After Hours: 2005 Holiday Gift Guide: Maximum Wow

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.

Chocolate / Sweet Nostalgia / Gifts for the Office / Kid’s Stuff / Good Things in Small Packages / Books / His & Her

When I was growing up, the big holiday window-shopping event occurred when the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog arrived in the mail. Life always stepped aside while I lunged for the catalog and tore through the pages to ogle that year’s most outlandish, ostentatious fantasy gift. His-and-hers giraffes, Lear jets, matching bathrooms with gold-plated fixtures -- my memories may be vague on the specifics, but I remember the impact. A gasp, a stopped breath, a jaw gone slack signaled that my jaded adolescent self still held the capacity for astonishment.

Anyone can give a gift. It takes some thought, and sometimes some luck, to give an experience along with it. The outlay doesn’t have to be much; the presents that have reduced me to silence and awe (or, more frequently, outbursts of delight, and loud ones at that) have cost surprisingly little. What’s more important is what the gesture invokes in the recipient when s/he opens the package.

This year’s gift guide focuses on that moment. I’ve collected items both old and new with one common theme: the power to induce maximum wow. My recommendations of previous years still hold true, so don’t overlook the Holiday Gift Guide and Food is the Anytime Gift, Parts I
and II.

Chocolate

Embrace the school of you-can’t-get-too-much-of-a-good-thing with the chocolate of the month club from Lake Champlain Chocolates. The Vermont chocolatier offers assortments of its luscious products for three, six or nine months (from $105-360). There is no 12-month plan; the club takes a breather from shipping June-August because of the heat.

Years ago a friend in the Pacific Northwest introduced me to an extraordinary fudge made by Brigittine monks in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. It was to be savored, she insisted, and then she showed how. Instead of cutting the block of fudge into the usual cubes, she painstakingly sliced one end into slivers, which we placed on our tongues and let dissolve in their own sweet time. She was right: a big chunk would have been overpowering. This plain and simple version goes by the name  Chocolate Fudge Royale. The monks, whose fudge and truffles pay the bills, also make variations with walnuts, amaretto, and pecan praline.

Importing chocolates yourself has a certain panache – all the more so when they taste as stunningly as do Butlers Irish Chocolates, from a 70-year-old Dublin company that still uses the founder’s recipes. The price is surprisingly in reach, as the currency converter on every shopping page quickly shows: The Irish Ballotin, at about $24, contains 28 handmade Irish truffles, pralines and creme fraiche chocolates. A case of a dozen truffle bars works out to less than $2 a bar; select a single flavor or a mix of three, for tucking into holiday cards, baskets and packages.

For the adventurous palate: a collection of exotic truffles from Vosges Haut Chocolat. The 16-piece, visually stunning assortment includes milk chocolates flavored with sweet Indian curry or candied violet flowers and dark chocolates spiked with peppercorns or the strangely compelling combination of ginger, wasabi and sesame seeds.

Sweet Nostalgia

Marshmallows have a potent appeal to inner children. The quality is great enough to override well-conditioned social niceties and regularly compels one chronologically grown friend of mine to pick up bags of marshmallows in the grocery store and, um, well, sniff them.

A singular reaction, perhaps, but just think: What would it do to your day to receive an unexpected box containing enormous, handmade marshmallow rectangles, a stack of handcrafted round graham cracker rounds and a slab of Scharffen Berger milk chocolate? That’s exactly what’s in the S’mores Galore kit (enough for 12!) from Tiny Trapeze, a Boston-area producer of old-fashioned, all organic confections. Tiny Trapeze’s handcut marshmallows are available in vanilla, chocolate and lemon, though only the vanilla comes with the S’mores kit.

The Big Tips Candy Collection gets massive points for presentation. It delivers 15 classic candy bars (and a coloring book with their histories; be still, my heart) in an enormous red box emblazoned with photos of the candy and a portrait of Tippy, a one-toothed, pointy haired varmint of indefinite species who brandishes a top hat and cane. As for whether it delivers on flavor, well, to be honest, that’s a matter of personal taste. (Not to mention the actual age of the contents, which is not necessarily this month’s crop, based on my experience.) The collection includes such rarities as a Sky Bar, Twin Bing and the Idaho Spud, which I had not seen since 1982.

Dylan’s Candy Bar has alternatives for high visual impact that deliver more variety, such as a popcorn container stuffed with concession-sized boxes of movie candies; and a Candy Land bucket teeming with old-fashioned classics, in small, medium and large sizes.

For nostalgia without the calories, there’s always the touch of grace lent by a long-lived advertising icon. Say, a white ceramic 29-ounce combination mug/bowl emblazoned with vintage Kellogg’s cereal icons, such as Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, or Snap, Crackle, and Pop. (By the way, if anyone remembers the verses from the latter’s early 60s jingle, please e-mail me. I can’t get past, “I say it’s crackle, a crispy sound, you gotta have crackle or the clock’s not wound” – and I’m not even sure that’s right.) Or Heinz Ketchup bottle salt and pepper shakers from The Heinz Store, which also sells a regulation length putter with a head shaped like....a pickle.

Gifts for the Office

Aptly named Divine Delights has won renown for exquisitely decorated petits fours with moist, indulgent fillings. The miniature almond butter cakes are available in several office-friendly combinations, such as the party package, which contains 36 bite-sized cakes decorated as wrapped gifts, and assortments, in multiples of a dozen, of either mixed or all-chocolate petits fours.

There’s plenty to go around in Dancing Deer’s Cake and Cookie Medley. The cakes are chocolate espresso and deep dark gingerbread; the cookies are molasses clove and sugar cane lime, with hand-cut lavender scented shortbread filling out the mix.

El Paso Chile Company’s “Don’t Come Home” package is a party in a box, with white corn tortilla chips, white and black bean dips, two salsas, and two types of spiced nuts. For the happy-hour inclined, the same company offers a reusable party pump with flavor packets for margaritas or Cosmopolitans (alcohol not included), as well as a Margarita Chica kit that combines a galvanized steel bucket, margarita mix, and salt with a pair of handmade, blue-rimmed Mexican glasses.

Kids Stuff

Instead of giving kids a treat, give them a way to make one. Glee Gum produces three kits for making stuff kids love: chocolate, gum, and gummies. Each kit supplies scientific and historical facts (would you believe: gummies are made from seaweed?!?), step-by-step instructions, some of the necessary tools and ingredients, and a list of what else is needed.

El Paso Chile Company’s kid kits feature a bucket of ready-to-freeze snow cone mix, plastic serving cups, and a shovel. Flavors are raspberry, lemonade, sour apple and cherry; the first three are available together in a mini-kit.

Good Things in Small Packages

The appeal of kits and miniatures is not lost on adults, as Running Press understands. Its catalog of tiny, food-related books in boxed sets includes The Dinner Party, a book of tips plus “posh” props, like menus and place cards, napkin rings, and wine glass charms; The Mini-Gingerbread House Kit, which supplies cutters for the walls and roof plus two reusable chimneys; The Cocktail Kit, with recipes, drink markers, plastic monkeys, and paper umbrellas (what? no pink elephants?); The Sushi Box, which combines recipes with miniature tools (a rolling mat, chopsticks, a bowl); and The Betty Crocker Deluxe Pie Kit, with tips, recipes, a pie vent, and two cookie cutters for creating dough decorations to top the crust.

Or you could create your own book. Running Press' Special Favors publishes collectible miniature books with covers of the customer’s design. Another distinctive, though hardly all-purpose, option is a personalized romance novel from YourNovel.com. I have not yet read one, but the publisher promises to sprinkle 26 customer-supplied details (nicknames, for example) throughout your choice of 19 titles with storylines and locales susceptible to Cupid’s charms. The catalog’s latest entry is the snowy "Season’s Greetings, Season’s Love." Each title is available in wild or mild.

Books

Not food-related, but publications that definitely get your jaw moving are collectible pop-up books by illustrator Robert Sabuda. His enormously elaborate works include three-dimensional interpretations of literary classics such as Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz, which teem with tabs, envelopes, and other devices for pulling, opening, and setting wonders in motion: Sabdua’s latest is a nod to the coming season: Winter's Tale: An Original Pop-up Journey, heavy on silver tones and the magic of nature.

And I am still irrationally partial to last year’s release,
Merry Kitschmas. It’s chock full of dementedly inspired holiday crafts, foods, and drinks, none of which you ever have to make to enjoy.

His & Hers

Oh – and what is Neiman-Marcus’ his and hers gift this year? Just a lil’ old custom photobooth.


Copyright 2005 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.