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Ho Ho Ho: My Lessons in Holiday Baking for 2011

December 24, 2011

For me, baking is a continual learning process, and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy it. Unfortunately, I have little control over the timing and nature of those lessons. When a cookie experiment goes awry, I’m wont to chuck my rolling pin in the drawer and wave my white, flour covered hands in defeat. I know, I know, it’s just a cookie. On some rational level, I understand that it’s not a life or death situation, but that doesn’t mean that tears have not been shed.

This year, I took a page from my dusty Corporate America playbook and conducted a holiday baking post mortem, which is to say, when the dust and flour settled and the cookies were packed and shared with family and friends, I reviewed the week of baking and made careful notes to ensure that the lessons would stick.

  1. Never get cocky about toffee. Even a seasoned veteran can end up with an inexplicably grainy batch with a texture closer to shortbread than crunchy toffee. And be gracious when your unseasoned significant other makes his first ever batch of toffee and turns it out perfectly. This may require lots of practice if your S.O. is prone to gloating.
  2. Don’t get excited when you bake fifty-five florentines from Gale Gand’s recipe that promised only forty cookies. It’s not a miracle. You haven’t outsmarted one of the top pastry chefs in the United States. Gale just didn’t mention that you’d break at least fifteen when you were trying to spread the chocolate on the uber delicate, paper thin, brittle cookies. You’ll also need more than four ounces of chocolate, because even with careful spreading, it will ooze out of the lacy holes. This, as any chocolate lover will note, is not a bad thing.
  3. The recipe for rugelach in Baking with Julia will take you six hours over the course of two or three days. You can shave off an hour if you are disciplined enough to make the apricot or plum version and not both. Yes, it’s okay to cry when half of them unwind as they bake looking more like a giant, ruptured Fig Newton than any rugelach you have ever seen in pictures or pretty little pastry shops. Do try to bite your tongue when your S.O. tells you that no cookie can possibly be worth six hours and then reminds you of all the cookies you could have made in the same amount of time. The next morning, when your S.O. is enjoying an unsightly, but mind blowing slice of rugelach for breakfast, he or she will eat those words and offer to help you the following year in an effort to simplify the process.
  4. No, the 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt called for in Martha Stewart’s holiday shortbread isn’t “too much”.
  5. When making old school fudge, pour yourself a glass of wine and take a seat before you get to the step where you “beat until it just begins to lose its gloss.” You could be “beating” for a very long time.
  6. Giovanna Zivny’s maple creams may never set up properly no matter how many times you try. If you end up with a pan of fudgy goodness that won’t harden, score it and freeze. Then cut the fudge into pieces and freeze again. Immediately dip frozen fudge in melted chocolate. You’ll avert a gooey fudge crisis and end up with a creamy centered chocolate that rivals any you can buy in a candy shop. Be sure to graciously offer these treats to guests and pretend that they turned out exactly the way you intended them to.
  7. Don’t expect everyone to be as excited about your culinary experiments as you are. This year I added rosemary and lemon zest to our family sugar cookie recipe and made sandwiches using a mix of lemon curd and mascarpone. The refreshingly sweet treats moved to the top of my favorites list after just one bite. My husband Greg, a long-time devotee of the icing-laden cut-out cookies of years gone-by was not impressed.
  8. As a corallary to the above lesson, try something new even if you’re the only one who might enjoy the fruits of your labor. The cookies shown in the photo are ma’amouls. I fell head over heels for a beautiful wooden cookie mold at my favorite Middle Eastern grocer in Chicago. The shop proprietor explained that the mold was used to make ma’amouls, a Lebanese fruit or nut filled cookie made with an orange blossom scented semolina yeast dough. For less than ten dollars I went home with the hand-carved mold and everything I needed to make my own batch of ma’amouls. The cookies were at the top of my “must try” list, but each day I found a new excuse to not make them. On my final day of baking I reached for the lovely mold that had intimidated me all week. I poured myself a glass of wine and got down to the business of making my first ever ma’amouls. An hour later I had a tray full of pretty cookies that looked just like the ones I’d seen at Chicago’s Nazareth Sweets. They tasted as good as they looked. And this time my husband agreed.

What lessons did you learn in the kitchen this holiday season?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2011 7:41 am

    Love your notes from a weeks worth of baking. I learned never to trust the thermometer when baking. Set the timer for a much shorter time and keep watching thin cookies while baking.

  2. herbgirl permalink
    December 25, 2011 7:11 am

    hmmmmm…….I agree…the salt in the short bread is ..just right……… I’d love to taste at least one maple cream…… and I’m not sure aboutthe addition to the family cutoat……..but would be willing to give it a try. Now what did I learn…………… really can NOT put enough caramel in the caramel cup, and my husband can bake !

  3. December 25, 2011 2:12 pm

    I spend a very nice moment reading your experiences, it’s funny when things I though sometimes now are written by another person! I agree with number 2 and 7… sometimes (always) cook it’s a mystery…you make the same recipe many times and never gets the same result ¬¬ But I like the momentary frustration in the kitchen LOL.

  4. jen Knox permalink
    December 30, 2011 7:13 pm

    Yes those florentines really suck up the chocolate. I always find myself melting more to finish those cookies that I didn’t break (and eat). I’m looking forward to next year when I can spend a few days baking while *both* kids are in school full-time. Maybe I’ll even tackle that fickle toffee…

  5. January 1, 2012 4:49 pm

    Oh my! I loved this post! You just make me laugh so much! Each December I bake about 7 varieties of cookies for about 40 of my nearest and dearest “loved ones”. I added Nick Malgieri’s Oatmeal Lace Sandwich cookies to the rotation this year and they were a big hit. I made a chocolate ganache to fill them with, instead of just plain melted chocolate. Yummy!

    I have learned that some of the fastest and easiest treats (Double Chocolate Peanut Butter Bark) are sometimes the most coveted. This bark gets me into see the doctor with no waiting time!

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