Friday, December 02, 2011

Holiday Gift Guide: Top Ten Baking Essentials

Every baker has his or her favorite tools and equipment, and in this holiday gift guide installment I'm sharing mine. Some I've bought for myself, some I've received (very gratefully) as gifts, and every one I consider essential. Whether you're shopping for a baker or wondering what to put on your own wish list, these picks are sure to please.

Probably the best thing anyone can do to improve their baking is make a small investment in commercial-grade jelly roll pans from Chicago Metallic. Half sheet pans (aka "large," measuring 17 3/4"L x 12 3/4"W x 1"D) are perfect for baking anything and everything, are easy to clean, and last forever.

Tip: never, ever use dark (usually Teflon-coated "nonstick") baking sheets, and don't bother with the "air insulated" variety. The former causes uneven cooking (think overly browned undersides), and I don't find the latter to be effective for the money.

Silicone baking sheet liners are one of the best gifts I've ever received. They make any surface nonstick, have an insulating effect thanks to a fiberglass mesh interior, and make clean-up a breeze.

3. Cooling Rack, $16
An often overlooked essential for cooling and decorating baked goods and candies.

Precise measurements are fundamental to baking success, and weighing ingredients (especially flour, which varies greatly by type and brand) makes all the difference in the world. I love my Escali Arti scale because it measures liquid and dry ingredients, has a large display, is easy to clean, and can be stowed in a drawer when not in use. It's a great gift for bakers who have been meaning to buy a kitchen scale for a while but either haven't gotten around to it or can't decide which one to get (i.e., me, prior to last year).

5. Pastry Board, $44
Another gift I've received that I absolutely love. Made of sustainable North American birch, this board features standard and metric measurements for a variety of pie sizes.

I'm not great at rolling out dough with French rolling pins, but who wouldn't want to practice their skills with this gorgeous hand carved maple wood pin from Herriot Grace?

You can absolutely use beans or rice for blind baking pie shells, which I in fact did until I received these Williams Sonoma ceramic pie weights as a gift. They're great because they withstand high temperatures without burning or cracking (i.e., they don't have to be replaced after a few uses) and they come in a handy jar for storage.

I feel a bit sheepish recommending yet another Williams Sonoma product when retailers such as Chefs Catalog and Target offer the same or comparable items for less, but I haven't seen these clever spatulas elsewhere. I've had mine for more than five years and I love them because the removable head and stainless steel handle are easy to clean, dishwasher safe and virtually indestructible.

9. Flow Mixing Bowls, $19 to $29
These distinctive bowls from West Elm are sturdy, beautiful and suitable for prep as well as serving.

This is the end all be all gift for a baker. Several years ago I received a gently used black Artisan mixer from a beloved relative and I can't thank her enough. It's invaluable for mixing cookie and cake batter, cutting butter into flour for pastry, whipping cream and frostings, and kneading bread dough. With optional attachments it even grinds, juices and rolls pasta dough.

Tip: KitchenAid sells refurbished Artisan mixers in a wide range of colors for nearly 50% off.

P.S. As someone who collected comic books and often dressed up as Wonder Woman as a kid, I just adore the Wonder Woman mixer from KitchenAid Brasil.

Bonus picks: Self-scraping beater blades make awesome gifts for bakers who already have KitchenAid mixers. I use the BeaterBlade ($25 at Sur La Table), but I hear the KitchenAid Flex Edge Beater ($32 at Sur La Table) allows you to mix in chocolate chips and nuts without causing the mixer head to jump. I'm definitely putting the latter on my wish list.

KitchenAid Flex Edge

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