No, it is NOT to early to think about the holiday baking season coming up and I’ve got a lot to say on this topic, so I’m getting right down to it!
Now don’t be fooled, “homemade” doesn’t always mean always “cheap”, but there are ways to cut down on costs. Since I’m a baker by trade now, I’m often considering the costs of materials and supplies, as it all affects my bottom line. The best way to keep things affordable is to A) pick affordable items to make, and B) buys supplies and ingredients in bulk, including the packaging.
A) PICKING AFFORDABLE RECIPES. If you want to make an affordable and tasty “baked” good, I definitely think that sweet breads are the way to go. The main ingredient is flour, which is fairly inexpensive (comparatively speaking), especially if you can get it in bulk. Most sweet breads (like pumpkin, gingerbread, banana bread, zucchini, chocolate chip, etc…) use canola/vegetable oil, which is more affordable then butter. Plus, you can make “mini” loaves and bake up multiples at a time, which helps if you are watching your energy costs Wrapped tightly they freeze well, stay moist for days (even weeks), and they ship really well.
My second pick, and really what I personally prefer, are cookies! Though they use butter, which costs more then oil, I like them because the dough can be pre-made and frozen and then baked up at my convenience. There’s also something to be said about giving a delicious gift in quantity, something that can be easily passed around and shared. Cookies do however need a little more care as far as packing goes, and not all cookies are good past a few days. So if you plan on doing cookies, I highly suggest making a hard/snappy cookie (like the traditional gingersnaps or butter spritz cookies), or one that you know will stay moist for a long while and will survive shipment. My #1 source for good recipes is recipezaar.com, just make sure to read all of the comments and reviews for tips or changes others made to make it even better 🙂
Candies are a little harder to nail down, as it *really* depends on the quality of chocolate and other main ingredients you choose to use. On a whole, I think that the price and quality variances for ingredients fluctuates more for candy making then for baking. I guess you could make candy without chocolate, but I don’t even know what to say about that! Candy without chocolate…I’ve never made such a thing!
The simplest confection to make is really anything that is chocolate drizzled, even the kids can help you 🙂 Some of the most affordable, and tastiest, options are such things as popcorn, pretzels, animal crackers, even potato chips! These are simple, yet delicious gifts, and with some pretty packaging they will pass muster with flying colors. Stepping it up a notch you can also do chocolate-dipped cookies (homemade or store bought) or pretzels rods, dried fruit such as banana chips, nd so on, get creative. While you’re at it, how about some chopped up candy bar bits or sprinkles in addition to the chocolate?? And I always caution to NOT use melted chocolate chips for dipping. Yes, it’s possible…but often times the chocolate gets clumpy, and if you add anything into it like shortening or butter, it doesn’t “set” or harden up nicely and it gives the chocolate a much lower melting point. So much so that even the heat from your fingertips will cause it to melt, making it a messy treat. Look for a decent “dipping” chocolate, which is NOT the same as chocolate “bark”! Bark is cheaper but not so tasty. If you can afford it try getting something a step up, like Merckens or Peter’s Coating Chocolate, both of which can be found on www.bakersnook.com, as well as other sites. If those are too expensive for you, try the “Baker’s” brand of dipping chocolate that you can purchase in the baking aisle of larger grocery stores. Like I said, pricing candy making is a difficult thing, just get what you can afford and go from there.
And for the braver ones who are not afraid to use a candy thermometer, I still think caramels are the way to go! There are lots of recipes out there, with some using less butter and cream then others. Caramels always make an impressive gift, as they are loved by almost everyone and they look great and travel well in almost any type of packaging. Not only are there different standard “Vanilla” caramel recipes, but lots of flavored ones too! I for one know quite a few people that would be ecstatic to get a caramel “sampler” for a gift, and they go over so well for parties and family get-togethers, another easy-to-share gift! Remember, a “normal” sized batch of caramel yields roughly 2.5 – 3 pounds, which is about 125-150 wrapped caramels. I personally think 1/2 to 3/4 of a pound is a great “gift” size, 1 pound would be great for a couple or small family. So even though the ingredients are not the cheapest, you have think how far 1 batch will stretch….crossing off a few people on your gift list per batch makes it quite affordable!
B) BUYING SUPPLIES IN BULK. If you plan on giving out a lot of candy or baked goods as gift, it is really worth looking into more cost effective options other then the grocery, craft, or fabric store for your paper and packaging goods. When I order in bulk (100 boxes at a time) they come out to be about 40% cheaper then buying from the craft/fabric store, and that includes the shipping! So here are a couple places where you can buy in bulk at good prices:
bakersnook.com – a great place for coating chocolates like Mercken’s or Peter’s, they also have a sugar-free chocolate coating! Candy cups (mini muffin papers), molds, sprinkles, and whole lot more. Of all the other sites, this one sells the most like you would find in the craft/fabric store, so really more for the “home” baker versus a semi-pro or serious baker. Still, great prices on some staple items!
sugarcraft.com – this place has TONS of items, for the home baker to the serious candy makers. Molds, candy cups and boxes, food coloring gels, candy cups, fondants, coating chocolates, candy boxes, cello bags, etc… The site can be a little over-bearing and hard to find your way around as there is so much, but once you know what you are looking for and how they set up the site it’s not so bad 😉
boxandwrap.com – not the most affordable for candy boxes, but it’s one of the few places I’ve found that sells the 1-piece fold-able tuck-top boxes I sometimes use, the ones that are similar to the ones in the craft stores but so much better, cheaper and fold together in a snap! Since the sides are straight up and down (as opposed to sloping sides like battalion boxes), it makes it perfect for anything you want 2 layers of, like caramel squares, peanut butter cups, bon bons, etc…
papermart.com – a packaging haven, and not just for bakers! This is a great place for florists, wedding coordinators, party favors supplies etc. Here you will find tons of CHEAP ribbon (50 yards of sheer organza for $2!), lots of food packaging like bakery/candy boxes and bags in all sorts of sizes, party favor boxes and fabric bags, clear and printed cello bags, candy tins, gift wrap, floral cards, shredded paper “crinkles” for shipping cushion, and so on. I usually get all of my ribbon and battalion boxes from here.
Sam’s Club – If you have a membership, use it! It’s a great place for butter, sugar (both white and brown), flour, eggs, cream, sour cream, nuts, dried fruits, candy bars (for chopping into pieces), pretzels twists and rods, cookies, chocolate chips, condensed milk, vanilla, and some spices. Each Sam’s Club has slightly different offerings, so I’d check out the site and see what’s available at your local store. Save a little time by shopping online and then doing an in-store pic-up!