A Kitchen Gift Guide – Part Three: Media and Classes
This is the final part of a kitchen gift-guide designed to help with giving something meaningful to the cooks and bakers on your list. Most of these can be purchased at the last minute which is handy as we are down to the wire now.
Like the guides before, this is not a comprehensive list of books or subscriptions that I recommend for people. These are things that I like and think would make fun gifts. I’ve not been paid, compensated, or asked to feature any of the following items.
The best gifts are ones that give a little bit of happy every time the receiver thinks about them. Subscriptions are my favorite things to gift to people because the giftee gets the present anew all year long.
Canal House Cooking – $49.95 for a one-year subscription, published three times a year.
Strongly reminiscent of the River Cottage cookbooks, Canal House Cooking is my favorite subscription-based food publication. I’m hesitant to call it a magazine as the issues are small, hard-bound books with no ads. It is more akin to getting three cookbooks a year in the mail. Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton self-publish Canal House with a focus on what is local and in season. One of the issues last year was titled “Farm Markets and Gardens” and we used every fantastic tomato recipe in the book. Hirsheimer and Hamilton always manage to keep from sounding as if they’re looking down their noses as they write, though; they devoted a following volume to “The Grocery Store.” It is balanced writing with understated photography in a pretty package.
Gastronomica – $50.00 or $28 for student/retirees for a one-year subscription, published quarterly.
Gastronomica is not a cooking magazine. It is a journal (meaning it is a peer-reviewed publication) with book reviews, poetry, articles on food in culture, art, history and writing. There are no recipes in Gastronomica save for ones used to drive home a point in a story, and even those types are few. The stories are varied– from Gastronomica I’ve read articles about an art exhibition using breast milk and the subsequent controversy, another about a town’s devotion to Fluff, a fiction piece on working in a prison kitchen, a non-fiction article detailing a family kitchen aging through generations, a poem connecting food and grief… The journal is about food in every aspect of life, not just confined to a restaurant or home kitchen.
Eat Your Books – $25.00 for a one-year subscription
This could fall under the above category, but it is online instead of the mailbox so I’ve put it here.
The best way to describe Eat Your Books is as a master index of your cookbooks. After adding cookbook titles to a virtual personal library, searching for an ingredient or technique in all of the recipes in your books takes a moment instead of an entire morning. The idea behind EYB is that if you can easily search your cookbooks, you’ll use them. It works: I use the site several times a week and books that I would’ve never thought to look in for a certain recipe get pulled off of the shelf and used.
There are some drawbacks to the site. While they have lots of books and are constantly indexing more, they don’t have every book under the sun in their database. They also don’t provide page numbers for the recipe. I assume this is so they don’t have to index multiple releases of essentially the same book, but it would be nice to eliminate the step of looking up the recipe again in the cookbook after I’ve looked it up on EYB. Minor irritations aside, the gift of a year’s subscription to the website would make a homerun gift for someone with a sizable cookbook collection.
Ratio App by Michael Ruhlman – $4.99
Available for the handheld iThings and Droids, Ruhlman’s Ratio app takes the meat of his book, Ratio, and puts it in its most simple form for the app. Ratio outlines 32 ingredient ratios for cooking and baking (doughs, batters, sauces, sausages, etc.) with the idea that if you know a basic ratio you don’t need a recipe. The application cuts through the chatty writing of the book by featuring an easily read pie chart and ingredient calculator for each ratio, along with pertinent instructions. Put on an iTunes giftcard, this is another great gift for someone with a big cookbook collection. The Ratio app is also a wonderful idea for someone who is just beginning to cook as it gives them freedom to play around with flavors while learning the basics of what has to be in a recipe to make it work.
Like subscriptions, I enjoy giving classes as gifts because they give the receiver something to look forward to after the initial present opening.
Wilton Decorating Classes – Prices Vary, but about $30.00
I took the first course of Wilton Decorating Classes and it was fantastic. I ditched their frosting recipe (shortening and powdered sugar? Eugh.), but I use the piping techniques every time I make a cake. Usually offered at hobby stores like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby over several weeks, the instructors are good and coursework well-explained. In the first course, they teach basic piping (how to frost a cake, shells, Swiss dots, writing, flowers, and roses) and there are subsequent courses with more advanced techniques. Invaluable for anyone interested in cakes, it would also make for fun parent-child outings as I can see a 12-year old having a blast learning how to make a cake look fancy.
Sur La Table classes – $59.00 and up
Sur La Table offers classes ranging from fundamental (knife skills) to focused (Thai restaurant favorites). Each class is a single class that runs for a few hours. I am particularly drawn to the knife skills class as a gift since knowing how to properly hold and use a knife makes the difference between a sloppy dish and an impressive one. Currently they are offering a “4-Hour Fearless Baking Workshop” and I can think of more than a few people who would love to go to that.
I could never have enough books. I see cookbooks as something nearly magical: put this, this, and that in a pot and POOF, something new altogether. I’ve found cookbook collectors have varying reasons as to why they collect books, but if you know a little about what they like to cook and eat then it’s easier to pick out a book for them.
Heavenly Cakes by Rose Levy Beranbaum – $26.37
If you know a serious baker (and I mean serious), chances are they have Beranbaum’s Cake Bible. It’s probably falling apart, covered in egg whites and chocolate, too. Heavenly Cakes is Beranbaum’s follow-up to the hallowed Cake Bible, 20 years later. It is a big, fat book (just how I like ‘em) with a cache of varied recipes and photos that I’ve had to wipe drool off of. The food styling is so lovely. Heavenly Cakes has a few recipe repeats from The Cake Bible, but the fact that she simplified some of the steps from the old recipes earns a big HALLELUJAH from me instead of a squinty glare that recipe-repeaters normally get (I’M SQUINTING AT YOU, COOK’S ILLUSTRATED).
Please listen to me when I recommend this book for bakers with experience under their belt. I wrote about making one of the cakes here and it was a multi-day undertaking. Many of the recipes have several components and are complicated, so this is not a book for someone who just graduated from a boxed mix. If you give Heavenly Cakes to a novice baker, it (and some frosting) probably will come flying back at your head at a later date.
If you’re looking for a book to give to a beginner baker, give them Cook’s Illustrated’s Baking Illustrated.
For the Time-Pressed:
Radically Simple by Rozanne Gold – $23.06
I bought this book on impulse, looking for something to rely on when the baby had frazzled the last whatever it is that gets frazzled. I had never heard of Gold and had not seen any reviews for the book, but I made a few shallow digs and turned up four James Beard awards to her name (I later found that she had a staggering history in the food industry as well) and that was good enough for me. I ordered the book with high expectations but did not think that I would love it so much. There are a few niggling things that bother me about Radically Simple (I would’ve liked to see different photos rather than the same photos repeated multiple times on a page, and swirly text over photos goes against my grain) but it was, by far, my favorite book of 2010.
Gold writes that the recipes in this book are regarded as “a three dimensional creation, with time, technique, and the number of ingredients making up the axes on which they are plotted.” Some of the recipes have a long list of ingredients but are simple to prepare, others require foresight and not much else, and with others you need to focus on technique to make everything come together. The book is incredibly well-organized with an impressive recipe range. I joke that this book is for people who don’t have a lot of time but still have STANDARDS, DAMMIT.
For those with Warm or Ambiguous Feelings on Salads:
Mediterranean Fresh by Joyce Goldstein – $12.00
You could probably convert a salad-hater into a salad-okeyer with this book (I’ve found most salad-haters are firmly stuck in their position and take great pains to not be moved from it), but the only reason I wouldn’t recommend this for salad-haters is because I don’t want to incite a fight on the holiday of your choice. Mediterranean Fresh is the book I lend out most frequently and border on being rude about having it returned. When I first read the book I shelved it quickly because Goldstein has a lot to say about lettuce and I wasn’t ready for that level of commitment. I was well-rewarded when I got my gumption up. Her fattoush is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten (it’s nice when you can make those “best things I’ve ever eaten” at home) and one time I ate an entire recipe’s worth of another salad in a sitting because it was so good (one time. It had an entire head of cauliflower in it and, while delicious, was not the best decision I’ve ever made.).
The book is more than leafy salads: there are grain salads, vegetable salads, salads with meat and seafood, and a giant section of the book is devoted to salad dressings. It is not a light or ‘healthy’ cookbook, although there are light and healthy dishes within.
So they like Weird Recipes?:
The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser – $20.82
‘Weird’ is stretching it, but this book is dear to my heart because the recipes are not standard fare. Unusual techniques and interesting food combinations are packed in and Hesser’s headnotes assure you a magnificent outcome if you give the recipe a chance. I never have all of the ingredients called for and I like that. I’m getting out of my normal cooking routine and that encourages growth and learning.
The Essential New York Times isn’t an overarching “best of” The New York Times, but is a collection of NYT recipes recommended by readers to Hesser. Hesser then made them all and put her favorites in the book, giving some recipes a moderate makeover but leaving others in their original form, instructions and all (the ones from the early 1900s are worth checking out). Her headnotes are entertaining and encouraging; this is certainly sit-down-and-read book.