It just wouldn't be Christmas around here without my annual instructions on what you should buy that special someone in your life. Now going into its sixth year, it has some of the old favorites that longtime readers will recognize, mixed in with a few new things. This year, I'm listing them the way I did last year: least to most expensive. I'm also starting a list of things that seemed like good ideas, but weren't.
Stocking Stuffers: Under $25
Microplane grater/zester Yes, I know that I suggest this every year. I will continue doing so until I die, or Jesus returns with a better method for removing delicious zest from your citrus fruits. But of course, it isn't just good for zesting--although it's worth its price alone, just so that you never have to scrape your knuckles on a box grater again. Try shaving good chocolate over ice cream, on top of a cake, or to sprinkle over fresh berries. We're also very fond of shaving a little Parmesan over our salads using this, which makes a beautiful sort of cheese cloud. You can also get a coarser grater, which is good when you want a more robust texture.
Cheese slicer A lot of people are buying in bulk these days to save money, and that includes the McSuderman household, which just tucked into a 2 pound hunk of Swiss Cheese. While this is a great size to shred for gratins, it is a trifle unwieldy for turning into sandwiches or putting on crackers. A wire cheese slicer is an efficient way around the problem.
Kyocera ceramic slicer These are brilliant for salads, potato chips, canapes, or (don't roll your eyes) cucumber sandwiches, which are delicious when made with herbed cream cheese. It's not quite as powerful or flexible as a mandoline. But it's a lot less expensive than a comparable quality mandoline, significantly less dangerous, and most of the people I know--including me--report that their mandolines don't get much use, because they're sitting out of sight under the counter.
Silvermark butter boat These are nifty, and surprisingly overlooked. You fill the bottom well with water, and put butter in the top; it uses evaporative cooling to keep your butter at the perfect temperature--soft, but not rancid. I've never had any luck with butter bells--I always end up with a lump of wet butter. But these work very well, as long as you change the water every few days. I have two: one for salted, and one for unsalted.
Oxo Chopper If you don't have room for a food processor on your counter, these are a lifesaver. They make dicing, mincing, and chopping nuts into the work of a moment. They're slightly looked down on by snobbier foodies, who like to take "knife skills" classes. Knife skills are valuable, and I think every meat eater should learn how to debone a fowl. And if you're turning twenty pounds of vegetables into mirepoix, a good chef's knife is actually probably more efficient. But if you're turning twenty pounds of vegetables into mirepoix, you're a professional chef who doesn't need my advice.
Oxo tongs Tongs are one of the most useful and versatile pieces of kitchen equipment you can buy. Key features to look for: a pullout tab to lock the handle, and at least ten inches of length between you and the hot pans. If your gift uses non-stick pans, I recommend getting nylon rather than stainless steel heads.
Egg separator There are any number of ways to do this without a gadget. But why bother, when the gadget costs $4? Given the years you'll get out of it, this is a worthy investment for even a marginal improvement in your egg separating convenience. If you bake, it's definitely worth it, no matter how good you are at pouring it back and forth between the shells.
Milk frother I'm a big fan of fancy coffee-based beverages, but not of expending more than a thousand per annum at coffee shops. Frothed milk plus strong home-brewed coffee makes a pretty decent substitute, with greater convenience and less cost. I've tried many versions, and the Bodum wins for both efficiency and longevity.
Salt keeper Exotic salts are the new Green Peppercorns and White Truffle Oil, and in my opinion, considerably more interesting. If you use expensive salts for flavoring your cooking (or putting on top of your food), a wooden salt keeper can keep them from getting too humid and clumping together. Right now I'm using Maldon sea salt for most things, and pink Himalayan salt for dishes that demand a lighter flavor.
Krups coffee grinder Even if you don't care much about coffee, you'll find your life is much improved if you do three things: buy fresh whole bean coffee, keep it stored in an airtight container at room temperature for no more than two weeks, and grind it fresh every morning. The blade coffee grinders don't give quite as consistent a grind as burr grinders, and the flavor isn't quite as good. But they are many times more expensive. The difference between fresh ground coffee and horrible pre-ground stuff is much larger than the difference between burr-ground and blade-ground fresh coffee. It sounds tedious, but it takes us much more time in the morning to fill the coffee maker with water than it does to grind the coffee.
Rotato My sister bought me this last Christmas as a sort-of-joke, sort-of-gift, and surprisingly, I'm actually fond of it. It's a specialty appliance, and definitely not for everyone. But it really does do a good job of peeling potatoes and apples, if you do a lot of that. The only downside is that it does chew through blades pretty rapidly; spares cost $1-2 apiece.
Silicone oven mitts Not sexy. But sooooooo useful. They protect your hands better than anything else, though you pay a price in fine motor manipulation. You can stick your hands into boiling water wearing these, as long as the water doesn't come up over the opening of the glove. The longer the better, for that reason.
Thoughtful Presents: $25 to $50
Bodum teapot I love loose leaf tea, which has a better flavor than tea bags (tea bags grind the tea finer, which means it goes stale faster). But I hate fussing with tea balls, or the dregs at the bottom of my pot. This teapot gets top marks for style, ease of use, dishwasher safe-ness, and my favorite feature--a plastic girdle that serves as a built-in trivet. The interior compartment keeps leaves out of your teacup while allowing in the full flavor, and can be used with teabags. If it's for a single person, you might want to consider the smaller model.
Knife block I am very seriously not a fan of those all-in-one knife sets that come with a knife block. For one thing, no one is an all-in-one cook--I have friends who can't live without a cleaver, and are mystified by my attachment to good kitchen shears. For another, the knives usually aren't very good, which means they don't have a good weight, the handles aren't affixed too solidly, and they will have trouble holding an edge. A nice big knife block gives your budding chef space to build a knife set that works for them.