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.
Oxo Kitchen Scale If you want to be a great baker, you really need a scale. The same mass of flour, sugar, etc can vary greatly in volume depending on things like humidity and temperature, which means that a cup of flour on Wednesday may not be the same as a cup of flour on Friday, at least from your recipe's point of view. I like the Oxo, but nearly any scale is good so long as it can measure down to a few miligrams, and will tare--meaning that you can leave the bowl on and reset the counter, so that it just measures the weight of the next thing you add.
Extravagent gestures ($50 to $150)
Capresso Burr Grinder I have been reluctantly persuaded that burr grinders do, in fact, do a better job on your coffee, regardless of what Consumer Reports says. If you're moderately into coffee, I still think you'll be very pleased with the Krups--the flavor boost from switching from pre-ground to grinding yourself is much greater than the benefits of switching to a burr grinder from a blade grinder, especially if you're not buying very expensive coffees. Nonetheless, if someone on your list is pursuing that perfect cup of coffee, this is a great gift.
Kyocera Ceramic Knife Set: Ceramic knives are not for everyone. The upside--you basically never have to sharpen them, as they arrive razor sharp, and stay that way. The downsides are two. First, most people aren't used to using sharp knives; they're used to cutting with very dull knives. So you have to remember this when you are learning to use these, or you will cut yourself. The second is that if you are very clumsy, they are not a good knife for you, because they will shatter if dropped from a high height. I used mine for years very happily, and then sublet my apartment to my mother, who has a little more . . . dash . . . in her kitchen style. They were both broken within three months.
But if you are looking for a cook of average or less clumsiness (and really, it's VERY DANGEROUS to drop even steel knives off the counter--indeed, these are actually safer for you, because they're not heavy enough to penetrate), these make a great gift.
Calphalon One Infused Anodized frying pan: I've selected the 12 inch, because that's the size I use all the time. But they come in all sorts of sizes, as well as dutch ovens and griddles and so forth.
The idea of Calphalon One is to infuse the teflon directly into the aluminum rather than bonding it on. The result is a pan that is not as non-stick as true non-stick, but that cleans much more easily than a standard anodized aluminum pan. This is the only frying pan I have that looks basically as good as the day I bought it.
Why not just get non-stick? Two reasons. First, you can't use metal in non-stick, because once the non-stick finish is damaged, the pan is essentially useless--food will lodge in the crevices, and also, teflon isn't good for you. The other reason is that sticking is what creates the fond--the dark, almost burned bits at the bottom of the pan. Without these, you can't get a proper sear on your meat, nor full flavor in your sauces. I use non-stick pans for exactly two things: making eggs, and making parmesan cheese bowls for dinner party salads. Other than those two items, they never cook as well as my Calphalon One.
They're pricey pans, but if wear thus far (I've had mine for about five years) is any sign, they last approximately forever. You can get anything from saucepans to stock pots, including a very good looking full set, but the biggest value is in the frying pans, saute pans, and sauciers--the places where you get the most sticking. Also, if you have a cook's outlet near you, you may well be able to find these at a steep discount--I bought my first one for $20 with a slight dent in the rim.
Kitchenaid Ice Cream Making attachment: If you've followed my advice and bought a Kitchenaid, I highly recommend adding on this device. It makes luscious ice cream, obviously--but it also makes delicious sorbet and granita, for those watching their calories. One of the nicest things I've ever eaten was Cranberrry Orange and Thyme sorbet. It is a bowl freeze model, but the mixer's engine is much more powerful than that on a standard ice cream maker, so you can make thicker blends without freezing the crankshaft.
Cuisinart Griddler: I recommend this basically every year, and will until they discontinue it, because it is so. damn. useful. I actually bought it mostly because I was dating a pancake freak, and I wanted to be able to precisely control the temperature of my pancakes (which cook perfectly at 350 degrees). Now I use it for everything. It grills tofu to perfection, as well, of course, as meats and so forth, and your classic cheese-based panini. It does beautiful grilled vegetables. And the pancakes are, indeed, perfect. The nice thing is the dual controls, so that you can set the temperature of the griddle to exactly what you need.
Panasonic Genius Microwave: I've had mine for several years now, and I just love it. The sensor cook features actually work--we did green beans on the "fresh vegetables" setting yesterday, and they came out perfectly. It's powerful, easy to use, and easy to clean. My greatest fear is that the new house I just signed a lease on may already come with a microwave (like an idiot, I can't remember) and I'll have to surrender mine to some deserving friend or family member.
Spare no expense ($150 and up)
Capresso coffee maker After the timer on my old Cuisinart internal carafe model died, I bought this with last year's Christmas amazon referral commission, and I couldn't be happier. If you like coffee--and you spend any significant time at home--the thermal carafe is key. But the initial brew is also great. First of all, it's the fastest brew I've ever had, and in the McArdle household, that is a Very Important Feature--time-to-coffee from leaving bed cannot exceed fifteen minutes without fatal crankiness ensuing. Second of all, the flavor is excellent--the water temperature is perfect, and the showerhead design works very, very well. There are built in charcoal filters, and I confess I broke down and bought them, but you'll do just as well filling your pot from a Brita. The only slightly fussy thing is that if you overfill the water reservoir, it WILL overflow. But it's not a mistake you make twice, or in my case, once, because I was forewarned by the Amazon reviews.
KitchenAid mixer What else is there to say about it? Every year, I tell you you need one. I'm linking to the six quart only because Amazon is having a super special on it; for $70 less, you can get the white five quart that I have, which has been going strong for well over ten years.
Why get such an expensive mixer? First, because it lasts forever--my mother's is going on forty years. Second, because they're extremely powerful, which means you're done faster. Third, because the mixer is designed so that the beater both circulates and rotates--in different directions. This means you almost never have to scrape down the sides. Fourth, because there are so many attachments that work with this--ice cream makers, sausage stuffers, meat grinders, pasta rollers. The expensive part of any kitchen appliance like this is the motor; a powerful motor to which you can add attachments will save you money (and agony) in the long run.
KitchenAid Ultra Wide Mouthed Food Processor: Most kitchen appliances are bought with great hope; most end up on a shelf somewhere among the rotisseries and the breakmakers. This is one of the few items that I feel as strongly about as the day I bought it, two years ago. I'm still expanding my repertoire with this machine--I first experimented with grating cheese on the graters for macaroni and cheese and mincing onions in the little work bowl (brilliant), but now I'm slicing potato chips with the slicer blade, using the citrus juicer, and mixing chocolate mousse with the whip. It is the most astonishingly versatile appliance I've ever owned.
Amazon has a fantastic deal right now on their non-wide mouth model, and if $140 is more in your price range, it's got almost all of the features of the model I linked. If you can afford an extra $20, and will take it in white, however, I've really been loving the ultra-wide mouthed for things like potatoes, which cuts down on pre-prep a lot. If money is no object, splash out on the brushed nickel 770 model (that's what I got back when there was no price difference), but really, the color is not the important thing about this machine.
Cuisinart convection oven Needless to say, I thought long and hard before I plunged a couple hundred dollars into what looks like a big toaster oven. And this is definitely not for everyone. The convection model (you have to choose the option from the little menu) costs a small fortune. But I use this thing every single day. I bought it mostly because my tiny victorian windows won't take a full-sized air conditioner, so one little one in the kitchen was cooling my whole kitchen/living/dining area. In the summer, turning on the oven made the whole place oppressive. The convection oven did just what I'd hoped: it meant I didn't have to use my full sized range.
But even now it's come to winter, I'm still using it every day; I rarely turn on my oven unless I'm making something big. The convection oven heats quicker, keeps its heat better, cooks more quickly and evenly, and produces beautiful baked goods (which is what convection is especially good at). With the bricks in, it makes really superior bread crust--and, I assume, pizza crust, but I've never tried to make my own. It also makes surprisingly good toast, something at which toaster ovens generally fail. It's not big enough to handle a full sized cookie sheet or two cake layers, but will do a single cake just fine, and has, repeatedly. It's a must have for people in small kitchens that get hot, or for those in rental flats whose ovens leave much to be desired.
Shun onion chef's knife Yes, it's worth it. The balance is just beautiful, the edge is perfect, and the handle makes chopping a sheer pleasure. It is not worth buying it just to sit around your kitchen and look expensively decorative--though in my opinion, this is true of all equipment, and people who don't like to cook should not be legally allowed to have expensive kitchens. (Really, it's for their own good.) But if you chop a lot, you will get a hell of a lot of use out of it. And, of course, it *is* extremely decorative; it sits on my counter in its own little holder all the time.
Given everyone's economic worries, I've thought hard about whether to even recommend expensive old standbys like the KitchenAid mixer I harangue you to buy the baker in your life every year. My decision: some people may still be shopping in that price range, so I've added them. But I'm working hardest at the lower levels of the list. Which is always somewhat true, anyway, because you don't really need me to tell you that people like expensive electronics, while non-cooks probably really need to be persuaded that a $10 microplane grater makes a lovely addition to any kitchen.
So before you go cram into that mall with 250,000 of your closest friends, take a look here and see if I can't find you a few ideas. I'm going to start with the inexpensive, and move to the expensive, with at least five in each price category.