In an uncertain universe, one fact stands out as indisputable: Your friends love to eat. And as the holidays descend upon us, what could make for better gifting than comestibles with a local touch? Here's a roundup of some culinary creations that have earned a spot on our list this year. All of them have regional connections -- and none breach the $30 barrier.
"A Chocolate Lover's Dream" from Wow! Cookies!
For culinary-school dropout Penny Parker, the gourmet cookie business has been very, very sweet. A former marketing and sales manager, the Shaker Heights resident launched Wow! Cookies! last March; the business has grown so quickly that she already rents out a commercial kitchen and has a staff of 10 part-timers to help fill orders for her impeccably packaged creations. While Parker's forte is corporate gifting (client appreciation, employee recognition, general ass-kissing), we can't think of anyone who wouldn't melt upon receiving her indulgently delicious Chocolate Lover's Dream, a 12-piece gift box filled with her handcrafted Amazing Triple Chocolate Brownies (made with imported European semisweet, bitter, and milk chocolates) and her plump Oh So Chunky Chocolate Cookies, redolent of butter and sugar. Order by December 15 for holiday giving at www.wow-cookies.com or by phone at 800-752-7949.
The Cowboy Way
"Cowboy Chic" spice mixes from Blue Canyon Kitchen
Your favorite trail rider may not have the culinary chops of Brandt Evans (chef at Twinsburg's Blue Canyon Kitchen), but thanks to this collection of savory spice blends, his barbecue can be nearly as yummy. Among the Evans-designed rubs, dusts, and seasoning mixes, you'll find Killer Steak Crust with basil, oregano, and kosher salt; Bucking Bronco Blackening Dust, with ancho, chipotle, and pasilla negro peppers; Chuck Wagon Pork Crust, which is also recommended for shrimp and veggies; and Beefy BBQ Cowboy Dust, which contains ground mustard, sweet smoked paprika, brown sugar, and no actual cowboys. Each blend measures up at 3.25 ounces -- enough for a whole summer's worth of outdoor grilling. Pick up a handsomely boxed set at the restaurant (8960 Wilcox Drive, Twinsburg) or order by phone (by December 20) at 330-486-BLUE.
All Jammed Up
Jam and jelly gift box from Crooked River Herb Farm Shop
Nestled in the heart of Peninsula, near the banks of the Cuyahoga River, this little marketplace bursts with good vibes -- along with an impressive assortment of naturally grown, locally made goodies. Among the attractions, shopkeeper Kathleen Varga offers soaps, lotions, sauces, mustards, herbal teas, infused vinegars, and an outstanding homemade pesto, fragrant with basil and garlic. But while most everything can be packed into customized gift boxes or baskets, we're especially sweet on Varga's jams and jellies, made from family recipes and available in flavors both savory and sweet. For hotheads, consider fiery jellies like Cha-Cha Cherry Habañero or Berry Good Jalapeño. Or for sweet teeth, pick Dazzleberry or My Mom's Peach-Strawberry Jam. All purchases come with serving suggestions, as well as the opportunity to give George Bailey -- Varga's friendly poodle -- a scratch behind the ears. For the best selection (and the heapingest helping of seasonal cheer), visit the store at 1663 Main Street in Peninsula. You can also order by phone at 330-657-2332 or e-mail email@example.com.
Winter Cookie Land
The "Let It Snow!" collection from Cookies by Miss Sunshine
Homemaker, housewife, and talented home cook Julie Wallace (a.k.a. Miss Sunshine) crafts plump, chewy cookies just like Mom used to make, filled with pure, wholesome ingredients and baked in her kitchen with loads of love. Wallace began her home-based Doylestown biz a little over a year ago; today, her repertoire includes everything from oatmeal raisin and chocolate chunk to Key lime and ricotta cookies. For holiday giving, we're partial to her mid-priced Let It Snow! collection, a handsome blue-and-white gabled box filled with 32 homemade cookies, including snowballs, cranberry white-chocolate, white-chocolate pecan, and two beautifully frosted snowflake cookies, individually wrapped. Order by December 15 for holiday delivery at 330-658-7133, or visit www.cookiesbymisssunshine.com to see the full line of products.
The "Wake 'Em Up" box from Yours Truly
Launched in 1981, Chagrin Falls' Yours Truly has grown into a popular local chain, with seven area restaurants in towns stretching from Mentor to Medina. Along with the burgers, omelets, and Notso Fries, Y.T.'s Java House Coffee (custom-roasted by another local stalwart, Phoenix Coffee) has become part of the local legend, with leagues of devotees. Now, for the first time, the coffee can be ordered online (www.ytr.com) as part of the Wake 'Em Up gift box, along with an insulated stainless-steel Y.T. mug, just right for your favorite working stiff's long haul to the office. Choose regular or decaffeinated Colombia Supremo coffee or French vanilla, hazelnut, or caramel-toffee flavors. To ensure holiday delivery, order by December 15.
Gourmet popcorn from The Popcorn Shop Factory
($3.25 and up)
Think popcorn makes a boring gift? You'll think again after visiting the Popcorn Shop Factory, Diane Armstrong and Dewey Forward's sweet shop on Shaker Square. (Forward also owns Chagrin Falls' venerable Popcorn Shop; the Shaker Square shop pops the corn for both locations.) Made fresh daily, in small batches from Ohio-grown kernels, this gourmet product is about as far removed from the microwaved stuff as Santa is from the Grinch. Among the enticements: double-cheddar cheese corn; white- and milk-chocolate-drizzled popcorn; and a dizzying array of gussied-up caramel corns, including dark chocolate, anise-poppyseed, almond-coconut, pecan-almond, and sunflower-seed-studded versions. (Just be sure to keep an eye out for the shop's "signature" addition -- a foil-wrapped chocolate kiss.) Buy them in small packages, as stocking stuffers and hostess gifts, or go all the way with a six-gallon collector's tin, filled with three varieties of your choice. Order online at www.chagrinfallspopcorn.com or by phone at 216-991-1101, before December 15 for holiday delivery. Or shop in person at 13201 Shaker Square, right up until Christmas Eve.