There are a lot of great cooks who create fantastic meals without fantastic tools. I'll be the first person to tell you that building a well-equipped kitchen is an expensive project, but it's worth it. Over the past decade I've added these items little by little and they've really improved my cooking. I consider these to be my essentials. They aren't cheap, but they will last you a long time.
I purchased my All-Clad Stainless Steel set 5 years ago. At the time I was working at a specialty kitchen store and recieved a generous discount on the set. Even with the discount, it was difficult to part with the money, especially since I wasn't that great of a cook.
The heat retention in the pots is wonderful. I can make a pot of soup and it will actually stay piping hot for hours... after it is removed from the stove. I originally was concerned with food sticking to the stainless surface, but the surface actually starts to repel food after a few uses, strange as it sounds. When I sautee onions or other sticky foods, I just add some oil, and I'm good to go. I still keep a set of relatively inexpensive Teflon frying pans for quick jobs like grilled cheese. I can't say enough about how well this cookware is made. The handles are attached so strongly that I doubt they'd ever move. You can scrub the pots and pans with almost anything and they still look new. You can put them in the oven, burn food on them, immerse them in water... they still clean up like new.
Kitchen Aid Artisan Stand Mixer
I've been baking since I was 8 or 9, but our family never had a "real" mixer. I either mixed by hand or used a electric hand mixer. This mixer took things to a while new level.
If you like to bake (or even cook) and you haven't invested in one of these, please add it to your wish list. This baby can cream together butter and sugar to make perfect pound cakes and great cookies. It can whip up fluffy mashed potatoes or creamy fillings for sweet potato pies. It can knead dough for bread or pizza. It does all of this without any of the optional attachments that can be purchased separately.
Cuisinart Food Processor
In December 2008, my husband decided that I "needed" a real food processor and bought me a lovely, full-size stainless steel machine. Initially, I was quite frustrated that he spent that much money and that he bought me a kichen applicance for Christmas. I got over that the first time I used it. Look out world! I can now make anything from cookie dough to bean dip in my food processor! I can slice raw chicken (partially frozen), chop veggies into pieces so small that they can't be detected by veggie-haters, and make huge batches of homemade salsa for warm nights on the deck. It can make fluffy scones because it blends butter quickly and efficiently without warming up your dough. It's kind of a pain to clean, but it's dishwasher safe, so I can't complain. Put this one on your list.
Cuisinart Grind and Brew Coffee Maker
My husband and I received one of these coffee makers as a wedding gift back in 2005. We used it nearly every day until it began leaking in 2011. This is the newer model that replaced our old one.
The best part about this machine is that it grinds your beans right before it brews them. The minute that grinder clicks on your kitchen is filled with the scent of freshly ground coffee. The aroma only gets more intense once those grinds are hit with fresh hot water. It comes with a built-in water filter so you know your coffee won't have an "off" taste. We opt to use disposable coffee filters for convenience, but it also comes with a reusable filter. There's also a timer so you can be sure your coffee will be ready as you're walking out the door in the morning, thus saving you time and money on work days.
I love its stainless steel appearance (it only looks like stainless - this newer model has some plastic) and I'm a big advocate of a thermal carafe. Your coffee stays hot for at least an hour - not that I'm a fan of old coffee. Instead of having your coffee sit and burn in a traditional carafe, this one just keeps it warm because it's insulated.