Immersion Blender – The Best Compact Kitchen Appliance You’ve Never Heard Of

If you watch cooking shows, read cooking magazines, or are otherwise at all aware of the goings-on of the culinary world, you’ve probably heard of an immersion blender before. Also known as hand blenders or stick blenders, these compact tools are favorites of renowned chefs the world over, and are great for soups, smoothies, whipping cream, or even frothing milk for your coffee. But is one right for you? I know all too well how easy it is to fill up a kitchen with appliances you never – or hardly ever – use. So is an immersion blender worth adding to your small appliance repertoire, or will it be just another gadget gathering dust somewhere in the back of a cabinet or drawer?

Dualit 88860 500-Watt Immersion Hand Blender with Pulse - Chrome

Dualit 88860 500-Watt Immersion Hand Blender with Pulse - Chrome

Really, it depends a lot on what kind of cook you are, and how happy you are with your current setup. If you often find yourself pouring hot soup into a blender – or especially if you’ve ever poured hot soup into a blender and come out on the other end with more burns and mess than soup – drop everything and buy yourself an immersion blender stat. Soup is where stick blenders like this Dualit 88860 really shine – just stick the wand into a full pot of soup, press the on button, and wait anywhere from 60 seconds to two minutes, and voila – instant smooth puree. I especially love this for butternut squash or tomato bisques.

Miallegro 9080 MiTutto Hand Blender 450W w Multi Attachments - Stainless Steel

Miallegro 9080 MiTutto Hand Blender 450W w Multi Attachments - Stainless Steel

Now, if you’ve made it this far but aren’t much of a soup connoisseur, keep reading! Hand blenders also happen to be excellent for people with very small kitchens and not a lot of appliance space. If you’re a big smoothie drinker but already happily have a great blender, skip the stick. If you’d like to be a big smoothie drinker but don’t have room for a full sized blender, a hand blender is an excellent alternative. They don’t have quite the same crushing capacity of traditional upright versions, but they’re also small enough to fit easily in a drawer so you won’t have to sacrifice half a shelf just for your morning drink. If you do want to use one primarily for smoothies, look for one like this Miallegro MiTutto that’s well reviewed for crushing ice and comes with a tall beaker-like cup to make it a little easier to blend your fruit and ice.

Cuisinart CSB-77 Smart Stick Hand Blender

Cuisinart CSB-77 Smart Stick Hand Blender

An immersion blender with the right attachments can actually also make a passable substitute for a food processor, provided that you’re in a tiny kitchen and only cooking for a few people (or making baby food). Many hand blenders, like this Cuisinart CSB-77 (the one in my own kitchen drawer!) come with small chopping attachments. They typically have no more than a 2-or-so cup capacity, which somewhat limits their usefulness, but they attach to the wand of the blender and make quick work out of vegetables, cheese, and garlic, and are excellent for crushing stale bread or crackers in to crumbs.

Nesco Grip 'n Go Hand Blender

Nesco Grip 'n Go Hand Blender

If you’re a big coffee drinker, chances are you already have your own espresso machine, which likely has its own milk frothing wand, so while even a many basic stick blenders could make a pretty decent cappucino, I wouldn’t recommend buying one just for that. Sure, if you like the occasional latte and don’t have an espresso machine, this is a great way to save on expensive equipment, but only if you’d use it for other things as well. The potential exception here would be the Nesco Grip ‘n Go, which actually includes a frothing wand designed specifically for this purpose.

Hamilton Beach 59785 2 Speed Hand Blender with Case

Hamilton Beach 59785 2 Speed Hand Blender with Case

Finally, immersion blenders can be a huge boon to cooks suffering from arthritis. This may seem odd, but the large body of the blender is easy to grip, and ones with an on/off switch (rather than a button you have to hold) can make many otherwise difficult kitchen tasks easy. If you need one primarily for whisking eggs or cream, a hand blender like this Hamilton Beach 2-Speed that has a whisk attachment will do the trick. It’s lighter than a hand mixer, more compact than a stand mixer, and doesn’t require any manual input; just be sure you’re able to comfortably hold the weight in one hand before you buy.

Dualit 88880 Immersion Hand Blender And Accessories Kit

Dualit 88880 Immersion Hand Blender And Accessories Kit

So, now that you’ve decided you want one, what should you look for? The funny thing about immersion blenders is that the standards you might judge other appliances by – price, brand name, wattage, number of blades, or even the name (like “Pro”) – don’t really apply. That said, there are a few things to keep an eye out for. First, most immersion blenders will come with at least a few accessories. What you’ll need depends on what you want to use it for. For whipping, you’ll want a whisk attachment; for chopping, a small closed chopping canister; for smoothies, at least one large, tapered beaker. Some come with even more accessories, like multiple blades or various sized carafes for the food processor style attachment. You can easily get an immersion blender without any accessories at all… or you could get one like this Dualit 88880 that has, more or less, all of them.

Cuisinart CSB-76 Smart Stick Hand Blender

Cuisinart CSB-76 Smart Stick Hand Blender

Once you’ve got your accessories picked out, something you want to look for in any and every stick blender is a detachable wand. This makes cleanup significantly easier, as you can simply pop off the business end of the blender and stick it in the dishwasher. Single unit immersion blenders have to be carefully hand-cleaned, and can be a little more cumbersome to store, so you always always want to make sure you get one that disassembles, like this Cuisinart CSB-76.

Cuisinart CSB-78 Smart Stick Plus Cordless Rechargeable Hand Blender

Cuisinart CSB-78 Smart Stick Plus Cordless Rechargeable Hand Blender

Immersion blenders with a solid metal constructionwill hold up better against high heat than ones with plastic bodies, but if you’re worried about scratching metal pans, look for a blender that has a sturdy plastic guard around the blade instead of a metal one. Most immersion blenders have to be plugged in, but some, like this Cordless Cuisinart, have rechargeable batteries instead – just be aware that they might not be quite as powerful or last as long. Finally, if you have the opportunity, actually pick up several stick blenders before you buy. Look for one that’s weighty but not so heavy you’d be uncomfortable holding it for a few minutes, and make sure the button is located somewhere you can press and hold easily.

What do you plan to do with your new stick blender? Does it seem like an appliance you’ll get a lot of use out of, or is it something that would gather dust?

Posted in appliances, compact living, food, kitchen | Tagged , , | 113 Comments

Seven Low Cost Weekend Projects To Easily (And Inexpensively) Update Any Kitchen

Let’s face it – in a lot of ways, the kitchen is becoming the new living room. With an emphasis on open floor plans and big beautiful kitchen islands that lend to entertaining, the hearth – or at least your beautiful gas range – is probably making a comeback as the social center of your home. But increased traffic in your cooking space might have you taking a second look at some of your decor. Especially if your kitchen is a little out of date, the thought of doing a big kitchen remodel might be haunting around in the back of your head. But never fear – you don’t have to do a big remodel to get huge results. If your budget is limited or especially if you’re planning on selling any time soon, these seven quick redesigns you can do yourself and won’t cost you much, but will make a huge difference in the appearance and even the value of your home.

1) Paint

Painting This Room A Soft, Springy Green - And Adding A Few Matching Accents - Makes It Feel Calm And Inviting

Painting This Room A Soft, Springy Green - And Adding A Few Matching Accents - Makes It Feel Calm And Inviting

This is the gimmie, but I know from personal, recent experience that it’s something that can be all too easy to overlook. If you’ve been living in your kitchen for a lot of years without changing the walls, the color starts to become invisible. To fresh eyes – like guests or potential buyers – the color you never notice probably looks at best a little blah, and at worst dated or dingy. A new coat of paint is a quick, easy, and relatively painless overhaul that will make a much, much bigger difference than you think, even if you opt for a neutral color. Just make sure your walls are clean (watch for greasy spots!) and dry, and apply 1-2 coats of paint with a long paint roller. Make sure to adequately tape off your cabinets and cover your appliances – either with blue tape and drop cloths or with my personal favorite, a Quick Mask Dropcloth that combines the two for a faster and easier setup. Depending on the size of your kitchen and the quality of your paint (most high end paints will give full coverage in one coat, but if yours needs 2 or more you’re going to need more paint), this is a project that shouldn’t cost you more than $200 start to finish, and shouldn’t take more than a day to complete.

2) Hardware

Simply Swapping Your Cabinet Hardware, Or Adding It If You Don't Have Any, Can Hugely Change The Look And Feel Of Your Kitchen

Simply Swapping Your Cabinet Hardware, Or Adding It If You Don't Have Any, Can Hugely Change The Look And Feel Of Your Kitchen

I scoffed at this idea until I tried it: if your kitchen cabinets, doors, and drawers are in decent shape but are aging or lack a “wow” factor, simply change out or add in new hardware. It might seem silly or unnecessary, but adding eye-catching drawer pulls can go a long, long way toward freshening up your kitchen’s look and feel. Depending on the style of your kitchen, you might want something more modern or more old fashioned. Some kitchens can look great with mixed and matched pulls, but make sure not to use more than three different styles or it might look crowded or busy. Whatever style you decide on, this can make a BIG difference if you’re on a budget. Just measure, drill, and screw into place. Again depending on the size of your kitchen and the number of your cabinets, this shouldn’t cost more than $150.

3) Love Your Cabinets

A Simple Coat Of White Paint Will Brighten And Lighten Your Dingy Cabinets, But Don't Be Afraid To Get Creative With Color

A Simple Coat Of White Paint Will Brighten And Lighten Your Dingy Cabinets, But Don't Be Afraid To Get Creative With Color

Installing new cabinets is one of the biggest expenses in any kitchen remodel, but unlike replacing your appliances or countertop, it’s one that’s relatively avoidable. Depending on the condition of your existing cabinets, refinishing might be all you need to do. If your cabinets are finished but not painted, a quick coat of paint is the easiest way to drastically change the appearance of your cabinets. But, painted or not, if your cabinets are in bad-but-not-awful shape, going the whole nine yards can get you the look and feel of natural wood in a completely different finish. Remove one of the cabinet drawers and haul it with you to a hardware store and find someone who knows what they’re talking about. You’ll need an expert to help you find the right kind of paint or Varnish Remover and sandpaper for the finish on your cabinets (there are a lot of different kinds that look very similar but are NOT interchangeable, so don’t just guess!). Then, wash and thoroughly dry all of the areas you’re resurfacing. Make sure the rest of your kitchen is covered (yes, all of it!), then apply the stripper and remove the paint or sealer. Allow the cabinets to dry, then gently sand with an electric sander or hand sander until the surface is smooth and even. Fill any noticeable dents or nicks with wood putty (if you’re painting) and sand smooth. Finally, apply a varnish, stain, or paint of your choice and then seal. For the price of a weekend and about 200 bucks, you can breathe new life into your kitchen cabinets.

4) Forget The Kitchen Sink – Replace The Faucet

Adding A New, Modern Faucet Is A Surprisingly Effective Way To Update Your Kitchen Decor

Adding A New, Modern Faucet Is A Surprisingly Effective Way To Update Your Kitchen Decor

Like replacing your cabinet hardware, replacing your kitchen sink is another way that thinking small can really have a big payoff. Old faucets get water stained and corroded, and while the basic premise of a faucet – turn on, get water – hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years, if you have a faucet that’s even ten years old there’s a good chance you can find something like this Delta Touch Faucet that’s not only more stylish but also much, much more efficient and functional. Swapping out your faucet is more DIY friendly, less expensive, and much more visible than replacing your whole kitchen sink unit, so if you’re on a budget, you’ll get a lot more mileage out of this little upgrade.

5) Dazzle With A New Lighting Fixture

Many Pendant Lights Screw Directly Into Existing Sockets, Which Makes This The Fastest And Easiest Update On This List

Many Pendant Lights Screw Directly Into Existing Sockets, Which Makes This The Fastest And Easiest Update On This List

How much this project will cost depends a lot on your existing lighting. If you have an old chandelier or pendant light that’s starting to look outdated or a little shabby, this is a must. If you don’t have any hanging lights at all, and have rows upon rows of florescents rather than recessed lighting, skip to #6 because hiring electrician would put this project off the list. But if you do have an existing setup, many hanging lights like this Tiffany Apple Branch Pendant Light mount directly into existing sockets (and cover them). For about a hundred bucks (depending on the light, of course) you can add a really stunning statement piece, plus lots of light to your kitchen area in about 15 minutes.

6) Window Treatments

These Gorgeous Roman Shades Really Add A Lot Of Personality To The Space Without Taking Away Natural Light

These Gorgeous Roman Shades Really Add A Lot Of Personality To The Space Without Taking Away Natural Light

It’s a phrase with the power to strike fear into the hearts of homeowners, and don’t I know it. But like paint color, it’s easy to let your window treatments fade into the background – even build up dirt and grease over time. So take a look at your window dressings with fresh eyes. A new color or style will probably fit with your existing hardware, and they cost less than you might think to replace. Even if you don’t have existing curtains or drapes, it’s relatively inexpensive to install some, and they can really add a cozy touch to your space. Especially if you have older windows that you aren’t ready to replace, a good set of shutters or blinds or a stylish shade can help hide them and easily update the look of your kitchen.

7) The Dreaded New Appliance

Who Doesn't Love Brushed Steel Appliances - And Lower Energy Bills!

Who Doesn't Love Brushed Steel Appliances - And Lower Energy Bills!

New appliances!, you might be thinking, I can’t afford new appliances! Why would you even put that on this list? All fair points, gentle reader – but bear with me for a moment. If you’re looking to sell your house immediately, don’t buy new appliances. You won’t get a return on your investment. But if you’re going to live in the house a while yet, buying new appliances, though easily and far and away the most expensive remodel on this list, is one of the best long and short term investments you can make in your kitchen. EnergyStar appliances – whether refrigerators, dishwashers, ranges, or even a new oven – work better than older appliances and use less energy while they’re doing it. Buyers will immediately notice the difference, but more importantly you will, too, every time you get your energy bill.

The idea of remodeling can be a little daunting – both in price and in scope of the project. Most major remodeling is not only expensive but also invasive, and can take weeks or more to complete. But not all home improvement is equal, and there isn’t a project on this list that should take you more than a weekend to complete. Even on a tight schedule and a tight budget, you can easily have your kitchen looking like new in about a month.  What part of your kitchen needs the most updating? Do you have any favorite little projects to spruce up your space?

Posted in appliances, design, energy efficient, fixtures, home decor, kitchen, lighting | Tagged , , , , , | 118 Comments

Compact Wine Coolers For The Up And Coming Connoisseur – The Perfect Supplement (or Stand In) For A Full Sized Wine Cellar

A wine cooler is one of those little luxury items that you might not think to want, but once you have one, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Especially if you drink a lot of wine or frequently have a lot of guests who do, a home wine cooler will really improve the way you entertain. Designed to hold anywhere from 4 to over a hundred bottles of wine, digital wine coolers keep all your favorite vintages close at hand. More importantly, they keep your red and white wines at the perfect storage temperature, mimicking the darkness and humidity levels of the subterranean caves where the finest French wines are aged.

Vinotemp VT-6TEDS 6 Bottle Wine Cooler

Vinotemp VT-6TEDS 6 Bottle Wine Cooler

While connoisseurs of collectible vintages will probably want a more sophisticated climate control system, even the smallest wine coolers like this Six Bottle Vinotemp is perfectly adequate for most average home use and can be plugged in and sit right on top of your counter. Like many larger styles, this uses energy efficient thermo-electric cooling to help minimize vibration (which can degrade your wine) and has double-paned, UV-blocking glass doors to shield your wine from harmful sunlight.

GE Profile Deluxe Wine Center

GE Profile Deluxe Wine Center

Most wine coolers function on this same model, but there are a few things you want to look for. If you plan on storing opened bottles in your cooler, you’re going to need one with one or more pull out racks, like this GE Profile Deluxe Wine Center. This tilted rack will keep your bottles upright to prevent spillage, and as an added bonus they make a pretty nice display unit for some of your favorite vintages.

Danby DWC1233BL-SC 12 Bottle Maitre'D Countertop Wine Cooler

Danby DWC1233BL-SC 12 Bottle Maitre'D Countertop Wine Cooler

That said, you probably only want to store wines that you’ll drink within the year. More sophisticated long-term digital wine cellar options are out there, with multiple temperature zones and more sophisticated light and humidity controls that are important for more sensitive wines. But a very basic countertop model like this Danby Maitre’D with adjustable temperature settings for red, white, and sparkling wines is all you need to keep your 12 most delicious bottles at arm’s reach.

Haier HVZ040ABH Wine Cellar with Dual Storage Compartment Black

Haier HVZ040ABH Wine Cellar with Dual Storage Compartment Black

Keep in mind that single-zone coolers can only optimally store one type of wine at a time. To have a mix of reds and whites in the same convenient cooler, you’ll need a dual-zone machine like this Haier Wine Cellar. This is a freestanding unit which clocks in at just over 3 feet tall, and can even dual purpose as aside table. It has two dedicated (and interchangeable) cooling zones so you can keep up to 40 bottles of mixed red and white wines stored at their respective optimal temperatures. Because it’s a standalone unit you can stow it anywhere you’ve got an outlet.

Avanti EWC1201 12-Bottle Thermoelectric Wine Cooler

Avanti EWC1201 12-Bottle Thermoelectric Wine Cooler

When selecting a wine cooler, you want to pay attention to what range of temperatures the unit can produce. The Danby’s 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit is perfectly adequate; after all, wine ages normally between 50 and 57 degrees, which means this unit won’t slow, stall, or otherwise impair the aging of your wine. But units like the Haier one above have a much broader 39-65 degree range which offers a little more control. Anywhere from 45-64 degrees is acceptable, with 55 degrees being optimal for most wine storage, but units with a broader temperature range like this Avanti 12 Bottle Cooler are ideal for wines that are best served chilled and that you intend to drink right away rather than letting them age.

Marvel 6SDZEBSGR 24 Inch Chateau 44 Bottle Dual Zone Wine Cooler

Marvel 6SDZEBSGR 24 Inch Chateau 44 Bottle Dual Zone Wine Cooler

If you’re in the midst of a kitchen remodel, or considering one, you can even arrange to have a wine cooler built right in to your cabinets. These tend to be a little pricier, but also have a higher capacity, broad temperature ranges, and dual chilling zones. This 44 Bottle Marvel model even has soft glide drawers to maximize storage and zone-by-zone lighting for a beautiful display. The best part? It installs directly under your counter like a dishwasher for a seamless flow and no countertop clutter – the perfect little luxury finishing touch to a newly redone kitchen.

Whether you have a sophisticated wine cellar or currently just stash your bottles on the counter or in the fridge, adding a wine cooler to your kitchen or living area can not only enhance the quality of your wine, but make it easier to entertain. Every bottle will be the perfect serving temperature right when you need it, and your favorite vintages will stay pampered, on display, and close at hand! Do you have a wine cellar? Are you looking for a better way to store small amounts of wine, or just a way to save yourself a few trips down to your basement while you’re entertaining? Do you think a small 6-12 bottle unit is best, or would you prefer a bigger built-in style?

Posted in appliances, food, kitchen, remodeling | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 82 Comments

When Life Gives You Lemons… Forget Lemonade, Make Dessert!

While in many parts of the country there’s still snow on the ground, if you live in a citrus growing region, chances are it’s just gotten warm enough for your trees to start producing – and boy, do they ever produce. Whether you’ve got a single tree or a whole garden of citrus trees, you’re probably about to end up with more lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, or tangerines than you know what to do with. So before you, your family, and your nearest and dearest friends and neighbors get all puckered up from so much sour, here are five great (slightly sweeter!) ways to use up all that fruit.

Flavored Water

Light And Refreshing Lemon Water Can Help Beat The Heat And Is Good For You, Too

Light And Refreshing Lemon Water Can Help Beat The Heat And Is Good For You, Too

This is one of the simplest and most refreshing ways to use up almost any kind of citrus fruit. Simply place several thin slices in a Spigot Jar layered with ice and fill with pure, cool water. The citrus juice will add a subtle but bright flavor and will feel extra cool going down on a hot day. Cold water naturally improves your metabolism, and lemon water specifically is extremely good for your gastrointestinal system and liver function, especially if you drink it regularly. For a stronger juice, muddle the citrus slices with a Potato Masher and a little sugar before adding to the Dispenser

Works With: Almost any citrus but grapefruit, which can be a little too bitter.

Sorbet Or Granita

This Smooth, Fresh Sorbet Makes An Excellent Palate Cleanser - Or Simply A Stunning Dessert

This Smooth, Fresh Sorbet Makes An Excellent Palate Cleanser - Or Simply A Stunning Dessert

Since citrus is prone to causing dairy to curdle, you’re more or less out of luck when it comes to naturally flavored citrus ice cream. But fresh squeezed citrus juice can make for amazing sorbets or granitas, which retain the fresh flavor of the juice and are spectacularly cool and refreshing on a warm day. Just add about 1tsp of fresh grated zest (a Zester works just fine, but a Microplane is better if you want to leave the zest in) to 1 cup of white sugar and 1/2 cup water. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer for about 5 minutes until the sugar is fully dissolved and the liquid is clear. Cool to room temperature, then combine with 1 1/2 cups of citrus juice an 1 tablespoon of good vodka. Chill the mixture and run it through an ice cream maker or freeze in a shallow Cookie Pan, scraping and mixing with a fork every hour for about four hours or until solid. The alcohol will help create a smooth, fine texture, and swapping vodka for slightly more champagne will add a little effervescence to the finished product.

Works with: any kind of citrus, but taste the mixture before freezing; especially tart or bitter citrus might require a little additional sugar/water mix.

Citrus Curd

A Sweet, Tangy Treat That Works Well With Just About Any Baked Good, From Scones To Cake To Cookies

A Sweet, Tangy Treat That Works Well With Just About Any Baked Good, From Scones To Cake To Cookies

The name might not sound super appetizing, but this versatile preserve can be used as a spread or a filling for tarts or pies (it makes a great lemon meringue!), and can even be eaten by the spoonful if you’re feeling decadent. Just combine 3 whole eggs and 1 cup sugar in a Double Boiler, whisking until smooth and light colored, then whisk in 1/2 cup fresh citrus juice + 1 tablespoon zest and 1/4 cup cold, cubed butter and cook over medium low heat. Stir continually until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon and leave a distinct trail when wiped. The best part? If you make a big batch and process it in a Canner or pressure cooker, it can last for up to a year.

Works with: any kind of citrus, though lemon is most common.

Jelly

Delicious Orange Jelly To Spread On Just About Anything, All In Less Than 20 Minutes

Delicious Orange Jelly To Spread On Just About Anything, All In Less Than 20 Minutes

While jam and jelly canning can seem a little complicated, citrus fruits make excellent, simple jams and marmalades that really don’t require much culinary prowess at all. In a food processor or blender, finely chop 3 peeled, chunked oranges (or equivalent sweetish citrus), then combine with 4 cups of sugar (grated zest optional for a marmalade texture without all the cooking and chopping) and let stand, mixing occasionally for about 10 minutes. Then combine 3oz Liquid Fruit Pectin and 2 Tablespoons water and add to the orange mixture, stirring for about 3 minutes – that’s it. Jelly in about 15 minutes. Because it’s a no-cook recipe, it won’t last quite so long (about 3 weeks in the fridge), but it makes a great gift when sealed in some Pretty Jars.

Works with: any type of orange, sweet grapefruits, and meyer lemons – other citrus may be too tart or bitter.

Pudding

Citrus Pudding Might Seem Like A Strange Choice - But If You're Looking For Variety In Your Citrus Consumption, This Is Certainly A Unique Twist

Citrus Pudding Might Seem Like A Strange Choice - But If You're Looking For Variety In Your Citrus Consumption, This Is Certainly A Unique Twist

Like the curd, citrus pudding has a smooth texture and a surprising sweet-tart kick. Muddle 1 teaspoon finely grated zest with 1 tablespoon sugar in a Mortar and Pestle, then mix with 3 tablespoons cornstarch and a pinch of salt in the bottom of a Heavy Bottomed Suacepan. Whisk in just enough juice to make a slurry (to prevent the cornstarch from lumping) then add more juice, totaling about 2 cups. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens plus one minute. Remove from heat and whisk in 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, 1 1/2 teaspoons Honey, and a tablespoon of orange flower water. This looks especially pretty in Champagne Flutes, and is utterly decadent topped with a little dollop of whipped cream.

Works with: Tangelos are best, but mandarin oranges, regular oranges, grapefruits, or even tangerines work as well. Nothing too tart.

The best thing about many of these options is that not only do they add a little variety to the seasonal onslaught of citrus, but many of them use all parts of the fruit, minimizing waste (or green compost fodder) and providing a great depth of flavor. Maybe even more importantly, several of these recipes can be made in big batches and stored for long periods of time so you can keep the bright, fresh taste of fresh picked citrus for months after your tree has slowed production (or some of your favorite citruses have disappeared from your local grocery store!)

Posted in food, kitchen | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 110 Comments

Want To Make Sure She Has A Happy Valentine’s Day? Here’s What NOT To Get (And What To Do Instead)

Stumped on what to get your lady love this Valentine’s Day? Do your gifts bomb year after year? This year save yourself a little suffering and figure out what not to get your lady Valentine – and what to do instead.

Fake Flowers

There's Nothing WRONG With Silk Roses, But Once A Year You Can Do Better

There's Nothing WRONG With Silk Roses, But Once A Year You Can Do Better

Flowers, especially red roses, are the most traditional of all Valentine’s Day gifts, which means that for the time being a bouquet that would have cost you about $10 back in January is holding steady around $25, and a really nice bunch of roses could cost you over $100. So I can understand why it would be tempting to get a dozen silk roses instead, but trust me – 99% of the time, they’re tacky, and “but baby, they’ll last forever, just like us!” will only get you so far.

Worse: Silk (or real) rose in a beer bottle.

Worst: Silk roses made out of lace underwear.

What To Do Instead

Swarovski Red Crystal Roses

Swarovski Red Crystal Roses

If you have to do flowers, make them real. Bouquets are great, and potted mini or micro-mini rosebushes will earn you points with the botanically inclined. If you really can’t do the dozen, though, or your lady is a plant killer, consider getting her a stylized rose, like this Iron Rose. Better yet, splurge for a Swarovski Crystal Rose Bouquet – it’ll cost you about the same as a high quality bouquet, but it really will last forever, and it’s sure to take her breath away.

Cookie Cutter Jewelery (Even With Diamonds!)

Aww, Honey, You Spent Less Than A Hundred Dollars On This, How Thoughtful

Aww, Honey, You Spent Less Than A Hundred Dollars On This, How Thoughtful

I’m not naming any names, but if you’ve seen it on a commercial a thousand times, it probably isn’t anything she wants. Just because the women in the ads make the “oh!” face when they open the chain-jewelery-store’s little velvet box doesn’t mean your lady love will. At best, it shows a lack of creativity (how many other guys saw that commercial and bought exactly the same thing, after all?) and at worst, it shows a lack of effort or understanding of her taste. Chances are, the kind of jewelery she wants, you cant afford, and the kind you can, she doesn’t want.

What To Do Instead

This is the big conundrum with jewelery of any kind – unless you know exactly the style she likes, it can be almost impossible to find that perfect something. If you’ve got your heart set on getting her a shiny rock, get a sense of her style by taking a look at the pieces she wears often – and those she never wears – and maybe enlist the help of her sneakiest friend to see if there’s anything in particular she’s been dreaming of.

A Heart Shaped Box Of Chocolate

Okay, I'll Be Honest - You Could Do A Lot Worse Than This

Okay, I'll Be Honest - You Could Do A Lot Worse Than This

Sure, it’s the traditional gift, but that also means that every box of chocolate in every store across the country is going to be hugely marked up for about a 7 day period before Valentine’s Day. Couple that with the fact that most generic Boxes of Chocolate aren’t anything to write home about and you’re looking at courteous appreciation – which isn’t quite what either of you were hoping for!

What To Do Instead

It Might Be A Smaller Box Than She's Expecting, But The Contents Are Sure To Blow Her Away

It Might Be A Smaller Box Than She's Expecting, But The Contents Are Sure To Blow Her Away

Better: If you really want to surprise her, but want to stick with sweets, there are lots of gourmet mail order sweets available this time of year. When it comes to chocolates, look for ones with high quality ingredients (the fewer additives the better, and look for ones that list the source of the chocolate) and artisan style finishing touches – like a sprinkle of Himalayan pink salt or gray sea salt.

Best: For a real treat, buy a block of high quality domestic or imported chocolate from a specialty store, a nice Candy Thermometer, and make your own custom sweets right in your own kitchen, either together or as a one-of-a-kind Valentine’s Day surprise. This Recipe Book can teach you how.

Anything To Wear To Bed

Somehow, This Doesn't Scream Romance

Somehow, This Doesn't Scream Romance

Whether you go for cuddle-approved Comfy Jammies or barely-there Satin Bustier, the chance that it’s going to go over well is slim to nil. For something skimpy, let’s be honest – it’s more a gift for you than her. Even if she’s the type that loves sexy getups, let her make it a gift to you. Swing too far in the other direction with something you think she’ll find cozy and she might feel like you’re trying to cover her up on the #1 date night of the year. And in both cases, if you’re way off in the size (either too big OR too small), it’ll be even less flattering.

What To Do Instead

A nice new set of sheets – Flannel, Satin, or high thread count Egyptian Cotton in a daring color – she’ll get the message without any of the body issues.

Household Appliances

Iron + Rolling Pin = Doghouse

Iron + Rolling Pin = Doghouse

No, no, and more no. Vacuums, irons, toasters, even a brand new washer and dryer are all things that your valentine might need this February 14th, but I promise you, they absolutely are not what she wants. Valentine’s day is for romance, not practicality, and there’s no bigger buzzkill than thinking about dust bunnies and dirty socks. Now, before you go getting clever: a maid service isn’t a good V-day gift, either. Even if she’s stressed and worn thin with housekeeping, it’s a bad day to acknowledge it, and inviting others to clean the house could make her more self conscious and even feel like you’re judging her.

The Exception: If you KNOW she really REALLY  wants it – whether “it” is an expensive new Stand Mixer or a set of Ceramic Knives, if your ladyfriend is someone who loves to cook but doesn’t treat herself to the latest greatest gadgets, Valentine’s Day can be an acceptable time to splurge for her – including a maid service, but only if SHE’S mentioned it first. Seriously, though, no vacuums – even if the one she’s got is belching smoke and like as not to drop dead at any moment, make it a hand-made-cards and inexpensive, creative date kind of holiday and give her the vacuum as a “thinking of you” in a week or two.

A Gym Membership/Makeover/Plastic Surgery

To Be This Happy At A Gym You Have To Really Want It

To Be This Happy At A Gym You Have To Really Want It

This is another well-meaning-gone-wrong gift category. You’re trying to say, I want you to be healthy, I want you to be happy with your body, I want you to feel good about yourself. She hears “You’re fat and ugly and I don’t like you.” Not exactly the Valentine’s Day message you want to convey. Even if she complains that her boobs are sagging, her wrinkles are showing, and she’s carrying an extra 5lbs, unless she’s explicitly asked (no, “do you think I should get a boob job?” doesn’t count), this isn’t the way to go.

What To Do Instead

Even A Nice Stay-In Spa Day Can Be Revitalizing For Both Of You

Even A Nice Stay-In Spa Day Can Be Revitalizing For Both Of You

Spa date for two. Not for one, for both of you – you’re going too, whether you like it or not (though you probably will!). Not only is it an excellent (not to mention sensual) way to bond, but she won’t feel like her looks are being singled out, and won’t wonder what you’re up to while she’s soaking in a mud bath. If you can’t afford a weekend getaway, have your own spa party at home with a Spa Kit. Just remember – bubble bath, facial, and foot rub first, then Hot Oil Massage.

Gift Cards/Cash

Cute, But Doesn't Cut It - Even If It Weren't A One

Cute, But Doesn't Cut It - Even If It Weren't A One

Stop. Go directly to the doghouse. Do not pass go, do not collect any gold stars for effort. Cash or gift cards are just about the worst gift you can get a lady, ranking right up there with nothing at all. If you don’t know what she wants, make an educated guess or get something generic but considerate (see: nice chocolates). If you don’t want to sit in a restaurant on the busiest dining day of the year, make other plans – no I.O.U.s. If you do it right, she’ll probably enjoy a simple date just as much as (if not more than) an expensive one – but trust me, handing her a card with cash in it isn’t going to score you any points.

Ultimately, the best rule of thumb for finding the best Valentine’s Day gift – a present that will really knock her socks off – is to think passionate, not practical; romantic, not realistic. She’s already in the mood to feel like a princess, you just have to be charming! What’s the best Valentine’s Day gift you’ve ever given? The worst? Let me know in the comments!

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Happy Singles Awareness Day – Or, How To Throw A Killer Anti-Valentine’s Day Party

Whether you’re a long time lone wolf, recently split, or wallowing in the friend zone, Valentine’s Day is more like Singles Awareness Day – a little salt in the wound of unwanted solitude and the #1 day for couples (intentionally or not) to rub your noes in it. But just because you don’t have your one-true-love this February 14th doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun. Mark the date with a big, black, X and get ready to send out invitations to all your single friends (plus none!) for a fabulous Anti-Valentine’s Day Party.

Bad Breakup? Hitting Some Paper Mache Can Help

Bad Breakup? Hitting Some Paper Mache Can Help

Forget flowers, chocolates, and little heart shaped boxes. In fact, in protest of this supremely commercial holiday and everything it stands for, it’s time to do something a little different. Instead of red and pink, decorate with Black Roses, dark colored Crepe Streamers, and maybe a nice heart shaped or other Romantic Cutesy Pinata if you have room for your guests to take a swing. Buy some traditional Valentine’s Day decorations – hearts, cupids, banners – and deface them as you please!

Singles Awareness Day Rule Number One: Whether You Hit The High Notes Or Not, What Happens While Gloria Gaynor Is Playing Stays In This Room

Singles Awareness Day Rule Number One: Whether You Hit The High Notes Or Not, What Happens While Gloria Gaynor Is Playing Stays In This Room

Every good party has a sound track, and this is your perfect opportunity to riff on the classic romantic mix tape. Forget “In Your Eyes”, fill your ipod with “Love Stinks” “You Oughta Know” and the karaoke classic “I Will Survive” and blast breakup music and anti-love ballads all night long on a Speaker Dock. Dance, rock out, sing along – just try not to cry, it might make the other guests uncomfortable!

Broken Heart Cakes Are Delightfully Bittersweet

Broken Heart Cakes Are Delightfully Bittersweet

When it comes to edibles, you could snack on the traditional Chocolate Covered Strawberries, or even splurge for a Chocolate Fountain, but a true Anti-Valentine’s Day party spread is all about the parody. Instead of cutesy heart shaped cakes and cupcakes, opt for a black devil’s food cake broken heart. You use the same Heart Shaped Cake Pan, but opt for black (rather than red or pink) frosting and icing, and give it a nice jagged split down the center. Make one big cake in several big pieces or individual ones – you can even let your guests decorate their own broken hearts!

Bitter Hearts

Bitter Hearts

I also love these cookies – a twist on the traditional candy message hearts that replaces chalky pastel candies with scrumptious sugar cookies, and the simplified romantic messages with, well, something a little less lovey dovey. If you don’t happen to have heart-shaped cookie cutters, but do have a Gingerbread Man Cutter left over from Christmas, give your guests several small tubes of colored icing and let them recreate their exes in cookie form – no holds barred – for a treat that will taste extra sweet.

Singles Awareness Day Rule Number Two: No Pink Drinks

Singles Awareness Day Rule Number Two: No Pink Drinks

Of course, no Single’s Awareness Day party would be complete without a way to drown your sorrows. Guiness is a popular choice – likely because its approximately the exact opposite of the traditional light and bubbly champagne. Bloody Marys make a nice tongue-in-cheek cocktail, but most mixed drinks – even ones designed for this broken heart holiday – are pretty fruity and often pink. Instead, if you need to forget your sorrows, line up some Shot Glasses and start pouring. Then again, there is one drink reserved for that special Valetine’s villain (or victim!) – the Adios Mother F-er, served in a Pint Glass, will punish the wicked and wipe away the sorrows of the bereft – limit one per customer (seriously!), it’s the best way to say “adios!”

This Is Exactly The Right Response To My Bloody Valentine

This Is Exactly The Right Response To My Bloody Valentine

Finally, Singles Awareness Day is the perfect time to treat yourself to a completely un-romantic movie. Pop up a bag of popcorn (or, if you’re feeling fancy, get some gourmet kernels and pop them yourself), plop down on the sofa, and hit play. If you’re in need of a laugh (and maybe a little gore) I’d opt for Shaun of the Dead. For a nice holiday-appropriate hack and slash, try on My Bloody Valentine. To feel a little better about your break up, Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction are classics – and if you want to feel better about yourself in general, give Lars and the Real Girl a view.

Whether you’ve been single a long time, are recently broken up, or just don’t particularly like Valentine’s Day, there are plenty of ways to spend the dreaded 14th having fun that don’t involve flowers, candy, cards, or expensive dinner reservations. What’s your favorite way to celebrate singles awareness day?

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Toaster Ovens: The Modern Hearth in Miniature

I’m going to be honest with you – I hadn’t seen or heard of a toaster oven until I was into my twenties, and until relatively recently I found the whole idea preposterous. Here is a machine three or four times larger than a toaster that does the same job, slower. I hate cooking and for me, time spent in the kitchen is time wasted – why would I ever go for a less efficient machine? Simple: I was looking at it the wrong way. Don’t think of a toaster oven as an overgrown, weaker toaster. Instead, see your future toaster oven for what it is: a faster, sleeker, smaller, more efficient oven.

Hamilton Beach Toastation

Hamilton Beach Toastation

Don’t let my spiel stop you if you just want toast though. Toaster ovens cook toast just as well or better than a standard toaster, and since they’re larger, they can cook more toast at once. If you live in a large household or you make a world-famous toasted tomato sandwich and you can’t get enough bread toasted at once, a toaster oven might be everything you need. The largest toaster you’re going to find will net you a grand total of four slices at a time, and once your second batch is done the first batch is going to be chilly. This creatively named HamiltonBeach “Toastation” toaster oven actually has a traditional toaster built into the top, and enough space in the oven to fit two personal pizzas, which means more bread for your buck.

Sunpentown 3-in-1 Breakfast Maker

Sunpentown 3-in-1 Breakfast Maker

While an overwhelming flood of toast might be enough for some people, others like a bit of variety in their breakfast. It can be hard to weigh the strengths of a toaster oven against one of its strongest weaknesses: they tend to take up a lot of space. Don’t be so quick to surrender though, it’s possible to have your toast and eat it too. Case in point: this Sunpentown 3 in 1 appliance. Where you sacrifice space in the oven portion, you gain a coffee maker and a built-in frying pan on top, making this the perfect appliance for breakfast lovers with limited space.

Krups Digital Convection Toaster Oven

Krups Digital Convection Toaster Oven

Since they’re roughly the same size, there’s some logical competition between a toaster oven and a microwave – after all, they do roughly the same thing. The difference between the two is a matter of taste: a microwave warms from the inside out while a toaster oven really is just an oven in miniature and warms from the outside in. When cooking or reheating larger foodstuffs, the toaster oven tends to win out. This Krups toaster oven heats quickly, evenly, and precisely, with digital controls that allow you to maintain an exact heat inside the oven so that your food cooks all the way through – no more biting into a piece of nuked chicken and finding half of it searing hot and the other half cold and clammy.

Hamilton Beach Toaster Oven

Hamilton Beach Toaster Oven

That is, to me, the selling point of toaster ovens: it’s a tiny oven and yes, it can do anything your oven can do, space permitting. While you’re not going to be cooking an entire Thanksgiving spread with a toaster oven, you could very well streamline preparation. This Hamilton Beach model is perfect for baking a loaf of bread if your oven is otherwise occupied, and since its interior is smaller than that of an actual oven, its broiler is more capable at quickly cooking something like fresh fish.

Avanti Toaster Oven with Rotisserie

Avanti Toaster Oven with Rotisserie

If your oven is in some way incapacitated or otherwise not an option, the right toaster oven is a perfect stand-in, even if you need to feed an entire family. This Avanti doesn’t even consider itself anything less than what it is: a small oven, and, since it sports a fully functional rotisserie kit, chances are good that it’s better equipped than its big brother. Why heat up the whole kitchen – and a lot of unneeded space inside the oven – when you can cook an entire chicken in your toaster oven?

Hamilton Beach Toaster Oven with Built in Probe

Hamilton Beach Toaster Oven with Built in Probe

The traditional oven has fallen by the wayside in favor of the faster, easier microwave oven, so the sheer versatility of the oven is often overlooked. Until we start to rediscover what’s possible with the modern hearth, the toaster oven is a perfect middle ground…maybe enough so that we’ll just end up replacing our traditional ovens with extra counter space so we can fit a toaster oven and a microwave side-by-side. This Hamilton Beach toaster oven has a built-in probe, virtually eliminating my least favorite facet of cooking in the oven: overcooked, dry meat. It’s hard to defend the oven when its relatively tiny doppelganger does the job better.

Cuisinart Convection Toaster Oven

Cuisinart Convection Toaster Oven

Since ovens work by heating the air inside and then holding it at a specific temperature, the next best thing to a probe is a precise internal heat sensor like the one in this high-end Cuisinart toaster oven. In fact, this model does everything right short of having a separate probe: it has easy-to-clean chrome on the outside and the inside is lined with an even-easier-to-clean nonstick material, it’s large enough to bake a whole pizza or an entire chicken, it heats evenly, quickly, and quietly, and it comes with a crumb and drip tray.

Sure, a toaster oven cooks toast slower than a plain toaster, and it takes up much more counter space, but what if you want more than toast? Your standard toaster is only capable of a single task – toasting – while a good toaster oven can toast, bake, or broil. If you’ve already got a full-size kitchen and you rarely find yourself wishing for more oven space, a toaster oven may be overkill, but in the right situation – say, a dorm room, a small apartment, or your RV – the toaster oven is an incredibly versatile and useful appliance.

Do you own a toaster oven? What do you use it for – just toast, or whole meals?

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Great Valentines Day Dates For A Fun, Flirty Time On A Budget

Valentine’s Day is a holiday for couples – new and old, of all ages. But even though it’s widely criticized as being one of the most commercial of holidays, that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank to celebrate with the one you love. In fact, setting a budget for your big date can actually force you to get a little more creative – and spontaneous – which can kick you out of a routine or rut better than dinner reservations at Chez Expensiv. Besides, everyone is going to be doing the first five things you’d ordinarily think of for Valentine’s Day. So if you want to avoid the crowds and kindle some real romance, forget you ever heard the phrase “dinner and a movie,” pack up your kids (if you’ve got ‘em) and send ‘em to your favorite single friend or tolerant relative, and try one of these great V-Day dates.

Breakfast In Bed

Bed 'n Breakfast Relaxation Gift Basket

Bed 'n Breakfast Relaxation Gift Basket

One of the all-time classic gestures of affection – prepping a big, beautiful breakfast in bed – is an excellent way to start off your Valentine’s Day right. Whether you’re strictly a just-add-water pancake maker, a gourmet chef, or even if you order in, waking up to the smell of waffles and eggs is relaxing, intimate, and utterly romantic. Especially if your sweetie is usually the one that does the cooking, whipping up a big meal is a nice gesture, plain and simple – even if you burn the toast. If you want to fancy it up a little, get a gourmet pancake mix and special toppings – this Bed ‘n’ Breakfast Basket will make a simple but delicious breakfast (who can resist real maple syrup?), and even has stuff to follow up with a nice, relaxing tea bath. The best part? Once breakfast is served, you can stay in bed all day.

Romantic Picnic For Two

Picnic Plus Fiesta 2 Person Picnic Backpack

Picnic Plus Fiesta 2 Person Picnic Backpack

This one hinges on you and your valentine living in a climate warm enough to stay outside on February 14, but if you do, it’s a great chance to step out of the daily grind and just enjoy each other. Pack a Two Person Picnic Backpack or a nice roomy picnic basket with fruit, cheese, crackers, sandwiches, a nice chocolatey dessert and a bottle of wine. Whether you end up in a local park, hiking through some nearby wilderness, or just enjoying mother nature in a nice sunny spot, swapping a big dinner date for a quiet picnic can not only save you a lot of money (to say nothing of what you’d have to slip the maitre’d to get the seats in the first place), it’ll give you and your date a little quality alone time. Try leaving your cellphones at home (or at least in the car) so you have each other’s truly undivided attention.

Coupons

Blank Coupons Can Be A Little Extra Fun

Blank Coupons Can Be A Little Extra Fun

I’ll be honest – I always thought giving “coupons” was kind of a cop-out gift, something you gave your mom on mother’s day, well-intentioned but likely never to be redeemed. But these Love Coupons are definitely NOT something you’d want to give to your mother, and the idea is a lot less silly if you mean it. Printed in His and Hers versions, each coupon comes with a promise – some Romantic and others, well, a little Steamier. Give your valentine their pick and be ready to redeem it – you might be pleasantly surprised.

Geocaching

Garmin eTrex 20 Handheld GPS

Garmin eTrex 20 Handheld GPS

For a more outdoorsy type – or especially if you both have a robust sense of adventure – geocaching can be a great way to bond. A modern day treasure hunt, geocaching is the act of hiding and hunting for small “caches,” or boxes and containers hidden by other geocachers filled with small trinkets. When you find one, take a souvenir and leave a little token of your own for the next treasure hunter. All you need is a GPS like this eTrex 2o (a genuine GPS with coordinates, not just road maps), a good pair of hiking boots, and a sense of adventure. Find a cache in your area (geocaching.com is a good place to start looking) and set out with your sweetheart. Depending on the site you pick (and your treasure finding abilities) this is a date that could easily last all day – just you, your valentine, and the thrill of the treasure hunt.

Sledding Trip (Or Other Kid-At-Heart Outdoor Fun)

Spend Long Enough Sledding, And You Might Have To Warm Each Other Up

Spend Long Enough Sledding, And You Might Have To Warm Each Other Up

How often do you and your valentine really get to have fun? Not grownup fun, not a nice night out, but really genuinely get to have a good time, laugh, play, and let your worries go. If you ask me, there’s no better way to recapture and rekindle your youthful romance than to play kid for a day. If you’re in a climate where there’s still snow on the ground come Valentine’s Day, grab a couple Spoon Sleds, a Two Seater, or a nice trash can lid and find your nearest hill. No snow? Try flying a Kite, or just tracking down a local park and swinging on the swings. It might seem silly, but I guarantee, playing like kids is both disarming and exhilarating – it’ll nix the pomp and pretense of being a grown up, and leave you feeling sky high all the way home.

Build Your Own Spa Treatment

Nothing More Romantic Than Hot Water And Bubbles

Nothing More Romantic Than Hot Water And Bubbles

Of course, playing like a grown up has it’s own merits, too. This year, if you couldn’t manage (time, finances, babysitters, whatever) to take a trip to a spa together, that doesn’t mean you have to forgo the experience. Nab a couple bottles of champagne, put ‘em on ice, light a few candles, and draw up a nice, steamy hot bath. Buy some romantic pink and red bath stuff – this Pamper Me Pink has bath bombs, bubble bath, soap, lotion, and everything  else you might need to treat yourself to a spa-style bath. Then, once you get clean, you can treat each other to your own private couples massage.

Romantic Dinner In

Table For Two

Table For Two

Okay, okay. If you can’t kick the idea of having a nice, romantic Valentine’s Day dinner date, how about this: make one! No experience is no excuse: cooking together can be incredibly romantic – especially if you get messy – and even if you really, genuinely, have no idea what you’re doing, there are still ways to make it happen. This instructional DVD and cookbook from Chef Robert gives you step by step instructions to make three decadent five-course meals, and gives you tips for decorating your dining room (and your bedroom!) to make the night perfect. Worst case? You end up ordering Chinese and have a great story for years. Best case? One heck of a surprise for your valentine.

Private Wine Tasting (In Bed!)

No Designated Driver Needed

No Designated Driver Needed

Finally, what better Valentine’s Day date than simply not bothering to get out of bed. You can start with the aforementioned breakfast in bed, or simply meet up for an evening of Satin Sheets, fine wines, dark chocolate, and rich cheeses. Enjoying the finer things in life is never more pleasurable than when you’re sharing it with someone you love – and there’s no setting more intimate than between the sheets. If you’re no Sommelier, opt for a package of complimentary wine, cheese, chocolate, and other palatable snacks. This Tasting And Toasting gift set is a good place to start for a white wine, or this Cheers California set for red – they even have Champagne sets if you’re in a celebrating mood.

No matter what you end up doing to celebrate the holiday, remember – it’s not about what or how much, it’s really all about the who. So whatever your date, make sure to appreciate your valentine!

Posted in food, holidays, Outdoor living | Tagged , , , , | 107 Comments

The Perfect Toaster for Perfect Toast

The quest for that perfect piece of toast – warm, evenly browned and freshly buttered – is perilous, fraught with crumbs, uneven cooking, four feet of extra cord, and the risk of electrocution. As one of the most common and basic appliances known to man, you’d think buying a toaster would be relatively simple. The reality is almost always disappointing, if only because even the best toaster needs four or five uses before it “warms up” and actually starts working the way it was intended to. The good news is that there are great toasters out there and that perfect piece of toast isn’t at all unobtainable, no matter your price bracket.

Cuisinart Two-Slice Toaster

Cuisinart Two-Slice Toaster

Like every other appliance on the market today, toasters can come with all sorts of bells and whistles, so the first step in buying the best toaster for you is to decide what you need. As a baseline, you should look for a machine that doesn’t take up a ton of counter space and has a removable crumb tray, cord storage for safety reasons, and simple controls. This Cuisinart two-slice toaster will cover all your bases in a compact design, and produces moist and crunchy bread and bagels.

Cuisinart Four-Slice Toaster

Cuisinart Four-Slice Toaster

The next step is to decide what you’re likely to use your toaster for: just toast, or do you prefer bagels, English muffins, or artisan bread? Check out this four-slice compact toaster by Cuisinart, the big brother to the two-slice model above. It has wider, longer slots – perfect for bagels and artisan bread – and a carriage with extra lift means no more struggling to fish out your English muffin without burning yourself. The bagel setting is actually really cool, too: only one element warms to full heat so that one side gets toasted and the other is just warmed. The best part, though, is that both the two-slot and four-slot versions here are relatively cheap and out-perform models twice as expensive.

Cuisinart Long Slot Toaster

Cuisinart Long Slot Toaster

Not that it isn’t worth dishing out some extra money if you can afford it: there are all sorts of high-tech options out there. Since we’re on a hot streak with the brand anyway, this fancy Cuisinart two-slice toaster is longer and narrower than your typical toaster, making it great for long slices of artisan bread, but it’s also a great deal more compact and sports a motorized lever. It’s also built from aluminum, which brings up another point: if you want your toaster to keep looking like you just bought it, choose carefully. Your chrome, stainless steel, and aluminum options won’t show wear and tear for awhile, but scratches and fingerprints are, on average, more prominent. If it goes with your décor, stick with a colored model: white toasters tend to discolor and show their age faster. In the worst case, you can hide your ugly but beloved workhorse beneath an appliance cover.

T-Fal Toaster Digital Display

T-Fal Toaster Digital Display

Though one might consider toasters among the most basic home appliances on face value, rest assured that even the lowliest of today’s machines come with modern styles, conveniences, and curiosities. If you’re an aficionado of toasted anything and you want to impress and be impressed, rest assured that there’s something out there for you. Sports fan? Consider one of these Pangea ProToast models, which will mark each slice of toast with your favorite team’s logo. If you’re looking for something to match your modern décor, consider this somewhat quirky Sunpentown stainless steel toaster or, for something more in line with the digital age, check out this top-rated T-fal toaster. Both have eight control settings for getting your toast just the way you want it, and both feature stop buttons – something I love, since I hate pulling up on the lever and having my toast launched into the bottom of my cabinets. Oh, and don’t let the T-fal’s two slots fool you: you can fit two slices of toast into each of the ultra-long slots, effectively making it a four-slot toaster with a two-slot profile.

Pangea Sports Logo Toaster

Pangea Sports Logo Toaster

Buying a toaster is a little more complicated today than it was twenty years ago and beyond – they’re always building a better mouse trap, after all – but having more options is always a good thing. We’re all individuals with particular tastes. Besides being able to toast a slice of bread, what features does your perfect toaster need?

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Gourmet Treats To Satisfy Your Valentine’s Sweet Tooth

Anyone can buy a box of chocolate for Valentine’s Day, but if your honey’s got a sweet tooth, this year you can get them something really special.  Instead of your average heart shaped candy box, opt for a unique, artisan made treat, like gourmet cupcakes, unique macaroons, or high quality chocolates. Even if you don’t live near a boutique style bakery or sweet shop, it’s easier than ever to get these high-end treats shipped from some of the biggest names shops (and some of the finest bakeries in Manhattan) right to your doorstep.

Gourmet Cupcakes

Gourmet Cupcakes

Cupcakes have been the go-to trendy dessert for years. With hundreds of unique gourmet permutations, and every shop with their own signature cakes and frostings, getting a box with a dozen different flavors is a great way to gift not just a little something sweet, but a unique gastronomic experience. From exotic coffee creams to lavender honey, chocolate basil, and even more unusual flavor combinations, you can mix and match a whole box full of unique cupcakes for a gift totally tailor made to your valentine’s tastes. As a bonus, add a Cupcake Recipe Book to your gift so you can replicate the flavors you really love.

Macarons

Macarons

Macarons are quickly gaining on cupcakes in popularity, and are also getting the boutique treatment. Available in a rainbow of colors and flavors, these meringue-based cookie sandwiches are crisp on the outside, smooth and meringuey on the inside, and filled with buttercream frosting or jam. Like cupcakes, many of the top artisan shops will ship boxes of 6, 12, or 24 assorted flavors of your choice directly to your doorstep. Even if you’ve never heard of them, this Valentine’s Day Delicacy is a great gamble – the bright colors and pretty, smooth shape of the macarons alone make them look almost took good to eat, but they’re tasty enough you won’t be able to help it. Again, getting a cookbook from the place that makes them – like Macaron Cafe’s companion Recipe Book – is a great way to keep the gift giving even after you’ve munched your way through the confections.

Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream

Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream

One of my personal favorite sweets is ice cream, and there’s no better hand-made, all-natural ice cream than Jeni’s – and certainly not any you’ll be able to get delivered. With almost two dozen completely unique flavors – from Whiskey and Pecans to their Valentine’s-Day-red Cherry Lambic Sorbet – Jeni’s ice creams are one-of-a-kind mouth experiences your valentine is sure to love. Available in pints or signature collections of multiple flavors, this is easily the best gift out there for your favorite ice cream fiend. And if you have an ice cream machine, the recipes in their Splendid Recipe Book are specifically designed to make perfect scaled-down versions of their signature flavors with ingredients you’ll be able to find nearby.

Golden Edibles Indulged 12 Piece Mini Cheesecake

Golden Edibles Indulged 12 Piece Mini Cheesecake

Another great mail-order delicacy on the rise this Valentine’s day are mini cheesecakes. Ordinarily I’m not a big fan of gift baskets, but cheesecakes are one of those desserts that most people only have in restaurants, are hard to make on your own, and even harder to make well. That’s why I love these Golden Edibles Mini Cheesecakes – they show up perfect every time, no cracks, no bubbles, perfectly moist and smooth all the way through. And unlike some whole cheesecakes, which can be pricier to ship, you get a whopping dozen mini cheesecakes per package – three each in four different flavors (for about what you’d pay for a plain Full Sized Cheesecake) – the perfect unexpected treat for your valentine.

Mother's Day Berries with Gourmet Dipped Cookies

Strawberries with Gourmet Dipped Cookies

Then again, sometimes the best Valentine’s Day gifts are the simplest ones. These pink and red Chocolate Covered Strawberries are the perfect sensual, romantic sweet – made with the freshest, ripest berries and dipped, drizzled, and decorated with quality Belgian milk, dark, and white chocolates. This particular gift set comes with chocolate dipped gourmet cookies, too, but really, what could be better than sharing a sweet, juicy strawberry while there’s still snow on the ground?

Organic Chocolate Truffles and Bonbons

Organic Chocolate Truffles and Bonbons

Finally, if your valentine is really just all about the chocolate, at least make sure you get some quality sweets. While it might be tempting to grab that pink heart box from the discount Valentine’s Day rack at your local supermarket, don’t do it! It’s not a bad gift per se, but a real chocolate lover will get a lot more mileage out of even a smaller box of better chocolates. This Organic Truffles And BonBons set is a good place to start, with 70% single-source Costa Rican organic chocolate, but any European or artisan chocolate will work nicely as well. Hint: if it has edible gold leaf on it, it’s probably pretty darn good chocolate!

If you want to make this Valentine’s Day truly special, you only need to step slightly out of tradition. Sweet treats for your sweetheart are the name of the game on V-day, but swapping the bouquet and candy box for something made with a little more care can easily make your Valentine’s Day Gift much more memorable – and is sure to show your valentine you care!

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