Christmas and Hanukah come only once a year, but they are complicated enough holidays at that. The gift giver, therefore, would like to get it right the first time around so there is a minimum of taking back and exchanging after the fact. Here then are some suggestions for gifts that are not likely to be already in the possession of the getter, and which are so steadfast they should never have to be replaced.
Who, for instance, could wear out a 15-cup copper mold in the shape of a medieval castle? Or would need a second one? Or would already have one? This mold is definitely the thing, especially for history-minded cooks who already have a couple of vegetable peelers. It's copied from the collection, now housed in the British Museum, of the Duke of Wellington, that well-known 19th-century gourmand.
It is constructed of extra heavy tin-lined copper and is suitable for molding ice cream, bavarians or other cold foods. You can also bake in it, although tender cakes would be difficult to unmold. This mold, which will set you back $250, should not just hang around on the wall of the breakfast nook looking authoritative. It's made to be used. And, as one fan of the mold points out, if you don't want to use it as a mold you can always wear it as a crown. There are other, less astonishing molds in the same collection. All are available at La Cuisine in Alexandria.
If $250 seems a little stiff, move down a rung to a simple but elegant teakettle. This one is made of highly polished, heavy stainless steel (with a copper bottom and a brass whistle), but that's not its main selling point. Its main selling point is that it whistles in harmony with itself, three notes at a time. No more boring monotone screech in the morning. Richard Sapper, the man who designed this teakettle for Italian manufacturer Alessi, is said to have a fascination with trains that has manifested itself in the look of the whistle -- which vaguely resembles the front of a train -- and in its timbre, which resembles a train whistle. This teakettle, considered by many designers to be a work of art, costs between $75 and $80. Available at The Coffee Connection and at Uzzolo, both on Connecticut Avenue in downtown Washington.
But you don't have $75 or $80? There are other one-of-a-kind items out there. Try, for instance, the Felknor Theatre Popper, a top-of-the-stove popcorn popper that has a built-in gear mechanism for agitating the kernels as they pop. You can make no-oil popcorn in this popper as well as flavored popcorn. By adding brown sugar as you pop you end up with caramel corn. The popper comes with a set of instructions that tell you at least as much as you ever wanted to know about the art of popping corn. Available at Kitchen Bazaar stores and at Williams-Sonoma for just under $20. The manufacturer of the Felknor popper seems to have a hard time keeping up with demand, so try to act early if you want to give it as a gift.
A serious pastry maker or any cook who uses European recipes can use a kitchen scale. The one I like best is the Eva wall scale. It hangs unobtrusively when not in use -- its bowl folds upward so it can be stored vertically -- and if hung at eye level is very easy to read. It registers both grams and ounces up to 6 pounds 8 ounces or 3 kilos, and its pendulum mechanism makes it very accurate. Its retail price is around $40 but the scale is often on sale. Available in most places where kitchenware is sold.
Another item in the $20 range is the standing paper towel dispenser. This is not the most glamorous of gift items, but it beats having paper towels unraveling all across the kitchen floor. It restrains the towels in such a way that they can be ripped off one at a time, and it stands on the counter so that it can be moved to wherever it's needed. The dispenser is made of wood and is widely available where kitchenware and gift items are sold.
Back at the high end of the scale is the mandoline, an item worth its weight in gold to many cooks. A mandoline is a fancy slicer that combines some of the best qualities of both food processor and human hand. It slices vegetables in thicknesses from paper thin to french fry thick, it juliennes from fine to thick and it cuts waffle slices. It's the only easy way to produce the spaghetti-shaped vegetables now so fashionable. But you can do all that in your food processor, you say? Not exactly. The mandoline is much more controllable than the processor, and offers much more flexibility. The mandoline, a precision instrument, usually costs more than $100, often around $125. The best prices I've seen are at China Closet, Kitchen Bazaar and La Cuisine, but shop around. La Cuisine has replacement blades, too.
Everybody who's gone looking for a pint of real, heavy cream that hasn't been ultra-pasteurized beyond recognition, or at less than second-mortgage prices, has known frustration, anguish and despair. It's available -- but only sometimes -- at some stores. Cream from England we can get -- at $4 a half pint. But old-fashioned American cream? A difficult challenge. Many cooks have resorted to the sweet little Bel Cream Maker, a device that forces milk and butter together, with cream the result. You can vary the butterfat content according to how you plan to use the cream, and there will be no stabilizers or emulsifiers, either. This little gem costs between $20 and $25 and is widely available where kitchenware is sold.