In early December 1998, our first year in Arizona, we found a surprise on the doorstep: a wire whisk, tied with a ribbon and a note from our neighbors that read, “We WHISK you a Merry Christmas!” How nice, I thought — I’ll bring them some cookies. Then, as progressively more elaborate and creative “neighbor gifts” appeared, the surprise turned to dismay. Each new gift signified one more I’d have to make in return.
It’s safe to say I was initially not a fan of the neighbor gift tradition. I had virtually no budget for 40+ gifts, no idea what to give, and very little time in the holiday frenzy to make or deliver them. Bah humbug.
It took a couple years, but I eventually came around. The key, for me, was finding something I could easily replicate year after year — a “signature” gift: homemade hot fudge and caramel sauces in reusable glass jars. Having two, no-fail recipes I could make ahead and store in the fridge until delivery day greatly reduced the stress factor and freed me up to focus on the fun part: connecting with neighbors and friends. Plus, it’s a relatively budget-friendly option, and I could add a little variety just by switching up the container.
Although the hot fudge was never refused, the most anticipated was always the caramel sauce. (I have one friend who called me to confess she ate an entire jar, cold, in a single sitting.)
I’ve experimented with plenty of caramel sauce recipes since, but I keep coming back to this one – it’s easy to make and consistently delicious, hence “favorite.” There are no tricky ‘do not stir’ warnings, and no candy thermometer needed — just throw everything (except the vanilla) into a big pan and give it a stir every so often. It does take a little babysitting, but it’s mostly hands-off.
It’s a thick sauce, and a bit lighter in color – imagine a melted version of those homemade soft caramels that come wrapped in wax paper. I love it cold, straight out of the jar with pretzel sticks and heated, served with a warm brownie and chopped pecans. (If you’re serving on ice cream, make sure it’s good and hot; otherwise the ice cream freezes it into chewy candy.)
The basis for my recipe comes from the 1996 edition of Betty Crocker’s New Cookbook – a present from my sister and still one of my favorite cookbooks ever. I tweaked it by adding just enough flaky sea salt to bring out the sweetness (if you’re not sure about the salt, start with ½ teaspoon), and reducing the butter by about half.
Favorite Salted Caramel Sauce
Adapted from Betty Crocker’s New Cookbook 
Yield: About 2 cups
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1/2 cup light corn syrup (Karo brand is non HF)
1 tsp. flaky sea salt (I use Maldon)
1 tsp. pure vanilla
Heat all ingredients except vanilla to boiling in heavy, large saucepan (mixture will double in size during the cooking process) over medium heat, stirring constantly; reduce heat to medium-low. Cook about 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is caramel colored. Stir in vanilla. Pour into containers and allow to cool. Store in refrigerator up to 2 months. If desired, sprinkle top with a few flakes of sea salt just before delivering. Serve hot or warm.
All images by Christopher Halloran Photography
A few favorite containers used over the years:
Crate and Barrel: Weck 4.5 oz. canning jar
IKEA: RAJTAN and BURKEN (mini version, currently not shown on the website)
World Market: White Lidded Spice Jar and Weck 1/5 Liter Glass Jar
Walmart: Ball 4 oz. Quilted Jelly Jars (pictured in this post)
Michael’s: Check the wedding department favor section for a great selection of options, including the Glass Snap-Top Jars, then use the 40%-off coupon.
Budget Option: One year I couldn’t find enough glass containers, so I packaged the sauces in 4 oz. deli containers from Smart and Final and presented them in a clear cellophane bag tied with a ribbon.
This salad cured my lifelong belief that canned tuna requires mayonnaise. The beans mellow the tuna, and the fresh lemon juice (a must!) brightens all the flavors. On fast days, we serve it on fresh spinach or in lettuce wraps; or, if we’re feeling particularly decadent, on a 100-calorie whole-grain sandwich bun. Read more…
Recently, my husband stopped me on my way out to ask if I had anything on the calendar for the following weekend; I said no. By the time I returned, he’d booked flights to visit his father in Hawaii. With only a few days’ notice and a single carry-on bag, I had no idea what to pack.
After Googling “what to wear to the beach Hawaii” and not finding what I wanted – barely there cutoff shorts and teeny bikinis don’t really work for me – I started from scratch. Though “beachwear” was a given, early spring weather in Honolulu can be unpredictable. Plus, whatever I packed for the beach would also have to work for lunch, sightseeing, shopping and anywhere else my photographer husband might want to stop along the way.
I decided to stick with a basic palette of black, white and gray — a strong trend for spring (though when is it ever not appropriate?) and I already own a lot of it — punched up with some chambray, coral (it is Hawaii, after all), and a few gold accessories.
After a week of living with my newly edited closet, I realized something: my clothes were much better organized, but I still had nothing to wear.
I’d stand there hoping for some sort of revelation; when none came, I’d put on the same jeans and shirt I’d worn the previous day.
It was frustrating. Sure, I’d gone shopping before and come home empty handed, but it seemed ridiculous that this was happening at home — hadn’t I already hand-picked all this stuff?
I knew I needed to shop my closet, but I didn’t know how.
So I decided to use some of the time I was saving by not shopping to figure out how to actually wear the clothes I already owned — and discovered two easy tricks.