Next week, both young and old will be delighted to find new cooking toys under the Christmas tree.

Whether it’s an Easy Bake Oven for an 8-year-old or a new high-end mixer for the veteran cook, new kitchen equipment can be a source of inspiration for the recipient and everyone else lucky enough to be invited to test the results.

According to national retailers, the most popular kitchen gift this holiday season is a panini maker for making crisp, hot sandwiches.

Ranging in price from $25 to hundreds of dollars, panini presses are either electrical countertop appliances or stovetop pans.

The electrical models work like a waffle iron to cook two sides at once, delivering a sandwich with a crisp crust and soft, warm fillings.

Stovetop pans are more akin to grill pans, though with the addition of a flat lid that presses down on the sandwich to create the same effect of dark grill marks on toasted bread.

While the stovetop pans may seem more versatile, since they can be used for grilling meat or vegetables without using the lid, the electrical models also pinch-hit to grill steaks, salmon, chicken breasts and other foods that are traditionally grilled.

Judging from the Black Friday ads, many cooks will be unwrapping professional-quality mixers on Christmas.

Giving a powerful mixer such as a KitchenAid also makes it easy to plan future gifts for the recipient, because there is a long list of optional accessories, including a meat grinder, ice cream maker, sausage stuffer and pasta maker, to gift next year.

A high-caliber mixer makes short work of many kitchen tasks, cutting minutes off beating egg whites and eliminating hand-kneading for most bread recipes.

They’re also a great gift for anyone who cooks for a crowd, since they are roomy and powerful enough to make double and triple batches.

That capacity and power can have a downside, though; before giving a big mixer, it’s important to make sure that the recipient has ample available storage room.

The big mixers also weigh 20 to 30 pounds, another important consideration for many cooks.

One cooking gift near the top of many wish lists is a popcorn popper.

Even more varied than panini makers, popcorn poppers can be crank-style stovetop pans, health-conscious hot air poppers or go-anywhere electric poppers.

The hot-air poppers have won an avid following for more than three decades by eliminating the need for oil to make the fluffy, crunchy snack.

Microwave corn poppers also target the healthy eaters, by using plain popcorn instead of the additive-enriched bags of microwaveable popcorn.

There’s a more frugal way to achieve that same result, though. Putting a quarter-cup of plain popcorn kernels in a small paper sack (the size sold as lunch bags works well) and microwaving on the popcorn setting makes healthy, no-oil popcorn just as easily.

A gift of kitchen equipment really is the gift that keeps on giving — it gives the opportunity to try new things, to master old skills and create memorable food to share not just during the holidays, but all year long.

Parmesan and Black Pepper Popcorn

SERVES: 4 to 6

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1⁄2 cup popcorn kernels
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
  • 1⁄4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a large saucepan over medium heat, warm 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the popcorn kernels, cover the pan and cook, shaking the pan often, until the popping slows, about 5 minutes.

Remove the cooked popcorn from the heat and wait for the popping to subside before removing the lid.

Transfer the popcorn to a large bowl. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and the melted butter, tossing to coat. Sprinkle with the cheese, season with salt and pepper and toss again.

Divide the popcorn among individual bowls, if desired, and serve hot.

(SOURCE: Recipe courtesy Williams-Sonoma)

Italian sausage and Roasted Pepper Panini


  • 1 pound fresh Italian sausage
  • 1 1⁄2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1⁄2 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and julienne
  • 4 pieces focaccia bread, each 6 inches by 3 inches, cut in half horizontally
  • 8 ounces fontina cheese, shredded

Preheat a panini press on the sear setting according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Place the sausage on the preheated panini press, close the lid and cook until browned on all sides and cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer the sausage to a cutting board. When the sausage is cool enough to handle, slice it 1⁄4-inch thick on the bias.

In a nonstick fry pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove the sauteed onion from the heat and let cool slightly, then stir in the bell peppers.

Adjust the panini press to the panini setting.

Arrange the sausage slices on the bottom halves of the bread slices. Top the sausage with the onion-bell pepper mixture and sprinkle with the cheese, dividing evenly. Cover each sandwich with a top half of the bread.

Place two of the sandwiches on the panini press, close the lid and cook until the bread is crisp and the cheese is melted, 5 to 6 minutes.

Repeat to cook the remaining sandwiches. Cut the sandwiches in half and serve immediately.

(SOURCE: Recipe courtesy Williams-Sonoma)

Chocolate Pound Cake


  • 1 1⁄2 cups butter, softened
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 2 1⁄2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 5 eggs
  • 21⁄2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1⁄2 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 325 or 350 degrees.

Cream the butter, sugar and vanilla in large mixer bowl 3 minutes at medium speed. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. Add alternately with buttermilk to the creamed mixture, beating well just until blended.

Pour the mixture into a greased and floured Bundt pan, 10-inch pan or 2 9-inch-by-5-inch-3-inch loaf pans.

Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour and 20 minutes for the Bundt pan or tube pan, at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 10 minutes for the loaf pans.

Bake the cake until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool the cake for 10 minutes then remove the cake from the pan. Cool the cake completely and sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar or glaze with melted chocolate or white chocolate chips.

(SOURCE: Recipe courtesy KitchenAid)

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