Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Nov 27, 2011
12:44 PM
Small Dishes

Ten for $20 or Less

Ten for $20 or Less

Hostess and Host Gifts that Won't Be Re-Gifted

I will begin with what are the three most common—and often worse—hostess gifts.  First and most popular is the bottle of cheap wine in a fancy gift bag. More often than not, it has already been re-gifted at least once—both bottle and bag.  I have a closet full of blush wine. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to give it to anyone else, knowing my reputation would be at stake. I do appreciate the supply of colorful bags that continues to grow.  The problem with wine as a gift is, unless you know your hosts’ taste,  it’s difficult to pick out something you know they’ll like that you can afford.  And, bringing a single bottle of wine to a group gathering especially if it’s pricey creates a dilemma for the host: Should he or she serve it or feel guilty about not sharing it?  I know when I have people over for dinner I give some thought to the wines that I think will compliment my menu and am not crazy about anyone wanting to turn it into a potluck.

Flowers for the most part are always welcome, but have them delivered ahead of time (which means they’re going to cost more than $20).  Inevitably, I’m trying to get drinks in all my guests’ hands and keep an eye on the roast in the oven when someone walks in and hands me a burly bundle of blossoms than demand a vase, arranging and a place to display to put them where the won’t clash with the table decor.  

Candy can be nice, but not the kind they sell already gift wrapped at the drug store.  I still have a box of Russell Stovers someone gave me for Christmas in 1999.  I’m not sure why I’m saving it, but it fascinates me to bring it out every year and look at it. Seemingly, it will still look fresh come the next millennium.  I love it when guests bring me big boxes of Gale Ambrosius or Candinas chocolates—the sizes that costs more than $20!

 So, without further whining, here are my top ten suggestions for reasonably priced holiday hostess gifts. (If you get one of them and it doesn’t suit you, I’ll take it and you can keep the bag.)

1. Steve’s Wine Market gift card. So, instead of taking the bottle of wine, let them pick it out themselves.  Steve’s is an adult candy store and has one the city’s best selection of wines, hard-to-find spirits and gourmet foods.  The gift card could also make a down payment on an expensive bottle of malt whisky or cognac that suddenly becomes more attractive with the discount.

2. Beer.  It’s been around literally forever, but never been better.  The choice and types of micro brews and imports is staggering. I know I often fret over what wine to pair with what food when beer would be a much better choice.  Even with our spending limit, you can choose a six pack or two that’s bound to please.  Since many of the topshelf brands are now sold in single bottles, use your imagination to assemble a sampler pack.  For something special, Capital Brewery has a limited edition brew in honor of their 25th anniversary, Eternal Flame.   It’s a combination of its award-winning Autumnal Fire and Imperial Fire Doppelbock-style beers. Some of the current batch of Eternal Flame will be retained and blended with future batches to create the next generation of Eternal Flame, hence the name.

3. Cheese. You don’t appreciate it until you move somewhere else.  Items you can commonly pickup at the supermarket here, you would have to seek out at a specialty shop elsewhere.  Sure, they make good cheese in other states, but our artesian cheesemakers can compete with the best of them.  Minding out price range, you can still put together a tempting assortment:  say, a Carr Valley collection with wedges of apple-smoked cheddar, Gran Canaria, cave-aged Marisa and Cardona.  Equally impressive would be a big wedge of one of Hook’s blue cheeses like Blue Paradise, Little Boy Blue or Gorgonzola.

4. Potter’s Crackers. Combine them with the cheese gift or just give an assortment of crackers alone. Potter’s Crackers aren’t cheap, but they’re so good and certainly a relief from the ubiquitous Triscuits and Ritz.  There sold at many markets around town in many varieties than seem to vary from time to time.  (My personal favorite is the caraway rye that always seems to sell out first.) 

5. Balsamic vinegar. With its culinary rock star status, a lot of stuff that sullies its name has shown up on the grocery store shelf.  True balsamic vinegar is rich, deep brown in color and has a complex flavor with a balance of sweet and sour. It’s made by reducing grape juice to a concentrate and then aging it in a wood cask for at least 12 years.  Always look for Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale on the label.  A good bottle of balsamic vinegar will push you over our spending limit, but for $25 - $30 it’s worth the splurge and for anyone who is a serious cook will be much appreciated.  Most places that sell gourmet foods should have a quality balsamic in this price range.

6. Coffee beans.  Considering the price of coffee today, I think it’s time to retire the cliché “not worth a hill of beans.”   Madison has many fine coffee roasters, some of whom even sell at the grocery.  Just Coffee, a local cooperative that roasts and sells fair trade beans, is one of my favorites.  It’s served at many restaurants from L’Etoile and the Madison Club to Roman Candle Pizza and the Babcock Hall Dairy Store.   You can find it at the Willy Street Co-op, Regent Market Co-op, Jenifer Street Market, Capitol Centre Market, Whole Foods or online.   

7. Box of candy from Hughes’ Home Maid Chocolate Shop.  As the name suggests, this in-home basement business makes home-style candy. Once, almost every town had a candy shop like this one but sadly few remain. Hughes’ has satisfied customers for over 70 years with assorted creams, caramels, pecan clusters and meltaways.  The toffee is exquisitely addictive.  All come in 1-pound boxes (gift wrapped if you like) for $9.75 to $11 plus tax. There’s a catch, though:  Hughes’ doesn’t ship!  But if you don’t want to make the trek to Oshkosh, it can be shipped UPS by a reseller, MailMeChocolates.

8. Tin of Perfect Brownies.  Now granted, this requires a little work … very little.  Making homemade brownies from scratch is slightly more taxing than using a mix and there’s no comparison with the outcome.  After all the precious Christmas cookies with their colored sugar and nonpareils, a plain old brownie is a welcome change.  Pack in a holiday tin and you’re ready to go.  A recipe for one of my favorite brownies follows. Though, If you really can’t manage it, just give the chocolate—not just any chocolate but the very best:  Schraffen Berger.  A 9.7-ounce package each of unsweetened and bittersweet or semisweet—the most commonly used types in baking—comes in just under twenty bucks.  It’s readily available at the likes of the Willy Street Co-op, Jenifer Street Market and Whole Foods.

9. Kickapoo Gold. Wisconsin makes some kick ass maple syrup and the local product outshines the stuff from Vermont, Canada or who knows where. Real maple syrup should never be confused with maple-flavored syrup, basically corn syrup that’s usually artificially flavored.  Considering how the maple tree is harvested, drop by drop in the dregs of winter, and that it takes about three gallons of sap to produce one pint of syrup, it’s of course expensive. For your twenty-dollar bill you can take home a big quart bottle of my favorite brand of maple syrup, Kickapoo Gold—an impressive gift indeed!  It comes two ways: Grade A Amber and Grade B.  Personally I prefer the Grade B since it has a more robust flavor. Kickapoo Gold is available at the Willy Street Co-op, Orange Tree Imports or online.  Be forewarned:  When the supply is gone, it’s gone until next spring!

10.  Donation in your host’s name to Second Harvest Food Bank. Let’s be honest.  The holiday season is an orgy of excess and overindulgence. I hate to sound like Andy Rooney, but I remember a time when less was so much more. Christmas began with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and ended with the ball dropping in Times Square.  Now, plastic jack-o-lanterns and artificial Christmas trees fight for floor space at Costco and Target not that long after Labor Day.  One of the few things I still enjoy about the Holidaypalooza is sharing food and hospitality with friends. I can’t think of a better way to keep things in perspective than to satisfy a need rather than just another want. 


Perfect Brownies

1¼ cake flour, preferably unbleached (I use King Arthur)

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

¾ teaspoon baking powder

6 ounces unsweetened (99% cacao) chocolate, chopped (I use Scharffen Berger)

1½ sticks unsalted butter cut into 1-inch pieces

2¼ granulated sugar

4 large eggs

3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup coarsely chopped pecans or walnuts, lightly toasted (optional)

Place oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Line a 9x13-inch baking pan with sheets of nonstick aluminum foil (nonstick side up).  Press into the corners of the pan and allow at least a 1-inch overhang. Spray the foil with nonstick cooking spray.

In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder.  Set aside.

In the top of a double boiler set over simmering water, melt the chocolate and butter, stirring.  When the mixture is completely smooth, remove the top of the double boiler to the kitchen counter. Whisk the sugar into the chocolate mixture.  Then whisk in the eggs one at a time.  When thoroughly combined, whisk in the vanilla.

Gradually fold the chocolate mixture into the dry ingredients.  When the batter is completely smooth, spread in the prepared pan and strew the nuts over the top (if used).

Bake the brownies in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes—just until a cake tester comes out with a few moist crumbs.  Transfer the cooked brownies to a rack and cool for at least two hours.  Remove the brownies from the pan by lifting on the foil overhang.  Cut the brownies into 2-inch square—a plastic knife is the perfect tool to cut brownies! 

Store the brownies in an airtight container at room temperature.

Makes 24 brownies.

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About This Blog

Dan CurdI found my interest in writing by accident. My training and first job was as a graphic designer. Unemployed, the only employment I could find in advertising at that time was as a copywriter. Somehow, I convinced Richard Newman & Associates to hire me. Later I learned they were desperate. Madison has been my home off and on since 1957 (nonstop for the past 31 years). I write about food, which I love. – Dan Curd

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