My annual gift guide is in two parts this year. Kids first! Hope you find it useful.

Note that my kids are growing up – I’m now in the 3rd to 10th grade window – so if you’re looking for littler ones, please check out my gift ideas from previous years, which have tons of fun presents and stocking stuffers for younger children.

Toroflux

Fidgets are all the rage these days with kids, maybe because they are a school-sanctioned toy. Now that science suggests that children with attention issues may focus better in class if they can keep their hands occupied, all the kids want in. Stress balls are still around, but now there’s also putty, or homemade slime, or fidget spinners.

The Toroflux is in the fidget family, but it’s much cooler. It’s a sweet science toy, part Slinky, part magic trick. Made from one coiled thin, flat wire, it comes out of its bag looking like a loose stack of metal rings. But it immediately pops open into a springy, shimmery coil that you can roll up and down an arm, from one arm to another or pass it between friends. You can dance with it and do tricks with it. It’s mesmerizing. And when you’re done, it folds up into nothing again.

This isn’t a fidget for school – it’s way too much fun for that. read on…

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maple glazed sweet potatoes

Maple glazed sweet potatoes

16 November 2017

In the Thanksgiving show, turkey is the golden, handsome, boring star. The character actors have my heart: sturdy stuffing, comforting mashed potatoes, snappy green beans, sweet-tart cranberries.

And the candy of the stage: perfectly soft wedges of sweet potato with a buttery, caramelized glaze of sweetness. Sweet potatoes for purists; compelling enough to convert skeptics.

This is the last of my can’t-live-without Thanksgiving side dishes. I would have shared it earlier, but it’s so easy we never use a recipe. In its basic form all you need is sweet potatoes brushed with butter and maple syrup. But for you guys I tested a few tweaks, and my happy tasters found that a little brown sugar in the mix makes the greatest Thanksgiving sweet potatoes even a bit better.

Thanksgiving can be as easy or elaborate as you like. I always choose easy. I’ve tried more elaborate sides that I have absolutely loved – cornbread stuffing with sausage, apples, cranberries and nuts, or deep fried brussels sprouts – but they end up being too many flavors, or too filling, or just too time consuming.

The magic of Thanksgiving is in the mix of sides on the plate. Potatoes provide a cushion for gravy. Stuffing is the match for cranberry sauce’s sweet. Greens provide a light crunch to lighten the heavy. Every side does its job.

To me, the Thanksgiving mix is most harmonious when each side is its simplest best. And everyone at the Thanksgiving table gets to customize their own perfect mix plate. read on…

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I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich almost every morning of my school years, packing it up with a squat blue juice box of Hawaiian Punch and the little bundle of carrot sticks my mom would cut for me, rolled into a wax paper bundle with ends twisted. Now I make sandwiches for my kids, never much thinking about my technique until my friend Brooke visited from Colorado, chatting with my daughter and I as I made a PBJ for her lunch.

“I don’t think everyone does it that way,” she said.

“No?” I said, surprised. “How do you do it?”

“Peanut butter on one side. Jelly on the other.”

I looked down at my two slices of bread, both spread with peanut butter. “But then you get soggy bread from the jelly. You need peanut butter on both sides to keep the jelly from soaking into the bread.”

I must have figured this out in grade school, after one too many jam-soaked sandwiches. My dad, an electrical engineer, had a method at home for everything from dishwasher loading to water conservation to trash recycling/reduction. Optimization gave him a sense of order and satisfaction. I got that from him.

You don’t need PBJ system if you’re going to eat your sandwich right away. But if you’re going to pack it up, haul it to school in a jiggly backpack and eat four hours later, you’ll be glad to have a sandwich that doesn’t get soggier with time.

Funny that I spent my childhood thinking about PBJ methodology. But even then I would have seen jam-soaked sandwiches as a problem worth fixing. read on…

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Fall may be here, but October is still a pretty great month for grilling. It’s cooler out, so the heat of the grill actually feels nice, and for now we can enjoy a few more weeks of evening light before we turn the clocks back.

For me the best cooking is when a few uncomplicated ingredients come together to make something really special. This flank steak marinade seems so basic – soy sauce, oil and honey, with a bit of vinegar, garlic and black pepper – but a little bath in it makes a richly flavorful steak that is honestly better than most you have in restaurants.

Flank steak is a long, lean cut that marinates beautifully and is intensely flavorful if you treat it right. Don’t cook it past medium, and slice it thinly across the grain of the meat, and you’ll be rewarded with juicy, tender slices of steak. It’s great on the grill – one big cut – and a platter of slices makes for easy, gorgeous serving.

My brother Vic turned me on to this recipe from the reliably fantastic Elise at Simply Recipes, and he’s declared it the only marinade he needs. I wholeheartedly agree. Easy enough for every day, impressive enough for company. What could be better? read on…

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I’ve always wanted to like pancakes. As a kid obsessed with Little House on the Prairie, every time I read Laura Ingalls Wilder describe Farmer Boy‘s lavishly buttered stacks of golden pancakes, I could smell the hot griddle, see the bubbling pancakes, hear the soft squish of Almanzo’s fork as it cut into the tall stack, dripping with melted butter and maple sugar.

But I grew up in a Bisquick household, and my pancake reality – salty and artificial-tasting – was never very appetizing. In cafeterias, I politely bypassed the steam trays of floppy brown discs and, in diners, never ordered the staggeringly large rounds that looked as if a brown frisbee had landed on a dinner plate.

I love a thick challah french toast or a delicate, eggy crepe, and about a decade ago my friend Venus turned me on to some amazing flaxseed pancakes (that we usually make in banana chocolate chip form).

But this summer I started making straight-up classic American buttermilk pancakes – thick, fluffy, golden brown – and (shocker, I know) they are so good. Super basic. Super wholesome. Super easy.

Turns out I am a pancake fan. I just didn’t have good ones before.

And pancakes are really so much fun on a weekend morning. Because pancakes aren’t grab-and-go, see-ya-I-gotta-jam food. You need a plate, a fork. You sit down. You pass the syrup.

And these pancakes are everything I always imagined – light, crisp-edged and utterly delicious on their own. We pour on maple syrup and pile the pancakes with fruit – berries, peaches, bananas – because this is modern-day California, not the wild West.

And here’s a secret: You don’t really need to go buy buttermilk. Plain yogurt (or sour cream) mixed with milk works just as well, maybe even better. read on…

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For the last five years, the brightest week of our year is the week we spend with our friends from Germany. They live outside Munich with their four kids; we live outside San Francisco with our four matching kids. They’ve come to visit us in Ohio and in California, and once we met them in Niagara Falls. We’ve been to Munich twice – once two years ago, and then again this June, for our friend Florian’s 50th birthday celebration.

The four of us have been friends since our single days in New York City, and with our annual visits, our kids are close like cousins now. Once a year isn’t much. But it’s enough. In five years we’ve gone from having eight little kids to having half teens. The memories are everything.

We hesitated to stay with them this trip – they were having close to 130 family and friends for the birthday party, and their kids were still finishing up their school year. But they insisted, and we tried to be as helpful as six people who don’t speak the language in a foreign country can be.

My friend Jojo is a superstar, so she had it all supremely under control. I helped prep and clean in the kitchen. But mostly we ate and ate Jojo’s fantastic food.

I wish I could bring it all back home – the sausages, vinegary potato salad, yogurt, cheeses, fresh-baked pretzels. But I did bring back this lemony potato salad – so fresh, loaded with chopped herbs – which is the perfect partner for any summer cookout. Jojo made it our first night in Munich to accompany simple grilled chicken, salad and roasted vegetables, and the potatoes were so good they became my main course.

It’s quick to put together with just a few ingredients – potatoes, lemon, herbs, olive oil, honey and salt. Make a big batch and eat it for days. It’s just as good or better left over, for lazy summer snacking. read on…

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Grilled pineapple

25 May 2017
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At its best, pineapple is a euphorically transporting fruit, flooding one’s senses with sweet tropical juice and seductive fantasies of blindingly bright sand beaches and sparkling blue seas. But unless you live in Hawaii or other tropics, a more typical pineapple impression is tart and stringy, pale and dry. On the mainland, buying a whole […]

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Chocolate chip cookie cake

27 April 2017
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Instead of birthday cake, my boys love a giant chocolate chip cookie cake. Their friends always love it too, but I’m never satisfied with the recipe. Like the oversized cookie that it is, its edges are golden and crispy all around, while the center is soft and gooey. In a regular cookie, you get all […]

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Un-granola

21 April 2017
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Life dimmed for me and my kids when my friend Katie moved two years ago, she and her husband Rick trading their Silicon Valley home for a ranch in Oregon and taking with them three of our favorite little people – two of my kids’ soulmates and my angelic 18-month-old boyfriend. Between school and kids’ […]

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Metamorphosis

29 March 2017
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A close college friend texted me the other night, telling me she’s hitting a midlife crisis and taking a sabbatical from work. In our social 20s we would have had the luxury of a heartfelt conversation about Life. But in our hectic 40s, we cut to the point. I texted back: “Dude, I feel you. […]

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