After Hours: 2004 Holiday Gift Guide

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY Guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the LLRX.com Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research, and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

Gadget of the Year / The Ultimate Holiday Handbook / Good Fortunes / French Bread / Say "Teas" / Ethnic Pantry / Mimetic Chocolate / Stocking Stuffers / Breakfast of Champions

Everyone loves to eat (except for rarities who are content with a bowl of corn flakes for dinner, as is someone I know -- who, come to think of it, hates the December holidays as well; now there’s a pair of traits ripe for psychoanalysis). And especially loves a treat a person would not normally buy for him/herself (my Grinch friend included).

This month’s edition of After Hours is dedicated to gift-worthy foods from the 2004 Fancy Food Show and other stops in my ongoing culinary exploring, plus my choices of gadget and holiday book of the year. Should these not sufficiently address your needs, my recommendations still stand from last year’s guide, Food is the Anytime Gift, Part I and Part II.

Gadget of the Year

The Single-Serve Coffee Brewer

Single-serve coffee brewers are sneaking into the ad pages of high gloss
food magazines this season. Appealing to our lust for ever-more instant
gratification (and gadgetry), these machines are the closest our technology has come yet to approximately the ease and speed of the replicator on the Starship Enterprise. Pop in a sealed pod of grounds (which looks like a creamer serving, only larger) and press a button, and the machine begins delivering a high-pressure-brewed brewed beverage within seconds. (Yes, seconds.)

There are no filters or grounds to clean (the debris stays in the pod,
which you pop out and throw away), no communal arguments over decaf vs. full strength or the choice of roast or, most tiresome of all, the merits
(or lack thereof) of flavored coffee. Best of all, the coffee comes out as
flavorful and strong as you would expect from a pot brewed by normal methods.

A couple of brands of brewers are on the market - Black & Decker has a Home Cafe System that uses Folger's and Millstone Coffees, for example - but my  choice is Keuring B100 Single Cup Brewing System, which is geared to home and small office use. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters has packaged more than 25 of its superb coffee varieties for use in the brewing system, including organic, fair trade, holiday blends and signature roasts. Green Mountain also sells Six Celestial Seasonings teas (two black, four herb, including a peppermint that the machine brews to impressive potency). The brewing pods, called K-Cups, come 24 to a box, and recurring orders receive a price break. The Keurig brewer itself
normally runs $299.95 and is currently $50 off.

Green Mountain Coffee and Celestial Seasonings teas are also available in K-Cups directly from Keurig, along with Bigelow, Diedrich, Gloria Jean's, Timothy's and Van Houtte. The variety packs from this site contain selections from four of the brands, which vary by the type of pack. Keurig also makes a smaller, less expensive home brewer, the B50. At $169.95, it has a little more than half the capacity, but has two brewing strength options. (Select the smaller cup size for more intense flavor.)

True, the price of both systems makes them more of an investment than a
candidate for impulse purchase. Try one once, though, and see if you don't
find yourself itching to do it again. Access to coffee this good this quickly is habit-forming.

The Ultimate Holiday Handbook

Summer isn’t the only time for camp, at least not in some of the neighborhoods in which I’ve lived. If you have an appreciation for a design sense that frequents the suburbs of over-the-top (as Garry Marshall described Tony Randall’s acting during the Broadway tribute to the late actor), or even just a slightly twisted sense of humor, you will find delight in Merry Kitschmas by Michael D. Conway. To my thinking this collection of crafts on amphetamines is not merely “The Ultimate Holiday Handbook,” as it is subtitled, but also the essential holiday handbook. The book is laugh-out-loud funny, down to the wording of the step-by-step instructions for recreating the beautifully photographed models. (Best of book: The Valley of the Dolls tree, which ascerbicly prescribes a variety of cosmetic fates for a troop of plastic fashion dolls.) Surprisingly, the crafts are eminently doable, and the recipes for “Mincemeaty Pie” and “Here’s Your Friggin’ Pudding” call for authentic ingredients, down to the suet. Even if there’s little likelihood you would ever follow any of its suggestions, Merry Kitschmas offers a restorative antidote to the stress, demands and, dare I point out the obvious, insanity of the season.

Good Fortunes

Wrap your holiday wishes in something your recipients can sink their teeth into.  Lady Fortunes will insert your chosen words into fortune cookies, then hand-dip them in chocolate, caramel, Heath Bars and more. Cookie sizes run from the traditional after-dinner variety to a one-pound “titanic.” Prefer a salt course?  Fortunuts packs one of seven fortunes – or one of your composition -- with addictive seasoned nuts (sweet and salted walnut halves, sweetened pecans, mesquite pecans).

French Bread

For high impact, wow your favorite foodies with a delivery from Poilâne, the Paris bakery that gave birth to the modern artisanal bread movement. The tasting package, Le Culis Dégustation, provides a loaf each of rye and currant raisin and two loaves of walnut, for only about $50, shipping included. A 4.2-pound wheat loaf, emblazoned with a lovely seasonal decoration, runs about $43, also including shipping.

Say “Teas”

Numi Teas artisan teas are hand sewn rosettes from China that blossom into dramatic, multi-fingered vegetation while brewing. A transparent container shows them to best advantage, such as Numi’s graceful 14-ounce glass teapot with strainer. Numi has also expanded its gift samplers of black and herbal teas (which are certified organic, kosher and halal) into bamboo books and treasure chests.

Runner-up for presentation drama is the pyramid-shaped silk mesh pod used to package (and steep)  Teaosophy’s leaf teas from India and Ceylon. The pyramid shape allows the water to circulate more around the leaves than does the usual flat tea bag. Teaosophy combines six varieties of Indian tea in a boxed Tea Collection, suitable for giving.

Also worth a lookout this season:  Zhena’s Gypsy Tea, organic black, green and herbal teas in lively blends (I am partial to the super-spiced Gypsy King Chai) and even livelier canisters emblazoned with vibrant colors and (accurate) palmistry lore....White teas, which were on the rise at this summer’s Fancy Food Show. These mild-mannered teas are minimally processed, usually by air-drying, and contain substantially less caffeine than black or even green teas.  ®evolution offers bottled white iced tea, without sugar or preservatives, in four flavors: tangerine, raspberry, key lime, and blackberry.  Their delicate, refreshing quality is enhanced by the absence of any cloying aftertaste.  Republic of Tea has organic unsweetened varietal iced teas, such as orange blossom white, which has a pale, slightly floral flavor, and honeydew white, which really tastes like the melon.

Ethnic Pantry

Expand the horizons of any home cook with a spice collection from  Nirmala’s Kitchen. Each of the six geographic collections focuses on the tastes of a specific region: Africa, Australia, India, Malaysia, Thailand and the West Indies. A seventh collection, the Kama Sutra, spotlights spices designed to arouse passion. Each collection contains six spices and spice blends with no MSG, preservatives, sugar or salt, and comes with recipes from cooks owner Nirmala Narine has met on her travels in the region. A bit pricy ($58), the collections are nonetheless a showcase gift, packed in a wooden crate-let that is dotted with reproductions of Nirmala’s own passport stamps. The spices are available individually as well.

Mimetic Chocolate

Common as it may be to mold chocolate in the shapes of animals and objects, these items pull off this practice with exceptional charm.

SweetBliss forms Belgian chocolate shells into toddler-sized purses and high-heeled pumps, which are then filled with ganache and praline. The purses and pumps come one of each to a set, and each set is decorated with a lavish, one-of-a-kind design. Available at Bergdorf Goodman (212 -753-7300).

Ghyslain Chocolatier’s hand-painted turtles are actually shaped like...turtles. The Turtle Family Collection tucks a dozen turtles, cushioned by praline almonds, inside a milk chocolate mama... turtle.

Joseph Schmidt Confections makes a graceful, usable chocolate bowl with a Belgian dark chocolate exterior and Belgian white chocolate interior decorated with a poinsettia. The packaging – a fabric box with a see-through top – underscores the bowl’s beauty, which is stunning enough to discourage actually eating the chocolate (which is first-rate). Pity.

Stocking Stuffers

Individually packaged hazelnut or macadmia truffles, in the shapes of suns, moons and stars, from Rene Rey Chocolates...HempHogs, hedgehog-shaped milk chocolate truffles with hempnut cream filling (which approaches hazelnut in taste), also from Rene Rey...Chocolate-scented perfume, called Serendipitous, from Serendipity 3, the Upper East Side restaurant-cum-gift-shop known for Frrrozen Hot Chocolate and a celebrity following (it was a hangout of Andy Warhol’s).

Breakfast of Champions

My personal highlight of the 2004 Fancy Food Show was having breakfast with D’Artagnan, the purveyor of foie gras, pâtés, sausage, game and poultry, which which had won Outstanding New Product the night before for its medallions of foie gras. While a small brigade of costumed musketeers offered samples to passers-by, I took a seat at one of the rough-hewn wooden tables that dominated D’Artagnan’s enormous booth. Being offered red wine before noon hinted that a meal for the memory book was on the way; being told, minutes later, “Oh, we don’t have red wine -- champagne?” confirmed it.

What followed was food that demands you slow down and pay attention to it. The first course brought wild boar terrine and bacon (which crisps much like pig bacon) and a pastry shell filled with the award-winning, time-stoppingly creamy medallions of foie gras. (See the September 2004 After Hours for a fuller description.) Then came a fried duck egg (with a yolk that makes a hen’s look like a marble), thick, dense wild boar prosciutto and three types of sausage: duck, foie gras and wild boar, the last of which inspired “Move over, Jimmy Dean!” in my notes. Made with no artificial preservatives or ingredients, the boar sausage was actually sweet, because D’Artagnan cures it with brown sugar and beet powder (“It’s boar, not boring,” explained D’Artagnan co-owner George Faison.) After a shaving of nicely textured summer truffle (which D’Artagnan sells fresh by the ounce in season) landed unexpectedly on my plate, the final touch arrived, an Armagnac-soaked prune stuffed with mousse of foie gras. It’s called a French kiss, and a person could bring a dinner party to its knees with a package of these. (D’Artagnan sells six for $19.)

D’Artagnan ships overnight to consumers via Federal Express. Register at the site to qualify for specially priced packages for members. The site also offers monthly specials that do not require registration.

ã Kathy Biehl 2004