It's always nice to daydream about getting some kind of extravagant gift for the holidays. But presents like that tend to be one-time things -- you enjoy them once and pretty soon they're forgotten (unless, of course, you're talking real extravagance, and yes, I would like one of those cobalt blue La Cornue ovens, but I'm afraid it would give dear Santa a hernia).
But really, let's be practical. Give one of these, and you'll be remembered every day. Well, except maybe for the charcoal grill ornament. On the other hand, that might be pretty memorable too.
All-Clad Weeknight Pan: Look at this as an investment -- you'll use this pan three or four times a week for many years. It's good for sauteing fish, making pasta sauces and risottos, or braising chicken thighs. It's a workhorse that you'll find yourself turning to again and again. $179.96 at www.surlatable.com.
Pasta pot/steamer: One of the most useful pots you can own, this widely manufactured set includes a big soup pot, an insert for steaming and a colander for draining pasta. Every kitchen should have one. Even better, because you only use the base for boiling water, you don't need to spend a lot for a perfectly useful one. From various sources, $50 to $100.
Charcoal grill ornament: What would your favorite grill-meister like under the tree? How about something for on the tree? Sur la Table is selling these really cool cooking-themed colored glass ornaments, including one that looks just like a Weber charcoal grill, complete with ash-pan. If that doesn't float their boat, how about one shaped like a cannoli, a package of bacon or a six-pack of beer? $15 at www.surlatable.com.
Kitchen scale: Still not using a kitchen scale for measuring? What are you waiting for? Particularly when it comes to baking, measuring ingredients by weight is not only more accurate, it's also more revealing. When you understand the importance of the ratios of ingredients, a whole new level of experimentation is opened up to you. Widely available from $25.
Acacia wood paddles: Still using wooden spoons? Why? Paddles are so much more useful. With their flat blades, you can scrape the bottom and get into the corners of pans much more easily than you can with a rounded bowl. Cookbook author Michael Ruhlman, who has created a minor sideline creating cooking products he wished he had, sells a set of three in different sizes. Three for $29.95 at shop.rulhman.com.
Panforte from Emporio Rulli: Panforte is dense, chewy, a little sweet from honey and slightly bitter from cocoa, rich with winter spices and studded with candied fruit and almonds. And, as you can probably tell from that description, making it yourself is a real project. Thank goodness for Bay Area confectioner Gary Rulli. His version is among the best around. $27.50 for an 18-ounce cake at www.rulli.com.
"Exquisite" Whiskey from Corti Bros.: This is a real oddball drink -- not really whiskey-like at all, aged by Amador Distillery in old barrels from sweet Mission del Sol dessert wines. The result has been described as a combination of bourbon and fortified sweet wine. One taster's description: "Easily the most exciting and unique whiskey I've tasted this year. And one of the few moments in recent memory -- if not the only moment -- where I've looked at the price and said, 'That's it?!'" $49.99 for a 750 milliliter bottle, $29.99 for a 375 milliliter bottle from Corti Bros., (800) 509-3663.
Fresh California olive oil: Talk to Italian olive oil lovers and before very long you'll probably find them rhapsodizing about olio nuovo -- the fluorescent green, vibrantly flavored just-pressed oil. Unfortunately, it's tough to find, and by the time it arrives in our stores it often has lost that freshness. Fortunately, California Olive Ranch, one of the best-value oil producers around (their Arbequina is our house pour), has a solution. Its Limited Reserve is really terrific. And it comes to market just in time for holiday giving. $19.99 for a 500 milliliter bottle at californiaoliveranch.com.
Kidstir kits: Got a kid who is just getting interested in cooking? Kidstir may be the perfect gift. You can order either individual kits or a monthly subscription. The "Bake Me Happy" kit, for example, includes recipes for banana bread, popovers and apple crisp, with cool little background and experiment notes to play with. Included is a jar of Chocolate Swirl, a kid-sized silicone whisk and a totally irresistible silicone potholder in the shape of a puppy. $24.95 at kidstir.com.
Spork vegan cooking classes: Always been curious about vegan cooking but maybe were a little put off by the air of solemnity that so often goes with it? That won't be a problem with Spork. Sisters Jenny Engel and Heather Goldberg may be serious about their cooking, but they also know how to make it fun. $70 at www.sporkfoods.com.