I am dealing with the current economic crisis by 1) not looking at the statements from my retirement account, 2) holding onto my job like it's a life raft, and 3) panicking about relatively small expenditures, like holiday baking, while blissfully turning my attention away from recent big expenditures, like, ahem, graduate school.
Just in case you're approaching household finances with the same penny-wise, pound-foolish approach I've espoused, I have some suggestions:
1) Make marshmallows. Really not hard, as long as you don't get freaked out by using a candy thermometer; people love them; and the cost is minimal. Gelatin, sugar, egg whites, corn syrup, flavoring. That's it. The $2.00 box of gelatin is the big investment here, because you'll use the whole thing. (You might be able to find a bulk version at a health food store). The corn syrup will run you about $2.75, but you'll get four batches out of it. Sugar is cheap, and you only use two egg whites. A little peppermint flavoring, or vanilla, or coffee, or what have you, and you're there.
2) Make bread. Bread flour, yeast, water, salt. Even if you go for broke and make something with eggs, milk and dried fruit, it's going to be cheaper than cookies or cakes. Make fancy shapes and everyone will be very excited. You can find a video for making a six-strand braid here. If you're baking for kids, teddy bears are pretty easy, as are turtles, and parents will probably be happy to get something less sugary, particularly if you use a little whole wheat flour and maybe some raisins.
3) Go to Trader Joe's, if you've got one. Really, their prices on nuts, chocolate and dried fruit are fantastic. A pound of pecans cost me $6. Whee-hooo. An
4) I have found in the past the my two biggest expenditures for the Christmas baking extravaganza were butter and containers. It's not easy to get around butter, unless you go with bread or meringue-based options (if you aren't up for marshmallows, plain old meringues are always good.) But containers add up fast - baskets, tins, and so one don't come cheap. Really, I believe there are two basic cheap options, neither of which are particularly original, but so it goes. You can go with your basic goodie bag, bought in packs of 10 or 20 for a couple dollars down at the party store. Or you can go for the Chinese takeout container. These are found most cheaply as restaurant supply shops, or you might be able to ask the nice person behind the counter at your favorite Chinese takeout place. The party stores have them in pretty colors, but they're a little more expensive. I know some people are capable of folding paper into charming containers, but I can NOT do this. If you can, more power to you.
5) Speaking of restaurant supply shops, if you want to go all Martha on someone's ass, and do it on the cheap, restaurant supply shops are where it's at. They have dead cheap serving ware of all sorts, which you can put your cheap marshmallows or meringues in IF you're looking to fancy-up your gift so it looks like you're not just giving food. This is good for the person who is hosting a big holiday dinner. For co-workers, neighbors, and distant relations, stick with the cellophane bags.
6) If you're the person hosting the big holiday party, think pork. Pork shoulder or fresh harm or Boston Butt: these are delicious and very cheap cuts that too few people make at home because they require time. Since you're going to spend the day at home cleaning and cooking anyway, just use that long-cooking requirement as an advantage. Trim down on hors d'oeuvres. Olives, cheese, nuts and all the other delectable nibbles can quickly cost more the actual dinner. Pick one thing and stick to it. I like cheese puffs, pate a choux with Gruyere and black pepper and a bit of dry mustard mixed in. They are delicious, everyone seems to like them, you don't need too much cheese, so they aren't terribly expensive, and they freeze
well. Just take them out of the freezer right before serving and refresh in a hot oven for about 10 minutes. Marinated vegetables can be quite affordable, too, as long as you stick to the cheaper veggies. Yes to dilly beans and carrots and pickled beets, no to red peppers and artichokes.
6) Finally, be reasonable. I mean, be reasonable with yourself - how much you want to do, how much you can do. I, um, have some issues with this, as became clear to me last night. I'm having some people over for dinner on Saturday, and I started to plan a menu - not too elaborate (featuring pork, naturally). I was considering what I wanted for dessert and remembered I had some buttercream in the freezer from a cake I made about six weeks ago, plus a little ganache left over from Thanksgiving. My mental monologue went something like this: A bouche de Noel! Easy-peasy - I don't even have to make the filling. I'll just have to make the cake, fill and roll it, make some more ganache for the outside, then make the meringue mushrooms and the marzipan holly, and it will be all set. Of course, I still have to clean the house and make all the sweets for the gift bags and make the actual dinner, and - well, maybe I should. Maybe Yule log is a bit much. Really, the easy thing would be to make something like those molten chocolate cakes that were all the craze about five years ago. Just mix it up, stick the ramekins in the fridge, and bake off after dinner. But so passe! So lacking in holiday spirit! Maybe if I freeze the Yule log on Monday - but Monday I need to do laundry and send Christmas cards...I could finally try those chocolate souffle crepes! Of course, then I have to cook while everyone's there. Finally, my conversation with myself came to an abrupt halt when I realized that making the fancy-pants dessert was all about me, me, me. My guests won't care. Formerly trendy cake tastes great. There's a fantastic ice cream shop up the road. Everything will be fine.