UPDATE: Last night, on his nightly MSNBC show The Last Word, my friend Lawrence O'Donnell ran an inspiring filmed report of What I did on my summer vacation last night. What he did was give chairs and desk to a Malawi schoolroom. Link to video, in which Lawrence modestly but forcefully says why sitting up and not on a concrete floor makes a difference to how and what students learn, here, and link to give chairs and benches to one of 172 Malawi schools in a UNICEF program here: $24 buys a chair, $48 a desk and a bench.
Closest to home: give the greatest gift of all—a subscription! As James Fallows, our most effective
everything reader-rouser, said only a few days ago: Silicone rolling pin Remember
what I just said about the mat? Same goes for the rolling pin--you
don't even have to flour it. This makes it just slightly trickier to
roll up your top crust pastry on the pin and then unroll it over the
pan, but this is a very minor inconvenience compared to not having half
your dough stuck to the pin, and the rest an unusable, hole-filled
mess. Really, once you try this, you will never go back to wood. Froth au Lait
This is kind of a funny gift. It's basically a substitute for a
powerful cappucino machine; it produces hot, frothed milk. Of course,
with hot, frothed milk, most people want espresso, so why not just buy
an espresso maker?
Well, this is a lot
cheaper--and for a lot of people, hot frothed milk with strong coffee
is a pretty good substitute for the product of a $500 espresso machine.
This also produces quite a lot of hot, frothed milk at once--useful
for making multiple drinks. Or, if you are my, for pairing with the
Nespresso coffee maker in your office (reviewed below).
manufacturer maintains that you can make all sorts of custards and
fancy sauces in it. I can't speak to that--though in theory, something
that constantly stirs your Hollandaise for you at a consistent
temperature does seem like an improvement over the normal procedure of
curdling the eggs and then frantically trying to get them to
un-separate. I can attest that it does make very good hot, frothed
a big fan of this--it makes opening a wine bottle basically foolproof. I feel it's especially good for people who are losing hand strength,
although you might also want to consider an electric corkscrew
, which gets decent reviews. We're also extremely pleased with the wine aerator
a friend got me for a bridal shower gift; it allows you to rapidly
aerate red wine that you don't have time to decant, improving the
flavor. It would be a lovely gift paired with a corkscrew.
it's a teapot that allows you to make loose tea without messing around
with leaves in the bottom of the cup. We not only love ours, but
frequently give them as gifts--when winter comes, or you have a cold,
there is very little nicer than a hot pot of tea. I'm particularly
fond of the Bodum models, because they're attractive, and the
decorative plastic on the bottom also protects your furniture from the
is a conventional waffle iron, like the ones I used to use as a child,
rather than the tank-sized belgian wafflers that are all the rage. I
prefer a conventional waffle, which is flatter than a Belgian waffle. Belgian waffles always seem like too much of a good thing--too much
butter, too much syrup, too much waffle. Conventional waffles are
thinner and a little crisper, and don't make you feel as if you need to
get on the Stairmaster for 10 hours to atone. If you want to eat
more, of course, you can always make another waffle.
one has a lot of nice features, that were complimented when we rolled
it out for brunch this Sunday. It heats up beautifully to six
different temperatures, with a green light and a beep to tell you that
it's ready. It opens and stays at the right height to put in
batter--then when it is closed, senses that it's time to cook the
waffle. There's another green light and a beep when the waffle's
done--which they all were, perfectly. We brought the waffle iron right
to the table and cooked eight waffles in a row in 15 to 20
minutes, with a hot crispy waffle coming off just as people were ready
for more. The last was as good as the first.
Warming Gravy Boat
was a lot of chaffing about the warming gravy boat on Thanksgiving, but
people weren't laughing so hard when they still had warm gravy 45
minutes into our massive feast. It also does a brilliant job with
chocolate sauce for desserts, and for warm maple syrup on pancakes and,
er, waffles--just put the syrup in cold and turn it on. It hasn't
changed my life, or anything, but it doesn't take up much more space
than a regular gravy boat, it isn't notably uglier or more expensive,
and having warm sauces is really nice.
Oxo Kitchen Scale
scale is really necessary if you're going to do serious cooking.
Obviously, it is good for figuring out exactly what constitutes 2.5
pounds of potatoes. But it's also important for baking, because
wherever possible, you should measure your ingredients by weight, not
by volume. A given mass of flour can vary a lot in volume, depending
on things like humidity, temperature, and how long it's been sitting.
This is also true of other ingredients, like nuts, which take up very
different amounts of space depending on how finely they're chopped.
Bonus: if you weigh your flour, you can aerate in the food processor
instead of sifting.
buy a cheap one--stick with Braun, Cuisinart, or KitchenAid. But
between those three, I can't really tell much difference. I've never
had a friend whose cooking I respect gush to me about the awesome,
life-changing excellence of their immersion blender. Nor have I come
home from another person's kitchen with immersion blender gadget-lust
in my heart. They're stick blenders. You stick them into your sauces,
and they puree. There's no secret magic out there.
is not to denigrate the immersion blender, because it really is a
phenomenally useful gadget, especially if you happen to be possessed of
a spouse or child who refuses to eat anything with lumps of vegetables
in it. It is a vast, colossal, gargantuan improvement over messing
around with pouring batches of hot liquid into a blender. But the
basic technology seems to be pretty settled by now, and I haven't heard
of radical new advances in the last year.
Generous gifts: $50 to $150
All-Clad One Quart Saucier
tend to underestimate little pans--both as gifts, and in purchasing for
ourself. But this pan is probably off my rack more than any other.
There is always some sort of small job in the kitchen, and while I do
a lot of them in the microwave, many of them, like scalding milk,
require more careful monitoring. It's the sort of thing a beginning
cook would never think of buying for themselves, but will soon discover
they can't live without.
first used one in England, where everyone has one. Alas, the American
versions, which run on 110 volt electricity, do not heat as fast as the
British versions running on 220 volts. But they are still marvelously
convenient, especially in the summer, when I, for one, will do anything
to avoid turning on the stove. This made an especially good gift for
my grandmother when she was losing her sight to macular degeneration,
and it was dangerous for her to use the stove; they're also very good
for people in dorm rooms, for whom microwave burritos and Cup o'
Noodles represent the height of cookery.
got this as a wedding gift from my editor, to whom my husband now
offers a silent word of thanks every morning. Burr grinders do make a
superior cup of coffee. Coffee fanatics say it's because they don't
heat the grinds, and perhaps that's part of it, but in my opinion the
most important thing is simply that a burr grinder gives you a
perfectly precise grind--all the coffee grinds are exactly the right
Many people are tempted by coffee
makers that have the grinder right in them. This is a tragic
mistake--either the grinder or the coffee maker is liable to break, and
then you have to replace the whole thing.
Electric Pepper Mill
mother has one of these, and couldn't stop talking how great it was.
When our housing woes forced us to move into her house over the
summer, I finally understood why. It actually is quite nice to be able
to grind pepper into your sauce one-handed, while stirring with the
other hand. It's especially nice for people who are having trouble
with their hands, as my mother was for several years until she had
surgery on her thumb.
know, you young people don't know how good you have it. When I was
your age, the Cuisinart Griddler didn't have reversible plates that
allowed you to turn your contact grill and panini press into a griddle.
We had to change the plates
improved version still does all the things I love in mine. It's
basically a George Foreman grill that also opens flat to grill meats,
or with the plates on the griddle side, to serve as an electric
griddle. There are separate controls for grilling/griddling:
low/medium/high for the grill, and a temperature control for the
griddle which allows you to get the plates to the exact perfect
temperature for cooking pancakes (350 F). This is valuable enough to
be one of the few appliances allowed to remain on my counter.
Shun Knife Block
we got a lot of knives for our wedding (so many that I've got a
separate section below just for knives). I know, you're not supposed
to give knives for a wedding, but that's what we really needed, and
boy, are they awesome. However, since I already had quite a few
knives, we overflowed the block, necessitating the purchase of this,
the biggest block we could find.
that much you can say about a knife block--I mean, providing it holds
the knives, well, there you are. But this one has lots of nice wide,
deep slots, and while it takes up a lot of space on the counter, that's
the price of having lots and lots of knives. It's pretty attractive,
and also nice and sturdy. I think it's safe to say that, barring house
fire, we've bought our last knife block.
Kitchenaid hand mixer
don't use mine that often any more, because I have a nice big stand
mixer on my counter. On the other hand, it's still where I can get at
it. It's excellent for traveling, for jobs that require multiple
beating jobs (say, a cake recipe that wants butter and sugar creamed
stiffly beaten egg whites). And for someone who
doesn't have a stand mixer (or room to leave said mixer where they can
easily get at it), it's a lifesaver. The 9-speed Kitchenaids are about
the best model on the market, as far as I can tell.
Calphalon One Infused Anodized 10-Inch Frying Pan
my money, the Calphalon One Infused Anodized pans are the best
all-around utility pans out there. The look is perhaps not quite as
sexy as all that gleaming stainless steel--but then, you're not the
kind of person who would buy pans to be looked at, would you?
infused anodized pans (not to be confused with the nonstick pans, which
I basically only use to make eggs and parmesan cheese bowls) are a sort
of hybrid between non-stick and traditional pans. They have the teflon
infused into the aluminum, which results in a pan that is not really
nonstick--you still get the delicious caramelized bits stuck to the
pan, which chefs call the fond--but is easier to clean than a
regular pan. Aside from that, they're also very good pans:
responsive, with nice, even heat and no hot spots. This pan has even
converted my husband, who professed to see no reason to have expensive
pans until he experienced the difference between pan searing in this,
and pan searing in a $12 piece of junk from Target.
I still have one heavy-duty nonstick everyday pan
for eggs and baking, and a cast iron pan along with big stainless job
for browning meat and similar. But this pan is my go-to for everyday. I've cast longing eyes at the insanely expensive set
, but can't justify it while I still have plenty of working pans.
pans, by the way, can often be purchased for considerable discounts at
Calphalon outlets--I got my frying pan for $25 in Waterloo, NY. It's
got a very small dent on the lip, but so far, none of my food has
complained. Only you know whether your giftee would be pickier.
Cuisinart Countertop Oven
I no longer own this, due to some confusion on my part about the uses
of oven cleaner (Hints from Heloise: they don't mean pricey toaster
ovens). Since we are without it, I suddenly realize how much we used
it. It actually makes pretty decent toast, which is not generally true
of toaster ovens, but our main use was as a substitute for the oven,
particularly in the summer (and a supplement to the oven at parties).
It did a terrific job for us until I killed it. Most toaster ovens do
a mediocre job at higher temperatures, but this one was fast and
consistent, even when we really piled in the frozen food.
Extravagent Gestures: $150 and Up
Kitchenaid Stand Mixer
know this always leads off the list of really expensive gadgets. And
well it should. This is simply a phenomenally useful piece of
equipment if you are a baker. (Do not believe their lies about making
mashed potatoes in a mixer. Using a mixer or immersion blender does
something to the structure of the potato, turning it into glue. And
really, if you're under 95, you ought to be able to wield a damn potato
masher--or, if you really need a super-fine texture, a potato ricer).
do not recommend getting a mixer below the "professional" grade. In
past years, this has triggered wails of anguish from people who really
want a tilt-head model, and hey, don't let me stop you if you
absolutely cannot live with a bowl-lift on your mixer. But the
tilt-head limits the power of the motor (more powerful motors are
heavier and harder to lift). And really, after a week, you will not
even notice that you have to lift the bowl up and down. I've
recommended the six quarter, but people with smaller families, or
ambitions, will probably be just as happy with the five
toned down the colors this year, at least on the six-quart, so I don't
have to issue my standard warning about buying a mixer that will last
for decades in an adorable color like Buttercup or Mint.
of the nicest things about the Kitchenaid is that all its attachments
(with the exceptions of some bowls and similar) fit all of its mixers.
I highly recommend the ice-cream bowl
chilled, it produces ice cream with a really lovely texture, thanks to
the power of the Kitchenaid motor. (It isn't quite as nice as the
really fancy machines with compressors, but it also takes up much less
space, and doesn't cost hundreds of dollars). I don't
recommend the meat grinder. We bought one this year and
to make our own cruelty-free hamburger, a revolting, agonizingly slow
process which almost turned everyone involved (back) into vegetarians.
The fat not only got caught in the blades, which is normal, but also
turned black from the lubricant in the grinding mechanism, which isn't.
You can make really quite delicious hamburger in a food processor.
Technovorm Coffee Maker
you click the link, let me warn you: it's a $300 coffeemaker.
Moreover, it's a $300 coffeemaker that doesn't have a timer, or a
built-in grinder, or an alarm. It's not very good at interrupting the
brew in the middle so that you can grab a cup while it's still
dripping. This has shocked and horrified many of the people who have
All the Technovorm does is make a
phenomenal cup of coffee. It does one thing superbly well: get the
water to just the right temperature to extract maximum coffee flavor
without bitterness. It is the best cup of coffee I have ever had in a
private home. It's also fast, meaning that the wait for the first cup
of coffee isn't too agonizing, even without a timer or flow-interrupt.
no heating element for the already-made coffee; instead, it uses a
thermal carafe so good at holding in heat that when we empty out the
old coffee, hours later, rinsing it out with cold water frequently
produces steam. This means that the last cup of coffee isn't
overcooked and disgusting, but pretty much as good (and almost as hot)
as the first cup that came out.
This is not
for everyone, clearly. But if you really like good coffee, or know
someone who does, and you have the money, you should really think about
investing in this machine.
Nespresso Espresso Maker
Coffee snobs may well be indignant that I am reviewing this next to
the Technivorm, but what's a girl to do? The Nespresso machines, which
use vacuum packed single-serve capsules, are not good substitutes for a
delicious, perfectly pulled cup of espresso. However, they are very
good substitutes for office coffee which is where I use mine. And in
combination with the Froth-au-lait, linked above, they are pretty good
substitutes for terrible, expensive, coffee shop drinks, in which
category I place the Starbucks "Extra Burned" line of cappuccinos and
lattes. It can be set to make either espresso, or coffee, both of
which are strong and pretty delicious, unlike the watery brew that the
Kitchenaid Model 770 Food Processor
had mine for about 5 years now, and it remains the best food processor
out there for the money. Why this one? First, the power of the motor,
which is pretty amazing (fair warning: as a result, the base is very
heavy). It makes short work of huge blocks of cheese, mounds of
vegetables, or, as I believe I mentioned, big hunks of beef.
the attachments: it's got a really huge assortment, from slicing and
shredding dishes, to the standard blade, to a juicer and an attachment
for egg whites. I use every one of them at least a few times a year.
It also comes with three work bowls (small, medium, large) which means
that you can often use it for multiple tasks without washing up in
And third, the ultra-wide mouth. It
really ups the usefulness of your food processor, because if I have to
chop everything into teeny-weeny chunks before I put it through the
food processor, what do I have the food processor for again?
do pay extra for the extra-wide mouth on the Model 770, but to my mind,
it's well worth it. This remains one of the most expensive food
processors on the market, but they're commanding that price because
they are delivering a far superior product--my mother has one of the
recent high-end Cuisinarts, and it's extraordinarily disappointing to
use when you're used to the KitchenAid.
is a growing company which basically sells machines and accessories to
make seltzer, and then turn that seltzer into various flavors of soda.
This is their top of the line model, which doesn't make seltzer any
better than the other models, but has two advantages: it looks like a
penguin, which is pretty stylish on the counter; and it uses glass
bottles instead of plastic. I'm not particularly paranoid, but I'm
trying to at least slightly lessen the amount of chemicals in my diet
that have leached out of plastic containers.
doesn't, as far as I can tell, really save you money. It does,
however, save you storage space, and we actually prefer many of the
soda mixes, like the ginger ale and the tonic water, to what we get at
the supermarket: we can control the level of carbonation and the
amount of syrup. Plus it's hugely convenient to be able to make soda
any time you want. The company delivers straight to your doorstep (and
picks up old cylinders to replace for new), so you never need to run
out because you forgot to go to the store. We use this so often that
it has won its place on our countertop, beside the food processor, the
stand mixer, and the griddler. That's really the highest praise I can
"Male" and "Female
Whiskey Decanters This is not, technically, a kitchen item. But I
love these so much that I cannot resist showing them off. We got them
as a wedding gift, and we keep scotch in one, bourbon in the other.
This does not actually improve your Scotch or anything. But it looks
rather lovely, and makes a considerably prettier after-dinner
presentation than plopping the bottles down on the table.
I said, I can't really justify including these except that they stopped
making the slow-cooker I wanted to write about, and I am besotted with
I said last year, this is a very, very specialty item. Copper
stockpots are good for exactly one sort of person: the kind who sets
aside an entire weekend day or so for making stock, starting with
slow-roasting a big pile of bones. Or, perhaps, the sort of person who
has announced their intention to start doing so this Saturday.
that sort of person, a gigantic copper stockpot is a great gift.
Unfortunately, the kind you ought to buy costs an absolutely insane
fortune on Amazon. The sort you oghtn't to buy costs less, but you
oughtn't to buy them. You can identify these pots because they oftne
have the name of a celebrity chef on them, or on closer examination
turn out to use a very thin layer of copper around an ordinary pan to
make it look pretty.
Luckily, Amazon is not
the only place you can go. Kitchen outlets often have sales (I got
mine at a Williams Sonoma Outlet, where they were practically giving it
away because the picturesque rooster handle had come off and been
replaced by a plain one). Antique stores often have them--though you
should make sure it is a good, heavy duty pot, as there was a vogue for
producing flimsy decorative copper pots in the middle of the twentieth
century, and many of them are floating around. If you buy a used
pot--which can be beautiful!--you will need to find a place to get it
re-tinned. If you don't overpay in the antique shop, this is still
much cheaper than buying a new pot.
Ummm, Merry Christmas, I Guess: Knives
obviously, you should know who you're getting knives for. Not everyone
will appreciate the gesture as a symbol of your, er, abiding love and
overflowing holiday spirit.
That said, good knives are so important to anyone who cooks a lot. Nothing else--except maybe a really terrible
frying pan--can make you so miserable in the kitchen when it's wrong,
and so happy when it's right. Ultimately, if you want to do any
cooking at all, there's no way to get around needing a few decent
Thanks to a wedding I threw last June,
we now have as many knives as we could possibly want. Well, almost,
anyway. We certainly have enough knives. And since a reader
specifically asked about knives, I will try to pass on my accumulated
knowledge in this special bonus section.
knife preference is Shun. I grew up on Wusthof and Henckels, and
really, anything with a decent edge and a handle will do the job. But
I love the way the Shuns handle, and the way they hold an edge. I
still have some of my old knives, but I barely use them any more.
So what does Megan McArdle consider essential to a good kitchen?
: Shun has a bunch, and I think I now own most of them. (Thanks, everyone!) I've been surprisingly pleased with their tiny 2.5 inch bird's beak knife
which really lets you do jobs that require fine motor skills. (Bonus:
you can be almost positive your giftee doesn't have one) However, this
must be considered as a supplument, not a replacement, to a larger
paring knife. I have the Ken Onion 3-inch paring knife
which is really a fantastic knife--it's an odd shape, but it has
terrific balance, and its shape turns out to help, rather than hinder
you getting the job done. Unfortunately, its correspondingly expensive.
I also have the Classic Four-inch paring knife
which is right on the edge of the size that can properly be considered
a paring knife, but also useful for slicing. If you're only going to
have one knife, I'd recommend the 3.5 inch classic
, which is probably the most versatile size, and is slightly less pricey.
I have two Shun Ken Onion utility knives (I know, this is getting
ridiculous, but my family is aware of my fetish, and likes to haunt
kitchen outlets . . . I didn't even register for these). The four inch chef's knife
probably the most-used knife in my kitchen. It's an incredibly
versatile size and shape, and it always seems to be the one I pull out
when I have a little chopping or slicing to do. The five inch utility knife
is my go-to for jobs that require something larger and thinner, like trimming a whole tenderloin.
I have a simple rule on this--"don't pay much for serration". With
these knives, the serration is doing most of the work, not the quality
of the knife, so there's no point in paying extra--serration technology
hasn't improved noticeably since the invention of the saw. All you
really need in a serrated knife is something firm enough to push
through the material you're cutting without bending.
For utility knives, I like the Kyocera ceramic
since it holds an edge (serrated knives are particularly hard to
sharpen correctly), though you should not leave this around
fumble-fingered relatives or children, since it will shatter if
dropped. Frankly, I don't even use a bread knife any more--I just
hack at it with the five inch--but if you want one, I'm sure a cheap Henckels
would be fine.
: Also the Shun Ken Onion
an eight-inch blade that is an absolute joy to use. It certainly makes
an impressive presentation--it comes in its own stand--but the really
impressive thing is using it. The blade keeps an edge beautifully, and
the balance is just perfect. Obviously, it also has the most important
characteristic of a chef's knife--it is solid steel heavy enough to
drive the knife through whatever you are chopping. As well, I have the seven-inch Santoku
which has a slightly different balance and heft, and is a little more
wieldy for smaller jobs. For those who don't want to pay quite that
much for a knife, Shun's less pricey classic line
is also excellent.
sounds like a lot of knives. It is. You certainly don't need that
many, though it is helpful if you're going to have multiple people
cooking in your kitchen--and I'm the sort of person whose dinner party
guests often end up in the kitchen with me.
bare minimum is a decent paring knife, a decent utility knife, a
serrated utility knife, and a good chef's knife. And if you're buying
for someone who doesn't have much of a kitchen, that's what I would
On the other hand, if you're
buying for someone who already cooks quite a lot, think about slightly
offbeat knives--the bird's beak, the 4-inch chef. They won't have
them, and they will use them.
Then there are
the knives I haven't even mentioned: cleavers (which I am irrationally
afraid of); boning knives (which I own, but which aren't particularly
excellent for anything except boning, which not everyone does); carving
knives, which I only end up using a few times a year on really
gargantuan roasts; steak knives, which really seem to belong in the
category of cutlery. A knife collection always ends up being an
individual thing, so know your chef before you gift.
reminds me: don't buy a set unless you're trying to outfit a recent
college grad who will never darken their oven door. They're often
cheaper knives, and the knife blocks don't allow for expansion, which
is a problem because they're rarely just right for the person you're
gifting. I think it's always better to get one really good knife that
will be treasured for years, than a bunch of mediocre knives that will
be discarded when they break or dull.
worth noting: there is no such thing as a metal knife that miraculously
stays sharp. New knives are all sharp; cheap blades lose their edge
quickly and are hard to resharpen, but all knives have to have their
edge put back on after you've used them for a while. I am suspicious
of sharpening machines, so I take it to the kitchen store (or mail them
to Shun, who will sharpen your knives for free), but some people are
now reporting good results with the manufacturer-branded electric
sharpeners. I'd be too chicken to risk my expensive knives with one
that wasn't manufacturer-specific. Whatever you do, don't believe that
you can get someone knives that don't need to be sharpened.
sure that this list will draw out the Knife Snobs, who only get their
cleavers at a secret location in Outer Mongolia, or, alternatively,
proudly declare that they wouldn't dream of paying more than $3 for a
knife at the local hardware store . . . there is as much snobbery in
what food people won't pay for as in what they will.
this is a good, broad guide. Which is mostly what I try to do with the
annual gift list. I don't recommend anything unless I use it, and love
it, and consider it a real improvement in my kitchen. And the
highlight of my year is hearing from the people who have used things,
and loved them too.
But that certainly doesn't
mean that every good thing is on it. Readers are, as always, invited
to offer corrections and amplifications in the comments.