Often the most memorable gifts are those that bring unexpected pleasure. You untie the ribbon, peel off the paper, and feign delight at an item you never contemplated owning, only to find months later that it’s changed your life in some small (or large) way. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up Slate staff favorites that are just that: items you never knew you needed but you now can’t live without. Enjoy!
I am something of a hot sauce monster, which is to say I put it on everything and am constantly on the lookout for new species to sample. But even amid the ragtag bottles in my overcrowded fridge, Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp stands out. I first encountered this dream chili crisp at a friend’s party, where it had been plunked next to a box of pizza. And MAN is it good on pizza. It is also good on Thai noodles, on eggs, in soups, and on many other things. When it comes to texture (the crunchy caramelized chilies, the peppercorns, the fermented soybeans, the garlicky oil!), taste (intense and zesty but not insanely spicy), and sheer versatility, Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp is hard to beat.
—Laura Bennett, executive features director
I have a lot of hair. For decades, after showering, I would wind a bath towel around my head and walk around precariously, my head listing and the towel tumbling down at inopportune moments. Then came a pivotal day in my hair’s life. I was sharing a hotel room with two fellow curly-haired ladies, and I whined that housekeeping hadn’t left us enough towels. “Oh, I don’t use a towel for my hair,” one of them said. “I just use an old T-shirt.” The comment sent me down a curly-haired rabbit hole, where I learned hair techniques like squish to condish and the Curly Girl Method. Among them were instructions on how to use an old T-shirt to help define curls. I tried it a couple of times but found it as ungainly as the towel, only less absorbent. Yet the experience had opened my eyes to new possibilities, and I soon came upon the Turbie Twist microfiber hair towel. Now, after I shower, I twist my hair up in this handy little thing and then go about getting ready for the day. It has changed my hair, and my morning routine. Could I have figured out how to make the T-shirt method work? Yeah, probably. But the microfiber towels are cheap enough, and make enough of a difference in my life, that I don’t mind throwing money at this problem.
—Torie Bosch, Future Tense editor
I used to think tucking an unwieldy scarf under my coat and stuffing a bulky hat under my helmet were the only way I could survive riding my bike every day all winter long. Then, a cyclist friend turned me on to this balaclava. It’s a seamless microfiber polyester tube—the origami paper (or maybe the sarong) of winter wear, capable of being manipulated into a dozen or more head-and-neck-covering shapes. More than thin enough to fit comfortably under my helmet, it wicks away sweat without getting saturated, and it keeps my face and ears from freezing off in the bitter wind. Depending on the temperature, I might wear it looped around my neck, pull the back part over my head like a hood, fold the front part up over my chin, or, in the extreme cold, cover everything but my eyes.
—Christina Cauterucci, staff writer
Candle-making is the ideal craft for someone who finds escape in the kitchen. There’s meditative mixing, measuring, temperature-monitoring, pouring, waiting—and at the end of it, instead of a meal you’ll inhale in 20 minutes or a baked good that’ll relegate you to a sugar coma, you’ll have a lasting source of flickering warmth, calm, and olfactory delight. Give this starter kit to a friend or family member who could use a relaxing hobby, or get it yourself and make candles for everyone on your gift list.
—Christina Cauterucci, staff writer
I don’t get a lot of time to myself. Between work, family, and whatever hellfire is unfolding politically, some days my only time alone is in the shower. So I’ve learned to tailor my time under the steam to work for me, which means listening to whatever I want on my shower radio. The Sangean waterproof model isn’t cheap, but it has everything: an FM dial, so I can enjoy my favorite hip-hop station or NPR; a Bluetooth connection, which allows me to catch up on whatever podcast or audiobook I’m hooked on; and a strap so I can hang it over my shower head. I should stress: FM radio is my morning shower preference. There’s something about listening to the live airwaves, disconnected from the internet, that makes everything seem calmer to me. But if that’s not true for you, cheaper Bluetooth-only shower speakers abound.
—April Glaser, technology writer
As a bike commuter who takes pride in not dressing like Lance Armstrong, I always figured bike gloves were a hassle that would disrupt my ride-to-work routine—and my low-key aesthetic. I was wrong. Riding a bike with gloves designed for just that is a pleasure, even if I’m just going a few miles. They’re the perfect gift for the bike rider in your life. She’ll feel a new sense of control. Her hands won’t look like she worked in a sawmill all day, or feel like she just went for a winter swim in Lake Michigan. A good pair of gloves makes the bike better. I love these, but really any in the line will make a welcome addition to the commute.
—Henry Grabar, staff writer
What’s the point of being indoors in cold weather if you’re not wearing cozy slippers? This L.L. Bean pair, lined with lambswool, is part of my rural New England winter uniform: soft, sturdy, classic.
—Ruth Graham, staff writer
Despite a furniture salesperson’s promise our linen-blend sectional wouldn’t pill, it appeared ratty and worn within six months. Preparing for weekend house guests, I purchased this fabric shaver hoping to give it a facelift. Gliding the shaver over the fabric and catching the fabric bobbles was soothing and satisfying, and in under an hour, the sofa was renewed.
Now it sits on the ironing board, and we use it on wool coats, under the arms of knits, and on the well-worn areas of denim that get a little fuzzy. Garments that were degraded to hunkering-at-home status are once again worthy of company all because of this $17 gadget.
—Heidi Grothaus, HR and operations
In the Before Times, I never really thought about what I did with my earbuds. I just, you know, threw them into a bag or stuffed them into a pocket and then, when I needed to listen to something, spent 142 minutes untangling them, only to find that they no longer worked. Since I bought these cute square storage pouches for less than two bucks each, though, I wind my earbuds in a little circle, tuck them into the pouch, zip it up, and glory in all the time I’ve saved.
—Dan Kois, writer and editor
This wonder of a sauce was introduced to me by my partner’s father, who is an excellent chef. The can may look simple, but my goodness is the stuff inside complex—spicy but not overly so, briney and vinegary-bright. All the things you want in a harissa! Try a dollop on basically any meat or vegetable, and for a dangerously addictive dip, mix a spoonful with Duke’s Mayonnaise. Your fries will thank you.
—J. Bryan Lowder, associate editor
Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten really into jigsaw puzzles. They are the perfect hobby for our current age—a wonderful way to clear your mind, because they allow you to completely obsess over something that totally doesn’t matter! Give your loved ones a jigsaw puzzle. Here is a beautiful one I just finished. For some reason, I thought starting with the oranges would be easier—I was wrong, definitely start with the birds.
—Susan Matthews, science editor
An immersion blender! I shudder when I think about the mess I made for years dumping broths and soups into a regular old blender. My wife and I got one made by Koios, and I do not want to think about what cooking through winter without it would be like.
—Seth Maxon, night editor
When I first heard of Philip Pullman’s fantasy series His Dark Materials, I doubted that I needed books in my life that were source material for a supposedly meh kids movie starring Daniel Craig and a polar bear. But after hearing my friends’ rapturous praise, I overcame my skepticism, and man, I was not prepared for how special these novels are. Everyone needs an alluring escape from this world, and a place to go to think about life’s grandest questions. The series offers both. They are full of gorgeous prose, big ideas, vivid characters, high stakes, suspense, and beauty. And 2018 is a notably good year to visit or revisit the story. La Belle Sauvage, the first volume in the long-anticipated sequel series The Book of Dust, came out last year to raves, and a new BBC series adapted from the original trilogy will begin airing in 2019. A complete set makes a perfect gift. Support a local bookstore and get into it.
—Seth Maxon, night editor
I used to prop my phone up on the counter, desperately hoping its tinny sound would carry over boiling water and my stove’s vent. Then I got a Bluetooth speaker. This handy device has given me hours of pleasure listening to podcasts as I cook and hosting impromptu dance parties in my kitchen.
—Abby McIntyre, copy chief
Reading the latest installment in M.L. Longworth’s Provençal Mystery series is my favorite way to relax. Full of gourmet meals, silky wines, and sumptuous homes, these cozy mysteries transport you to the south of France for significantly less than the cost of airfare. Perfect for the gourmands or francophiles in your life.
—Abby McIntyre, copy chief
Until I moved into a friend’s drafty Maine farmhouse, I thought of hot water bottles as something only used by Warner Bros. cartoon characters, like the rags they tie around their heads when they have toothaches. But as winter approached, my host’s icy cotton sheets became torture to slip into, and I ordered this basic model, which even comes with its own turtleneck sweater. I am now inseparable from it. Not only does it make the bed cozy each night, but I refill it in the morning and keep it on my lap while I work. It’s like a pet you don’t have to feed, walk, or pick up after.
—Laura Miller, books and culture columnist
The indoor world can be a dreary place in the winter, but you can fix it—with rainbows. This elegant device, which you can attach with suction cups to your window, uses a pair of spinning Swarovski crystals to project little splotches of artificially flavored rainbow all over your room. It’s a machine that creates beauty, which is to say, sure, technically, your loved ones could live without it. But what if they found out they have the option of living with it, and that you didn’t get it for them? Might as well play it safe and just get them the rainbow-maker.
—Leon Neyfakh, staff writer
I had an ugly, second-hand wooden knife block for a long time, and it never really worked for my motley collection of chef’s cutlery. Then I had an in-drawer knife organizer, which annoyed me because I had to open my drawer over and over again to pull them out and put them back in. My knives always ended up in a permanent puddle on my counter—a situation that’s both unsightly and unsafe. Then I found out about this magnetic knife block, which is very low-profile, can accommodate the randomest collection of knives, and looks much nicer than its price tag would imply. Everything is organized now, and it stays that way.
—Rebecca Onion, staff writer
I own more encyclopedic cookbooks than anyone needs, but How to Cook Everything is the one I turn to again and again. Mark Bittman’s recipes are nothing fancy—sautéed pork chops with a tangy pan sauce, for example—but they are tasty, quick, nourishing, and pillars of my family’s weekly dinner planning. I appreciate his variations and simplicity, but mostly I love knowing that when I need a trusted recipe for anything from hot chocolate to pecan pie, I can thumb through the book and find one. To me, there’s no substitute for a hard copy of a cookbook—the grease spatters and margin notes tell their own story—but the app is great, too.
—Jill Pellettieri, editor, Human Interest section
One day I complimented my friend Erica on the bracelet she was wearing. She turned to me conspiratorially and whispered that it was not just any bracelet but a bracelet with a special function (essentially a spy bracelet): It looks like a silver cuff with a band in the middle, but it’s actually a bangle made to camouflage your hair elastic! I was amazed and delighted, because I, too, had lived my life with a hair tie around my wrist, and I, too, had worried that that look was “not cool.” I went home to buy one posthaste, but I am told they go on sale fairly often.
—Heather Schwedel, staff writer
Every few weeks I feel an urge to be “arty.” The impulse is vague but insistent. I want to make or paint or draw something, but what? Staring at a blank piece of paper does not help. A sure-fire way to scratch this itch is to pull out my Gelli Arts Gel Printing Plate and get some paint or ink on paper, cardboard, or just about any other handy surface. The product’s tagline is “monoprinting without a press,” which probably won’t mean much to people without an art background—people like me. Just know that you can create unique backgrounds and patterns very easily and with very little mess. Go at it for long enough, and you won’t have to worry about the existential horrors of staring at a blank sheet of paper, because nothing in your house that can be printed on will ever be blank again. The plates come in lots of different sizes—from mini shapes to 12 x 14 monsters. (Living in a small New York apartment, 5 x 7 is ideal for me.) Be warned that a $16 investment in a Gelli plate could lead to hundreds of dollars of spending on paints, ink pads, stencils, and paper—and to many hours staring at YouTube videos. It’s worth it to satisfy that urge, though.
—June Thomas, senior managing producer of Slate podcasts
Let’s be real: Ironing is a chore. Be a lifesaver to everyone you know and gift them a clothes steamer. This magical contraption is small, heats up in about a minute, and can easily smooth out everything from everyday rumples to tough wrinkles. You won’t ever have to worry about setting up a clunky ironing board ever again. This mini one is especially great for packing in your carry-on for travel.
—Chau Tu, associate editor, Slate Plus
When I went on a weeklong kayaking trip, I took a set of Rite in the Rain waterproof notebooks with me to record my adventures. When I returned to shore, my books and other papers were soggy, but these journals held up wonderfully against the seawater and rain. Built to withstand water, grease, and mud, these durable notebooks are a great gift for someone who loves to spend time outdoors.
—Sofie Werthan, nights and weekends social media editor
Bee’s Wrap is an eco-friendly alternative to plastic wrap. The wraps are made of cotton coated in beeswax, jojoba oil, and tree resin, which makes them reusable and easy-to-clean (and, as a bonus, the beeswax smells nice, too). You can use them to cover bowls, wrap up bread or cheese, save leftovers, or pack a snack. Using Bee’s Wrap has drastically reduced my use of plastic bags, plastic wrap, and tinfoil in the kitchen.
—Sofie Werthan, nights and weekends social media editor
This post has been updated with additional items after publication.
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