With Christmas just two weeks away, I'm busy preparing for the holidays and planning my final gifts.

While I can't tell you what I'm buying people, I will tell you that a majority of our gifts for friends and the extended family are edible. I love cooking, and my friends and family love eating. (OK, I love eating too.)

I also enjoy knowing that edible gifts are inexpensive to make, which means that I can spread more holiday cheer on a small budget. It's a win-win situation for everyone.

This year's gifts are still a surprise, but I'd like to share my favorite inexpensive and fairly simple gift idea: Chocolate covered pretzels. They're crunchy, salty, and melt-in-your-mouth rich all at the same time. What's not to like?

There are many ways to make chocolate covered pretzels, but the base ingredients are always the same:

Ÿ 12 ounce package of chocolate baking chips (milk, semi-sweet or dark)

Ÿ 2 tablespoons of shortening

Ÿ 1 bag of pretzels (rods or thick twists)

The shortening makes the chocolate smoother and shinier, so that your pretzels will look a bit more attractive and professional. Plain baking chocolate is very dull when it hardens.

Combine and melt the chocolate and shortening in a double boiler. If you don't have a double-boiler, you can layer a small pot into a larger pot.

Fill the larger pot with enough water to surround the smaller pot without boiling over. Stir the chocolate frequently as it is melting.

Once the chocolate is melted, you're ready to start dipping! You can use tongs to fully coat the pretzels, or use part of the pretzel as a "handle" and leave a small amount of pretzel plain. (I prefer to leave a handle because it's easier to dip and less messy to eat. Your friends won't get melted chocolate on their hands as they savor each pretzel.)

Dip each pretzel individually, allow the excess chocolate to drip off, and place on a cookie tray lined with wax paper. When the sheet is full, place it in the refrigerator.

To make a gift that really "pops," add some colorful toppings. Sprinkles, chopped nuts, or nonpareils add a splash of color and an interesting crunch.

You can also drizzle a different color chocolate in thin lines over the cooled pretzels. Use white chocolate on milk or dark, and vice versa or add red or green food coloring to white chocolate to create a festive holiday treat.

I've altered this recipe to meet the needs of family members (my husband prefers white chocolate, for example), so it's a fairly flexible gift.

All you really need is an hour or so to dip and an empty shelf in the refrigerator to cool the coated pretzels.

Not a big fan of pretzels, or looking for something more unique? Use the recipe above to make chocolate covered strawberries, whole apples, or cherries.