That's right, my little Chickadees, it's that time of year--the time when I tell you what to do. No, wait, that's every day. This is the time when I just suggest things you might like to do--for someone else. Presumably. And this year, in early December I'll be doing a special section on things you can bake that ship well.
Stocking Stuffers (Under $25)
Silvermark Butter Boat: This is quite nice enough to go on the table, and it uses evaporation cooling to keep your butter at the perfect temperature--soft enough to spread, cool enough to keep from going rancid. As long as you change the water in the bottom dish every three days, your butter should stay fresh on the counter for at least two weeks. I'm buying another one this year, so that I can have both salted and unsalted out all the time.
Microplane grater: I know, I say this every year, but . . . there's just no other way to zest. I used an old-fashioned ring zester at my sister's on Thanksgiving, and it took twice as long for much poorer results. And there's no way to do any sort of citrus cooking without zesting; that's where the most intense flavor is.
This is not, to be sure, a super-sexy looking gift. But if your favorite cook doesn't have one, I guarantee that within two weeks, they'll be telling you they don't know how they lived without it. It's also a nice way to grate your parmesan cheese, chocolate, or other toppings right at the table, for perfect freshness.
Bodum Tea Press: If you like tea, you should at least be able to use loose tea. Not only are many nicer teas sold exclusively loose, but also, tea goes stale faster in bags. Bodum has a really nice line of tea presses that are on sale today, so if there's a tea drinker on your list, I highly recommend picking one up.
Fresh Vac Storage containers: I was skeptical of these, but willing to try them because Costco had a good deal. They do, in fact, keep things fresher longer--I've put guacamole in there and had it go days without browning. It's not as good as a real vacuum sealer, but it's much cheaper, and most people don't want to fuss with all that equipment every time they put something away. Besides, now that Ziploc makes sous vide bags, who needs a vacuum sealer? Again, this is not a sexy gift. But if you know someone who is setting up housekeeping, I highly recommend it, and you can't do better and cheaper for storing your coffee beans.
Pastry cutter: if you want to make pie crust or biscuit, and you don't have a food processor, you must have a pastry cutter--unless you like your delicate breadstuffs to have the consistency of lead-laced chalk. The warmth and oil from your hands toughens them, which is why professional chefs all use food processors or cutters.
Mini chopper: Unless you have a mini food processor on your counter at all times, these are a life saver; they mince fine in seconds, with just a few pumps of the top handle. I don't think I've cooked a real meal without using this since I discovered them.
Kyocera ceramic slicer: Not quite as flexible as a mandoline--it only does straight slices, not crinkle or waffle (though there is a julienne version you can buy, which only juliennes). On the other hand, I can count on one hand the times I've ever waffled or julienned with my mandoline; mostly what I want is beautiful, even, fast slices for salad or hors d'oeuvres. And this does it beautifully. It hangs out at all times on my pot rack, since I frequently grab it several times during meal prep. There's an adjustable bar at the back that allows you to go from standard 3 millimeter widths for your salad cucumbers or potato chips, to paper thin. And it's much, much faster than doing it with a knife.
Silicone oven mitts: They really don't conduct heat--you can grab things out of boiling water as long as you don't pass the tops of the gloves. I wouldn't be without them.
Krups Fast Touch coffee grinder: If you're buying massive bags of pre-ground coffee, stop! Coffee quickly goes stale and loses the oils that give it rich, perfect flavor after roasting. Grinding it up, offering more surface area to the elements, hastens the process. Given how cheap blade grinders are now, you have no excuse. Burr grinders do an even better job, but they're four or more times more expensive than a blade grinder, and a blade grinder will make a huge difference. Coffee should be consumed no more than two weeks after roasting, and ground just before brewing.
If there's a cook on your list who doesn't drink coffee, you might want to think about picking this up anyway, because there's another thing it's great for: grinding your own spices. (Except nutmeg, which is too hard; fortunately, you can buy it in a plastic grinder in the supermarket for $5). Fresh ground spices, like cloves for pumpkin pie, make a really big difference in the flavor--think of the difference between using a pepper mill, or shaking that canned ground pepper over your food.
Generous Gifts ($25 to $50)
Rabbit Corkscrew set: I'm surprised that though these have been on the market for years now, many people haven't seen them. Short of those electric jobs, which I haven't tried, this is absolutely the easiest way to open wine. Aside from one friend, who has a bizarre prejudice cutting the foil before operating a corkscrew, I have never seen anyone fail to open a bottle with this, much less break a cork. Every time I have a party, at least a few people stare confusedly at it when it is handed to them--and then exclaim in awe as it effortlessly lifts the cork from the bottle.
Chemex coffee maker These come in sizes from single cup to gigantic, but I like the six cup. The Chemex is a cheap way to make a perfect cup of coffee--I'd much rather have one of these than a cheap automatic coffeemaker that ruins good beans, and indeed, this is what graces my office. It's slightly fussy--you pour a little water over the grounds to make them "blossom", and then slowly stream in the rest--but I like a little ritual with my coffee, and this does a superior job to anything I've ever used except very expensive machines.
Silicone rolling pin Get this for the older, gadget resistant baker in your life; she will tell you she will never use it, and then her baking output will suddenly, and for no apparent reason, increase 30%. Silicone has a number of nifty features, one of them being that stuff doesn't stick to it. That means you use less flour when you roll your cookies, pies, etc; and THAT means delicate, flaky baked goods.
Cuisinart immersion blender I use this all the time for a strange reason; lacking the money or will for a cappuccino maker, I froth skim milk for homemade sort-of-cappuccinos--it takes about three seconds to get a beautiful froth. For most people, it's main value will be in mixing breakfast drinks, and blending soups and sauces to a perfect puree. It's also absolutely the fastest way to make whipped cream--indeed, in a tall, thin cup, you can whip whole milk and allegedly, even skim milk, if you're on a diet. (I've done the whole milk, but I've never had the willpower to whip skim for a dessert). Mine mounts on the wall, and I use it virtually every day for something.