Friday, December 17, 2010

Care packages

My friend Kendra wrote a hilarious blog post on her attempts to make cute little snowman cupcakes.  My horror aside at her using a box mix (Kendra!), I can utterly sympathize with the attempt to dress up food for a party.  There was a time when I wished to be one of those clever and creative bakers who can make eye catching desserts and have that "ooh" and "ahh" factor.  How many of us haven't been in awe at beautiful wedding cakes, cakes in the clever shapes of purses or poodles that "look real"?  In culinary school, I had two classmates that seemed to execute this flawlessly - their stuff not only tasted good but they looked awesome, almost too good to eat.

I, on the other hand, have long ago accepted that I'm not like them.  Yes, I like to make things nicely presentable but my focus is in how stuff tastes, more than how it looks.  Maybe I've eaten too many beautiful-but-sawdust-like wedding cakes to truly accept that something can look and taste good.  By looks, I don't mean something is on a pretty platter or looks temptingly edible.  I mean it looks clever, be it a beautifully decorated sugar cookie with royal icing, a sugar-frosted cake with gum paste flowers that look like they grew in my mom's garden, a chocolate souffle in a caramel cage or what have you.  I did a lot of those decorating touches at the CIA and they're not only time consuming but you have to have the creative touch to really enjoy doing them.  I'm lacking that touch. But I'm okay with that because I know I can bake things people like to eat.  They may not look clever but they can still look good.

This is a long lead in to say, from my comments on her blog post that I can't make pretty food, Kendra suggested a post on making up pretty care packages.  Now that I can do.  I love sending care packages filled with baked goods.  If only postage wasn't so criminally expensive, I'd send them more often.  In some of my posts, I add commentary on what might or might not be good to send in a care package.  Based on my experience, here's what works well and doesn't work well when you send a care package:
  1. Things like brownies, bar cookies and loaves of quick bread are good to send since they're less fragile and you don't have to worry about them breaking en route.
  2. Individual-sized packaging is important.  When I send brownies or bar cookies, I cut them into individual-size pieces, wrap them two pieces at a time in plastic wrap and group like-flavored brownies together in a cellophane bag.  This makes it easier for your recipient when they get your package.  I also typically send brownies that can easily go into the freezer directly from the package if they can't eat them right away.
  3. For mini loaves, I leave the whole loaf intact, wrap it in foil and ship as is or put the foil-wrapped loaf in a cellophane bag with a twist tie.  Looks prettier. Don't cut it as the cut edges will just dry out faster.
  4. Grouping like-flavored items is important.  Remember that whatever you send is likely going to be in the same box with everything else for at least a couple of days, if not more.  Strong flavors like banana and peanut butter can permeate everything else in the box so keep that in mind when sending a package.  If you do have to send strong-flavored items, wrap them individually as much as possible and put the like-flavored items in a ziploc.  They sell decorated ziploc bags for the holidays if you want it to look prettier. Otherwise, only send like-flavored items.
What doesn't work well to send:
  1. Most cookies don't ship well.  Even if you can find sturdy enough cookies that aren't likely to crumble in shipping (typically oatmeal cookies work well), cookies dry out faster than brownies or even cakes so the few days they spend in transit are days they're losing their freshness.  I'm one of those fanatics who think cookies I bake the night before aren't as good the next day so I can't fathom eating cookies several days old.
  2. If you do have your heart set on shipping cookies, package them well - this means wrapping them in plastic wrap or putting them in ziploc bags with as little air as possible in them.  Cushion them with wax paper or other soft materials and wedge them in tins or sturdy small boxes that allow for as little movement as possible.  When trying to prevent breakage in shipping, movement is the enemy since it's the space to move around that causes most things to break.
  3. Thick cookies will likely survive better than thin cookies and will also likely dry out less during shipping time.
  4. Layer cookies with wax paper in between the layers.  Stacking them as is on top of each other can lead them to stick and not be appetizing by the time they arrive at their destination.
  5. Frosted cookies?  Forget about it.  Unless you're talking royal icing type of frosting that hardens and doesn't stick or rub off on anything.  But honest-to-goodness frosting that sticks to paper and plastic when wrapped?  Not so much.
  6. Cupcakes also don't fare well, both because cakes can also dry out quickly and because the frosting will stick to everything.  Not to mention they're harder to pack without having them move if they have too much space or they'll end up squished if you pack them so they won't move.  
I'm still working on my last care packages to send out.  Brownies I can bake ahead of time, wrap in individual packages and put directly into the freezer until I'm ready to mail them out.  I like to put a variety of treats into a care package so I also plan for my mass baking day - last one coming up this weekend as I'm running out of time to mail them to arrive before Christmas.

Adding a few more notes on sending care packages:
Make sure you use a sturdy box to ship your goodies in or else they may not make it in the shape you intend them to.  If you've ever seen the volume of packages the postal workers throw around, you wouldn't choose flimsy packaging.  A boon for sending packages is the flat rate boxes, especially when you're sending boxes across the country.  You can get them from the post office for free and you can load them up as heavy as you'd like as long as it fits into that size box.  The medium flat rate box works best when sending a good-sized care package:

Currently, the cost to send this size box anywhere in the country is $10.70.  Which may sound like a lot but if you're sending a heavy package in the farthest postal zone from you, you'll be spending a lot more than that.  This size box can actually hold quite a lot of brownies so when I use it, I try to send it to someone who I know will be able  to share it with others.  No point in making your friends sick of sugar (or your baking!).  For individuals, there's the small flat rate box, about the size of sending a VHS tape or slightly larger but it can still hold a fair amount of brownies for one person.

Here's what can fit into the medium flat rate box before I add the additional padding/packing materials to keep the contents well-cushioned for their journey from CA to MA:

Without overly crowding the box, this holds 5 goodie bags.  For the holidays, I like using decorated cellophane bags and ziploc bags.  Just makes things a little more festive looking.  I also have labels that I'll write what the treat is - I don't always do it (depends if I can find my labels or not, lol) but I figure it's nice for your recipients to know what they're eating.  Everything is individually wrapped and packaged so your recipients can also put everything directly into the freezer upon the box's arrival if they don't plan to eat it right away.  That way, everything will stay relatively fresh until it's time to consume them.


    1. This is a really useful post, Carol! (I don't want to imply that all of them aren't, but this one came at just the right time!) I am making some care packages this week! Thanks for your words of wisdom!

    2. You're welcome - glad you found it useful! I added a couple more paragraphs on boxing up and sending :).

    3. For some reason, I totally missed this post!! I have yet to practice any of these tips, but I'm glad to have finally found this. :-)