THE one name no-one wants to pull out of the hat at work when we do our Secret Santa, inevitably, is mine. No-one should worry: being Secret Santa, there are no gift tags identifying the giver, just the intended recipient. But last year was different. My gift was very obviously from a particular waitress who we all knew to be a huge baking fan: I unwrapped the gift paper to reveal an old-fashioned cake tin, filled with homemade muffins, decorated with glittering snowflakes. What a joy.

I tried not to appear too smug, but here’s the thing: nothing warms the heart like a homemade Christmas gift. If it is edible, even better. Homemade means you care, you have set aside special time to make something unique. It is the gift that exudes warmth, generosity, thoughtfulness and real planning. This has not been ordered off the internet at the last minute during your lunch break. It speaks of effort.

That doesn’t mean homemade gifts must be laborious. Chutneys and pickles can be made in large-ish quantities and shared out, still oozing with kindness. Who wouldn’t be delighted with a handful of mince pies or even simple shortbread, perhaps cut in festive star or snowman shapes for good effect? Savoury goodies like cheese straws are handy at a busy time of year to share over drinks with unexpected drop-in guests. These olives in a parmesan crust can be made in advance, re-warmed easily and travel well, ticking every gift box.

Large queen olives in a parmesan and poppy seed crust

Dough recipe makes enough for around 20 pieces

20 large pitted green queen olives

150g strong bread flour

125g cold unsalted butter, diced


200g grated parmesan

A pinch of paprika

1 dstsp poppy seeds for decoration

An egg and a splash of milk to egg-wash before baking

1. Trim a small slice off the base of each olive so they stand upright; place on a dish for now

2. Make the pastry dough: place the flour, parmesan and paprika in a food mixer and pulse to form breadcrumbs, as if making pastry. Now transfer to a bowl and make a well in the centre.

3. Break the egg into a cup or ramekin and briefly whisk with a fork. Pour into the well and with your fingertips, begin to work the egg into the flour to bring together, forming a dough.

4. Work with your hands until smooth, about a minute or two. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least two hours.

5. Cut the dough into walnut-sized pieces. Take the first piece and flatten out in your fingers so it is roughly round in shape and about 3mm thick. Take the first olive and wrap the dough around it then seal it at the base, where the olive has been cut flat, by pressing the dough on itself. Set aside and continue until all the olives are wrapped in this way. Chill for an hour before baking.

6. Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Place the olives on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush with egg-wash evenly all over, sprinkle a little poppy seeds on the top then bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Cool completely before storing in an airtight container. Best served warm, reheated for a few minutes at 180c then passed around as a canapé. These make excellent gifts if you are dropping into friends for drinks.

Classic Florentine biscuits

Makes about 18 pieces

45g butter

60g demerara sugar

60g candied peel, chopped

45g dried cranberries, roughly chopped

45g soft dried figs, roughly chopped

20g pistachio nuts, roughly chopped

60g blanched almonds, cut into slivers

15g plain flour

Pinch of salt

1 tbsp double cream

200g dark chocolate, broken into pieces


1. Heat the oven to 180C; line two baking trays with lightly greased parchment paper. Melt the butter and sugar together in a pan over a gentle heat until combined.

2. Put the fruit and nuts in a bowl, sift over the flour and toss together to coat the ingredients.

3. Remove pan from heat and stir in the salt and cream. Now pour this mixture over the fruit and nuts; stir to combine well.

4. Arrange neat, rounded teaspoons of the mixture on the baking trays and flatten out as much as possible without leaving holes, making sure they are well spaced out.

5. Bake for about 10-12 minutes until golden brown, then leave to cool on the tray. When cool, melt half the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, making sure it doesn’t touch the water. Stir occasionally until liquid. Place the Florentines on a wire rack (set this rack over a tray or a sheet of parchment paper), with the smooth side facing upwards. Carefully spoon and spread chocolate over the smooth upper face of each Florentine, leave to cool and set. Melt the rest of the chocolate and repeat.

6. While this second coating of chocolate is still wet, you can use a fork to make a wavy pattern in the setting chocolate. Leave to harden completely before storing in an air-tight box. Traditionally served with the chocolate side downwards, and the nuts and fruit facing upwards.

Geoffrey Smeddle is the chef patron of The Peat Inn, by St Andrews, Fife Ky15 5LH 01334 840206