Food & Drink

Holiday Baking

Tips and techniques for stress-free holiday baking

By Ebony J. Hull |

A wonderful woman came up with the idea of fresh-baked brioche on Christmas morning. Let’s call this woman Wendy. Wendy was prepared; she researched several recipes, bought local organic butter and a set of brioche pans. The night before Christmas, Wendy was stirring, but her dough was lumpy and cold. Wendy was still optimistic, so she started over. At 2am Wendy gave up and made snickerdoodles with the remaining organic butter. On Christmas morning Wendy’s family ate cookies while Wendy took a much-needed nap on the sofa.

What’s the moral of this story? Holidays are about quality time, tasty food and traditions, not gourmet cookies and an exhausted cook.

If you want to impress your family with fresh-baked brioche, you can set a simple pace that ensures you aren’t too frazzled to enjoy that brioche. Ingredients and tools aren’t the key to successful baking. Space and timely methods are. For excellent holiday entertaining, early and fresh is your goal, your mantra, and your raison d’etre. Fresh ingredients are the finest and starting early is the best preparation. The kitchen is your domain; be the master.

Your first task is to figure out what to make and how to make it. After picking out your holiday treats, get a sheet of paper and the recipes and sit down at the table. Read the entire recipe and list all the ingredients. Now you know what to buy and how to prepare it. There won’t be any unpleasant surprises like finding out the raisins should have been soaked overnight first or that whole-wheat flour is not a suitable substitute for cake flour.

Medieval knights wore chain mail, armor and carried a sword. Just like those knights, each baker must have the necessary equipment for power, protection and control. We’ll start with the basic items every home baker should have in their kitchen.

Melanie Melle, executive pastry chef at Saint Peter’s Bakery in St. Peters, Pa., has several specific recommendations:

  • A Silpat™ silicone nonstick baking mat
  • A KitchenAid ™ stand mixer
  • A Cuisinart™ food processor

The silicone mat is excellent because it’s reusable and withstands high temperatures.

KitchenAid’s Professional 600 Series stand mixer supplies the power with an unflagging 575-kilowatt motor.

“It’s an investment that’s well worth it,” Melle says of KitchenAid’s artisan mixers.

Melle recommends a heavy aluminum cookie sheet with sides for stable handling and to avoid sheets with shiny black bottoms, as they tend to over-brown. With the right kind of food processor, you can chop fruit, grind spices and even knead dough without breaking a sweat.

Control comes with a digital food scale that allows bakers to measure the perfect amount every time. A stainless steel wire whisk, a chef’s knife and a spatula give you the ability to whip cream into shape, chop nuts down to size and smooth out all the bumps. Extra-long ovens mitts made with heat-resistant materials like Neoprene and silicone keep you from burning your arms when you put pans and sheets in the oven.

Jackie Mastin of Kitchen Kapers, a regional kitchen supplies store, suggests several reliable brands.

  • Oxo Good Grips 11 lb. Food Scale
  • Built NY French Bull Vine Long Oven Mitt
  • USA Pan Bakeware
  • Cuisinart Electric Cookie Press, which works well for people with arthritis

“These are all really great products that make baking holiday cookies and goodies a lot easier,” Mastin says.

Melle uses only sweet unsalted butter at the bakery. “Salt is a flavor factor,” Melle says. Salt should be a subtle enhancer in sweet baked goods.

Fresh local ingredients are another standard at Saint Peter’s Bakery. Melle’s pear almond tart and apple cranberry scones are based on fruits currently in season. Apples, pears, cranberry, and squash are great fall flavors for your holiday menu.

Now, where do you find sweet unsalted butter and local pears and cranberries? At the market, of course. Paula Janssen of Janssens’s Market in Greenville Del., suggests several specialty items for home bakers. Janssen’s Market carries Nielsen-Massey’s Vanilla Bean paste, a high-quality product that adds gourmet flair to any dish. The paste is gluten free. Janssen’s carries several flavor-enhancing specialty items, including brandy butter, ginger sugar, and Vahlrona chocolate. Janssen’s stocks authentic Ceylon cinnamon, which is a must for gingersnaps and apple pies.

“It has a more rounded, warmer flavor,” Janssen says. Flour is the base of almost every baked treat and Janssen’s has them all, from all-purpose to amaranth to chestnut. Janssen’s customers often use Swans Down™ cake flour.

Now that you have fresh ingredients and your batterie de cuisine, how could you fail? Organization is the key to pacing yourself. Common sense, timing and space are the important part of organization.

Let’s say Wendy has decided to take on brioche one more time for New Year’s Eve. This time, she needs to concentrate on the ingredients, necessary tools and space. Wendy already has the equipment and she can buy all the ingredients. This time Wendy will take out the butter first, measure all her ingredients on a digital kitchen scale and lay out all her utensils. Wendy mixes the dough confidently this time because her ingredients are ready and her high-quality tools are at hand. And on the New Year, alongside her guests, Wendy will eat drink and be merry.

My personal tips

  1. To quickly soften the butter, cover it with plastic wrap and use your hands to warm it. If you forget to take it out early, this works very well. Avoid melting it.
  2. Blend butter, sugar and eggs very well. If you don’t incorporate the ingredients well enough, the cookies will be flat and greasy
  3. Measure all ingredients first.