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The 12 Days of Christmas Gift Guide

I know a lot of you are probably up to your eyeballs with Thanksgiving preparations, but I thought you might appreciate a little headstart on your holiday gift-buying. I really loved putting together the gift guide again. Each year, discovering so many talented people making incredible things all across the world inspires me anew. I hope you find something here for yourself or a loved one that makes you happy.

(And may I suggest, as a bonus item, ahem, that my book makes for a wonderful gift? Now available in German!)



1. A friend of mine in New York sent me a tin of Sandy Lee's Leckerlee Lebkuchen last Christmas and they absolutely blew me away. Big, plump and deeply delicious, these Lebkuchen are even better than the real thing from Bavaria. No joke. Sandy perfected her Lebkuchen recipe while living in Germany, then moved to New York and opened Leckerlee, bringing her handmade Lebkuchen stateside. I love the fact that Sandy keeps her wares tightly edited - she makes only traditional Lebkuchen coated in a thin sugar glaze or a crisp layer of good chocolate. In addition to her fabulous Lebkuchen, Sandy's tins - beautifully designed updates on the traditional Lebkuchen designs - are so useful and collectable. I want them all!



2. I can't remember who turned me onto Maldon sea salt (Jamie? Nigella?), since it's been so long since I started using it, sprinkling it onto tomato salads and buttered toast, feeling the salt crumble between my pinched fingers. But recently, I discovered a salt that makes Maldon sea salt seem like an industrial product. Jacobsen's hand-harvested American salt, collected on the Oregon coast, is snowy white and sturdy - its naturally formed pyramids still almost entirely intact. And it's got a lot of famous fans - the list of restaurants that use Jacobsen salt in their kitchens is impressive (Sitka & Spruce in Seattle, Blackbird in Chicago, The Spotted Pig in New York, among many others). This is the perfect gift for the person in your life who lives by the farm-to-table credo and the slide tins are just the thing for pulling out of your jacket pocket discreetly the next time you're at your mother's dinner table.



3. I'm always on the lookout for smartly designed aprons and LA-based Hedley & Bennett hit the mark. Their denim and red Apollo apron is so chic! I love that their aprons have adjustable neck straps and quality materials like pure denim and brass hardware elevate these into fantastic gift territory.


4. The most stylish store to open in Berlin in recent memory is Paper & Tea, a cool, clean emporium for loose teas, beautiful (and tiny!) Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese tea cups and pots, and expertly selected paper products. It's hard to enter the store without purchasing at least three new teas to try. My favorite of the moment is their genmaicha, studded with toasty brown rice, but White Earl, a white tea scented with bergamot, is delicate and lovely. While all their products are available for mail-order, they also offer tea tasting classes for local folks. 


5. These stunning bottle openers need little explanation. Solid brass. Made in Rhode Island. Simply amazing. (Via Lottie & Doof.)




6. Cinnamon Hill's cinnamon grater seems at first glance to be the kind of superfluous gizmo the world doesn't need. Isn't ground cinnamon in a jar good enough? The answer turns out to be, actually, no. After all, we all grate nutmeg whenever we need some; why not do the same with a spice used far more commonly even? Cinnamon Hill sells different kinds of cinnamon paired with their grater, sticks of "true" Ceylon cinnamon from Sri Lanka that have citrusy notes and Vietnamese cassia cinnamon that is hotter and sweeter. These aromas unfold immediately when you freshly grate the cinnamon on the beautifully designed grater, helping to boost the scents and flavor of your holiday baking.



7. I went to a wine seminar last month with a bunch of girlfriends and made the discovery of the year: Eric Bordelet's pear cider. Bordelet used to be the wine director of L'Arpège in Paris, but left to return to his family vineyard in Normandy, specializing in fruit ciders. To be clear, though, these ciders have a lot more in common with Champagne than they do with juice. Bordelet's Poiré Authentique is crisp and dry, its flavor stunningly precise and delicious. I plan on serving a bottle with dessert this Christmas, but you could also buy a whole case and bring a bottle to every holiday party you go to. I guarantee you'll be the star of the season. And if you have a few shekels left over after that, spring for a bottle of Poiré Granit (a reserve cider made exclusively from the fruit of Bordelet's oldest trees - 200 to 300 years old) and let me know how it is.


8. Heather Taylor's hand-embroidered indigo linen runner feels cooling and summery as well as festive for winter. I happen to be a linens fiend - we have more tablecloths than we'll ever need - and yet I can always find reasons to add more to the collection. I love the casual elegance of a good runner and sometimes even use one on our coffee table during tea time (though Hugo's put a swift end to this practice for now). The blue-and-white combo here makes my heart sing.


9. Juliane Ahn of Object & Totem recently moved to Berlin and now produces her beautiful beads and vessels just a few neighborhoods over from me. It's hard to choose amongst her austere, yet still cheeky objects. Pick up one of her lidded spice jars for your kitchen or a chrome-beaded necklace for your mother. Maybe leave just one brilliantly blue Berliner mug for me.


10. I recently discovered a package of Gschwendner's rooibush-orange-peppermint tea on our groaning tea shelf. I have no idea how it got there or who gave it to us, but it has quickly turned into my very favorite tea to quaff all day long. I make a big pot in the morning, after my essential mug of milky black tea (Hugo is an early riser and I need that to help my eyes open), and then sip it all day long. It's got that gorgeous reddish rooibush hue and the combination of orange and peppermint is inspired. The peppermint tones down the exuberance of the citrus and the orange softens the peppermint's bite. I love it. It's delicious plain or sweetened with honey.



11. Food 52's Provisions shop is stuffed to the gills with wondrous things (these porcelain fairy lights? these napkin rings? this ginger beer kit?). I'm particularly enamored with the simplicity of these hexagonal beeswax candles and want to fill my dining table with a whole snaking line of them come Christmastime.


12. I discovered Julie Lee's gorgeous market collages on Instagram this past year and was thrilled when she decided to start selling prints of them recently. They're printed in an 8x10 format (wouldn't a row of them look great in a kitchen?), but Julie will also do custom-sized prints if you like.

Full disclosure: Jacobsen Salt and Cinnamon Hill provided me with review samples of their products, but the decision to include them in this gift guide was entirely my own.

Cooking for Hugo: Debbie Koenig's Barbecued Brisket

Parents Need to Eat Too
Way back in the early days of food blogging, when there were only about six people doing it, a woman named Debbie Koenig started a blog called Words to Eat By. Long before I started this site, I read hers and loved it. Debbie lived in New York, like me, had worked in publishing, like me, plus her recipe for chocolate chip cookies really was so good. It's not a big leap to say that she certainly helped inspire my own jump into food blogging.

When Debbie and her husband had their son in 2006, she realized, as most of us then do, that cooking with a baby is a whole new universe to navigate. Where once you thought nothing of spending an afternoon in the kitchen to make an elaborate dinner, you now have a screaming baby attached to your body, in desperate need of your full attention, to the detriment of your ability to shower, pee or even just make a sandwich. Bit by bit, Debbie figured out her way back into the kitchen and was inspired to help other mothers get their sea legs cooking again.

Parents Need to Eat Too, her book and the name her blog has since taken over, is a compendium of all the wisdom she gained over the years since then. By teaching cooking classes to new mothers and keeping the conversation alive on her website, Debbie found herself with scores of recipes and tips to share with other sleep-deprived, harried and hungry new mothers. Parents Need to Eat Too holds all of them, plus a glut of information on freezing big batches of food, foods to promote milk production and soothing reassurances that one day things will feel normal again, even if right now your world is one big mess of burp clothes, peanut butter eaten out of a jar and multi-night wakeups.

I first read Parents Need to Eat Too when Hugo was a few weeks old. I hadn't though it possible before, but just like they tell you, in those days I couldn't figure out how to do anything but nurse Hugo. I barely found time to shower and dress and fixing myself a bowl of yogurt (as in, open fridge, get yogurt, find bowl, pour yogurt into bowl, get spoon and eat) seemed so remote and difficult that the one time I managed to do so I felt a level of achievement I hadn't had since learning how to tell time in the third grade. Oh, early motherhood! You are a kick in the teeth.

Debbie's book was a breath of fresh air. The few parenting books I had scattered around the apartment filled me with dread (nap schedules? infant character profiles?), but reading Parents Need to Eat Too was the soothing distraction I really needed. It didn't matter that I actually was in no position to cook again just yet. Debbie was telling me that I would be again, in time, and that it was just a matter of being patient and resourceful until then. At a time when everything I knew about my old life was gone, it was deeply comforting to know that.

I've, of course, long found my way back to the kitchen, but these days I find myself reaching for Debbie's book all the time. Because now is the time that I'm really cooking for my family. Max is living at home again (praise be!), Hugo no longer needs his little pots of puréed veg (glory be!) and getting food on the table for all of us is my job. Along with everything else I do. So what I'm looking for these days is help in preparing dishes that all of us will eat, as well as stocking the freezer for those days when I just don't have the time to cook and finding recipes I can make with one hand tied behind my back.

Parents Need to Eat Too has all of that, but is tailor-made for those of us who love to cook anyway and don't want Hamburger Helper to get dinner on the table. The recipes are relatively sophisticated despite their supreme easiness and there are lots of delicious things to get excited about. (Big-Batch Adobo Chicken is next on my to-do list.) Currently, I'm having a delightful love affair with the slow cooker chapter even though I don't own a slow cooker. (Debbie says that a cast-iron pot with a lid in a low oven mimics the heat of a slow cooker pretty well.) So the other day I decided to try my hand at brisket.

I bought a big slab of brisket meat after a hilarious back-and-forth with the German butcher who, despite my having researched this exhaustively online beforehand, had no idea what I was talking about and a bottle of apple juice (I already had barbecue sauce in my fridge leftover from this).The prep was almost comically simple: First, I preheated the oven to 200 degrees F (about 90 degrees C) and put the slab of meat in my biggest cast-iron pot. Then I poured in a cup of apple juice and a cup of barbecue sauce. Then I put the lid on the pan and put it in the oven for about 6 hours. And That Was It.

Sliced brisket

When I removed the pot from the oven and took off the lid, the brisket - shrunken from its impressive girth in its raw state - was dark brown and fragrant, swimming in a pool of mahogany cooking liquid. I sliced it thinly and spooned the liquid over each portion. The meat was wonderfully lean and flavorful, pleasing both Hugo and his daddy. (Hugo loves chomping away on the meat for a while, then spitting it out once he's leached all the good stuff out, so while I can't guarantee that your child will have quite the same delightful table manners as mine does, the recipe is definitely kid-friendly.) We had a big dinner, the three of us, and I packed the freezer full of leftovers, my biggest thrill these days.

Along with Dinner: A Love Story for people with children over 3 and which I wrote about here, Parents Need to Eat Too is the best parenting resource for cooks.

Barbecued Brisket
Serves 6 to 8
From Parents Need to Eat Too

1 3-4-pound brisket, trimmed of as much fat as possible
1 cup barbecue sauce (if store-bought, then as natural as possible)
1 cup apple juice

1. Put the brisket in the slow cooker or a large cast-iron pot (if using the pot, preheat the oven to 200 degrees F). Pour the sauce and juice on top, making sure some of the liquid ends up underneath the meat. The meat should not be fully submerged.

2. Cook on LOW for 6 to 8 hours or, if using the pot, for 6, checking once at the 5-hour-mark. The brisket is done when a fork pierces the meat easily. Slice the meat against the grain thinly, then serve with the cooking liquid. Debbie suggests rounding out the meal with these beans and cornbread.

Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake


"Who will free apples from the tyranny of cinnamon?" was something I was, no joke, thinking about the other day. "I mean, I like cinnamon," I continued telling myself, as Hugo took a 17th screeching turn around the coffee table (his new thing: racing around it like it's Daytona and he's, um, one of the guys in a fast car), "but why is it in every single apple recipe I come across? Free yourselves, apples!!" I howled silently. And then, because my companion was a crazy-eyed 16-month-old coffee-table-racing machine screaming "hallo! hallo! hallo! hallo!" as he zoomed forward, I howled it out loud too. Good thing toddlers are so easily amused!

And lest you think I have completely lost my marbles, I would just like to take this moment to say that not a few hours later, I finally happened upon a recipe for apple cake with nary a fleck of cinnamon in sight. It was like someone had heard me or something! Or Dorie Greenspan, to be more specific.

The reason I'd been thinking about apples and their everpresent cinnamon fog is because we are drowning in apples at the moment. I have this irritating habit of buying a few at every market we go to,  but Max and Hugo aren't the biggest apple eaters (they're more in the pear/clementine/grape camp), so unless I eat an apple at every meal, I get buried under them pretty quickly.


And, like I said, while I have no beef with cinnamon per se, it just gets a little tedious to see it in every apple cake under the sun. So along came a fabulous French friend of Dorie's named Marie-Hélène to liberate me both of my moldering apples and my cinnamon resentment.

Marie-Hélène's apple cake is one of those genius recipes that is hardly a recipe, really, but is the kind of thing you need in your arsenal for the rest of your life. The batter is awesomely easy - you only need a whisk and a bowl and a stove for melting butter. The original recipe asks for 3 tablespoons of rum, which would make for a fabulously grownup cake, boozy and moist. But since I was making this for a playdate with a friend and her son, I decided to go with only one tablespoon of alcohol (bourbon, since I was out of rum) and two tablespoons of whole milk. The batter is silky and there's relatively little of it, especially with regards to the mountain of chopped apples that gets folded in. In fact, when you pile it into the cake pan, you'll see it is that holy grail of cakes: more apple than cake. Exactly what I wanted.


We ate it once it had cooled sufficiently and it was fragrant and delicate and the apples (I'd used a mix of Boskoop and Elstar, I think) were supple and lovely. It was perfect playdate material, though of course I was also already imagining it as a dinner-party dessert, since it was so light and appley. (Though the next time I make it, I will be reducing the sugar by a few tablespoonfuls.) By the next day, the cake had morphed into something almost akin to a clafoutis - the cake bits were more pancakey than cakey and the fleeting flavor of the bourbon was entirely gone. It was just as delicious and very well suited for breakfast.

An apple cake for every time of day! Holy grail indeed. And no cinnamon in sight.

Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake
Makes one 8-inch cake
Adapted from Around My French Table

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
4 large apples (if you can, choose 4 different kinds)
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon dark rum or bourbon
2 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
8 tablespoons (1 stick/4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch cake pan with parchment paper.

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in small bowl. Peel the apples, cut them in half and remove the cores. Cut the apples into 1- to 2-inch chunks.

3. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until they’re foamy. Pour in the sugar and whisk for a minute or so to blend. Whisk in the rum, milk and vanilla. Whisk in half the flour and when it is incorporated, add half the melted butter, followed by the rest of the flour and the remaining butter, mixing gently after each addition so that you have a smooth batter. Switch to a rubber spatula and fold in the apples, turning the fruit so that it's coated with batter. Scrape the mix into the pan and even the top.

4. Slide the pan into the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top of the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted deep into the center comes out clean; the cake may pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a cooling rack and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

5. Carefully pull the parchment paper - and the cake - out of the pan and let cool on the rack until it is just slightly warm or at room temperature, then transfer to a cake plate. The cake can be served warm or at room temperature, with or without a little softly whipped, barely sweetened heavy cream or a spoonful of ice cream. The cake will keep for about 2 days at room temperature. However long you keep the cake, it's best not to cover it — it's too moist. Leave the cake on its plate and just press a piece of plastic wrap or wax paper against the cut surfaces.