Secrets to a smart and successful holiday baking season
While I have stepped away from writing a regular food column, I don't see myself as a retired baker. Instead, I like to think the changes in my life have allowed me to grow into a seasonal culinary artist, along with offering the occasional birthday cake or party dessert platter to family and friends.
However, when the calendar flips to December, this seasonal pastry chef dusts off my apron, pulls out the treasured recipes and takes stock of pantry and culinary supplies. The key to success in crafting signature desserts lies in being prepared before opening your kitchen to that whirlwind of holiday baking.
Today I offer my Baking Secrets Checklist, which has guided me through many years of successful holiday desserts.
1. The 3-recipe rule. Holidays are busy, so don't dilute your culinary energy. For cookies, choose two different recipes you feel passionate about baking to honor family traditions. Leave room for a new recipe each season, exploring unusual ingredients or diverse flavors. Save time and have fun by joining or starting a cookie/holiday dessert exchange party.
2. Quality ingredients matter. Elevating your recipe to the holiday dessert most requested list begins with understanding the power of quality ingredients. For example, in cookies, unsalted butter plays a dominant role in bringing fresh, authentic flavor, along with melt-in-your-mouth texture to recipes. Oil, shortening and margarine offer cost savings, but fall short of baking a distinctive cookie or dessert.
3. Know your ingredient. Shop for unsalted butter sticks and skip the light butters and spreads, as they contain water and air to reduce fat and calories. These products add too much moisture to recipes, resulting in extreme cookie spread while baking, in addition to undesirable tastes, textures and aromas. While pricey, higher fat artisanal or European butter enhances that melt in your mouth feel.
4. Protect your investment. Start fresh by replacing last year's baking soda, powder and yeast. This is recipe insurance, as leavening ingredients cost much less than pricey unsalted butter, should they not do their job in the recipe. How old are those spices? Purchase good quality extracts/spices and share the cost with a fellow baker.
5. Respect the food science. Butter is temperature-sensitive, and microwaves soften and melt unevenly. To quickly soften cold butter to room temperature: slice hard sticks into small pieces and set aside. Then organize for the recipe and measure all other ingredients. When done, the butter will be soft and ready to mix. To firm melted butter, stir in 1-2 tablespoons cold butter and stir until smooth. Then remeasure and mix.
6. Enhance ingredient flavors. Toast nuts just until fragrant and let cool before chopping. Swap dark brown sugar for the light variety to tap into the deep caramel notes of molasses. Real vanilla extract imparts distinctive aromas, but switch up flavoring with rum or bourbon. Try your hand at crafting homemade vanilla. It's easy to make, teaches food science to young bakers, and is cost-effective.
7. Invest in professional tools. Culinary school taught me the lessons of proper equipment. Heavy-duty stand and hand mixers take a beating and keep on beating. Shop at professional or specialty culinary stores for heavy-duty half sheet pans, large grated cooking racks, good measuring cups/spoons, and assorted dishers/scoops to evenly portion of dough and batters.
8. Be a Mix Master. The right small tools and supplies make baking easier. Rounded hand scrapers, available at kitchen supply stores (or online), act as an extension of your hand when mixing and scraping bowls, without all the mess. Look for deep stainless metal mixing bowls, that prevent splatter and flour fly-away, when turning up the speed.
9. Know your oven. Accurate and consistent heating is key to baking a successful dessert. Purchase an oven thermometer and run this test before starting any holiday baking. Place the thermometer in the center of the oven and heat to 350 degrees and wait for 15 minutes or signal from the oven. Check thermometer reading and record. Repeat every 15 minutes, checking oven temperature for an hour. Adjust heat to bake if slightly off, but call for thermostat service if more than 15 degrees off.
10. Chill out and warm up. Eggs, butter and cream cheese, mix better at room temperature. Butter cookie dough needs to be chilled at least one hour before rolling. Yeast dough rising times vary greatly with the temperature of your home and kitchen. Cookie dough can be made ahead and frozen up to 1 month before baking. Wrap well and use freezer quality packaging.
11. Cut-out cookie smarts. Save time and prevent hard cookies by minimizing rerolling of butter cookie dough. If dough rolls too soft, place in freezer for 5 minutes before cutting. Maximize cuts per roll by pressing firmly and right up next to other cookie cuts. Use a spatula to lift cut-outs onto the sheet pan. Chill 5-7 minutes in the freezer or 15 minutes in the refrigerator before baking, if the dough feels too soft.
12. Bake like a pastry chef. Use light-colored, heavy-duty baking pans, to ensure evenly shaped and colored results. Don't skimp by forgoing parchment paper. This bakeshop staple earns its keep by preventing over-browning, cooling finished goods, and saves oodles of clean up time. Purchase a food scale and weigh flour and sugars, to achieve consistent results. Measure all ingredients before mixing.
13. You bake the difference. What do all great bakers know about recipes? They are simply ideas that do not behave the same way for every baker. The nuances on how you mix, portion batters and shape doughs create the differences that bake your unique style into a signature recipe. Don't try to bake like someone else. Follow the baking secrets and embrace the culinary possibilities in your kitchen.
To get you started, here is my signature holiday cookie recipe, Toasted Pecan Crescents. With a short list of ingredients, the secret to success with this cookie lies in the balanced partnership of smooth butter, toasted and finely chopped pecans, then rolled in powdered sugar, to offer that touch of sweetness. Have fun baking, and enjoy this holiday season!
• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, now writes a seasonal baking column and lives in Medford Oregon, with her husband, Michael. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.