Happy Friday, all! I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are all now firmly ensconced in the holiday season and all its glittery, glowing trimmings. Since I live near the downtown area of San Francisco, I’ve been able to see the holiday decorations go up over the last couple of weeks – I’ve walked down the streets every day and watched as curlicues of lights slowly wend their way around the trees on the sidewalks, wreaths of holly and gleaming red bells sprout over doorways, and tinsel-bedecked presents pile up in drifts of imitation snow in storefront windows. We’ve certainly got some industrious elves working here!
What with book #1 coming out and book #2 in progress, my holiday baking has been sadly derelict so far. I can’t believe I was so prepared last year at this point in time that I’d already done several holiday posts in advance! My holiday shopping has been slightly, if not much more, successful – I think I know what I will be doing this weekend, along with all the masses in downtown! By the looks of the crowds strolling about, “Silver Bells” style, you’d hardly know about the economic straits the country is in.
Still, I think this is more a season for giving thoughtful, heartfelt gifts, and not just the trendiest, glitziest baubles out there. That’s why I love baking gifts so much: whether it’s a jar of jam you made, or a cute set of cookie cutters, or a cookbook to encourage someone to bake something new in the kitchen, there’s something about baking that celebrates creativity and care. What better way to show someone your love?
With that sentiment in mind, I’ll like to present a little round-up of gift-giving ideas for the sweet ones in your lives. They include items for novice bakers, the experts, and even those who just like to eat. This also includes my yearly cookbook round-up I like to to do: there was definitely a plethora of excellent cookbooks that came out this year; all I can say is that I’m glad my lil’ ole book is focused just on cookies and isn’t going directly up against the likes of Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, and Joel Robuchon!
Oh, and speaking of books and gift-giving, I’m sure you’re all eager to find out about the winner of the book giveaway from last week. The lucky winner of Cindy Mushet’s The Art and Soul of Baking is Melody Brandon! Congrats, Melody!
Holiday Baking Fun
Holidays, of course, are the times to break out the themed cookie cutters and other molds that languish in the back of the drawer the rest of the year. The concept of forming your food into cute shapes has happily spread beyond cookies: See these cute Holiday Ice Cream Sandwich Molds, Set of 3which the kids will surely adore.
Similarly, give cupcakes the holidays treatment with these Silicone Holiday Cupcake Molds, Set of 12.
I can’t think of more appropriately shaped cake pan than NordicWare’s Holiday Tree Bundt Pan. And, if you’re looking for a recipe to go with it, look no further than the winner of last year’s NordicWare’s bakeoff, which used this pan!
If you’re more of an individual-serving, cute-little-miniature-cakes type of baker (like me), NordicWare’s Holiday Mini Loaves Pan might just do the trick.
Ok, so you may think a rolling pin is not that exciting or “sexy”. Well, let me tell you when I went back to my parents’ home for Thanksgiving and tried to make a tart in the kitchen with my mom’s old plastic rolling pin, I was really missing my nice solid wooden one (sorry, Mom – obviously you can make magic in the kitchen with your simple tools whereas I am clearly dependent on my fancy toys to turn out something good).
A good, dependable rolling pin is a must in any baker’s arsenal and a worthwhile investment. I prefer the French-style pins with no handles (the middle one in the picture), but find one that works well for you. The pins pictured are all Vic Firth Maple Rolling Pins.
Now, for a bit of whimsy, who wouldn’t fall in love with this Quartet of Geese Measuring Cups? I know I’m a big advocate of using a scale, but these cups have their uses as well, not the least of which is adding charm to your kitchen.
And I am completely in love with fredflare’s Panda Bear Skillet- it’s almost too cute to actually use! There’s also a little panda on the lid as well – my Hello Kitty-honed kawaii radar is beeping off the charts!
You would think that working in a professional bakery where aprons are purely utilitarian and (in my case) end up covered in flour and chocolate by the end of the day, I’d have no use for frilly, flouncy little numbers. Not so. This chic little Parisian Cafe Apron (you should click on the link to get a nice closeup of the pattern) will make you feel like you’re turning out perfect croissants in one of those French cafes where no one ever, ever gets a speck on their apron.
The Gourmand’s Cupboard
I am a fan of Vosges and Katrina Markoff’s unending dedication to exploring new flavor combinations with chocolate. My favorite item from her collection are her chocolate bars, which I think really allow you to savor the complexities of the flavors she’s using better than her one-bite truffles. Vosges Exotic Candy Bars are a great gift for the adventurous eater on your list. My personal favorites are her Black Pearl, Red Fire, and Goji Berry.
Charles Chocolates has always been a local favorite of mine, not just because the founder Chuck Siegel is such a great all around guy, but because they take such pride in their products. Their “newest” product, the Raisy, has actually been around in production for a while, but they haven’t been able to ship them without damaging them. Now they’ve devised a perfect storage box, and you can enjoy this heavenly “ice cream cone” of chocolate, ganache, and pate de fruit in the Raisy Assortment.
Vanilla is another essential in the baker’s kitchen. Instead of just picking up a bottle of anything at the grocery, why don’t you try Patricia Rain’s Vanilla Extract. If you don’t know about The Vanilla Queen and her amazing life, I suggest you pop over to her site and learn about her lifelong obsession with vanilla. I have her book Vanilla and it’s a wonderful read. It stands to reason that her vanilla products are excellent, given her background – I’ve gotten to try several of her items and it’s fascinating to compare the differences between Madagascar Bourbon, Tahitian, and Mexican vanilla.
One can never have too many sprinkles, jimmies, dragees, or decorating sugars in the house, especially around the holidays. One of my favorites is Confetti Sparkling Sugar; it’s fun and multicolored and the big crystals crunch satisfyingly in your mouth.
The Baker’s Bookshelf
Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate
How fitting that two revered French pâtissiers in New York have come out with chocolate cookbooks this year. I always associate holidays and cold weather with rich, gooey, indulge-by-the-fireplace chocolate desserts, so both these cookbooks are here at the perfect time. I haven’t gotten a chance to visit Jacque Torres’ chocolate factory yet, but his newest cookbook A Year in Chocolate: 80 Recipes for Holidays and Special Occasions is a more than adequate balm to distract me while I’m dreaming of his store.
I have been to Payard’s pâtisserie, so his newest cookbook Chocolate Epiphany: Exceptional Cookies, Cakes, and Confections for Everyone brings up a host of sweet memories, as well the desire to recreate some of his delectable creations I had at his wonderful place.
I’ve already raved about this book, but naturally I had to include it on the list. There have been several baking reference books that came out this year, and I think The Art and Soul of Baking really is one of most accessible, and beautifully produced ones.
If you’re obsessively curious like me about the origin of pastry terms, what all those exotic-sounding French and Italian pastries are, or exactly what goes into the puff pastry technique, you want The Pastry Chef’s Companion: A Comprehensive Resource Guide for the Baking and Pastry Professional on your bookshelf. With over 4800 terms defined, you’ll be able to decipher any recipe. It even includes sections on pairing flavors, pastry tools and equipment, and a guide to common pastry problems.
For the Professional
Of all the cookbooks coming from professional chefs this year, Dessert FourPlay: Sweet Quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef intrigued me the most. I love Johnny Iuzzini’s aesthetic (check out his strawberry quartet), and anytime a pro is willing to part with his secrets, it’s a cause for celebration.
Finally, this is not technically a dessert book, but Grant Achatz’s Alinea is so awe-inspiringly gorgeous, it’s a must-see for any lover of food. Since Achatz’s creations look like works of art in a museum, it’s fitting his book resembles the exhibition catalogues published for museum collections – every creation captured for posterity. There’s also plenty of desserts in there, so if you’re curious about how to make dry caramel, or a kumquat bubble, or Achatz’s space-age take on chocolate ganache, it’s all there to astonish and inspire.
If you’re looking for other gift ideas, be sure to check out the sidebar on right of my page, or my astore. Happy shopping, and happy baking, too!
Oh! Just before I was going to hit the “Publish” button, I got two exciting pieces of news: My book was mentioned in Mark Bittman’s NYTimes blog here,
and Chow.com has just put up a couple of videos I made with them on baking tips. We filmed four total, and the first two are up:
I’ll let you know when the other videos are up!