‘Twas the last minute before Christmas…

Posted Dec. 23, 2008, at 4:13 p.m.

’Twas the day before Christmas, and you’re all a bit worried,

You forgot to buy gifts for Aunt Sue and Uncle Murray.

Everyone’s coming over for dinner tonight

You put that one off too — your kitchen’s quite a sight.

But fear not, Christmas slacker, your party will rock,

With a few handy tips from Burnham and Bloch.

There are last-minute presents for those older and young

And recipes: easy, cheap, tasty and fun.

So get your gifts and your grub, and work holiday magic

And make joy and delight from what could have been tragic.

Kids

There’s no better time to be a kid than Christmas, but only if the presents are up to par, right? Last-minute wise, you can’t go wrong with the always-in-stock classics, such as Mr. Potato Head, a Play-Doh fun bucket or a Rubik’s Cube. The Crayola Glow Station looks like a lot of fun. Halo action figures seem to be pretty popular. For a real girly-girl, set aside the glittery jewelry and hair accessories and pick up a jewelry box to store it all. The colorful, goofy Kooky Klikers pens and Kooky Kuddlers seem to be everywhere. For a good-for-you present without appearing too lame, try a make-your-own story or create-your-own art masterpiece kit. And piggy banks, which are always easy to find, might encourage the kids to save up for next Christmas.

Teens and 20-somethings

For a teen or young single person, look for something both fun and useful. For the gadget lover, why not a fun, funky iPod sleeve or a car charger for an iPod or cell phone? For someone who’s active, get a re-useable water bottle (available at any department store or sports store), a nice, warm hoodie or a pair of those amazing SmartWool socks, available at most shoe and sports stores. For the wise guy, or girl, try one of these funny books: “The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead,” by Max Brooks; “Stuff White People Like,” by Christian Lander, adapted from the hit Web site of the same name; and “This Book Will Change Your Life,” by the mysterious Benrik, which contains 365 daily orders for a year of living very humorously. If all else fails? A nice 12-pack of Magic Hat, Shipyard or any local brew for the nonminors; locally made candy for teens and those under 21.

Married couple

For the recently wed, anything house-oriented is good. Skip the we’ll-use-it-once-every-five-years items and go for practicality: big fluffy towels; coffee grinder; reuseable totes for grocery shopping. For the couple who have been together for a while and already have everything, try a complete season of a favorite TV show, or a nice warm blanket for the living room or bedroom. Try a subscription to a magazine: National Geographic for science and nature buffs; Paste for music lovers; The New Yorker for readers and thinkers. Barring all that, go to a natural foods or gourmet grocery and buy a selection of dried herbs and spices. Give just that, or pair it with some extra-virgin olive oil, high-quality vanilla extract or high-octane hot sauce.

Seniors

The practical seems to make sense for senior Santa types at the last minute. How about a bath brush that’s long enough to reach the back? On a similar note, an extendable flashlight to look into those hard-to-reach places in the cabinets and cupboards? A 12-cup muffin tin makes baking easier — at least, easier than handling two 6-cuppers — or a cool-to-the-touch oven guard to pull out those muffins without burns. Now that our grandparents are venturing into the digital age, a computer how-to book might be in order. Better yet, a homemade coupon for a couple of free hours of computer assistance would be a great way to spend time with Gram, and maybe sneak some of those muffins. Next year, when the grandparents have mastered the computer, they might get a kick out of a recordable photo ornament.

Dog Sled

1½ ounces Canadian whisky

1½ ounces orange juice

1 teaspoon grenadine syrup

1 tablespoon lemon juice

With all the snow on the ground, hot drinks would seem to be in order for Christmas this year. You can go the easy instant hot-chocolate route, which is easy enough, or toast with a liqueur-spiked coffee drink. Christmas morning, post-present screwdrivers, bloody marys or champagne cocktails are a good way to wind down. But if the house is a little too warm, here’s a cool, last-minute drink with ingredients you might have on hand:

Mix all ingredients with cracked ice in a shaker or blender. Pour into a chilled, old-fashioned glass. (From www.thatsthespirit.com)

Gougeres

Makes 60; serves 8-10.

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon coarse salt

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

¾ cup all-purpose flour

5 large eggs

Any combination of herb, spice and other flavors; zest of 1 lemon and 3 tablespoons parsley; 2 teaspoons curry powder and ¼ cup diced onion; 3 minced cloves of garlic and ¼ cup parmesan cheese

Gougeres — essentially tiny puff pastry rolls — are very easily adaptable for any kind of meal. Serving Italian fare? Try basil, oregano, garlic and parmesan. Mexican? Kick it up with chili powder. Curry and onion, sesame seeds and scallions, lemon and parsley. The options are limitless. Use whatever you’ve got in your spice cabinet.

Bring 1 cup water, butter, salt, and cayenne to a boil in a heavy 4-quart saucepan; boil until butter has melted. Remove from heat; stir in flour. Return to burner; cook, stirring, until mixture comes together and pulls away from the pan, about 2 minutes more. Remove from heat. Using a wooden spoon, beat in 4 eggs, 1 at a time, until they are incorporated and smooth. Stir in your herbs, spices and other ingredients. Drop rounded teaspoons onto a lightly greased baking sheet, or use a piping bag and pipe one-inch rounds. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Whisk together remaining egg and 1 teaspoon water in a small bowl; lightly brush on top of each puff. Bake until lightly golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately. (From www.marthastewart.com)

Hearty Winter Salad

Serves 4.

8 cups spring mix

1 large bell pepper, chopped

½ cup pumpkin seeds

½ cup craisins

½ cup Hormel premium real crumbled bacon

8 scallions, chopped

Balsamic vinaigrette, to taste

Here’s a salad that has lots of taste, with little preparation involved. The cranberry and pumpkin bring to mind holiday dinners, while the bell pepper, scallions and balsamic vinegar gives it some extra flavor. Mix all ingredients in a big bowl. Double the recipe as needed.

Your Basic Meatloaf

Serves 4.

1 pound ground beef (lean)

1¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

½ cup chopped onion

½ cup chopped bell pepper

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

8 ounce can diced tomatoes

½ cup breadcrumbs

For the glaze:

¤ cup ketchup

2 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon mustard

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix up the beef with the onion, pepper, spices, egg, tomato and breadcrumbs. Place beef mixture into a bread pan, or form into the shape of a loaf in a baking dish. Mix the glaze ingredients together, spread on top, and bake for one hour. For a different glaze, try barbecue sauce, honey mustard, or skipping the glaze altogether, sauteeing some mushrooms in a little olive oil, and topping each serving with that and a slice of swiss cheese. This recipe is easy to double, or even triple, depending on how many you’re feeding.

Espresso Brownies

Nonstick vegetable oil cooking spray

1/3 cup plus two tablespoons water

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons plus two teaspoons espresso powder

1 (19.8-ounce) box brownie mix

3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1.5 cups powdered sugar

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature

Last-minute desserts are easy — if you have a box of cake mix and a few chocolate chips around, it’s easy to doctor-up something that was store-bought (just make sure to lightly coat anything you add to cake mix in flour, so the additions don’t sink to the bottom). This recipe turns a boxed brownie mix into a thing of beauty — that’s what happens when you add some coffee flavor to chocolate. If you don’t have instant espresso at hand, instant coffee works, too.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick spray. Whisk 1/3 cup of water, oil, eggs and two tablespoons espresso powder in large bowl to blend. Add the brownie mix. Stir until well blended. Stir in the chocolate chips. Transfer the battle to the prepared baking pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 35 minutes. Cool completely.

Meanwhile, dissolve the remaining 2 teaspoons of espresso powder in the remaining 2 tablespoons of water in a medium bowl. Whisk in the vanilla. Add the powered sugar and butter and whisk until smooth. Pour the glaze over the brownies. Refrigerate until the glaze is set. Cut into bite-size pieces. (From www.foodnetwork.com)

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