Sally Schneider of Improvised Life has gift ideas for the cooks and eaters on your list this holiday season -- gifts you can buy, gifts you can make and gifts you can stockpile for other occasions. [Ed. note: Hosting a large dinner party? Schneider previously shared suggestions for your tabletop, her Key 3 and a long list of recipes you might want to try.]
Melissa Clark: Please help me out for the holidays. I have a long list of foodie gifts that I need to buy or make. I know that this is right up your alley.
Sally Schneider: It is up my alley. I have been thinking about this for a long time and testing them out. First of all, I look for gifts that can be given any time and given at any occasion so you are not just bound for the holidays. If you are going to a dinner party, you can stockpile these. I start with inexpensive purchased ones that I can keep on-hand.
SS: My favorite are markers for wine glasses that I give with a bottle of wine when I go to a dinner.
MC: That is great because I think that is most people’s go-to gift and this way you are personalizing it. What do the markers do?
SS: I learned this from Anthony Giglio, who is a wine writer. I went to his house one night and he handed me a glass of wine that had my name on it.
MC: Written on the glass?
SS: Yes. The reason for this is commonly at fairly big parties or at any dinner party people forget which glass is theirs.
MC: I lose my glass all the time. But how do you write it on the glass?
SS: There are a couple of markers you can use. One is a Phano china marker, which is really one of those old-fashioned wax pencils that has a little string you pull to sharpen it. The reason those are nice is because you can just put the glass in the dishwasher and it will take off the mark.
I’ve done some further tests and found out that Sharpies and the washable markers used on whiteboards also work really well.
MC: That is a great gift for people especially with the wine or a couple of nice wine glasses that you found that you really liked.
MC: What other kinds of things can I stockpile? I love the idea of stockpiling gifts -- that way you always have them on-hand.
SS: I actually ordered some of my very favorite paring knives, which are not the expensive, black-handled chef’s knives. These are made by an old French company called L'Econome. They’re really charming; they have colored wood handles. They feel good in the hand, they sharpen easily on a steel and they cost about $10 each. Cooks with everything love them and novice cooks love them.
MC: I was looking on your website recently -- by the way, I love your website. You have this wonderful idea about vintage fondue forks, which I think is fabulous.
SS: I realize that the tool that I use every day is a vintage fondue fork from the 50s. It's about 11 inches long, very long and sleek with three tines like a regular fork and a wood handle.
MC: So not the kind with two.
SS: No, you don’t want the spear-like ones. I find that not only do I use it to pull things out of a pan or the broiler or to whip up eggs, but I find myself using it for my private dinners. It makes my salad taste better.
MC: I bet they are great for getting things out of jars. The first thing I thought of is "I can get that last little anchovy right out of the jar."
SS: That’s right. You can also use them for serving because a lot of them are really sculptural and beautiful.
MC: Where do you find them?
SS: I troll eBay. There are tons of them. Apparently everyone was eating tons of fondue in the 50s. They come in different styles. For example, I just bought 6 for $20. A $3.50 fondue fork with a little note and a message of what it is for is a fabulous gift.
MC: What about gifts that you can make?
SS: Those actually are some of the most coveted gifts I find because they are one-offs -- you’ve taken your time to make them so they are a great treasure. I like to take plain old wooden spoons, which you can buy easily, and paint the handles. You can mask them off with masking tape. You can use artist acrylic paint, which lasts longer than a water-based house paint. Make stripes or different patterns or just simply dip the handle in the paint.
MC: Another great thing that I saw on your site -- and I loved this idea -- wax sheets. What are these and how I would use them?
SS: These are cotton squares or rectangles that have been infused with beeswax, propolis and a couple of other things. You can buy them online from Abeego or Bee's Wrap; there are a couple of companies making them. They are an alternative to plastic wrap. Everyone I know is trying to get away from plastic wrap, but then they rely on it because there is nothing that really works in its place.
MC: You would use this sheet of beeswax cloth and you would put it over a bowl or you would wrap cheese in it?
SS: It’s firm to start. Just from the touch of your hands it gets malleable. You can cover a bowl with it, you can wrap cheese, you can wrap salamis -- all kinds of things.
MC: The beeswax doesn’t flake off?
SS: No it doesn’t. It molds, you wash it in cold water with soap and it lasts I have heard for about a year.
MC: Can you make them yourself as well?
SS: You can indeed. What I do recommend is when you give these, in the note include how to wash them and handle them because they are a new thing for people.
MC: I have never seen them except on your website. I am really excited about trying them.
MC: What about something for someone on a really tight budget?
SS: Years ago a friend of mine started giving me a sheaf of writing or poems about food every year. All she did was find something wonderful from M.F.K. Fisher, a haiku or Pablo Neruda -- any evocative, beautiful piece about food. She would print it out on a computer printer on wonderful paper, she’d put together 10 or 12 of them, roll them into a roll bound with ribbon and give it to me. In the weeks that followed, every morning I would sit down and read one of those pieces. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me.
MC: You could do the same thing with recipes. Collect your favorite recipes for your friends or maybe give that beautiful sheaf of nice paper with the recipes and an ingredient.
SS: That's a really good idea.
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Melissa Clark is a food writer and author. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Every Day with Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart. She is the author of Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite and 32 other cookbooks.