Gift Guide For The Holidays

The first real snowfall of the season had fallen yesterday in New York City and it’s almost the middle of December. I still can’t believe we’re nearing 2014. Since we’re all busy in some fashion and might be scrambling to buy gifts for our friends, co-workers and loved ones, here’s some food and home gift ideas.

Wines, Spirits & Hard Ciders

Hahn Estates Winery: Hahn SLH 2011 Pinot Noir, Smith & Hook Single Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Hahn Estate 2012 Chardonnay Estancia Chardonnay Monterey Conty 2012 and a Pinot Noir scented candle by Dayna Decker and Estancia collaboration
Various wines from Hahn Estates and Estancia

Doña Paula Estate Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines

Doña Paula Estate is a winery based in the Ugarteche, Luján de Cuyo, and Mendoza regions of Argentina that started in 1990. The 2012 Doña Paula Estate Chardonnay, Valle de Uco ($15) The white wine has peach and floral notes, a round body, and brassy acidity. It would be great with roast duck, where the acidity would cut through the rich fat. The 2011 Doña Paula Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Luján de Cuyo, Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) has big notes of blackberry and blueberry, round dark fruit flavors, and a medium tannic finish. Definitely one to pair with roast pork loin.

Hahn Estates Winery has some exquisite wines from California. Hahn SLH 2011 Pinot Noir ($35) has a delicate body and texture make it the perfect backdrop for rich yet delicate wild salmon. The nose is spicy and fragrant with orange peel, red plums, and sweet Bing cherry. The mouth is packed full of solid black cherry, strawberry, firm acids and finishes with that distinctive Pinot Noir velvet.

Smith & Hook Single Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($30) that has a a rich texture on the palate supported by supple tannins make this wine a perfect combination of finesse and power. Very intense berry on the nose with lots of vanilla and a hint of coconut. Blackberry and blueberry compote flavors with licorice background. Toasty oak on the finish as it’s aged in new French oak. Hahn SLH Estate 2012 Chardonnay ($25) has aromas of baked green apples and lemon grass, with a backdrop of tropical notes of pineapple and lychee. A broad, silky mouthfeel carries through to the finish where light notes of butter toffee and vanilla balance the bright fruit flavors on the mid palate.

Estancia Wines Chardonnay Monterey County 2012 ($12) is made of grapes grown in their Pinnacles vineyard on the western flanks of the Gavilan Mountains in Monterey County. The cool Monterey climate accompanied by a long growing season produced a ripe, silky Chardonnay. Subtle oak accentuates bright fruit. A rich, fruity bouquet and soft, creamy texture of this Chardonnay result from combining the best attributes of barrel and tank fermentation.

Estancia also collaborated with fragrance brand DayNa Decker to create limited edition candles inspired and based on Estancia’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay fruity scents. ($44 each)

Berlucchi Franciacorta Brut Ole Smoky Moonshine - Three different flavors
Berlucchi Fanciacorta Brut & Various flavors of Ole Smoky Moonshine

Berlucchi Franciacorta Brut ($35) is a crisp, rich, and elegant, fairly lengthy nose with scents of apple and pear, tropical fruit and subtle nuances of spice. It has delicious freshness and zesty acidity on the palate with a velvet texture and fine balance.

Ole Smoky Moonshine ($27.99 each, 750mL) is in case you really want to imbibe with moonshine. All of their moonshine is based on unaged corn whiskey. The strawberry flavor is a sweet moonshine flavor made me wish for spring or summer and mix this with tart lemonade. The Lemon Drop is a mixture of their White Lightnin’ (their neutral grain based spirit that’s distilled six times), fresh squeezed lemons and sugar is pretty much what you’d expect in that classic drink. The Apple Pie is a 40 proof moonshine mixed with pure apple juice, ground cinnamon and other spices. It’s what you’d think of drinking apple pie but in moonshine form.

Angry Orchard Hard Ciders Angry Orchard's House Collection - Iceman and Strawman hard ciders

Hard cider is one of my go-to drinks during the holidays because it’s relatively sweet but has a slight alcoholic tinge and dryness to make it more interesting than fruit juice. Angry Orchard (based in Cincinnati, Ohio) is one of the brands I came across this year that I really liked. Their cider’s alcohol by volume is about 5 to 5.5%. Crisp Apple Cider Is the most easiest to drink of the bunch. Sweet, but with a nice edge of tartness and a semi-dry finish. It’s a good starter for people who never drank hard cider before. The Traditional Dry Cider is wonderfully dry and crisp with a very pleasant tart flavor to temper the sweet. It has a clean apple flavor like just-pressed juice with some apple peel tannins. It’s the closest to English-style hard cider. The Cinnful Apple Cider smelled like cinnamon red hot candies meets mulled cider. It feels warming and comforting, like a slice of apple pie. The cider itself is the sweetest of all these ciders, making this feel more like something to sip with dessert. The Apple Ginger Cider is a fall-time cider without going to quite the extreme of the Cinnful Apple. Warming from the ginger and a touch spicy, while the cider comes across with a not-too-sweet, not-too-tart apple flavor. It pairs well with food.

As for Angry Orchard’s House Collection, (first released in Fall 2012; each bottle $15 with 10% ABV) is inspired by the traditional ice ciders of Quebec, Angry Orchard Iceman combines crisp apples with notes of caramel and toffee for a cider that’s sweet but not syrupy or cloying. They aged the cider on oak adds a smooth, vanilla character. The Iceman> is medium-bodied, leaving a smooth finish with rich flavor and lingering sweetness on the palate. The Strawman has flavors of ripe apple, vanilla and honeysuckle flavors impart an earthy character complimented by a distinct aroma of ripe apples, wood, dark fruits and sweet citrus.

Woodchuck Hard Ciders: Amber, Winter, Reserve and Farmhouse Select

Woodchuck Hard Cider is based in Vermont and is one of America’s largest hard cider makers and puts out a wide variety of hard ciders, including several seasonal and wood-aged varieties. Woodchuck Amber is closest to a classic hard cider. It looks like regular apple juice with carbonation. There’s plenty of sweetness in this cider and has the highest level of sugars per bottle (21g) and it’s not dry. It’s very sweet, and the alcohol is hidden very well.

Winter Cider is a limited edition flavor that’s available only in December and January. Winter Cider is crystal clear, and looks like apple juice, with a golden amber hue. With no head and no heavily aromatic ingredients used, the nose is simply that of fresh apples.The apple flavor is a little more tart with the Winter Cider (compared to the Fall Cider), and there is definitely a velvety aftertaste that likens to vanilla, however faint. Woodchuck Barrel Select has the usual fresh apple you can detect some wonderful bourbon and caramel notes. The flavors are crisp apple freshness and awesome brown sugar finish with smoky white oak Kentucky Bourbon flavors. At 6.9% ABV, this is a slightly stronger cider but it’s a very good one.

The Farmhouse Select is a small batch artisanal line, featured in a 750ml corked bottle. It’s a throwback to their early days in cider making in 1991. It has a pale golden straw color. Earthy yet tart apples and nut brittle aromas with a supple, barely carbonated fruity medium body with a tangy apple and apricot skin and lemon accented finish.


Ladurée Gingerbread macarons for Fall/Holiday 2013
Ladurée Gingerbread macarons

This season Ladurée (one of my favorite macaron houses in the world) released a seasonal flavor of gingerbread and coconut (latter not shown). The gingerbread macarons were super fresh. Underneath that über thin delicate exterior is a moist cookie with a sweet, spiced ganache. This particular batch of macarons were my favorite by far. To purchase, you have to buy it in person at the only U.S. location in New York City’s Upper East Side: 864 Madison Avenue, between 72nd & 71st Street. (I’m still hoping and waiting for the rumored SoHo cafe location opening soon.)

Large tin of cookies and brownies from Platine Bakery
Cookies from Platine Bakery

Platine Bakery is an artisan bakery based out in Venice, California (very close to Los Angeles) run and owned by Chef Jamie Cantor. All of Cantor’s cookies are lovingly handmade and the natural ingredients speaks volumes to all of her delectable creations. Her large platinos & camées assortment ($60) were an American nostalgic assortment of cookies and brownies. The sandwich cookies (her version of the Oreo and a vanilla Oreos) were delectable and a touch cake-y than the original but still very satisfying. The brownies were deep, dark intense chocolate and it’s the cake texture rather than the decadently fudge-y.

Lebkuc35hen by Leckerlee
Lebkuchen by Leckerlee

Lebkuchen by Leckerlee is a Brooklyn-based bakery that specializes only in the hard to find traditional German-style gingerbread cookie. Leckerlee’s lebkuchen was simply wonderful and warms your palate with so many various spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and other spices with molasses. The texture is soft and cake-like and it’s sugar glazed just enough that it balance the sweet and spicy perfectly. (Mini lebkuchen tin $20; large lebkuchen tin $30)

Theo Chocolate

Theo Chocolate is based out in Seattle, Washington that is started by Joe Whinney. He first pioneered the supply of organic cocoa beans into the United States in 1994. The brand officially started in 2006, and their inaugural run of organic chocolate — the first made here in the U.S. Then, as now, Theo chocolate comes from only the purest ingredients grown in the most sustainable ways possible. Everything they make and sell meets the highest standards for organic, Fair Trade and Fair for Life.

The 12-piece Ganache Collection ($26.40) has two of each of these flavors: Burnt Sugar, Lemon, Mint, Noir (bittersweet dark chocolate), Scotch, and Hazelnut Gianduja. All were luscious and delicious in its own way. Don’t make me pick a favorite flavor because I simply can’t. Big Daddy ($10) is their own take of the beloved American confection, the S’more except with the addition of the luscious caramel layer within. I wanted to have more than those four bars (and it’s almost 4 ounces, 110 grams)! The limited edition bar of Coffee & Cream (1 ounce, $4) is made with 45% milk chocolate with Caffé Vita coffee blend. It’s a very creamy, milky (in a good way) mocha bar if you love your pronounced caramel, milk that meld with the nutty coffee. Their fun “Fantasy Bars” of Bread & Chocolate and Fig, Fennel & Almond ($3.25 each) were pretty interesting (both are based on organic 70% chocolate). The Bread & Chocolate is what you would imagine having toast in the morning with chocolate schmeared on top except it’s in chocolate bar form and your bread is in breadcrumb form. The fig, fennel and almond bar is dark chocolate mixed with crunchy slivered almonds, sweet chewy dried figs and a surprising touch of anise-y fennel.

Gearhart's Chocolates: Peanut Butter Pups Gearhart's Chocolates

Gearhart’s Chocolates is based out in Charlottesville, Virginia. They use rare and revered Criollo cacao from the finest Venezuelan plantations and blend with local sweet cream and pure butter, then add top-quality fruits, nuts, herbs, teas, spices, and liquors. Each piece is then finished by hand. Their pistachio toffee were incredibly rich and buttery from the toffee and pistachio and the touch of bittersweet chocolate tempered the sweetness just so. The Peanut Butter Pups ($22 but sold out recently) were almost too cute to eat. When you do get over it’s adorable looks and eat it, it’s tasty and what you’d wish having when you were a kid instead of the other well known brand of a very similar confection. Their bonbons or the chocolates (16-piece, $33) were fantastic and each of the bonbon’s flavors were shown wonderfully and masterfully yet still focusing on the chocolate.

Jams, Preserves, Jellies & Cheeses

Vermont Shepherd cheeses - Verano (summer) and Invierno (winter)

Vermont Shepherd makes two award winning, sheep’s milk cheeses Verano (summer) and Invierno (winter). The Verano ages for 3 to 5 months and ripens by August. The flavor of the summer cheese is sweet, rich and earthy with hints of clover, mint, and thyme. Their winter cheese, we make from a mix of our sheeps’ milk and rich, organic milk from our neighbors 20 Jersey cows. Invierno ages for 5 to 9 months and ripens by early winter. The flavor of the winter cheese is robust, full, with a spicy tang.

Thistle Hill Farm Farmstead Tarentaise Cheese

Thistle Hill Farm is another award winning, Vermont-based farm and cheese maker. The only cheese they make is a sublime Tarentaise. The Tarentaise is an aged, creamy, raw milk, farmstead organic cheese which is handmade by John and Janine Putnam on their family farm in North Pomfret, Vermont from the certified organic milk of their grass fed Jersey cows.

Oregon Growers & Shippers: Huckleberry, Marionberry, Strawberry Pinot Noir, Peach, and Black Cherry Jams Jeannie's Artisan Jams
HeathGlen's Kitchen's Artisan Jams and Marmalades

To accompany those mentioned cheeses, you may choose to have the option of pairing it with amazing jams, marmalades, preserves, and jellies. Or simply schmear it on a slice of crusty bread or sandwich or fill with cookies. The Oregon Growers & Shippers ($6.95 each 12 ounce jar) is a farm-direct specialty food brand based in Hood River Valley, Oregon. Their thick, luscious fruit jams are simply its own fruit stated on the label and you can taste it’s been picked at its peak.

HeathGlen is artisan jams and preserves brand that create delicious jams featuring fruit at its peak with a few unique and unexpected touches like pairing blood orange with currant. Both fruits are naturally tart and the jams does display each fruits individual flavors but still manage to work. All of her jams are not too sweet, balanced and let the fruits’ flavors shine.

Jeannie’s Artisan Jams (Regular 4 oz jars $5.50 each and Large 8 oz jars $8.50 each) is based out in Santa Cruz, California. Jeannie creates the most unique jams, jellies and marmalades I’ve eaten by far. These jams are only made by her in small batches with lots of love. Some are made from fruits rarely seen in like the Olallieberry (tastes like a mix of a blackberry and red raspberry) that’s grown only in California. The Quince Rose Petal tastes like a feminine jam (I mean this in the best way) where you can really taste the sweet floral roses and the crisp, pear like flavors meld wonderfully with the roses and I never imagined them to be together. She does make excellent one fruit jams. (I wish I had an unlimited supply of her fig jam in my dreams.) If you happen to be in California, Scotts Valley Artisans in Scotts Valley stock her jams or contact her directly via e-mail (her webpage is linked earlier on this paragraph).

Dalmatia Imports Fig Jams and Olive Tapenades

If you’re a traditionalist for cheese pairing, Dalmatia Import fig jams are made of handpicked, sun-dried figs and prepared into an all-natural and fat-free spread. Admittedly, this brand is easier to find than the earlier mentioned brands. Their olive tapenades were great to spread on my sandwiches and even when I bake my loaf of focaccia, imparting a wonderful briny flavor. (Dalmatia is available and imported by Foodmatch and other shops.)

Home & Kitchen

SOMA Water Filter
SOMA Water Filter

SOMA Water Filter ($49) is an elegant glass carafe boasts an easy-to-hold hourglass shape (sort of reminds of my Chemex) and a biodegradable filter with the option of having fresh refills of which arrive by mail every 60 days. A portion of Soma’s sales goes to the clean-water nonprofit organization charity: water.

Wüsthof Classic Chinese cleaver

Wüsthof Classic Chinese cleaver ($179.95) is the cleaver my dad would love to have. This ultra versatile kitchen knife for all-purpose vegetable and meat prep. The knife is precision forged from a single piece of sturdy high-carbon steel that resists stains and corrosion. Its full tang is triple riveted to the handle for exceptional durability and control.

Tea & Lots of Coffee

Le Palais des Thés - Tin of Vive Le Thé Green tea, Boxed tea set of Le Bureau and assorment of black and green teas for the holiday season

Le Palais des Thés released a line of tea sets and teas for the holiday season. The Le Bureau ($38) is a collection of 48 tea bags containing Darjeeling Margaret’s Hope (Darjeeling black tea), Blue of London (black tea with bergamot), Thé du Hammam (their most popular green tea with berries), Fleur de Geisha (Japanese cherry blossom green tea), Thé des Sources (delicate green tea with ming and bergamot), Thé des Alizés (fruity green tea with peach).

Vive le Thé is Palais des Thés’ latest creation. It’s a green tea combined with ginger and citrus notes of lemon, tangy grapefruit and sweet orange, sprinkled with orange pieces. Thé No 25 is Palais des Thés’ take on Christmas tea that’s tasted almost like green tea Chai (there’s other versions made with red, white, and black teas).

My ROK Espresso Maker Stream of espresso dripping down while pressing

ROK Espresso (purchase through the U.S. distributor Importika for $199.99) is a unique hand powered espresso maker. In other words, you will be the thing that’s giving the espresso maker its needed bars of pressure to make your espresso.

It’s fairly easy for extraction by using the freshest beans you can get and weigh it (about 15 to 17 grams, depending upon your preferences), grind it (maybe using the new Hario Clear Coffee grinder seen below), and add it to the filter basket and lock it tightly. Pour hot water on the top, clear vessel and squeeze the two “arms” of the machine with your two hands. It does create the flavorful, potent double shot (that’s if you fill the water to the top and you have doubled the 15-17 grams of beans) and it takes some time and work to get the desired crema on your espresso shot.

This espresso maker does let you tinker every possible variable to make your perfect shot ranging from the size of the grind of your beans, temperature of the water, timing of how long to extract your coffee.

Hario Clear Coffee Grinder Hario V60 Vintage Metal Pour Over (Size 02) in three different colors
Hario Clear Coffee Grinder & V60 Vintage Metal Pour Over

One of my beloved coffee maker and accessories brands Hario released two products – the Clear Coffee Grinder ($60) and their shiny V60 Vintage Metal Pour Over filters ($55) that comes in three pretty colors. What the new grinder offers compared to its older counterpart, the Skerton, are its new clever design changes like a base that suctions to the counter and a drawer for storing ground beans. The V60 metal pour overs doesn’t necessarily change your coffee brew compared to its ceramic or plastic version except it is lighter and has a removable silicone base to pad any potential impact when you set your filter on top or adjust to the size of your vessel.

My Dark Matter Coffee beans - Unicorn Blood (espresso) and three Single Origin El Salvadorian beans
Dark Matter Coffee

Dark Matter Coffee is a hip, premium Chicago coffee roastery that started in 2007, who focuses on making delicious yet unique blends of coffee and serve to both consumers (they opened Star Lounge Coffee Bar in Chicago) and restaurants alike. Their two flagship blends are A Love Supreme and Unicorn Blood that won accolades.

I used their Unicorn Blood (12 ounce, $15) for my ROK espresso experiment and it did taste pretty awesome (besides having a cool name). It’s inspired by traditional northern Italian Espresso that has lots of body and creaminess that you can’t help but be bowled over how great it is. Their single origin El Salvadorian coffees (12 ounce bag, $17 each) were fantastic as well as most of their beans did express a fruity, slightly nutty, but not too acidic brew when made with a V60.


Martha Stewart's Cakes Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant Cookbook
To the Bone by Paul Liebrandt and Andrew Friedman, Photographs by Evan Sung My preview copy of René Redzepi: A Work in Progress

When it comes to books released this year, I’m really liking Martha Stewart’s first cake cookbook, Martha Stewart’s Cakes: Our First-Ever Book of Bundts, Loaves, Layers, Coffee Cakes, and more ($24.99, published by Clarkson Potter) because I grew up looking up to Ms. Stewart and learned how to bake from scratch and her recipes are usually reliable.

Other restaurant related books like one of New York City landmark restaurants, Grand Central Oyster by Sandy Ingber and Roy Finamore ($35, Publisher: Stewart, Tabori & Chang) tells you of its century old history and anecdotes and features more than a hundred recipes from the restaurant.

The serious chef cookbooks that have reflections of their life in the restaurant business like René Redzepi: A Work in Progress by René Redzepi ($59.95, Publisher: Phaidon Press) and Paul Liebrandt’s To the Bone ($30 Publisher: Clarkson Potter), are approachable, frank and honest works.

Redzepi opens his journal to the reader so you get a real sense of what it is like to be at the mercy of the seasons (like those Scandinavian winters and early springs) and always try to inspiring yourself and your team to innovate, innovate, innovate.

Liebrandt’s tone is more autobiographical in tone retelling his life growing up and maturing in the restaurant business with a number of recipes that look absolutely gorgeous (photographed by Evan Sung). Even though I almost might not recreate any of his stunning dishes, I do admire the creativity and the thoughtful stories that are associated behind the dishes.


I shoot, eat, and drink. My full time job is a hospital administrator. Moonlighting as a freelance photographer and food and travel writer.