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For the die-hard cook, there's always something else they can add to their arsenal. Basics are great, but basics can be improved upon. There's always a better small appliance, a fancier knife or a very specific piece of equipment they can't live without.
If you've ever dropped your timer into a pot of melted butter (I have no idea what that's like), you can see the advantage of something like the Taylor Splash ‘n' Drop digital timer ($20). Plus it has adjustable volume (up to 85 decibels), and the digits flash when the time's up. The only thing missing is a way to attach it directly to your ear so that you couldn't possibly forget and burn the pumpkin pie.
I bought a Microplane grater the minute they came out; originally designed for wood, they also make zesting lemons and limes, or grating hard cheeses, a breeze. I'm ready to upgrade from my woodshop model to the lovely Elite Paddle graters ($17 each). Curved and banded with rubber to create a soft, easy grip, Microplane's four different graters are razor-sharp, and each comes with a cover that also holds up to one cup of whatever you may have grated.
I abandoned all of my fancy-schmancy pans in favor of good old cast-iron long ago, but I recently noticed that Lodge makes a 12-inch skillet with sloped sides ($37, plus great forearms), as opposed to the traditional straight up-and-down sides most people are familiar with. This makes moving food around in the pan much easier (think flipping) and helps quicken the reduction of sauces.
Let's see you fork out some cash and show true love for the cook in your life. Give them their own SousVide Supreme ($450) to gently simmer food to tender perfection, just like the professional chefs do.
Too extravagant? Try the Fagor Duo Pressure Cooker ($110). It speeds up the cooking process, and the company claims you can get your meal on the table 70 percent faster. Unlike old-fashioned pressure cookers that had the potential to explode all over your kitchen and cause concussions, Fagor's models come with a triple-valve safety system.
Ever stagger downstairs in the morning and hate yourself because you forgot to set the automatic timer on your coffee maker — again? Banish the self-loathing forever and give your cook something you both can love. Keurig has revamped its popular one-cup-at-a-time process with its new Vue line ($230). In the past, coffee purists have turned their noses up at Keurig, but lots of the problems with the old coffee makers have been solved: This coffee has strength and body, the temperature is finally hot enough and you can brew more than the standard 8 ounces. Add the ability to brew coffee over ice specifically for iced coffee, plus the Vue's main selling point — practically instant gratification — and what's not to like?
Sometimes, it can be the little things. It once cost me several hundred dollars to fix an electric oven shorted out by water boiling over on the cooktop above. I would have been very grateful if someone had rolled up a Kocheblume Spill Stopper by Kuhn Rikon ($30) and stuffed it into my stocking prior to that. Made of silicone that's heat resistant to 400 degrees, the flower-shaped spill stopper does exactly what it claims to do: traps the bubbles and foam of boiling pots and prevents them from boiling over when the cook is distracted.
I treated myself in each successive holiday season to a Silpat mat by Demarle until I had one to line each baking sheet I owned. When you use a Silpat, cookies, candy, biscuits and anything else you can think of baking slide right off. Wipe it down with a damp sponge, and it's ready to put away, along with your still-clean pan. This year, I hope someone gives me a Silpain bread mat ($20 for the small size, $30 for the large). Demarle specifically designed this one for bread baking and pizza making. Both nonstick and heat-resistant mats are made of fiberglass and silicone, but the Silpain is perforated to allow for a crispy crust.
Looks matter. I'm all about function, but throw a little form in there and I'm immediately seduced. Joseph Joseph makes two products that cooks should add to their list immediately. The first is a set of brightly colored nylon cooking utensils ($21). Featuring tiny magnets in their handles, they nest together standing up to maximize space on the countertop. Even more striking is the company's Shell compact digital scale ($65). It packs up to look like a sleek, shiny chrome egg, but the top, when flipped, becomes the scale's measuring bowl, allowing you to weigh liquids and solids in both metric and customary measurements.
What's the granddaddy gift of them all, the jackpot, the one every cook hopes Santa leaves under the tree? A brand-new, razor-sharp knife, that's what. Throw in a layer of gorgeousness, and you'll have cooks everywhere feeling a little woozy and fanning away the vapors. Bob Kramer is a master bladesmith who makes knives that are both exquisitely balanced and hold an edge, whatever you might throw at them. Zwilling J.A. Henckels has teamed up with him to produce a stunning, limited edition 8-inch chef's knife ($1,800). Like any heirloom piece, it comes with a whiplash-inducing price tag, but for the dedicated cook, this knife will impress in a way no diamond ever could.
Note: Many of these products can be found locally at stores such as Sur La Table, Target, Walmart, Williams-Sonoma, Macy's, and Bed, Bath and Beyond. They can also be ordered through Amazon and other online retailers.