided

1/2 cup                        Light Corn Syrup

2 cups                          Sugar

1 teaspoon                   Vanilla Extract

1 teaspoon                   Salt

  1. Grease a 9×13-inch metal sheet pan with butter. Combine the cornstarch and powdered sugar and sift half the mixture onto the pan, coating the bottom and sides.
  2. In a mixing bowl fitted with a whisk attachment, combine gelatin and 1/2 cup of the water, stir, and set aside.
  3. In a non-stick saucepan, combine sugar, corn syrup, salt and the remaining 1/2 cup of water, stir and bring to a boil. Using a candy thermometer cook until the temperature reaches 240°F, approximately 8 minutes.
  4. Remove the thermometer. Turn off the stove and very carefully bring the pot to the mixing bowl, slowly pouring the contents into the bowl, mixing into gelatin mixture. Turn on the mixer,whisk and combine for approximately 10-15 minutes or until thick.
  5. Scraping with a buttered knife or spatula, pour quickly into prepared pan.  Cover with foil and let stand overnight, reserving remaining powdered sugar/cornstarch for morning dusting.
  6. In the morning, uncover, and invert onto a dusted board. Cut with a dusted long sharp knife into cubes. Dust each side of the cut cubes individually and store in an airtight container.


Parsnip & Coconut Bread

Adapted from Craig Polignano of The Ryland Inn

Makes one loaf


11/2 pounds                            parsnips, shredded

14 oz.                                      Sugar

4                                              large eggs

8 ounces                                  vegetable oil

1 teaspoon                               Vanilla extract

2 cups                                      Shredded Coconut

11/2 pounds                            cake flour

1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon     baking soda

1 teaspoon                               salt

1 teaspoon                               ground cardamom


  1. Using the paddle attachment of a standing mixer, on medium speed, mix parsnips, sugar, eggs, and vegetable oil. Add vanilla, coconut and flour and mix on low for about one minute. Add the baking soda, salt and cardamom and mix on low until fully incorporated.
  2. Put mixture in a greased bread loaf pan and bake at 350°F for 20 minutes. When the bread is done, a toothpick inserted in the center will come out clean. Cool and serve.

Lowery’s Irish Cream

From Suzanne Zimmer Lowery

Makes 1 quart

1 cup                           Irish Whiskey

1 (14 oz.) can              sweetened condensed milk

4                                  eggs (or equivalent pasteurized egg substitute)

2 Tablespoons             vanilla extract

2 Tablespoons             chocolate syrup

1 Tablespoon               coconut extract

1 Tablespoon               instant coffee or espresso

  1. Place all ingredients in a blender and work on low speed until smooth and combined. Pour into a bottle and cap tightly. Refrigerate overnight. Shake before serving, straight up or over ice. (Will keep refrigerated for one month.)
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