Hey — it’s December, and the holidays are once again upon us. While I used to reflect on all the cookbooks that crossed my desk, and kitchen counter, over the past year, I’ve lost track of what I’ve made from which book, and when. (One year I got wise, and started the list on January 1st, and continued adding to it as I went. And come December, it was all set to go.) Well, I’m not so organized anymore, a combination of not enough time, doing a number of other things, and bobbing up and down in the flow of life happening around me. So I decided to feature some things that really caught my interest this year – a kitchen tool that I found particularly useful, my favorite travel accessory, a book that may change my life (hope springs eternal…), and a few edibles.
If you have friends or family who want to churn up just one batch of ice cream, all for themselves, the Zoku Ice Cream Maker Bowl promises to “churn” up a single serving of ice cream in just 10 minutes. This pint-sized gift (actually, it makes 6 ounces), can be used to “churn” up ice cream, sorbet, sherbet, or gelato whenever the needs arises. Another gift for them? They won’t have to share.
Know a light sleeper? (In addition to me…) Get them a Tempur-pedic sleep mask. I’ve lost sleep counting the number of eye masks I’ve tried that suck. Most let in light, which is the reason you buy an eye mask in the first place – or are uncomfortable to wear. This one blocks out 100% of light and after wearing it for a few minutes, the memory foam conforms to your face and it feels like you’re wearing nothing. I take mine everywhere I go when I want to block out light and get a good night’s sleep, such as when staying at hotels (what’s with all those appliance power lights that illuminate the room when you’re trying to sleep?) or on airplanes. Or even just at my place, during the months when the sun wakes up before I want to). This is my favorite travel object and I don’t go anywhere without mine. (I actually have two, because I am terrified that I’m going to lose one.) A great gift for any traveler.
One day, a little packet arrived in my mailbox. My publisher had sent me a copy of this book with a note tucked inside the cover, saying that it created a sensation in their office, so they wanted me to have a copy. Thumbing through The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I could see why they found it so inspirational. (And with over 2 million copies sold, we’re apparently not the only ones.) Just after I started reading it, I spent a few days going through all of my clothes and shoes, and cleared out half of the drawers in my bedroom, seeing something called “empty space” for the first time in years. It was, indeed, life-changing. And kind of “magic” that I got off my duff and did it.
Next up? Getting around to the rest of Marie Kondo’s suggestions. This pocket-sized book is great motivation not just for cleaning out closets, but for making space in your life, and moving forward on a number of things. It was a great gift to me, and worth passing along to friends as well.
Who doesn’t love chocolate? In the last decade or so, there’s been an explosion of wonderful chocolate makers and chocolatiers in America. As someone described it to me, it’s a true American revolution. A few favorites that have been part of the revolution are Dandelion Chocolates and Nunu Chocolates, both owned by people who I first met in Paris – of all places.
Dandelion changes their bars depending on whatever beans they can get their hands on, and they’re roasted and ground in their tiny factory in San Francisco. They offer a wrapped gift set, which are three bars and a letterpress tasting guide, as well as sets of three bars. Due to high demand, availability may be limited. (Disclosure: I am a small shareholder in the company.) The folks at Nunu chocolates offer various chocolate assortments, including a Beer Box, blended with craft beers in Brooklyn, the Booze Box with mezcal, rye, and absinthe, as well as a Caramel Blend, melded with various nuts and salt. Bonus: Both companies will deliver gifts for you.
Another addition to the American chocolate scene is Woodblock Chocolate, a very small, artisan bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Portland – who is also recently met in Paris, and is turning out compact bars with flavors ranging from toasted sesame to salt & cocoa nibs. They’re offering a holiday ten-pack of chocolate bars, as well as gift boxes in a variety of sizes, flavors, and cacao bean origins.
Steve Sando at Rancho Gordo presents a collection of indigenous beans grown in Mexico from small farmers. In his XOXOC bean sampler, there are four bags of the tastiest heirloom beans you can imagine. I use them to make soups, as well as just for cooking up a pot o’ beans, with onions, garlic, and bacon, to serve with roasted meats – although vegetarians love them too! This quartet of bags makes a pretty special gift for the food-lover in your life. And if you’re looking to convert someone to the pleasures of heirloom dried beans, by the time they’ve polished off the first bag, they’ll be happy to have the other three bags of Rancho Gordo beans on hand.
I love my vintage Le Creuset coquelle, designed by French industrial designer Raymond Loewy back in 1958. He’s known for designing the Lucky Strike logo, as well as cutlery for the Concorde airplane and the Studebaker. I have a few of these vintage coquelles that I’ve picked up over the years at French flea markets and in antique stores. Some are in decent condition, others have been obviously well-loved. Le Creuset has reissued the coquelle in a limited edition. Granted, the $375 price is more 2014 than 1958, but you can also troll online auction sites and perhaps come across one for less. But whether new or used, it makes a pretty spiffy gift for a cook who also wants to add a bit of mid-century modern history in their kitchen.
Not everyone needs a physical gift to make the holidays special. So why not make a donation in someone’s name to help a child in need? (And you don’t need to do it in someone else’s name – you can simply make a gift to a child in need, as a gift to them.) A 45 minute operation that costs $240, to correct a cleft palate, will change a child’s life forever. I’ve donated in the past and will do so again this year.
My first thought when I saw this simple looking ice cream scoop was, “How is this object going to change my life?” I’ve used every kind of ice cream scoop out there, but this Oxo ice cream scoop has become the one is the one that I grab when I’m ready to scoop up my favorite ice cream or sorbet. (Their kitchen scale is also my favorite.) The pointed design neatly cuts through ice cream and makes perfect scoops. It’s scoopendous!
Spanish Tinned Sardines
Spain is one of the few places in the world where canned food is often just as good, if not better, than fresh. So much so, that there are tapas bars in Spain that only served canned foods, which are amazing. I’ve become hooked on the tiny, tasty sardines from Spain, which make an excellent pre-dinner bite along with a glass of wine or sherry. (And giving sardines gives the gift of heath: They’re very high in vitamins B and D, and Omega-3 fatty acids.) Conservas de Cambados (available in the U.S. from La Tienda) are some of the best I’ve ever had. Just make sure that whoever you give them to, they realize what a special gift they are, and they don’t just mash them up and make sardine spread for Triscuits out of them. (Although they’d probably be the best sardines with Triscuits they’ve ever had.) Another good source for Spanish sardines is The Spanish Table, which carries another Spanish brands. And Zingerman’s carries Portuguese sardines, which are excellent, too. (Rödel French sardines are excellent, too. But I’ve not found a source for them outside of France.)
Okay, hear me out on this one. I know that all those people who spend hours honing their knife blades using fancy $525 Japanese stones might recoil at a simple, cheap device such as this. But basically, most people just want a sharp knife to cut fruits and vegetables with. This compact “diamond fingers” knife sharpener, made famous by Rachael Ray, works great. I was turned onto it by an very accomplished Italian cook and now use it all the time. It looks like they may be discontinuing this sharpener (I’ve seen them online for as low as $3.65 each) – so they’re unusually cheap online at the moment. So don’t be a dullard and wait for them to disappear entirely! (Updated Note: Designer of the sharpener Mark Henry noted in the comments they are not going out of business but have new owners, and the previous owner is clearing out their stock.)
The problem with this KitchenAid pasta attachment for your stand mixer is that once you start using it, you’ll find yourself making fresh pasta a lot more often. Yes, the little handrollers are cheaper, but pasta is notoriously tricky to handle; you’re trying to roll out a whisper-thin length of dough, that grows in length with every pass through the machine. And unless you have a few extra hands to help, it’s a challenge to turn the crank with one hand while trying to manipulate the pasta coming out with the other. These rollers are heavy-duty and very well made. This is the attachment I use most often and anyone with a KitchenAid stand mixer would be delighted to receive a set of these as a gift.
I went on a cocktail aging kick this year, the only limitation was trying to find small barrels small enough for home-sized batches of libations. (In France, everyone wanted to sell me 60 gallon barrels – yikes!) For those looking for more reasonable sizes, Tuthilltown Spirits has a selection of custom-made oak barrels in a variety of sizes. (North American Barrel also sells barrels online, too.) These make fun gifts for cocktail-loving friends, who hopefully will share their bounty with you when the cocktails are ready. My friends have been benefitting from all this year, so hopefully your friend will start a batch now, and you’ll be enjoying cocktails with them in the next few months to come!
There were a number of great books that came out about Paris and France this year, written by friends, including Baking Chez Moi, Hungry for Paris and Hungry for France, Edible French, The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, French Roots, and Patisserie Made Simple, and while I wasn’t able to give them all a proper shout-out (yet) – I do hope to feature them in the future.
My Paris Kitchen was released this year, with stories and recipes about shopping and cooking in Paris. Whether people want to whip up a tasty French dip or spread to go with pre-dinner drinks, simmer up a pot of French onion soup, or finish off a holiday meal with a stunning Bûche de Noël (and how I wove a little nod to quirky San Francisco into the story of that recipe, we’ll never know), my favorite Paris-inspired recipes are all in this book.