Holiday Baking Bliss

For many people, cooking and baking can be anxiety-inducing enough, without the added worry of subjecting your dish to your friends and loved ones for scrutiny. If you don’t find holiday baking bliss in here, let’s at least shoot for something below a panic attack when the next potluck invite comes your way.

When I was 11 years old, I made brownies in my best friend’s kitchen using my mom’s battered old copy of The Joy of Cooking. Let me tell you, Irma S. Rombauer doesn’t coddle you along. If you are reading her recipes, she assumes you know some basics. Except, well, I was 11, and my friend was 12, so we knew nothing. Which is why, after melting our Hershey’s bars in the microwave to get that rich, chocolaty goodness, we just dumped the mess into our batter, which (little did we know) instantly curdled our eggs—ultimately creating brownies that tasted like a chocolate omelet. This perhaps sounds better than they tasted, which was God-awful.

Now, most cookbooks and recipes that you will read nowadays know better than to assume that little girls and boys grew up learning how to “Do Things Properly,” but just in case, let me take a moment to impact some basic kitchen wisdom.

Measuring

Liquids should be measured in a liquid measuring cup, preferably Pyrex brand because they will live longer than you will.

Solids can be measured in measuring cups, but make sure you adhere to additional rules

  • Flour (and really, powdered sugar as well) should never be scooped up from the bag with the measuring cup. Instead, spoon it into the cup one scoop at a time with a regular tablespoon. When you have a little hill over the top of the measuring cup, tap the back of a butter knife on top and smooth it out. This is to make sure you do not compact the flour.
  • Brown sugar, on the other hand, must always be compacted. Press it into your measuring cup with your fingers or a spoon so that when you dump it out, it somewhat holds the shape of the measuring cup.
  • Granulated sugar (which is the baking name for plain ol’ white sugar), chocolate chips, baking soda/powder, peanut butter, whatever else can all be simply scooped with your measuring cup.

Though spices can be estimated, please do not estimate baking powder or soda. Adding too much or too little can keep your baked good from rising properly. These powders react with the liquids of your recipe to create air bubbles, which elevate your batter. Not enough powder and you have too few air bubbles. Too much powder and you get too many bubbles, which pop each other, collapsing the dish. And what’s the difference between baking powder and baking soda, you ask? Baking soda is a basic (as in pH) sodium bicarbonate, which needs some sort of acid in the recipe (often lemon) to react while baking powder is baking soda with a dry acid mixed in, which activates when wet.

Mixing

I have been watching Gordon Ramsey’s Ultimate Cookery Course, which has been utterly delightful and extremely informative. He knows his stuff. But I was appalled when he was making blondies (cookie dough in a single casserole dish) and just threw all the ingredients willy-nilly. Dumb idiot, that’s not going to rise! And it totally didn’t! And still, it was on TV! Let’s not make the same mistake:

  • Mix “wet” ingredients (butter, sugar, eggs, milk, melted chocolate, vanilla, etc.) separately from “dry” ingredients (flour, baking soda/powder, cocoa powder, spices, etc). This is critical for the dry ingredients, so that the baking soda/powder gets fully distributed throughout the flour (remember, those air bubbles are everything for presentation). It’s also beneficial for the wet ingredients as well, which sometimes need a pretty thorough beating, which you don’t want to give them when dry ingredients are in there, too.
  • “Why can’t I mix dry and wet ingredients for too long?” you whine. Well, when you mix dry and wet ingredients together, you are forming the glutinous bonds that will hold your treat together. If, however, you form too many glutinous bonds, your treat will be super tough and unpleasant and all your friends will hate you. Typically, recipes counsel you to mix “until just combined,” which I will repeat. It’s mixed when it looks homogenous.
  • Tempering. This is a scary word to some and it is part of Intermediate Baking. But not to fret. I taught 4th graders how to do it and I can teach you too. This is the skill that was missing from my repertoire during the infamous Omelet Brownie Debacle.

Here’s the situation: you have a hot thing (usually chocolate or hot cream) to which you need to add to a room temp or colder thing (usually containing eggs). What you want to do is slowly raise the temperature of the eggs by adding just a bit of that hot liquid (like 1-2 tablespoons) to your cooler thing, while whisking constantly. This will warm the little eggies up gently. Scoop up more of that hot liquid (go ahead and use ¼ cup this time) into the now-less-cold liquid and keep whisking. Keep doing this until both are completely combined and you are ready to continue the recipe!

Mise En Place

This is a French phrase that means “everything in its place” and it is the crux of kitchen bliss. Not only does it mean that your kitchen is somewhat organized when you set out to cook, it also means that you are ready mentally and physically.

That means that you have read the entire recipe already. That way, when you get to the phrase “chill overnight or for 8 hours,” you won’t start swearing because your party starts in 30 minutes. Seriously, read the whole thing as soon as you decide it’s what you wanna make.

Make sure you have your ingredients ready to go. Have your butter and eggs out on the counter (they ideally should get to room temp, anyway), have your measuring cups clean and ready, have your pan greased and your oven pre-heating. If you want to be super smooth, put pre-measured ingredients in little prep dishes. This will make everything so, so much smoother. Little things like this can make the difference between sipping your wine while tapping your foot to jazz and getting flour in your hair just as you start screaming!

Let’s Bake!

For the holidays, people love certain seasonal staples. Cooking/baking “in season,” meaning the produce is freshest at this time of year, will absolutely boost the taste of your food, especially if you buy from your local farmer’s market.

Try baking with the following produce, in season during autumn and winter:

  • Citrus fruits (clementines, oranges, lemons, limes, tangerines)
  • Kiwis
  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Persimmons
  • Dates
  • Chestnuts
  • Squashes (acorn, spaghetti, butternut)
  • Cranberries
  • Jujube
  • Pumpkins
  • Pomegranate

Recipes to Try

I have not tried all of these recipes but don’t let that stop you! Find something that looks doable and delicious and you’ll be achieving baking bliss in no time!

  • A delicious, unique collection of recipes can be found at mom.me
  • Two recipes with pomegranate seeds: Chocolate Pomegranate Clusters and Orange Pomegranate Bread
  • 15 fantastic pear recipes from one of my go-to recipe sites, Real Simple
  • Chestnuts can be intimidating, but also delicious and unique! Plus, Trader Joes sells them all ready to go! Try Chocolate Chestnut Torte or Chestnut Cupcakes (for piping frosting on all pretty, spoon it into a Ziplock baggie and cut off one of the corners for an instant piping bag!)
  • Persimmons make fantastic bread and cookies, but be careful! Fuju persimmons are squat and flat at the bottom and can be eaten like a stone fruit, when orange and slightly softened. Hachiya persimmons, however, will leave a dry, cotton-y taste in your mouth and taste super tart if not ripened to mushy softness. The latter are the most commonly used for baking and taste fantastic when allowed to fully develop. Try them in cookies and bread.
  • Check out this tasty compilation of sweet squash based desserts!
  • Cranberries pair beautifully with sweet flavors. Try Pear Cranberry Crisp or Cornmeal Biscotti with Cranberries and White Chocolate
  • If you are feeling exotic and adventurous, try a dessert with the Chinese winter fruit jujubes, like the Jujube Tart with Walnut Cream. The jujube has the consistency and taste of an apple and looks wrinkled like a date. A larger farmers market should have them.

Contingency Plans

Help! Help! My dish failed and I have 30 minutes until my event! Okay, okay! Try this!

You are now ready to prepare and consume a delicious holiday treat that will impress and satisfy your friends and neighbors and banish your enemies into a vortex of shame at their inferiority. Go forth and bake!

Photo by Andy Sutterfield

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