Well folks, it is that time of the year again and no, I am not talking about baseball’s pennant races. It is time to get ready for the onslaught of holiday baking. Am I crazy to be thinking about this already? Some would say yes, but planning ahead will save you oodles of time. I hope you will join me in my annual project!
How many times have you stood in long lines at the grocery store a day or two before Thanksgiving asking yourself each time, “why do I do this to myself?” With a little advance planning you can get through the holidays in relative peace.
Most dried herbs and spices have a 6-month to 1-year shelf life, after which they start to lose their potency and flavor. Over the years I have gotten in the habit of doing an inventory in early October to make sure I have everything I need for my holiday baking. Why do I start so early? Because I hate to be the one running to the store at the last minute hunting for the elusive and often sold-out bottle of cinnamon or nutmeg … or sending The Artist on that crazy pursuit.
So here are some things that you can do now to alleviate stress as we near the heavy holiday baking season:
1) Clean out your pantry
This is pretty simple. Go through your pantry and check the expiration dates on your dry goods. I am constantly amazed at how many things “hide” in the back where I don’t see them for years! Note which items need to be restocked and buy them in the next couple of weeks.
2) Go through your dried herbs and spices
Every year I replace all my standard baking spices and throw out any old bottles of herbs that are no longer pungent. The most commonly used spices are cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves. In addition, I like cardamom, allspice and mace. The herbs I use the most are rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, cumin and dill. Make sure that you have fresh vanilla and any other flavorings you need such as peppermint, lemon or orange oils.
3) Stock up on items you will need
Do you have plenty of white and brown sugar? Do you have all-purpose flour and any specialty flours on hand? To keep it fresher, store flour in the freezer when you first bring it home for a day or two then keep in the refrigerator if you have the room. Stock up on butter and keep it in the freezer (I do this all year long). Buy new baking powder and baking soda – they are inexpensive and you would hate to have your baked goods not rise because of expired leaveners! Do you have cocoa for making fudge or other chocolate desserts and candies? How about chocolate chips for the quintessential cookie?
4) Collect your favorite recipes and check to see that you have the ingredients and equipment on hand
If you know you will be baking a pumpkin pie, go ahead and buy the canned pumpkin and evaporated milk if needed. These are shelf-stable for a long time so can be bought ahead. Buy corn syrup or golden syrup for pecan pies, etc. Do you have the pie plates, cake pans, or other dishes needed to bake your favorites?
5) Search for new recipes to try and do a practice run
If you want to shake things up a bit, look for new recipes and make them ahead so you are comfortable making them on the big day. For example, if you have always made the same sweet potato dish for Thanksgiving, try something new this year!
6) Evaluate your serving pieces, utensils, cookware, cutlery, etc.
If you are going to be throwing parties or are hosting big family dinners, now is the time to make sure you have everything you need. You can either borrow what you need or pick up a few new pieces. They are making outstanding-looking plastic serving pieces these days that you don’t have to be afraid of breaking or leaving behind if you are bringing something to another person’s home.
Do you have wire sieves, strainers, whisks, rubber spatulas and all the other tools you need for baking? What about platters for displaying your gorgeous work? I buy white serving pieces whenever I find them on sale so I can show off my handiwork.
7) If you are making cut out cookies, do you have all the cookie cutters you want and need?
If you are going to be doing a cookie-baking marathon, make sure that your cookie cutters are ready for action. Have you always dreamed of making extra large gingerbread men but have never bought the perfect cookie cutter? This may be your year to splurge! And don’t forget about piping bags and tips if you are doing decorated cookies.
8) Do you have enough baking sheets and cooling racks? How about Silpats or parchment paper sheets? Do you have a thermometer?
One thing I learned from working in professional kitchens is to have plenty of baking sheets because they are truly the workhorses of the kitchen. You can use them to store your mise en place prior to cooking a big meal, you can pan cookies ahead so that baking goes much more quickly and they are essential for transferring pies to and from the oven.
Cooling racks make a huge difference in how quickly cookies and cakes can be decorated or packed for gifts. I stack mine inside my baking sheets.
Silpats (silicone baking mats) and parchment paper keep you from having to butter the sheets before using. I buy my parchment in cut sheets and store them between two of my baking sheets for easy access.
If you haven’t already bought an instant-read thermometer, get one now. They are not very expensive especially when you consider how long they last and how much guesswork they take out of cooking. You will never again have an undercooked turkey or roast and once you start using it, you won’t believe you waited so long to get it.
In the next few weeks I am also going to be sharing my favorite gifts for the foodies in your lives as well as a guideline for hosting the best cookie exchange party ever!
With a little forethought and planning, this year’s holiday baking can be relaxing and hassle-free. I hope you enjoy making new memories for your friends and family!
- 2-1/4 cups bleached all-purpose flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1-1/2 sticks (6 oz) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1 large egg
- 2 tsp finely grated fresh lemon zest (optional)
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- Colored sugars and silver dragées
- In a small bowl, whisk the flour with the salt.
- Put the sugar in a food processor and process until very fine. Add the pieces of butter and process until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Add the egg, lemon zest and vanilla and process until smooth. Add the flour mixture and pulse just until a dough forms.
- Pat the dough into a 1-inch thick disc and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Chill until firm, about 1-1/2 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/8-inch thick. Brush off excess flour with a dry pastry brush. Stamp out shapes, cutting the cookies as close together as possible. Sprinkle the cookies with colored sugars or dragées.
- Transfer the cookies to nonstick or greased baking sheets, leaving 1 inch between them.
- Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned around the edges. Transfer the cookies to racks and let cool.
- Yield: about 4 dozen, 2-1/2 inch cookies.
- MAKE AHEAD: The cookies can be stored in an airtight container between sheets of waxed paper for 1 month.