Food & Wine // 5 min Read

Host Gifts: Bakery Edition

Written by and photography by Allison Lane

Dec 9, 2021


It’s no secret that the holidays are, at best, a time of organized chaos. Idyllic memories of mistletoe and boughs of holly are tempered by shopping lists and paper cuts, the latter accumulated like gift-wrapped badges of honor. Holiday parties are in no short supply, buoyed no doubt by eggnog, spiced mulled wine, and the requisite mystery punch.

But if you peel away the gift wrap, the meticulously planned menus, and the artfully arranged poinsettias, one simple truth remains: the holidays are a time of tradition. And no tradition, value, or social custom is so ingrained in our Southern consciousness than the notion that you should never, ever show up to someone’s house empty-handed.

And while this is easy to understand in theory, what does it look like in delivery?

By definition, a hostess gift is something a host or hostess would use in the course of entertaining. Bringing food, though, runs the risk of putting your hostess on the spot and making them feel obligated to serve it.

This brings us to the crux of the matter: do you bring something appropriate for serving now, or do you rebel against the carefully penned lines of cultural icon and authority on etiquette Emily Post (who no doubt would shudder at the thought of me offering advice) and bring something for the hostess to enjoy later?

Whichever way you decide to go, the central tenet remains: if you’re attending a party, bring the hostess a gift. And since I am inclined to choose gifts of the edible variety and adhere to the notion that the best way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, I’ve rounded up two Lowcountry bakeries that are reshaping the cookie-cutter archetype and producing pastries worthy of any host or hostess.

Sugar Bakeshop

A Charleston institution rooted in home baking, Sugar Bakeshop offers a variety of fresh-baked cupcakes and cookies as well as pies and cakes made to order. All of their recipes are based on the original owner's grandparents' recipes, and consequently, there's a level of nostalgia that's as baked in as the flour, eggs, and milk.

With the goal of bringing back memories of your childhood, it's no surprise that Sugar Bakeshop likes to keep it simple, as evidenced by their sugar cookies and vanilla blueberry cake. There is an elegance to the simplicity, and the holidays are no exception. The sugar cookies feature the trademark unassuming look, but don't let that fool you; underneath the sugar cookie glaze is a treat so good it'll transport you straight back to your grandmother's linoleum-floored kitchen.

Popular options for the holidays include the aforementioned sugar cookies, which come in a variety of classic shapes and can be ordered by the dozen; the Charleston chewies, which are similar to a cookie but have crushed pecans on the top and come in a festive silver holiday tin with 16 chewies; and, of course, the homemade hot cocoa mix, featuring rich, high-quality dark chocolate cocoa powder, sea salt, vanilla bean–infused sugar, semisweet chocolate chunks, and homemade peppermint marshmallows for garnish. Trust me, this is one mix that tastes anything but prepacked.

And while all of this sounds absolutely heavenly and has likely roused many a sweet tooth from its sugar plum slumber, it doesn't help to answer what one should bring as a hostess gift. Enter Sugar Bakeshop head baker, Josiah Albright. A home baker with a background in theater, Josiah understands the nuances of gift-giving, but with the requisite added panache one would expect from a thespian-turned-baker.

The Safe Option

Playing it safe might lead you down the road most taken, but for Josiah, that doesn't have to mean boring. Go for their tried-and-true crowd-pleasers: a dozen cupcakes in an assortment of flavors, or a dozen of the blueberry vanilla cupcakes (which happen to be painted on the side of their building—they're that good). A dozen assorted cookies works great as well, but be forewarned, chocolate chip is always their most popular and tends to sell out the quickest.

For a Foodie

For the foodie in your life, Josiah recommends bringing something seasonal. Ask the team what's in season, and you'll be glad you did. At the time of this writing, the seasonal offering was a sweet tea cupcake with sweet tea icing and a citrus filling, and it was simply divine.

For Your Significant Other's Parents

There's no pressure like trying to figure out what to bring your significant other's family, and Josiah advises planning ahead and trying to impress them. His recommendation? Get a cake. A classic 6-inch cake (their smallest) with something safe that everyone would like, for example, double chocolate, chocolate with yellow icing, or a raspberry lemon cake are all great options and will be sure to impress.

Baker's Choice

I would be remiss if I didn't include the baker's choice, which is, unsurprisingly, anything seasonal (as befits a self-proclaimed foodie). But his favorite favorite? The maple blueberry cupcake Sugar Bakeshop has in January, which tastes like a pancake. Drool.

When to Order

If you're reading this, take this as your reminder to get holiday orders in posthaste. Sugar Bakeshop plans to have their Christmas menu posted around late October, which is also when they recommend placing your order. Smaller items such as sugar cookies, chewies, and cocoa powder will be in stock at the store, but they tend to sell out quickly.

Odd Birds Cafe & Market

When Bluffton newcomer Odd Birds Cafe & Market opened their doors in the midst of a pandemic, they had no idea what to expect. Never one to sugarcoat things (ironic given her line of work), co-owner Lynn Vinall conceded that it's been tough, but that it's their dream and they're doing it. Indeed, Lynn and her best-friend-turned-sister-in-law-turned-business-partner, Lesley, have been talking about doing this for 20 years, and after 10 months of seven-day workweeks working to define their voice, ahem, flavor, it's undeniable that not only are they doing it, but also they're doing it exceedingly well.

And to top it all off, Odd Birds isn't following a clearly defined set of rules, because when you open in a pandemic, there are no rules. This freedom has allowed them to differentiate themselves from their more established counterparts and focus on what makes them, well, them.

Like Sugar Bakeshop in Charleston, Odd Birds doesn't focus on fancy decorating. Instead, they spend their time and energy making sure the food is really, really good. And it is. Don't expect to find cases upon cases of baked goods. Instead, expect to find a handful of baked goods made fresh and from scratch daily. At Odd Birds, it's all about consistency and deliciousness, and it shows, er, tastes.

With popular holiday options including full-sized quiches, coffee cakes, and double chocolate peppermint tarts, Odd Birds is uniquely positioned to provide their patrons with the nostalgia of holiday favorites without the stress and worry of having to make it themselves. Indeed, while the holidays can often be viewed through rose-colored glasses, the reality can be anything but.

Which leads us to our point: this holiday season, take the pressure off yourself, and let the people who do it well do it for you. Hostess gifts are no exception, and Lynn has recommendations for every situation. The overarching theme? Bring something the host can use the next day.

The Safe Option

Housemade strawberry raspberry jam and lemon curd, bottled in cute little jars and served alongside Odd Bird's housemade muffins or buttermilk biscuits, are perfect for the morning. Your host will thank you when all they have to do the morning after is toast a biscuit and choose between curd or jam.

For a Foodie

For the discerning eater in your life, Lynn recommends a full-sized quiche. Same idea as the safe option: your host can throw it in the fridge, and when they're nice and tired the morning after, cut a slice, toast it, et voila—you're now the MVP (most valuable partygoer).

For Your Significant Other's Parents

Odd Birds and Sugar Bakeshop both agree that when it comes to your significant other's family or parents, you have to impress. Go with the housemade jam or curd, which is easy to carry and will be there when they're ready to use it. But be forewarned, it's so good that it won't last long.

Baker's Choice

Salty malty chocolate chip cookies. A mixture of dark and milk chocolate with a malted milk powder and malted chocolate inside, these elevated chocolate chip cookies are the best you'll ever eat. Not a chocolate fan? Lynn also recommends their peanut butter cookies, which are made with a special peanut butter "crack" that has the texture of toffee.

When to Order

Odd Birds needs at least two weeks' notice and plans to announce their Christmas offerings after Thanksgiving. But it's my opinion that the earlier you can get your order in, the better. Odd Birds might be the new kid on the block working to grow their following, but with such an array of mouthwatering offerings, they won't be for long.

So, repeat after me, "I will not show up empty-handed, and I will make sure to place my holiday orders early." There. You're on your way to holiday bliss.

Read the original story in the Holiday edition of The Bluff magazine.