December 14, 2010

cooking/baking gift guide

A gift guide -- of things we already have and really love -- to help anyone with a home cook or baker on their gift list. You don't need any of these things to turn out good food, but they do make playing in the kitchen more fun, in our humble opinion. 

Digital scale: People of the world: bake by weight. It is our true calling. We might use this baby more than any other tool in the kitchen. It makes measuring easy and precise, and you avoid having to clean 10 different measuring cups and spoons. My baking improved immeasurably when I began weighing ingredients, because it takes a lot of the guesswork out of measuring things like flour, nuts, sugar, etc. Our Salter model is not available online, but this one comes highly recommended. Definitely get a scale that tares and switches between ounces and grams; also make sure it measures in 1-gram/.05 ounce increments.

Nice measuring cups/spoons: Yes, I just finished saying that measuring by weight > measuring by  volume, but we still use measuring cups for certain things. These All-Clad measuring cups/spoons are like the heirloom Rolexes of the measuring cup world; they gleam and feel nice in your hand and don't get dinged up in the dishwasher. My dad bought these for Mark's birthday and literally every time I use them, I'm like, man these are some sweet measuring cups. That's the mark of a good gift, no?

Mixing bowls: We probably have too many mixing bowls, but we use them for everything from mixing waffle batter to whisking salad dressing to beating eggs to serving salad. We use these stainless steel numbers for most mixing purposes, but my favorites are the colorful nesting bowls we inherited from Mark's great aunt Grace. Fellow vintage Pyrex enthusiasts would probably be thrilled to receive a set of the primary colored nesting bowls, which you can sometimes find for a pretty penny on Ebay. If you prefer something new, I also like these and these. You can't go wrong with clear glass nesting bowls either.

Cake stands: Cake stands make a particularly nice gift for people who like to bake or host parties, where they can hold anything from cakes to tarts to, I don't know, sushi rolls. If you do a search on Etsy or Ebay or Replacements, you'll find hundreds of cake stands, from pink depression glass to pale green jadeite to lacy milk glass. I found the best deal on mine, the white milk glass number pictured below, on Ebay. The same stand can be found here.

Pie dish: Of course you can make a pie in any dish, including a $3 clear Pyrex pie dishes from Target. This fluted pie dish is our favorite, though, because the fluted edges make crimping the edges of the pie very simple. Not only is the dish pretty, but our pie crust comes out pretty too.

trimming pie crust

Salt cellar: It's handy to keep a container filled with kosher salt by the stove for cooking. We have this one, which holds enough salt that we don't have to refill it more than once a month. I also like this one.

Enameled cast iron French oven: If I were rich, I'd buy all my friends one of these. They are lovely to cook in: they heat evenly, retain heat well and have this nice enamel surface that is kind of nonstick but produces lots of fond  (caramelized bits that appear after good searing). I'm partial to Le Creuset because of their truly excellent warranty, but Staub/Emile Henry and even Kirkland (Costco) make nice looking ones. 5.5 quarts is a good size: it is big enough to braise a double batch of ragu bolognese, bake a loaf of bread (just remember to unscrew the top if you put it in the oven!), sear/roast a fat pork tenderloin and simmer soup for 8.

Chef's knife: I think you can get away with having one good chef's knife, one sharp paring knife and one serrated bread knife. The chef's knife, for me, is most crucial. The most important thing is how the knife feels in your hand and how sharp it is. From there, it's all about how much you want to spend. We like Shun knives best.

Ramekins: For souffles, puddings, creme brulee, individual gratins and for setting out nibbles at parties. We have these but I don't think there's any need to spend so much. I got these for my sister last year. 

Silicon baking mats: Technically, you can get through life with baking mats, but their nonstick/heat resistant properties provide a good surface for kneading dough or rolling pie crust or for baking cookies or whatever. We have two and use them constantly. 

Essential cook's tools: Microplane grater (hooray for grating ginger, citrus zest, hard cheeses without grating your knuckles raw at the same time). Locking tongs. Silicon spatulas. Wooden spoons and spatulas. Bench scraper.

Pizza stone: If you want to make good bread/pizza in a home oven, you need your oven to get really hot and to stay hot. You need a pizza stone. (I've heard some people use unglazed tiles from hardware stores, but I was slightly concerned about chemicals that might be present in tiles.)  

Kitchenaid stand mixer: Our kitchen workhorse. If you want to know if we're home, listen for a  whirring sound.  If you don't do a lot of baking, or if your baking repertoire doesn't include heavy-duty tasks like brioche kneading, you probably don't need one. Also, if space is a concern in your kitchen, it probably isn't the best option; you can make dough with other tools, like a hand mixer and, you know, your actual hands. But if you do a lot of baking (like, more than twice per week) and if that baking includes dough making, by all means get a stand mixer. It makes routine tasks much easier and makes certain recipes, like brioche, attainable.

Cookware: We love our wok, which is heavy-duty, well seasoned carbon steel. Ours looks a lot like this one, but it was a gift from my best friend Julia so I'm not sure. Stay away from stainless steel or lightweight woks with nonstick coating. We cook bacon and steaks in a cast iron skillet and eggs in a nonstick pan.  We have a set of heavy/tri-ply pots and pans for almost everything else. Everything but the wok and the cast iron skillets conduct heat unevenly, so they're not perfect but they work for now.

Bakeware: I don't really have any specific recommendations except, if you bake a lot, to get pro-grade heavy baking sheets that won't warp in oven heat. We have these Chicago metallic sheet pans and these cake pans, which seem to be holding up well. We use an old, beat up (no name) loaf pan for bread because it heats evenly. Our Le Creuset stoneware loaf pan is super pretty but sticks a bit.

Dish towels: Every gift guide seems to have a bright, graphic tea towel on the list. There are many pretty towels out there but I can't bring myself to spend $$$ on a towel I know I'll spill chocolate sauce on. That's why I like these linens from Ikea (these and these), which are cheerful, cheap and eminently replaceable. They double as pot holders and, if my linen napkins are all in the wash, I'll set out kitchen towels instead. (I do like this Pride and Prejudice "in vain I have struggled" dish towel though.)
 puffy oven pancake
Food Books:
Mark's favorite food book is Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. If you have ever been to our house, Mark has probably pulled out this book at some point to settle a food science debate, like "why does fish smell?" Definitely good for food geeks, but it is also a legitimately useful resource.

Mark's go-to bread baking books are by Peter Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice (we like his pain a l'ancienne and his pizza dough) and Rose Levy Berenbaum's Bread Bible (we like her rye, pumpernickel, hearth bread and flax seed bread). We also use Dorie Greenspan's Baking book, which includes a wide variety of desserts. The only bad thing is that she doesn't include weight measurements, but her recipes are great.

I really, really love Nigel Slater's food writing, particularly Kitchen Diaries -- the photography is super appealing and I love his perspective on cooking seasonally. Plus, he's not afraid to admit that he buys frozen chips sometimes. He is probably my favorite food writer, actually.

(I'm not sure I can suggest a go-to cookbook. I basically taught myself to cook using Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World but, now that I consider myself a confident/fairly skilled cook, I don't think I would recommend it to beginning cooks. The good: he makes complex recipes/ingredients accessible and some of his recipes have become total staples for us -- shrimp with parsley and garlic, two way chicken, his general technique for enchilada chile sauce. The salad section and the pasta sections are useful, too. The bad: the instructions are often vague and many of the recipes don't really work (do not recommend his biryani, for instance). I learned a lot, but more because I was motivated to become better and not necessarily because of the cookbook.)   

Food: I am a big fan of homemade food gifts. Mark's parents send us batches of homemade jams and sour cherries they put up each summer. I've also received platters of cookies and jars of spiced pecans and biscotti. The only hard thing is finding pretty containers. For cookies or biscotti, I like these jars from Ikea, along with bakers twine or nice ribbon and a card listing all the ingredients. Mason jars are always handy, too. If you are giving liquids, these bottles from Ikea are excellent. And for platters or bowls, I like old silver platters or milk glass candy dish, both of which I often see at thrift stores for not much money.


Amy said...

I like your guide! I've been eying that fluted pie dish myself, and I love the cake stand idea too.

I also appreciate your point that stand mixers are not necessarily for everyone. My brother and sister-in-law have one and never, ever use it. KA stand mixers have become this total fetish object that everyone buys, but in reality most people can get by quite nicely without one. (It sounds like you all make good use of yours, though.) That said, you can take mine away from me over my dead body!

Lauren said...

What a great list! I have most of this stuff, with a few notable exceptions: a stand mixer (that I would probably not get enough use out of except at Christmas when I bake lots of cookies) and a Le Creuset dutch oven, which I have been coveting for about 3 or 4 years. It's been on my wish list, but I think it's a little optimistic to think that someone else will buy it for me. I think I will have to spring for it myself at some point. I also think I want the 7-qt size, which would work better for a larger family (which we'll probably have one day) or lots of guests (which we have on holidays). And a note on knives: I love my santoku knife. I use it in place of a chef's knife almost exclusively now. It doesn't really matter, though; they do the same thing, but I think the santoku knife may stay sharper longer.

Your list also reminded me to put some silpat liners on my amazon wish list. And if you are looking for a Christmas idea for Mark, Rose Levy Beranbaum's book "Christmas Cookies" has been perused thoroughly at our house this year.

Josh said...

Hi, I'm a lurker and I like your blog. I have a question though -- is a scale REALLY useful since most recipes don't include weight measurements? Do you literally go to the trouble of looking up weights of things before you cook?
Also I'm glad you included some cheaper items on your list. Ikea dish towels, awesome. My girlfriend would totally go for those.

Kim said...

Amy - Thanks. On stand mixers, gosh... I can't imagine buying one and not using it. They're so pricey.

Lauren - I think I remember you telling me you liked her cookie book before. What is her best cookie recipe, in your opinion? Also, you should TOTALLY buy the French oven for yourself.

Josh - King Arthur has a super useful chart here, which I constantly access on my iPhone while cooking:
Most of our cookbooks are marked up with handwritten notes (e.g. 2 cups packed dark brown sugar = 15 oz.) so we don't have to look it up in the future. It's really not that bad, I promise!

Jen said...

Ok, brilliant! I was just about to ask where the dotted tea towel pictured in the last post is from. Who knew ikea had such lovely tea towels? Not I. I came via your digestives recipe on food52, by the way. Love your blog and pictures! What kind of camera do you use?

Kim said...

Thanks Jen. We recently graduated from a point and shoot (a little Panasonic with a Lumix lens -- it took some great shots until it died) to a digital SLR (a Canon 7D). It has a pretty steep learning curve, but it's been fun :)

LJ said...

I totally agree on the scale, BTW! I really like the EatSmart Precision scale on amazon - it's only $25 and it has all the units you will need - lb, g, kg, ounces.

Also - agreed on the metal measuring cups/tbsps and tsps. Mine are all plastic and all the numbers have been worn off from repeated use and washings. Therefore I appreciate recipes with mass even more.

and yes, you can never have too many dishtowels, but for me, at least, food processor > stand mixer.

(unless I'm making mark's brioche buns)