The stockings were stuffed by the chimney with care

I asked my friend Sue Gordon for some gifts/stocking stuffers for cooks.  Her top pick was a mellon baller.  And she sent a photo!

I asked my friend Sue Gordon for some gifts/stocking stuffers for cooks. Her top pick was a mellon baller. And she sent a photo!

Christmas is a week from today. Cy and I have bought (almost) all the gifts we set out to buy, but now comes what for me is the hardest part: stocking stuffers. They were never a big deal in my family, but Cy’s family really enjoys them. And every year I have to rack my brain a little to come up with ideas. This has been a (thankfully) very busy Christmas season, though, so I decided I needed help. A few weeks ago I asked one of my blogger friends for her recommendations for small gifts and stocking stuffers for people who like to cook.

Sue Gordon writes the Food Network Musings blog and also writes on food for the Princeton Examiner. She’s extremely generous with advice on her blog and also in person, as I’ve learned. I’ve put her response to me verbatim below. She even included photos, which kicked my butt to take a couple of my own. So, I’m giving you a break from wine talk for a couple of weeks, and this week’s post contains Sue’s gift suggestions plus a couple from me.

First, three ideas from Sue:

Several of my favorite kitchen gadgets are more tools than gadgets, but I’ve been finding them indispensable lately. The good thing is they would make great stocking stuffers or be good as part of a kitchen-themed gift exchange.

Sue also recommended Sistema containers -- they snap shut easily and seal well.

Sue also recommended Sistema containers — they snap shut easily and seal well.

The first one is a melon baller. All cooks should have one in their kitchen drawer. The funny thing is I can’t remember the last time I used mine for melon, but it’s become my go-to tool for coring apples. If I’m using the apples unpeeled, I simply cut them in half (on the International Date Line) and using the melon baller, I scoop out the middle of the apple to get the core. Then I make another scoop above and below to remove the rest of the core. (If I need the apple peeled, I peel the whole apple and then halve it and proceed as above.) I also use the melon baller to scrape the seeds out of butternut or acorn squash OR to remove the seeds from quartered tomatoes. The slightly sharp edges seem to do the trick.

The next tool is a tea strainer – the kind that looks like a miniature strainer with a handle. I haven’t used it for tea in ages, but I always have it at my side when I’m baking. I often don’t bother to sift my dry ingredients (c’mon, does anyone?), BUT I always sift my baking powder and particularly my baking soda. Who wants a mouthful of undissolved baking soda in chewy chocolate chip cookies? It can also be used for quickly sifting together different spice blends.

My last kitchen find is something I discovered after an ant invasion when I wanted to pack all my pantry baking items into airtight containers. I found these Sistema plastic containers. I love the strong blue clips on the sides and how well they stack. You can find them in different shapes and sizes, and they’re available individually and in sets. You could always buy a set or two and split them up into different gifts.

Christmas would have been ruined, RUINED, without my little offset spatula to help get cookies off the parchment paper they were rolled on.

Christmas would have been ruined, RUINED, without my little offset spatula to help get cookies off the parchment paper they were rolled on.

Everyone has to eat and, thus, cook at one time or another. Kitchen gifts are never out of place, especially when you’re sharing your expertise along with the gadget.

Then from me:

Cy and I have been baking holiday cookies for the past couple of weeks. Practically everything in the kitchen has been pressed into service during that time. I found two small items that were indispensable in baking, and in one case it pretty well saved the entire batch of cookies.

We decided to make Speculaas this year as one of the selections. They’re spice cookies from Holland. (Biscoff cookies are something like Speculaas, although Biscoff are sweeter, don’t have butter, and only contain cinnamon for spice and not all the other goodies we put in, like mace, ground cloves, cardamom, and white pepper.) You can either use special molds or roll them and cut them, which is what we decided to do.

None of the recipes I found tells you how sticky the dough is, even if you chill it before rolling it. The cookies stick even when you roll them between sheets of parchment paper (which is the only way they won’t turn out with too much flour or too greasy.) The only way to get them off the paper is to scrape them gently with a suitable object. A little offset spatula was the perfect tool. We still had to be careful, but we managed to get the cookies all rolled out and cut. Mine has a 3.5-inch blade (the flat part) and is made by Ateco, but I’m sure you can find other brands that will work just as well. Just make sure the blade is pretty thin so you can slide it under sticky dough without tearing. I’ve also used it to spread fig jam on my Fig and Shortbread cookies, icing on nearly anything small, and soft butter on cinnamon roll dough.

My mother has had one of these nut choppers forever, it seems.  They're great for walnuts and pecans and don't crush as many as you will using a food processor.

My mother has had one of these nut choppers forever, it seems. They’re great for walnuts and pecans and don’t crush as many as you will using a food processor.

The other tool is a nut chopper. You could use a food processor, of course. But for walnuts and pecans the nut chopper makes more uniform pieces, creates less nut dust, and it’s easier to clean than the food processor. And it’s a lot easier than chopping by hand, especially if you have a bunch of them to do. Put the nuts in the hopper and turn the crank. I keep nuts in the freezer, and I don’t even have to thaw them to use the chopper. Mine is made by Progressive and has a rubber gasket on the bottom to keep it steady on the counter. Supposedly you can do a coarse or fine chop but I don’t see any difference in the size of the pieces. They’re also not built for the ages so if you use it a lot you will have to replace it every 10 years or so. But at around $10 it’s a still a bargain.


This week’s recipe is from Jenn Barger, our neighbor and also a blogger, journalist, and stylist. Jenn and her husband Callan had Cy and me over a couple of weeks ago for chicken chili and Jenn made some amazing cornbread to go with it. The next day she e-mailed me the recipe for Southern Rogue Cornbread and the story behind it:

“I learned how to make it from an old friend’s boyfriend who was a handsome rogue from the south — let’s call him Rhett. He was a huge flirt and a great cook. But some of his ‘secrets’ were as down-home as my Ozark grandma’s — canned soup, pre-prepared ingredients. I grew up eating cornbread with chili in South Texas, and it always seemed dry.

“But one night, when my friend was making chili for a group, Rhett drawled, ‘I’ll show y’all how it’s done.’ He proceeded to use a standard Jiffy mix and doctor it up with sour cream, red pepper relish and — eek— my old childhood friend, creamed corn. The resulting cornbread is moist and a little spicy (you control how much pepper relish to add) and there are hardly ever leftovers. I now sub Mexican crema for the sour cream — it adds a nice tang — but sour cream (or even crème fraîche) works just fine.”

Jenn’s cornbread was really moist, had a great texture, and just barely holds together when you take it out of the pan even though it’s fully baked. I asked her if it firmed up overnight. She replied that she supposed it would, but it was a long time since there had been any second-day leftovers so she couldn’t say for sure. I decided to cut down on the sour cream and it worked beautifully, the cornbread was still very moist but a little firmer and it tasted great the next day.

This is sweet cornbread, which makes it a perfect foil for spicy chili. The sweetness comes from the creamed corn, not the Jiffy mix, which isn’t all that sweet. Jiffy mix contains lard, though, so you may not want to use it. Jiffy’s website claims they’ve got a vegetarian version, so you can look for that. If you can’t find it or want to use butter or shortening instead, I’ve come up with my own mix and included it below.

Cy and I discovered that leftovers of this cornbread make a great base for fried or scrambled eggs. Split the pieces and toast them a little and top with eggs and a breakfast meat or smoked fish of your choice. Naturally, I’d serve champagne with it, like our Champagne Bernard Mante Brut ($32). I’m sure the rogue would approve!

No post next week.  All of us at First Vine wish you a wonderful holiday and a very happy new year!


Southern Rogue Cornbread

Makes 18 good-sized pieces

2 8.5-ounce boxes of Jiffy Corn Muffin mix (regular or vegetarian)

1 14-15 ounce can creamed corn

2 large eggs

1/3 cup sour cream, Greek yogurt, crème fraîche, or Mexican crema

1-2 tablespoons red pepper relish (or Darrene’s Bacon-Onion-Serrano Jam)

1 tablespoon butter, cut into 3 slices

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and grease a 13 x 9-inch baking pan (set the oven to 375 if you’re using a Pyrex pan). Put the Jiffy mix in a large bowl and add everything except the butter. Stir until it’s all combined, but don’t worry about a couple of small lumps or streaks of flour. Pour into the pan and bake for 20 – 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Take the cornbread out of the oven and brush the top with the butter pieces using a pastry brush. Let it cool and serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Store the leftovers in the fridge.

If you can’t find the Jiffy mix or don’t want to use it: combine 1-1/2 cups each of flour and fine cornmeal in the bowl of an electric mixer or other large bowl. Add 2 tablespoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and up to 2 tablespoons of sugar (you can leave it out, but it helps the cornbread brown). Whisk or mix to combine. Cut 6 tablespoons of soft unsalted butter or vegetable shortening into pieces and scatter them on top of the flour. Use the mixer or pastry blender (or your fingers) to combine everything until the butter or shortening is completely distributed in the flour mixture and there are no lumps.

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2 Responses to The stockings were stuffed by the chimney with care

  1. Amye says:

    Great ideas! I love my mini-food processor for chopping nuts, but I’d never thought of the tea strainer for baking! So clever.
    Hoping Santa puts an offset spatula in my stocking this year, I’d forgotten how useful they can be!

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