Come November, memories of summer fun start fading into the reality of dark days and cold nights. But even though the gloom is settling outside, there's light and warmth indoors -- it's baking season. This is the time for all bakers to roll up their sleeves, dust off their oven mitts and hit the cookbooks to find out just what figgy pudding actually is.
When we talk about holiday baking, we're not talking about loaves of homemade bread. While that's fine for other seasons, the holidays are a time to pile on the butter, loosen the belt and really give the old sweet tooth a workout. But if you dream of flaky crusts, fresh cinnamon cookies and thick dollops of whipped cream, you're going to need supplies -- and lots of them. Up next, we'll take a look at 10 must-have ingredients to keep stocked during the holiday baking season.
One of the secret rules of baking is and has always been not to skimp on the butter. Let the people you're baking for worry about their waistlines -- your job is to make fluffy frostings and delicate cakes. And for that, you're going to need plenty of rich, creamy butter.
Butter is something a good kitchen should never run out of, so buy your butter in bulk and keep it frozen. Transfer it into the refrigerator the day before you need to bake with it, and the butter will thaw overnight. Also, make sure that when you refrigerate butter, it's tightly wrapped and kept away from other foods, especially smelly ones. Butter will absorb the smell of the foods it's stored near, and nobody wants to taste leftover tomato sauce or hot dogs in their cookies.
Many holiday baking recipes call for softened butter. Microwaving a stick of butter is tempting, but that can make the butter separate too quickly. If you're not melting the butter outright, it's best to avoid the microwave. Butter will soften on its own if left out at room temperature for about an hour. If you're in a hurry, cut the butter into smaller pieces, and it will soften faster.
Nuts are a great thing to have on hand in the kitchen at any time of year. Although they can go rancid if left unrefrigerated (you'll be able to tell by the smell if they're bad), if kept in the freezer, they can last for months. Pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and macadamia nuts are all good choices for baking, and depending on your preference, they can be used pretty interchangeably in any recipe that calls for nuts. Some nuts (especially hazelnuts) will add bitterness to a recipe if left unskinned, so make sure to buy the peeled variety if you're taking a strictly sweet approach.
To really bring out the flavor in nuts, you can bake them in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (176 degrees Celsius) on a baking sheet for about 10 minutes, or until they turn brown and start to smell delicious. Nuts that have been chopped and ones that contain a higher fat content (such as macadamia nuts) brown pretty quickly; you may find it easier to toast these over the stove in a heavy skillet on medium heat. Stir them with a spatula until they turn brown. Once toasted, nuts can be cooled and stored in the freezer.
As a rule of thumb, nuts used in baking recipes should be unsalted, but if you can only find the salted variety, place them in a colander in the sink, rinse them, toss vigorously and repeat.
Brandy and Rum
It's impossible to talk about holiday baking without mentioning fruitcake. The bad fruitcake has become a recurring joke -- it's baked, given as a gift, left uneaten on a shelf in the pantry and then regifted the next time the holidays roll around. However, fruitcake doesn't have to be the dry, brown brick of unrecognizable candied fruit that shows up in stores during the holidays. One way to resurrect a dilapidated fruitcake is dousing it with brandy or rum to give it a little splash of flavor and moisture.
Even if you won't let a fruitcake cross the threshold of your front door, keeping brandy and rum in stock during the holiday baking season is still a good idea. You can use the liquor in cake recipes that call for a teaspoon or two of rum-flavored extract. Dried fruit will perk up when soaked in high-quality brandy or rum. In addition to flavoring dishes, brandy and rum can also play a part in some pyrotechnic party tricks. For a real old-fashioned Christmas pudding, pour brandy over the cake, turn down the lights and ignite it for an unforgettable presentation. Who doesn't like a cake you can set on fire?
Though the primary purpose of sugar is to add sweetness to foods, it's also useful for the way it behaves chemically in recipes. Sugar is what makes whipped eggs and butter fluffy, as well as what gives baked goods that tasty-looking, golden brown color. The type of sweetness you want to add is going to vary, which makes it a good idea to have a few different types of sugar stashed in the cupboards. Granulated and powdered sugars are staples you'll want to stock, but corn syrup is another sweetener you might want to keep around. Corn syrup gets a lot of bad press for its inclusion in processed foods, but used in moderation, it can extend the shelf life of baked goods -- which is especially helpful if you plan on making big batches of holiday treats well in advance of the season.
Brown sugar is instrumental in many recipes, but unless baking with it is something you do on a regular basis, it might be better to buy it in small quantities. Brown sugar clumps much faster than regular sugar, and it will turn rock-hard quickly when left on the shelf, especially if not stored in an airtight container.
Reducing the calorie count with artificial sweeteners is a big no in baking. Whether or not you can tell the difference in flavor, they never make an effective substitute. Artificial sweeteners don't undergo the same chemical changes during baking that sugar does, so your cakes and cookies might not turn out as fluffy or golden brown as you'd hoped.
In reality, there are two kinds of cinnamon, and what you find at the grocery store may not be the ingredient you're after. There's true cinnamon, which comes from Sri Lanka, and cassia, which is also sometimes called Chinese cinnamon. Cassia is actually the more common of the two, so if you're buying your cinnamon in powdered form, you may actually be buying cassia. Not to worry, though -- gourmands tend to find that cassia has a less complex flavor than true cinnamon, but that it also gives off a much stronger aroma, making it great for brightening the house with the smell of your baking.
One of the best things about cinnamon is how well it pairs with heavy and sweet foods. Dense cakes, heavy creams and black coffee all benefit from a dusting of cinnamon. Unlike most spices, which are best bought whole to keep longer and save money, it's not difficult to go through a bottle of powdered cinnamon before it loses its potency. Sticks of pure cinnamon are handy to have around for stirring hot cider and flavoring curries, but they're difficult to grate, so unless you have your own spice grinder, the powdered variety is fine.
If you're going to be a known purveyor of homemade holiday baked goods, "warmth" is one of the words you want associated with your recipes. Accordingly, you'd be wise to keep nutmeg stocked in the kitchen. The sweet and spicy aroma of nutmeg is a welcome smell in winter. Because of its warmth, nutmeg is a perfect accompaniment for heavy, creamy dishes like baked custards as well as potentially cloying condiments, such as whipped cream. Don't overdo it, though -- a little nutmeg goes a long way.
You can buy powdered nutmeg pretty much anywhere, but if you're buying the spice whole, make sure to inspect it carefully. Higher quality nutmeg will be unbroken and show no signs of worms. Remember also that whole spices will keep their flavor much longer than powdered spices. Nutmeg is one of the stronger spices, so it's often better to buy whole seeds and grate them yourself with the small holes on the side of the cheese grater. Store your nutmeg in a cool, dry place (dry being the operative word).
This one can't be a surprise. Chocolate is to holiday baking as walls are to a building. Always use bittersweet, unsweetened or baker's chocolate for your baking recipes. As a rule of thumb, the sweeter the chocolate that goes into a cookie or pastry, the less you'll be able to taste it when you pull it out of the oven. And since you're doing the baking, you decide how much sugar is going in, anyway. Of course, this rule doesn't apply to recipes such as chocolate chip cookies, in which the chocolate will stay chunky after it's cooked. In recipes that call for cocoa powder or melted baker's chocolate, never substitute chocolate milk powder.
Bricks of unsweetened chocolate are available in most grocery stores and can be chopped or broken according to your needs. Store your chocolate in a cool, dry place, but leave it out of the refrigerator and the freezer unless you're storing it long-term. Chilled and frozen chocolate has the tendency to sweat as it warms up, which keeps it from melting smoothly. Unsweetened chocolate can keep for a couple of years, but milk and white chocolate will only be good for four to six months.
One last tip: When melting chocolate, chop it first. It's easily scorched, and once chocolate burns, it's game over.
We're not talking about the stuff you keep in a bowl on the kitchen counter. Some kinds of fruit aren't going to do you any good in your holiday baking. Bananas, papayas, juicy guava -- these are tasty eaten whole in the summer, but they're not destined for cakes and cookies. Holiday fruit is seasonal fruit, which means you're better off going with the dried stuff. Raisins, apricots, cranberries, cherries, dates, apricots, figs, apples, and currants are all inexpensive, readily available in dried form. Dried fruits complement the spicy, savory flavors in many holiday recipes.
Citrus fruits are also good to keep on hand during the baking season. One secret of good baking is that nearly every recipe will benefit from the presence of orange or lemon zest. Zest, which is the thin layer of color on the outside of the fruit, contains strong concentrations of the aromatic oils that give citrus its scent. In order to collect the zest, run the washed, unpeeled fruit lightly over a small-holed grater. The goal is to scrape only the colored part of the fruit off -- the white part (called the pith) will add bitterness if too much of it gets picked up with the zest. Zest can also be added to melted chocolate to give it some zip.
Ironically, baking soda doesn't get used much in baking anymore. Since it reacts with acids to fizz and produce carbon dioxide gas, it was once used to make breads and cakes fluffier. These days, it's mostly been replaced by its flashier cousin baking powder, which doesn't need an acid in the batter to release its gases.
However, baking during the holidays is a high-volume affair, which means high-volume messes when things go wrong. Baking soda is a cheap, eco-friendly way to deal with these incidents, which makes it the official workhorse of your kitchen.
For starters, you can use baking soda to put out a grease fire. Baking soda can also be used to clean out blackened pans with burned-on remains of the inevitable failed cookies and cakes of the holiday season. Sprinkle baking soda on dirty pans, add hot water, soak them overnight, and the charred remains will lift right off.
Like butter and chocolate, baking soda will absorb the odors around it. An old trick is to keep an open box of baking soda in the refrigerator to trap unpleasant smells, but keep another supply on hand in a sealed plastic bag to prevent it from clumping.
In general, there are only two types of flour that you need to worry about for basic holiday baking. The first is all-purpose flour, which pretty much lives up to its name. It's good for cookies, breads, bars, pies and the occasional denser cake. Be sure you're stocking up on unbleached flour -- not that the fruits of your holiday baking are going to be especially nutritious, but the bleaching process robs white flour of what nutrients it does contain. Cake flour, which is bleached and run through a finer milling process, is also useful to have around, but most recipes will let you know when you need it. If you do feel the need to make your baked goods healthier, use all-purpose flour in combination with whole-wheat flour, but never whole-wheat by itself (unless you're comfortable baking doorstops and paperweights).
Some people refrigerate flour, but it's not necessary unless you live in an unusually humid area. To avoid messes and preserve it longer, transfer your flour from the bag to a covered plastic bin and store it in a cool, dry place.
If you love history and cookies, you might want to try this ancient twist on the gingerbread cookie. Learn more at HowStuffWorks Now.
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- Aaron, Sharon and Monica Bearden. "Chocolate. A Healthy Passion." Prometheus Books. 2008
- Brody, Laura. "Basic Baking: Everything You Need to Know to Get You Started Plus 101 Luscious Desserts That You Can Make." William Morrow. 2000
- Greene, Gloria Kaufer. "The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook." Times Books. 1999
- Lawson, Jane. "The Spice Bible." Murdoch Books. 2008