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Simply ... Entertaining: Thoughtful hostess gifts transcend wine and flowers

Thursday, February 22, 2001

By Mary Miller

I have two merlots, one chardonnay, a pouilly fuisse, a California blush and one chenin blanc. My wine collection, although meager to most and probably laughable to the wine connoisseur, is complete -- all compliments of our dinner guests in the last month or so. They are all carefully chosen wines that we will surely enjoy sometime soon.

Wine makes a great hostess gift. But keeping my wine cabinet filled is surely not the reason we invite friends over. Is it strange that we didn't drink that wine with the guests who gave it to us? Maybe, but actually we are following the rules. Oh, the rules. Oh, the etiquette. In 2001, does it really matter what Emily Post says?

My goal as hostess is to make my guests feel comfortable and to ensure that they enjoy themselves. Opening gifts at a small party or dinner can make other guests who might not have brought a gift feel uncomfortable.

"If you do open them, do so in the donor's presence but without drawing the attention of the other guests" says Elizabeth L. Post, granddaughter-in-law of the legendary Emily Post.

The general guideline, however, is that food or wine, when brought as a gift, should not be consumed immediately, but put aside, to be opened at a later time. For guests, "when giving gifts of food or drink, make it clear that you do not expect it to be served at that event," says etiquette authority Marjabelle Young Stewart in her book, "Commonsense Etiquette."

For hosts, remember not to take the gift and run. Immediate and genuine thank-yous are always in order.

According to a recent article in Real Simple magazine, a hostess gift should be a treat for the hosts, not a last-minute crisis for them.

Bringing flowers is not recommended, because it often leaves the host scrambling to find a vase right when she (or he) should instead be at the door welcoming guests. Sending a floral arrangement either the day before or the day after the party, however, is a super idea. Who doesn't love to look out the window to see the florist's van in the driveway?

A small plant, a jar of your favorite jam or maybe even a beautiful candle are other good choices. So are a favorite CD, a special book, or the one thing no one will turn up their noses at -- chocolate.

When bringing chocolates, make them extra special rather than the drugstore variety. Betsy Ann's huge Paras truffles, available at many locations in the Pittsburgh area, come in sumptuous flavors such as Macadamia Coconut and Double Dark Chocolate. If you don't feel like leaving your home to shop, L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates can be delivered right to your front door. Top-rated by Consumer Reports magazine, their heavenly preservative-free candies include Triple Caramel, Ginger and Cognac Truffle chocolates and are available by mail order at (800) 229-2419. With gifts like these, you'll probably be invited somewhere every weekend.

If you bring food, a gift of spiced nuts for late-night nibbling or a quick bread for the next morning's breakfast is always appreciated, but do not bring your favorite tuna noodle casserole unless the host has asked for a contribution. Exceptions can be made for casual get-togethers, but in general, the host decides the menu and may feel quite uncomfortable with the addition of Mexican bean dip to her fancy French cheese tray.

Tailor the gift to the host's interests -- a small, elegant picture frame for an amateur photographer or a bottle of 20-year-old balsamic vinegar for an Italian food enthusiast.

Make sure that your gift is festively wrapped. I keep a drawer of scraps -- remnants of fabric, pieces of wire edged ribbon, small clear cellophane bags, and even stickers -- to decorate small presents.

Remember, hostess gifts are not obligatory. They are, however, thoughtful gestures that show appreciation for the effort and hospitality of your hosts. A little thought put into your gift shows you took the time to think about them. The Posts would be proud.

And a homemade gift, whether hand-painted glassware or home-canned preserves, shows your hosts how special they are. These recipes are easy and sure to please -- except those allergic to nuts.

Buttercrunch

1 pound unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnuts
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Line a 13-by-8-inch baking sheet, preferably with a 1-inch rim, with parchment paper.

Combine the butter, sugar, corn syrup and vanilla in a heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan. Place over medium to high heat and heat, stirring with a long-handled wooden spoon, until the mixture comes to a boil and reaches 300 degrees on a candy thermometer.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in half of the chopped walnuts. Immediately pour the mixture onto the parchment-lined sheet and spread to the corners and edges with a metal spatula.

Let mixture cool for 10 minutes. Blot with a paper towel to remove any excess butter that may have risen to the surface. Let cool completely.

Melt the chocolate in a stainless steel or other heatproof bowl over (not touching) hot water and temper it if you prefer. Spread the chocolate over the cooled toffee and sprinkle with the remaining nuts. Let cool until firm, then break into pieces. Store the pieces between sheets of waxed paper in a tightly closed tin in a cool place (not the refrigerator) for up to 2 weeks. Makes about 2 1/2 pounds.

Adapted from "Food for Friends"

Spiced Pecans

Pack these sweet and spicy treats in a decorative tin or a glass jar tied with a ribbon.

8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 egg white
1/2 pound shelled pecan halves

Preheat the oven to 330 degrees.

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the sugar and spices, remove from the heat and stir to dissolve. Let cool, then stir in the egg white. Pour the mixture over the pecans in a large bowl, then stir and toss until they are evenly coated.

Transfer the pecans to a baking sheet and spread them in a single layer. Toast in the preheated oven, shaking and tossing 2 to 3 times during cooking, until the pecans are golden brown, about 20 minutes altogether. Transfer the nuts to a bowl to dry. When the pecans are cool enough to handle, rub them between your hands to evenly distribute the sugar coating and avoid clumping. Cool completely. Serve as a snack or with cocktails.

Makes 1/2 pound.

"The Greenbrier Cookbook"

Mary Miller is a Fox Chapel-based registered dietitian and food writer. Her column appears twice monthly. For questions or comments, she can be reached at marymar333@home.com.



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