I love baking - always have and, I suspect, always will. Part of it, of course, is that I love to eat baked goods (cakes, bread and Viennoiserie especially!), but it’s also about the satisfaction of making something, of doing something with my hands, of understanding how it all works and, especially where bread is concerned, marveling each and every time at what yeast can do.
There are many great tools and services that I have found invaluable in my time as a baker and pastry chef, but for the purposes of a list, I figured I should cap it at thirty to demonstrate at least some semblance of restraint. I have not included larger scale appliances - for example, a KitchenAid mixer, or a Cuisinart food processor - on the assumption that many baking fans will already have both (or some version of the same). Most of the items are, instead, ones I was first introduced to in a professional context by fellow chefs, and became so enamored with them that I now have them in my own kitchen - or, are smaller items that I have found indispensable over the years, both at work and at home. If you are looking for the perfect gift for a keen home baker, it is my hope that you will find something on this list that would be right up their alley!
KUHN RIKON SWISS PEELERS - If your baker likes to make apple desserts or potato-based anything, chances are a top notch peeler will not go amiss. In days long since past, I would use a paring knife to peel my fruit and veg - that was until a fellow pastry chef introduced me to Kuhn Rikon’s original Swiss peelers. These babies are made with carbon steel blades so they are sharp from the get-go, and stay that way. With one of these in hand, I am a much faster peeler and create less waste. Kuhn Rikon peelers really just remove the skin of your fruit and veg, rather than a paring knife which invariably removes some flesh as well. Moreover, if you’re gifting to a leftie, they are designed to work for both right or left-handed folks. And, last but not least, that little eyelet on the side? That’s to help you easily target potato eyes, or any similarly offending bit of your fruit or veg. Eminently affordable, these little peelers (available in a range of cheery colors) are a great investment.
BOWL SCRAPER - The first rule of Fight Club may be to not talk about it, but if I had to identify a first rule for bakers and pastry chefs, it’s probably “minimize waste,” although “work clean” has to be a close second. A bowl scraper actually helps one achieve both goals, allowing you to scrape every last bit of batter or dough out of a mixing bowl. Spatulas are fine, but a bowl scraper is truly aces for this task.
BENCH SCRAPER - As a bowl scraper is to bowls, a bench scraper is to a baker’s workbench. Especially valuable for bread makers, this tool comes in handy in a myriad of other capacities as well, be it cutting gnocchi, or working a batch of old-fashioned fudge. Truly a multi-purpose tool, your recipient may well be surprised by how often one of these comes in handy.
TIMER - In my experience, the baker or pastry chef that doesn’t have occasion to use a timer is a rare creature indeed. Whether it’s making sure you rotate those cookies half-way through their bake, or are testing out a new cake recipe, chances are a timer is being put to good use. I especially like ones that have a clip-on back - perhaps a legacy from my days in commercial kitchens - as it’s great to be able to clip it to your apron as you move about, be it the front of the bakery (in a professional context), or elsewhere in the house (if baking at home). My current go-to timer is the West Bend 40005X which has a clip-on back and is easy to program (none of that up/down until you get the right number business).
DIGITAL SCALE - In my opinion, it’s never too soon to get a baker a digital scale if they do not already have one - ideally one that measures in grams and one that can handle at least 10-lbs. or so weight-wise. Why grams? Honestly, it’s much easier to scale recipes up and down using the metric system - and it tends to be more precise given the way that scales increment weights. Whenever I bake a new recipe, I make note of the measurements in grams for future reference. As to the 10-lb. (or so) minimum - you’d be surprised how quickly the weight of a bowl and ingredients can add up, nevermind the odd occasion when you might want to use the scale to measure other things. But why a scale at all? First, accuracy. Measuring by weight is much more accurate than by volume. And, secondly, measuring your ingredients by weight generally translates to less clean-up in the kitchen - so, for example, you can measure all of your dry ingredients directly into one bowl set on the scale, rather than using an array of measuring cups. I actually have two scales - one by Salter and the other by Escali - and both have been real workhorses. The models I own (still going strong after some pretty steady use) are no longer made but Escali’s P115C Primo Digital and Salter’s Aquatronic scale look very similar. If I were shopping for a new scale today, I might also check out My Weigh’s KD8000 which has an impressive 8kg (17.637lbs.) capacity and a percentage weighing function that would be super for a bread baker.
8-CUP MEASURING CUP - In professional kitchens, one is invariably baking in bulk and, for that reason, one’s measuring cups and mixer bowls are typically larger. Indeed, that’s how I was introduced to Cambro’s 8-cup measuring cup. Whereas many of the large volume items found in the professional kitchen are not really suitable for the home baker, this measuring cup was a definite exception and I use mine at home all the time. Bakers encounter many recipes where you need to mix together all of your wet ingredients and this measuring cup is the perfect receptacle in which to do so without fear of overflow. Additional (non-baking) uses include: watering plants and mixing drinks.
WÜSTHOF SCISSORS - Whether it is cutting up parchment paper, snipping the ends of pastry bags, or accomplishing a host of other baking-related tasks, a pair of kitchen scissors are a must-have for any baker. Wüsthof’s scissors were part of the standard kit when I first started out at pastry school and have remained one of my most well used tools. The shears can be separated into two pieces for easy cleaning and/or sharpening. Moreover they are comfortable and can be used by both right-handed and left-handed bakers.
CAKE TINS - If your recipient is a keen baker of cakes - and especially if they are a regular bundt cake maker, new cake tins (or an upgrade from their existing cake tins) - can make for a great gift. King Arthur Flour always seems to have a lovely selection of heavyweight, high quality bundt tins available. For more traditional cake tins (i.e. round, square or rectangular), there are a host of sources. I managed to snag a couple of Williams-Sonoma’s Goldtouch tins when they were on sale and love using them. They’re a bit of a splurge (hence waiting to buy them on sale) but are made of steel and are very durable. That said, I have also been very happy with the various aluminum and steel tins I’ve sourced from Wilton, Fat Daddios, Chicago Metallic and Nordic Ware (the makers of many of the gorgeous bundt pans on the market).
HALF AND QUARTER SHEET PANS - Half and quarter sheet pans are (in my opinion), pretty much kitchen necessities. They can be used for everything from cookie baking, to marshmallow making, to catching-pie-juice duty - and so much more! In a professional kitchen, full sheet pans tend to be the go-to size, but those are way too big for most home purposes (and home ovens). I have several half sheet pans at home and a couple of quarter sheet pans. It’s very possible that they are the most regularly used items in my kitchen.
SILPATS AND PARCHMENT PAPER - If you invest in a couple of half sheet pans for your baker, you may well want to pair them with a couple of Silpats, available in half sheet size. For cookie baking, it is hard to beat the flexibility a Silpat offers. Regularly used in professional kitchens, these mats of French origin, are top notch for achieving uniformly baked goods. Moreover, they are easy to clean. Even more often than I use my Silpats though, is parchment paper - whether it is toasting nuts, pouring out honeycomb candy, or roasting pretty much anything. For home baking, I like Costco’s Kirkland brand because it comes in larger rolls, making it slightly less prone to curling up when you’re using it, and it works well at a great price. I don’t know that I would suggest giving parchment paper as a standalone gift, but I think it would make a great companion gift to a set of sheet pans or cake tins.
HOUSE ON THE HILL ROLLING PIN OR COOKIE MOLDS - I got to know of House on the Hill thanks to the gorgeous recipe for soft gingerbread in the Tartine cookbook by baking dynamos Liz Prueitt and Chad Robertson. If you check out their book, there’s a picture of the gingerbread on the front cover and you’ll see that it has a beautiful pattern that gloriously manages to capture and hold just the right amount of glaze. That sent me on a quest to suss out a similarly styled rolling pin and I eventually landed on House on the Hill’s website. They make all sorts of pins and cookie molds, mostly for springerle, German cookies with embossed designs, and many of their molds are made after patterns from centuries ago. When I was shopping for my pin, House on the Hill sold directly to customers online. Now, they only sell wholesale, but you can check out their list of retailers to find a supplier online or located near you.
COOKIE CUTTER SET - The most versatile and well-used cookie cutters in my kitchen (and I would venture to say every professional kitchen I have worked in) are nested sets of squares and circles. They are great for cookies, especially when trying to neatly cut around, for example, a molded or stamped cookie, or prepping cookies that will later be decorated with royal icing. They are also stellar for tasks such as cutting doughnuts, biscuits, and/or dough rounds for hand pies. I like both traditional metal cutters (square and round) and the newer, food-safe polycarbonate versions (again, square and round), the latter for the ease with which they can be cleaned and the fact that rusting is never a worry.
CHINOIS AND LADLE - If your gift recipient loves berries and, for example, likes to make coulis to top ice creams, or flavor mixed drinks, chances are a chinois will come in handy. Chinois are essentially very fine, conically-shaped sieves, perfect for straining out things like raspberry seeds. I have Matfer’s 8-inch reinforced chinois and it has held up extremely well while yielding a very fine strain. One can get conical wooden tools (aka chinois pestles) to help push the liquid through but, when I was trained, a wee ladle worked just as well, in addition to having other uses in the kitchen.
ICE CREAM MACHINE - Several years back, I was given a 1.5-quart Cuisinart ICE-21 ice cream maker as a gift, along with a copy of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home. It was a wonderful surprise from a fellow ice cream lover and has been well used in the intervening period. With a model like this, you need to pre-freeze the bowl for 24 hours or so before making your ice cream, so a little advance planning is required - or, as I do, one can just keep the bowl in the freezer on an ongoing basis, primed for spontaneous ice cream making. Alternately, ice cream machines are available that freeze on demand - like Cuisinart’s ICE-100 ice cream and gelato maker - but expect to pay a bit more for that convenience. Whichever model you choose though, if your pastry chef loves ice cream, chances are they will enjoy the fun and flexibility of making their own. Side note: if your recipient already has an ice cream machine, a popsicle tray and a copy of Paletas makes for another great frozen treat gift.
PYREX ROUND DISHES - When I started making ice cream at home (see #14), I wanted glass (as opposed to plastic) containers in which to store my ice cream. Not only does plastic tend to hold smells and flavors longer, glass just somehow seemed better for longer term storage. I began searching for the perfect glass container and that search ended with Pyrex’s 7-cup round food storage dishes which do duty as excellent ice cream containers but, as it turns out, have come in handy for storing all sorts of other foodstuffs too. One of these makes a great companion gift to an ice cream maker - or, tuck in a timer and set of Rikon Kuhn peelers for an eminently useful little bundle of kitchen goodies.
SCOOP THERE IT IS* - Scoops of all sorts are a critical part of a pastry chef’s arsenal for two key things: cookie making and ice cream scooping. There is a certain amount of overlap between the two but, for ice cream, I actually prefer to use a Zeroll scoop which is really only for ice cream. They come in a range of sizes (personally, I like the green, 2.5-oz scoop), are designed for right or left hand use, and employ the heat of your hand (with the help of a bit of heat-conducting fluid in the handle), to allow for easy release of your ice cream scoops. The other style of ice cream scoop - with the side lever you press to release the ice cream from the scoop - is what I (and, I think, most professional bakers) use for cookies. Using a scoop to portion out your cookies translates to uniform sizing and, as a result, an even bake across your batch. Moreover, you get classically round cookies and, once you get the hang of it, using a scoop is definitely less messy than using a tablespoon and the push-the-dough-off-with-your-finger method. I own a variety of scoops, ranging from 1/3-oz. to 2-oz. in terms of size. The 1/3-oz. makes adorable little cookies that would not be out of place on the side of a tea saucer, whereas a 1-oz. is my go-to when scooping cookies for cookie sandwiches. Prices vary a fair bit for scoops and, in my experience, there is definitely a direct correlation between price and quality. Cheaper scoops just won’t last you as long, whereas my German-made Stöckel 100 scoop still looks and feels as though I could have bought it yesterday (even though it is more than 10 years old now).
VINTAGE SPOON(S) - Continuing on the theme of spoons. Does your prospective recipient thrill at the chance to plate her/his desserts? If so, a couple of vintage spoons are worth considering. Why that, you ask? A quenelle is a classic method of scooping and presenting ice creams or sorbets - check out this YouTube video for a visual demonstration - and pastry chefs are pretty particular about the spoons they use, in many cases opting for antique or vintage spoons because they often have long, deep bowls that are perfect for easy and elegant scooping. Now, it’s certainly not necessary to go vintage or antique but if you are giving them as a gift, it can make for a nice touch. As for sourcing, I would definitely check out antique shops local to you, as it’s great to be able to inspect the goods in person. That said, Etsy and eBay both have wide and varied selections of antique and vintage spoons.
BUCKET OF MALDON SALT - We have highlighted Maldon salt buckets for their eminently wonderful giftability in a past post, but I have to include it here too because I really love Maldon salt and use it regularly in my own kitchen - both for cooking and baking. For a “gourmet” salt, it is priced more affordably than most. As well, it is a dry salt so can easily be used both freeform and in a salt mill without gumming things up. And, thanks to the pyramidical shape of its crystals, it is clingy - a fantastic characteristic when you are salting a chicken, sprinkling cookies with sea salt, and the like. Fussing about the shape of salt may sound a bit OTT, but I am working my way through a jar of another kind of gourmet salt I picked up because it was on sale and am definitely noticing a difference - its large round crystals ping off everything, making the seasoning process much less efficient, and I can’t wait to finish the jar and get back to using Maldon.
VANILLA BEAN PASTE AND VANILLA BEANS - Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, but vanilla takes second place. As such, high quality vanilla can be a wonderful way to treat the baker in your life to a luxurious little kitchen upgrade. For the vast majority of bakers, vanilla is a critical, must-have ingredient in one form or another. In one of the first professional kitchens I worked in, I was introduced to something called vanilla bean paste which is still liquid, like extract, but more viscous - it also packs a bit more of a punch, perhaps because it contains the seeds from the vanilla bean pod. So, in addition to top notch flavor, vanilla bean paste yields those lovely little flecks that are sometimes visible in vanilla cake or ice cream. I’ll hazard a guess that giving the gift of some high quality vanilla beans, extract or paste (or some combination thereof) is likely to be met with approbation by the baker in your life.
CHOCOLATE SELECTION - Chocolate is another one of those ingredients that can easily be quite costly but also one where quality can really make a difference. If your prospective gift recipient is a bit of a chocoholic, may I suggest bundling together a special selection of chocolates and chocolate products as a gift? There are a lot of great chocolatiers out there but, if you don’t fancy researching chocolate makers, or find yourself a bit overwhelmed by the options (easily done!), here are a few recommendations to get you started: a container of Guittard’s unsweetened Cocoa Rouge Cocoa Powder (Dutch processed so less acidic than cocoa in its natural state), a box of Droste cocoa powder (also Dutch processed), a box of Valrhona’s Pure Cocoa Powder, one or two of Scharffen Berger’s bittersweet baking bars - or, if you’re splashing out, one each of their semisweet, bittersweet and unsweetened bars - a packet of their semisweet chocolate chunks (great for chocolate chip cookies or adding to brownies!) and, to round things out, a bag of semisweet or bittersweet Guittard chocolate wafers. If you want to really splurge, check out some of the single origin chocolates callets/wafers/fèves from the likes of Guittard, Valrhona and Callebaut - for example, Valrhona’s Manjari. Final word of caution: if you are ordering online, I don’t recommend this as a summertime gift - too many reviewers report chocolate melting in transit to make it worth the bother. Save this as a cooler weather gift, or see if you can’t buy a selection of fine chocolates locally.
BOUQUET OF FLOURS - Speaking as a baker, one of the most thoughtful, romantic gifts in movie history has to be when Will Ferrell’s character gives Maggie Gyllenhaal’s baker a “bouquet” of flours in Stranger Than Fiction (check out the scene here on YouTube). Might I suggest taking a page out of Hollywood’s history book by recreating this gift yourself? I think this would work especially well for someone who loves to bake bread and/or anyone who is into experimenting with various types of wheat, whole wheats, or alternative grains. Millers you may wish to check out include: Hayden Flour Mills (Arizona), Grist & Toll (California), Farmer Ground Flour (New York) or Sunrise Flour Mill (Minnesota).
RECIPE MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE - Back in the day, I belatedly and finally converted to a smartphone for two reasons, the first and foremost being the MacGourmet app (the other was Shazam - the power to ID music on the fly!). Being able to store recipes on my computer and to synchronize them to my phone for quick reference in the supermarket or while working in the bakery was a dynamite proposition. To this day, I use MacGourmet Deluxe to manage all of my recipes and have been very happy with the service. On my computer, it operates a bit like iTunes in the sense of having a list of recipes (songs) and being able to group them as you like (akin to creating playlists). You can enter all sorts of information for each recipe, even attaching a photo for each step if you so desire. I make regular use of the space for notes and like that I can create custom categories (another way to filter my recipes). An added bonus: there is an easy browser plugin that makes importing recipes from popular sites a cinch. MacGourmet (as one might guess) is only for Mac users, but I hear good things too about Paprika and that is available for both Windows and Mac.
ICING TIPS - Does your gift recipient love to make cakes? Love their frosting? If so, I entirely relate! Piping buttercream flowers was one of the things I especially enjoyed when I attended culinary school and, in the intervening years, have enjoyed trotting out those skills for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. A set of icing tips from Ateco or Wilton is great gift for any baker who is just starting their buttercream flower adventures. If you go this route and opt for Wilton tips, I would also flag their decorating tip poster which serves as a great reminder for what each tip can do. For a more experienced flower piper, chances are they already have the “canonical” tips. Newer on the scene (at least here in the States) are Russian piping tips which might be a fun gift to expand your recipient’s piping options and repertoire. There are several kinds available in all sorts of different combinations - ball tips and more traditional conical tips. I think this 8-tip set for the former and an 105-piece set, including 50 tips looks like a pretty comprehensive set for the latter. As well, if your recipient might be interested in, say, decorating cupcakes with princesses, ruffle tips (like the ones in this 7-tip set) are specially designed for piping the skirt part of a princess’ dress. And, last but not least, this kit includes a sample of all three kinds of Russian tips.
PRO ICING OR PIPING BAGS - One of the things that really gets my goat are the crummy icing bags that are often included with icing kits. Either they’re too flimsy (risking a burst bag), or they’re too stiff and hard to handle. If your gift recipient loves to ice cakes and is (or would like to) expand their buttercream flower horizons, I suggest getting them a box of Thermohauser’s professional piping bags - they make a great companion gift to a set of new icing tips or cake tins.
ICING SPATULAS - As with piping bags, bakers and pastry chefs can get pretty particular about the spatulas they use for frosting cakes and the like. It’s a bit of a Goldilocks situation - one spatula could be too stiff, another too flimsy and flexible, failing to offer sufficient resistance, and so on. Ateco frosting spatulas are my go-to, in my opinion, offering just the right balance of flex and rigidity. I also have a strong preference for offset (as opposed to flat) spatulas, as in most cases where you are using a spatula like this, you want your knuckles at a distance from whatever you are spreading. I have both the 1305 (small) and the 1307 (medium) offset Ateco Ultra spatulas in my home kitchen and use them about equally as regularly. Mine have plastic handles (easy washing and dishwasher safe) but they also make wood-handled spatulas too which are quite attractive. Various sets are available which can make for great gifts - for example, a 3-piece set (including both of the spatulas I mentioned, plus one large spatula) or a 4-piece set (in plastic or wood) which also includes a small, tapered spatula.
CAKE STAND - An attractive, dedicated cake stand or cake plate makes a great gift for a regular cake baker. Not only does it offer the baker the opportunity to display the results of their efforts to best advantage, many such stands or plates are also a great way to store a cake until it is consumed. Personally, I have Anchor Hocking’s ‘Presence’ cake stand with dome - it’s made of glass, looks clean and elegant (IMHO), is easy to clean AND is multifunctional, with the ability to serve not just as a cake stand but as a punch bowl too. (Side note: they now have a newer model too which also manages to serve as a chip and dip set!). Optimal, really, for any baker short on space (city apartments, anyone?). That said, there are a ton of beautiful cake stands out there in a host of cheery colors and/or gorgeous natural materials. If something like that sounds more up your recipient’s alley, I recommend checking out the selection at Sarah’s Stands, Sur La Table, or Fishs Eddy. And, of course, Amazon.com, eBay and Etsy have a plethora of options too - the latter two being especially great sources for vintage items.
10-INCH WIDE CHEF’S KNIFE OR SERRATED KNIFE - As a baker, the two knives I use the most are my 10-inch wide chef’s knife and my serrated knife. The former is my workhorse for slicing and dicing while the latter makes cutting up bread, muffins and rolls a cinch. I was converted to both by fellow chefs and/or food enthusiasts. Previously, I had been using an 8-inch chef’s knife but was thoroughly wooed by the additional heft and weight of Wüsthof’s wide 10-inch knife. I love the wide blade for its ability to more easily wick away (while slicing) or port (after slicing) whatever might be on the cutting board. As for Wüsthof’s serrated bread knife, I was similarly converted many moons ago. Where I had only ever used a straight-edged knife to cut up bread, a friend suggested that I give their serrated knife a try. By golly gumdrops, I was an immediate convert, realizing how much energy I had wasted slicing bread with a straight-edged blade.
KNIFE SHARPENING - In any field, it always feels good when the tools you’re working with are in tip top shape, no? As a chef, having your knives sharpened by a pro is a real treat. If at all possible, I recommend finding an expert who hand sharpens knives, rather than using a machine - that way they will be able to sharpen serrated knives as well. Here in Boston, I bring my knives to Patti Small of On the Edge Knife Sharpening. Formerly, Patti worked for 25 years as an accountant in the film industry but left in 2008 to pursue a job that allowed her to work with her hands: knife sharpening. If you can find someone like her near where you are, I recommend treating your home baker to a knife tune-up, or getting them a gift certificate for a future tune-up at the time of their choosing.
APRON - Chances are, if your recipient bakes with regularity, they already have an apron. Maybe though, it is old and needs replacing, or perhaps it is a cheap, uncomfortable freebie that advertises a local bank. For those (or any other reason, really), I have a few suggestions for elevating your recipient’s apron wardrobe. First up: if you are handy with sewing machine, consider making one (or more) yourself. I have an apron that was made for me by a friend and it has a small secret message embroidered on the inside of the top flap. And, no, I’m not gonna tell you what it says! 😉 But, suffice it to say that it makes me smile every time I put it on. The second option: Hedley & Bennett’s aprons are all handmade and are definitely worth checking out if you don’t fancy (or have the skills) to whip one up yourself. It’s easy to see why their work has become a staple in some of the country’s best restaurants. Last but not least, a third option: check out Rough Linen’s beautiful pinafores for a slightly more Old World look - I am thinking specifically of the pinafores the ladies wear at the Poilâne bakeries in Paris. With excellent coverage and large pockets, Rough Linen’s pinafores look great and, being made of linen, have the added benefit of getting softer and softer with each washing. They are also available in sizes suitable for both grown-up and still-little bakers.
SITRAM SAUCE PAN BRAISER - So, this is one of my dream pots. At the last place I worked as a baker, we had a small and a large version of this pot. Both had seen regular use for donkey’s years and showed little to no sign of wear and tear. They heated so evenly and were the perfect weight - not too heavy, not too light. Used for everything from making batches of jam, to glazing marrons glacés, to making chocolate mousse cakes, to lemon curd, this was a piece of kitchen equipment that never let me down and it is my hope to someday have one of Sitram’s 11-inch braisers in my home kitchen. If you fancy splashing out on your recipient, I wager that you will score big by gifting one of these beauties!
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