I recently made a recipe for Somali chicken stew from In Bibi’s Kitchen by Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen. It included a spice mix called xawaash, AKA “the garam masala of Somalia”. I plan to make more xawaash and give it to people with an accompanying print-out of a recipe to use it. To make it, you smash a cinnamon stick (in a bag) and heat it in a saucepan with cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, cardamom pods and whole cloves. After a few minutes, leave to cool, then grind to a fine powder before adding turmeric and stirring well. I was apprehensive about the “half a teaspoon” of cloves on the ingredients list, so I just added three. Next time, I’ll be a bit more adventurous. Belinda Cash, librarian, New York
With the emphasis on handwashing, I thought that soap would be a timely and welcome gift. I found a recipe on YouTube that I thought sounded good, and I was blown away by how simple it was to make. The resulting soap feels very high-end, with a rich, creamy lather. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment, just a hand blender and some plastic jugs, plus a container to use as a mould (a small cardboard box lined with baking paper works fine). I – very carefully – blended together a mixture of oils with a lye solution and mica powder, for colour. I poured it into the mould and left it overnight, before using a kitchen knife to cut it into bars.
Different oils add different properties to the soap – coconut is good for lather and bubbles, olive is cleansing. I used those two oils along with some rice bran oil and sunflower oil. I’d say the ingredients cost about 60-70p a bar and it is as good as (or better than) a lot of the handmade soaps I see on craft markets selling for £5 or more. Ian Cumpson, retired lecturer, Durham
I learned to sew during the first lockdown, using a machine donated by a friend. Juggling work on my PhD thesis and video-call meetings in my freezing-cold flat all day, I wanted to make a blanket with sleeves that would keep me warm, but also look like something more formal. I ordered some blanket fabric and sewed it into a sleeved blanket with an attractive waterfall cardigan front. Several have been requested as Christmas presents. Branwen, student and consultant, London
When I saw my small redcurrant bush laden with fruit in October, I harvested and washed them. I then mashed them and mixed them with sugar before adding gin. I poured the mix into old fruit jars and now all I have to do is shake them every so often. Before Christmas, I will sieve the mix and paint something cheery on the bottles, so they can be used as candle holders after the gin is finished. Fiona Chapelle, writer and artist, Surrey
Boozy vanilla extract
This is a real treat. All you need is a cup (250ml) of vodka, a couple of fresh vanilla beans and a pint-sized (about 500ml) mason jar with a sealable lid. Place the vodka into the jar, halve two vanilla beans lengthwise and use a sharp knife to remove the delicate seeds. Add the seeds and the pods to the vodka, store in a dark cupboard at room temperature, shake several times each week and voilà! After about a month, it will be better than any store-bought vanilla extract. Carol Cummins, retired, Ohio
Embroidered hoop art
At the start of the academic year, I was looking for a hobby that would help me to relax. Embroidery was the answer. I asked family members for their favourite quotes. The first one to be completed said “Shine like a rainbow”. I embroidered a rainbow using backstitch, added a few sparkly touches and gave it to a family member for her birthday in September. She was really impressed and has displayed it on her mantelpiece. I am making four more as Christmas presents. I have sketched ideas and, for longer quotes, I have invested in mini printing blocks. Fingers crossed the recipients will all enjoy their personalised gifts and appreciate the time and care taken to create something just for them. Keran Kaur, teacher, east Midlands
I am making a small stop-motion-style puppet in the likeness of a friend to give to him for Christmas. The head is a ping-pong ball, which I filled with liquid resin. Before it set, I inserted twisted garden wire, so that the head could be attached to the rigid foam-board body. I sculpted features (nose, eyes and hair) on to the head using Milliput modelling clay, which sets rock hard. The arms and legs are also made from twisted garden wire, with Milliput hands and feet sculpted on to the ends. When the Milliput was set, I painted the head, hands and feet with Humbrol enamel paint. I covered the arms and legs with foam-chip carpet underlay, for bulk and flexibility, then made the clothing from fabric offcuts. Duncan Willis, puppet-maker, Carmarthenshire
I received a dehydrator as a gift last Christmas and took a foraging course over the summer, so I have learned a lot about the kinds of edible leaves and berries found in the wild. Pairing them with different dehydrated fruits to make garnishes for gins and tonic and whisky cocktails is a fun experiment – and the sort of thing I know a lot of my friends will love to receive. Hannah, project manager, Cardiff
This year, I have begun to grow medicinal herbs, as I have been taking an online herbal medicine course to give me something to do during the lockdown. I use comfrey mainly as a fertiliser, but it is also good for healing bumps and bruises, so I am making lots of little pots of comfrey balm as gifts for friends and family. I infused the crushed comfrey leaves in oil, then melted beeswax and added it to the infused oil with a few drops of vitamin E and lavender oil. Once it cooled, I poured it into tiny jars with gilt lids, added a label with instructions and placed the jars in gilt gift boxes. If I have time before the first frosts reach the flowers, I hope to make calendula balm as well. Jeannie Mackenzie, retired, Renfrewshire
I am making hand-knitted socks for everyone. I think about which colour and pattern for which person, then I hit the yarn shop. One pair takes about four evenings in a cosy armchair with choccies and red wine – it is the perfect excuse. The finished pairs sometimes become decorations around the flat before being wrapped up and given away. A fairly inexpensive, thoughtful present – and total relaxation to make. Nadja Bossmann, journalist, Berlin
When I was in Iceland last December, I noticed these beautiful handcrafted snowflakes hanging in the window of every home. I knew they were crochet, but looked too intricate to copy. Then, back home, I stumbled across a book of designs. I bought some fine crochet cotton and gave it a try. They are very tricky to make unless you have experience of the stitches – partly because the yarn is so fine, like lace. You have to concentrate hard not to miscount, because it is important that they are symmetrical. I had a few false starts.
When I have created a number of them, they are soaked in a starch mixture and pinned out evenly to dry and stiffen. Once they are stiff, I add the loop of thread to hang them by. I have fashioned them into individual tree decorations, because I figured that, however someone has decorated their tree, you can always add a few snowflakes. They make the perfect gift for all those friends I haven’t been able to meet this year. Verity Watkins, writer and blogger, London