Which makes it sound like I disappeared for a month and have returned as the personification of kitschy consumerism.
I did disappear for a month. I am not in any way a personification of kitschy consumerism. I just like giving gifts.
Specifically, I like giving gifts that I know are the right combination of usefulness, novelty, and emotional significance. And if I can’t do that, I hate giving gifts. I’d much rather not give one than give a bad gift, which is a frustrating way of going about things from my end, because that’s probably the case nine times out of ten.
So from me, to you, here are a few things that might make your holidays a little easier.
In the kitchen, because I’ve spent a lot of time there in the past year, I can say without hesitation that the two things I find most useful to have on hand are espresso powder and a kitchen scale.
Yeah, I know, espresso powder seems like a weird gift, but hear me out. The powder that you can buy at King Arthur/Sur La Table/Williams-Sonoma isn’t actually the same as the instant espresso you can buy at Starbucks. It’s more concentrated, and the idea isn’t that it gives your recipe a coffee flavour, although using more than a teaspoon will do that. It’s more important for, and more commonly used for, enhancing a chocolate flavour in your recipes. Anything that includes chocolate, go for it. (P.S., instant coffee is an entirely different thing again – and not great for baking. Nor should you try to make espresso from espresso powder.)
A kitchen scale may again surprise you; most of the kitchens I know probably have one, but it’s stuffed in a dark corner somewhere, only brought out to weigh pasta or some other randomness. The reason I say to get and use a kitchen scale is because weight is a more accurate measurement than volume: 128 grams of flour will always be 128 grams, but 1 cup of flour is not always going to be one cup, because it depends on how much flour you’ve packed into that cup. Plus, it is actually easier to use. Dump 128 grams of flour into a bowl, zero it, dump in 198 grams of granulated sugar, zero it, etc. No need to wash five different measuring cups.
Obviously scales aren’t infallible, and some people will always prefer their measuring cups, and you’d have to know their kitchen well enough to know that they don’t have a scale or that it needs replacing, but that’s what makes it a more personal gift, maybe for someone just starting the process of building their kitchen from the ground up who took the easy route by buying three dollar measuring cups from Ikea. (No disrespect to Ikea, of course.)
If you’re looking for something a bit more novelty and less specific, I would suggest perusing the Nordic Ware website for some sweet, weird, and wacky bundt pans.
As for the kitchen-related, there are two cookbooks I emphatically recommend. I’ve already talked about The Cooking Gene, Michael W. Twitty’s part geneological memoir, part cookbook based on his desire to follow Southern cooking, and his own family, back to their roots. I’m talking about it again now that it’s published, because it’s worth another mention.
The second one is Stella Parks’ BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts. As the name suggests, the book is full of recipes for every classic American dessert I can think of, as well as short histories of some of the really interesting ones. Parks is a James Beard Award nominated writer for SeriousEats. I made her gingerbread sheet cake recipe for Thanksgiving and it was unbelievable. She’s also very good about answering questions about her recipes, which is what won me over more than anything else.
Now since I obviously can’t go very long without talking about books, let’s get into some suggestions there.
With the recent success of the Wonder Woman movie, I’d say Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World is a good bet. I’ve been reading Mayor, a classics research scholar at Stanford, since Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, a book that is both fascinating and disgusting. The Amazons is less disgusting, but no less fascinating. If your gift recipient, like me, would have liked Wonder Woman better if it had been less about the follies of man, and just a bunch of women doing cool stunts for two hours, this is a good book for them.
I’ve suggested this next book to someone before and I still think it’s a good idea: if you know any Jane Austen fans, they might enjoy the Algonquin Press facsimile edition of Austen’s A History of England: By a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian (Note: There will be very few Dates in this History). It’s a short historical satire written when Austen was sixteen, and this edition includes the portraits painted by her sister Cassandra. I think it’s a good gift because it’s both novel and familiar, a simple thing for them to say “wow, cool,” about without laying on them the responsibility of reading or not reading a three-hundred page novel.
I personally think that fiction is too personal a thing for me to give suggestions on. If you’re sharing books with a person, I wouldn’t dream that I might know better than you what they would like. It might be hypocritical for me to say that and then suggest lots of nonfiction, but to me, nonfiction is interest-based, non-personal, while fiction requires a much more emotional response.
I wish you all the best of luck with your gift-giving. I hope you don’t have to deal with anyone who has no qualms about buying whatever they want for themselves, and then never needs or wants gifts (ahem, cough cough, Dad). I’ve been tasked with making a “citrus or cardamom and saffron pavlova” for dessert to solve that particular problem, so you can hopefully expect that recipe at the end of December.