4 Easy (And Delish!) Desserts From L.A.'s Top Food Blogger

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A bad gift is quite possibly worse than no gift at all, emphasizing a lack of concern, understanding, or knowledge of the person receiving it. "Oh, a Sears gift card…um thanks," isn't exactly the reaction you're looking for. Homemade gifts are far more intimate than plastic money, anyway, and unless you're constructing a couture gown, they're almost always more wallet-friendly. Wouldn't it be nice if you could have some fun while you were at it? Well, here's a win-win for everyone: Our very own local food expert Claire Thomas concocted four easy, mouthwatering recipes to give the gift of joyful calories to someone's taste buds this season. So, get in the kitchen, turn on some tunes, and channel your inner chef and Santa! Need our address?

Chocolate Coated Coffee Crackle Crunch
Inspired by the crackle cake at old- school L.A. spot Blum's, I covered my crackle crunch in chocolate to make for the perfect holiday gift. Homemade violet crumble, anyone?

Ingredients:
*Vegetable oil (for baking sheet)
*3 cups sugar
*1/2 cup strong brewed coffee (or coffee plus a little instant espresso)
*1/2 cup light corn syrup
*2 tablespoons baking soda, sifted
*1 lb milk chocolate chips
*1 lb semi sweet chocolate chips
*Gold powder, for cake decorating (optional)

Directions:
Lightly coat a rimmed baking sheet with oil; set aside.

In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, coffee, and corn syrup. Bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat to just below the hard-crack stage (310 degrees on a candy thermometer).

Remove from heat for 10 seconds. Sprinkle the baking soda evenly over sugar syrup. Whisk just until combined. Pour immediately onto the prepared baking sheet. Let stand until cool, about 45 minutes.

When ready to use, cut the pieces into large chunks (pieces will shatter off and crack) with a large knife.

To coat in chocolate, melt the chocolate chips over a double boiler over medium heat (or just place a glass metal bowl over a pot of boiling water, making sure the water doesn't touch the bowl). Cover two baking sheets with wax paper. Take the chocolate off of heat and using two spoons (or your fingers), coat each piece of crackle in the chocolate and place on the wax paper.

Once the chocolate has dried (wait at least 2 hours), sprinkle with gold powder stored in sealed plastic bags (like a Ziploc).

Photography by Claire Thomas.
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Homemade Vanilla Sugar
Add it to your coffee, tea, or on top of cookies when they bake; this pantry staple makes any recipe a little more luxe.

Ingredients for 2 cups:
*1 vanilla bean
*2 cups of sugar

Directions:
Split the vanilla bean with a paring knife and using the blunt side of the knife, scrape all of the seeds in the bean out. Place the seeds in a bowl with the sugar. Slice each bean in half crosswise and put each half in a jar. Using your hands or a food processor, blend the vanilla seeds and sugar. Fill the jars with the sugar mixture, pouring over the empty bean. The bean will continue to infuse the sugar for weeks. The sugar is best two weeks after preparing.

Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix
A little spicy and super chocolatey, this hot cocoa takes under 30 seconds to make, but can be enjoyed through the holidays and beyond. Plus it's WAY better than swiss miss.

Ingredients for 4-5 cups:
*2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Valrhona)
*1 cup semisweet chocolate, either small chips or finely chopped
*1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
*1/4 cup white sugar
*1/4 cup vanilla sugar (I bought the crystalized kind because it creates a lovely sparkle, but you can always do white sugar plus a scraped vanilla bean.)
*1 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder
*1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
*1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
*1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
*1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions:
Whisk the ingredients together. To make an 8 oz cup (which is enough for 2-3 people), mix 3 tablespoons of the mix with a dash of milk to form a paste. Gently heat the paste over medium-low heat until the chocolate bits start to melt. Add an additional cup of milk and stir until hot and steaming. Pour into cups and top off with a dash of heavy cream. Enjoy!

Photography by Claire Thomas.
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Tina's English Toffee
For me, this toffee is the epitome of the Christmas season (we start badgering Tina to cook it the day after Thanksgiving), and something I look forward to nibbling on every year. Nothing is more depressing than reaching for my family's toffee tin and finding it empty. So please cook up this toffee until your kitchen is heavy with the scent of butter, sugar, and the holiday spirit.

Ingredients:
*1 pound unsalted butter (plus extra for greasing the pans)
*2 cups white sugar
*½ teaspoon salt
*1/4 cup water
*1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
*2 cups dark chocolate, chopped
*2 cups milk chocolate, chopped
*2 cups finely chopped toasted almonds

Directions:
Melt the butter, sugar, water and salt over a low flame, stirring with a wooden spoon. When the mixture starts to boil, turn the heat up to medium. Meanwhile, grease two cooking pans with butter. After 15-20 minutes, the mixture should reach about 305 F. Turn off the heat and add the vanilla, stirring to incorporate. Be careful not to burn yourself or the mixture, but if you do (and I have), run your hand under room temperature water (never cold or hot water) to subside the pain. Immediately take the hot toffee and pour into two greased cooking pans, and smooth until evenly coated and about 1/8 or 1/4 inch thick. Put the pans into the fridge to let the toffee cool (this will take several hours, but it's best to eave the toffee in over night, uncovered).

Once the toffee has cooled, remove it from the refrigerator and carefully loosen the pieces (you can do this by hand or with a knife). If it cracks, it's no biggie.

Melt the two types of chocolate over a double boiler, stirring to combine. Once the chocolate has melted, use a spatula to coat one side of the toffee, and then immediately sprinkle heavily with the chopped toasted almonds. (This must be done immediately because the cold toffee can cause the chocolate to harden before the almonds can stick). Put the toffee back in the fridge to cool the chocolate. Once it has hardened (it takes about an hour), flip and coat the other side with the chocolate and almonds. You will probably have chocolate and almonds left over, which you can use for more toffee (there's never enough!). Let it cool in the fridge until hardened again. When it's ready, take it out, and using your hands, crack it into irregular pieces. Bag them or stick them in a tin for your own enjoyment.

Photography by Claire Thomas.