Asheville chefs and bartenders share DIY gift ideas

MARSHMALLOW WORLD: Homemade marshmallows are delectable on their own or added to a mug of hot chocolate. Photo courtesy of Ivory Road Cafe & Kitchen

Editor’s note: Recipes for items featured can be found at the end of this article. 

Though calendars and day planners seemed as obsolete and useless in 2020 as business suits and lipstick, time marched on while we were all home-schooling and Zoom-meeting. Hanukkah is nearly over, Christmas is around the corner, and you’ve barely put a dent in your holiday gifting list.

Fear not! Easy, delicious, thoughtful and inexpensive solutions are as close as your kitchen with a little help from these local pros.

‘The best thing I’ve ever tasted’

Ashley English, author of several books about food and small-scale homesteading, is full of ideas for edible gifts. In November, one of her Small Measure Sunday School Zoom classes demonstrated 10 possibilities, including infused oils, flavored salts, granola and Irish cream. When considering what to make, she says, first keep the recipient in mind in order to create something meaningful or useful.

Also, she adds, consider the gift’s destination. “If you’re shipping, it needs to be shelf-stable, like seasoned salts, granola and flavored nuts,” she says. “If you’re going to deliver it yourself, even if you drop it at the front door, you have more options.”

One of her personal favorites from the Zoom class was seasoned black and green olives. “I told my husband these olives were the best things I’ve ever tasted, and I made them!” she says with a laugh. “They reminded me of something I might get at Cúrate.”

Coffee rub for steaks

Since moving to Asheville and joining the staff at Benne on Eagle this summer, then moving into the position of chef de cuisine in October, Malcolm McMillian has spent most of his time in the restaurant’s kitchen. But when he visited family in Charlotte recently, he dug into the host’s cupboards for ingredients to create a coffee rub for the steaks he was grilling.

“Most of these things people already have, but if not, they’re easy to find at the grocery,” he says. “Put it in 4-ounce jars with a bow on top, and it makes a great stocking stuffer.”

McMillan recommends rubbing the spice blend on steaks right before they hit the hot grill, but chicken or pork should be done 30 minutes in advance and fish or skewered shrimp should be rubbed just 10 minutes before cooking.

Tin treats

Kim Lloyd, owner of Celine and Company Catering, is a fan of presentation when it comes to food gifts, and she prefers containers that can be used again when the edible item is gone. “A few years ago, I gave all the ladies in my family vintage tins filled with high-quality cocoa. I love Cacao Barry brand, but any unsweetened cocoa works,” Lloyd says.

She finds her tins at Lexington Avenue Antiques on Walnut Street, then portions the cocoa in resealable plastic bags before tucking it inside. Finally, Lloyd wraps the tins with ribbon and ties on a scroll with two recipes: Aunt Kim’s Go-To Cocoa Brownies and Aunt Kim’s homemade chocolate syrup.

“The chocolate syrup is great for making hot cocoa, and this year especially, I recommend it for chocolate martinis,” she says.

Prime time for peppermint

What’s hot cocoa without marshmallows? Chef Jill Wasilewski, owner of Ivory Road Café & Kitchen in Arden, has that covered with a unique homemade confection. “I’ve been making food gifts my whole life and done lots of different things,” she says. “One that people really love is homemade marshmallows. They’re not supersimple — it’s sticky until it sets — but they’re not that hard either, and they’re worth every minute of effort.”

Wasilewski starts with a basic recipe, then adds whatever flavors her imagination suggests. December, she notes, is prime time for peppermint. “In hot cocoa, the peppermint melts, and it’s delicious.”

She suggests packaging the marshmallows in holiday-themed boxes that can be found in craft stores. Wasilewski also sells them prepackaged at Ivory Road.

Curried nuts

Rachel Kalin, a personal chef who also prepares meals for Jewish Family Services of WNC, admits she’s not much of a baker, though she gave it a shot at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown. “I started baking challah while I was figuring things out and selling it to neighbors, but I just don’t like dealing with flour,” she confesses.

She prefers savory, and over the summer she dehydrated chili peppers she bought from vendors at the River Arts District Farmers Market. For gifts, she grinds the peppers to mix with locally produced Celtic Sea Salt, then puts the seasoned salt in little jars.

She also developed a recipe for curried nuts that make a tasty gift. “This is so easy to make,” she says, though advises not leaving the kitchen while the nuts are in the oven as they can burn in a flash.

“You can eat these on their own as a snack, with a beer or toss them in a salad,” she says. “I put some on a hot fudge sundae, and the combo of sweet, salt, spice, cold and heat was perfection.”


Becky Bronson and Spencer Schultz — beverage managers for Cucina 24 and The Admiral, respectively — launched their side gig, Bad Art Cocktail Co., in 2015, making draft sodas. They’ve since added bitters, tonics, mixers and concentrated syrups to their repertoire.

Bitters, in particular, the couple say, are simple to make as gifts for friends who keep a home bar. “Bitters are the bartender’s salt and pepper,” Schultz explains. “Adding a couple of drops accents a cocktail.”

But bitters are best bestowed upon those who don’t mind waiting three months for the citrus peels, dried fruits and bitter herbs and spices to infuse into the starter jar of high-proof grain alcohol.

For more immediate gratification, Schultz urges amateur mixologists to try making batches of cocktails as gifts for friends, alcohol and all. “Boozy stir drinks like Manhattans, Old-Fashioneds and martinis work best,” he notes. He recommends consulting spirits-dedicated guides and the internet for a huge selection of recipes for bitters and cocktails.

“Everyone loves a cocktail or two over Christmas,” he points out. “Especially this year.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Kay West
Kay West began her writing career in NYC, then was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, including contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. In 2019 she moved to Asheville and continued writing (minus Red Carpet coverage) with a focus on food, farming and hospitality. She is a die-hard NY Yankees fan.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.