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Mountain Home Magazine

Walking Down the (Housewares) Aisle

Dec 31, 2015 01:46PM

It used to be a no-brainer to snag a wedding present for a family member or friend. Both the soon-to-be bride and groom (again, I say “usually”) lived apart, either still at home or in a flat with roommates of the same sex. The kitchen seldom featured much more than a can opener and some battered pots, maybe some chipped china, castoffs from home, and metal forks purloined from a cafeteria—all of this hodgepodge was jointly owned.

With a ring on the engagement finger, the bride-to-be sashayed to her favorite store—usually a department store or cookware shop—and listed her wants and needs at the “Bridal Registry.” I speak from experience, having been an usher at more weddings—always a groomsman, never a groom, that’s me—than I can remember. At least I don’t have an attic full of taffeta dresses like so many of my women friends, who’ve been bridesmaids at countless nuptials. “This will look lovely on you,” was the big lie back then, the color and cut making the gal look as if she had jaundice and a seriously misplaced waist.

Easy as Pie

So I’d take myself down to the appointed store. The clerk would pull out that wish list and I’d note the prices choosing items that fit my budget and then ticking off the items, usually a place setting of sterling silver (remember that?), or the English bone china dishes glittering with gold rims and bouquets (remember those?), all of which were then charged to my account, I wrote the little cards, and the store gift-wrapped these “objects d’cuisine” and delivered them to the BTB’s door. As Ina Garten would say of a recipe, “How easy is that?”

Fast-Forward to 2016

Now, the happy couple may have lived together for years, and the kitchen has his and hers food processors, not to mention drawers full of stainless and cupboards loaded with a variety of dishes, all of which are “dishwasher-safe.” Mummie’s treasured fancy tableware and crystal is in boxes in the basement. Still, I like the idea of a sort of “kitchen shower”—a popular pre-nup pastime even today.

I’ve checked around, and my friends who are up on this tell me that there are still bridal registries. I’m not surprised that places like Kohl’s and Bed Bath & Beyond offer this service, but I hear even discount stores such as Walmart have a registry. Check it out.

It’s probably a time for the recipients to get more serious about cooking and upgrade the kitchen tools. I was reminded of this by an article in the oh-so-useful food magazine Cook’s Illustrated. It’s the current issue, now on the stands. The two-page spread is headed “Essential Tools (and Ingenious Gadgets).” As someone inordinately attracted to useful things for cooks, I can attest that an example of each item resides in my batterie de cuisine, and I wouldn’t part with any one of them.

Favorite Things Department

One example is the marvelous rasp grater that makes short work of removing just the good part of a citrus peel and a great (grate?) item for turning hard cheeses into ethereal flakes. And when I see a TV chef trying to ferry chopped herbs or vegetables from cutting board to pan with just their hands I scream “get a bench scraper, you wretched chef!” Thank goodness for thick walls or the boys in the white coats would descend. But I digress...

How about a mandoline, and/or a little garlic slicer, some silicone scrapers, an Oxo salad spinner, and little oval measuring spoons that fit into jars? The list in Cook’s is a good one, and to make these look more gift-like, wrap them and place in a woven straw shopping basket they’ll recycle.

Where to Shop

These days that’s a good question. Much of what I gab about can be found using an online source such as Chefscatalog.com, although I like to buy local and actually inspect merchandise when I can, so take a notebook and check out prices.

And manufacturers also sell direct-to-the consumer these days—Crock-Pots are one such. And for slow cookers, I love the one-pot convenience of an insert that you can use to brown the food then pop into the “home base” and add vegetables and liquid, cover, and let cook most of the day.

When all else fails consider gift certificates for stores that sell culinary necessities. It isn’t as romantic as something wrapped in white or silver paper, but the recipients can acquire something they can use. (Unlike the his and hers heart-bedecked flannel pajamas I’ve seen advertised.)

Buy the Book

You may know, dear reader, that I am a cookbook- aholic, but there are two that I’d like to see in every kitchen. The first is self-explanatory: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. The second is Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, for the many who love to cook Italian. You need very few other books unless you are gifting a slow cooker and the twosome need ideas, or the future bride and groom are nuts about a specific food. Good examples are Asian or Mexican (though Bittman has good stuff here in both categories). For Mexican, consider books by Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless. And my vote for vegetarians goes to anything by Deborah Madison.

My advice on the book issue: stay away from a restaurant chef’s book. These are so often show-off ideas suitable for other restaurants to copy or adapt. They lure with great gastro-porn photography but are useless to the home cook.

Be a Sherlock or Nancy Drew

As far as major purchases for the couple, perhaps a joint present from a few friends, you have to be a sleuth and either check out the contents of the “to-wed” folks’ kitchen or ask subtle questions about their cooking habits and aims. But when you figure out what to get them, be sure to pick top brands, they’ll last longer and are worth the investment. Check the Cook’s magazine’s suggestions. Go for the really good stuff: Cuisinart, KitchenAid, and LeCreuset pans, along with the top-rated slow cooker. Chances are these will last as long as the marriage. Wait—maybe even much longer.

Over the years I’ve also gone for the offbeat. I’ve found cast-iron skillets or Dutch ovens—both essentials in any kitchen—in antique shops and boxed them up (cleaned, of course), and I’ve included one of the cast-iron cookbooks you can find at Amazon. You have to know (guess) that the recipients will treasure these “broken-in and seasoned” pans. Or invest in new ones—they’re not that expensive.

If you want to splurge, or if the bride or groom are related to you, do what I have done for those great-nephews (there are five in my gang at last count, and so far two have married): I send them one of the antique sterling cake servers I have hoarded for years. I have two left, well, one. I use one to elegantly serve cake, pie, and—more importantly in today’s world—pizza. These should become supremely useful and even beloved treasures.

Give a Gift with Class

Full disclosure here: I am the director of 171 Cedar Art Center’s Culinary program in Corning. There are about nine classes beginning in January and running through May, all different, all intriguing. It’s a wonderful way to learn menus from a variety of local professional chefs. Yes, you can check out the many TV cooking shows, but there is nothing like learning from a “live” source—and these sessions are really live. You can actually have tastes of what the chef prepares, and you can mingle with like-minded participants. So think about giving the to-be-weds a gift certificate or two. Call 171 for more information.

Let Them Eat Cake

If asked, my favorite wedding cake would have to be a spiced carrot cake. And I remember a fairly recent wedding I attended had carrot-cake cupcakes arrayed on tiers and looking like a de-constructed traditional gateau. I also saw a version with a layered cake on the top tier that the couple cut in the traditional his and hers slices. (No, they didn’t smash a piece into each other’s face. Sorry, but that’s a dumb idea to me and a waste of good food.)

I tried to get a relevant cake recipe to showcase here, and my search yielded this offering from the vaunted Cook’s magazine (a subscription to this might be another kitchen shower add-on.) This sounded right to me, and it yields about twenty servings, so why not consider this for either a rehearsal dinner or the big event, using several cakes on a flower-and swag-bedecked round table? Dare I suggest that each member of the wedding party (guys and gals) bring a cake? I just might.

Seems to me Italians just don’t have “cake” in their DNA, at least that’s my feeling after several wonderful visits to that country over the years. Desserts are mostly fruit, great cheese, and sometimes gelato. However, they do make cakes for very special occasions, and this is one of them. You could sprinkle those little silver dragées o’er the tops of the cakes or even spell out the initials of the happy couple with them. Yes, you could. Of course, a tiny glass vial with fresh cream-colored roses would be a super topping.

Italian Wedding Cake

  • 1 stick butter (4 oz.)
  • 2 c. granulated sugar
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 c. vegetable oil (such as Wesson)
  • 1 small can Angel Flake coconut
  • 1 c. pecans or walnuts lightly toasted in a single layer in a 350-degree oven for about 7 minutes 
  • 2 c. all-purpose flour 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla
  • 1 tsp. bourbon or rum (I like dark), optional 5 egg whites stiffly beaten

Grease three 8-inch cake pans then set aside. Preheat the oven to 350-degrees. In the bowl of a mixer cream the butter and sugar until smooth (I use the paddle attachment). Add the yolks and oil and fold them in briefly. Combine the flour and baking soda and add to the bowl. Stir and then add the buttermilk, vanilla, coconut, and nuts. Mix and then fold in the egg whites. Make sure all ingredients are well combined by briefly and carefully mixing all without deflating the egg whites.

Pour the batter, dividing it equally, into the three prepared pans. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes or until a cake tester (another essential gift) comes out clean. Let cool on a rack and then turn out onto three attractive plates or cake stands. Frost with the following cream cheese concoction.

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 8 oz. cream cheese (or my favorite Neufchatel—less fat), softened (keep at room temperature for about an hour)
  • 1⁄2 stick (2 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • 1 package powdered sugar

Beat the softened cream cheese and softened butter until combined and smooth. Stir in vanilla. Put sugar in a large fine sieve and sprinkle over the butter mixture. Combine until smooth and then spread on the cooled cakes. See the headnote for ideas about decorating your three cakes.

Then, open a bottle of Prosecco and toast the happy couple and your handiwork.