Cookies, cakes and pies. The holy trinity of holiday baking, if you will.
This is the season of pumpkin pies and sugar cookies, caramel cakes and Linzer bars.
Holiday sweets are a time-honored tradition in many households, but for some, the thought of having to make a pie crust or work through another batch of cookies can be overwhelming, especially with so many other obligations this time of year.
We’re of the firm belief that holiday baking should be fun, not frantic, and we’ve quizzed some of the area’s best bakers for their tips and tricks to making delicious cookies, cakes and pies.
Pastry chef Daniel Benjamin of Raleigh, N.C.’s Lucettegrace is no stranger to a good cookie. His downtown patisserie churns out dozens of perfect macarons every day in addition to delicious cakes, tartlets, croissants and more.
His advice to home bakers is simple. “Plan ahead,” Benjamin said. “If I’m making cookies on a Saturday, I’ll make my list on Thursday. Do I have enough flour? Do I have all the tools I need?”
He strongly recommends having a proper “mise en place,” a French culinary phrase that means “putting in place.” A proper mise means you’ve measured out all the ingredients, your butter is soft, eggs are room temperature and you’ve read through every step of the recipe.
“So many things can be done in stages,” Benjamin said. “Icebox cookies can be made ahead and baked the day you need them. Even with our macarons, we make the fillings ahead of time so that when the cookies cool we can fill them right away. You can do a little bit every day and finish it up the last day.”
When it comes to technique, Benjamin pointed out the steps he never skips.
“Creaming is important,” he said, noting the process of whipping together sugar and butter. He creams the butter on low to medium-low speed in a mixer, making sure to stop and scrape the bowl every once in a while until the mixture is what the French call “en pomade,” or the consistency of hair pomade.
How you add your dry ingredients is also important. “I always add my flour in three’s,” he said. “Add a little bit, mix it, stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add a little bit more.”
Finally, temperature is important. Benjamin notes that he often leaves butter out overnight to allow it to get to room temperature. As for eggs, his trick is to put cold eggs in tepid water for a few minutes. “All the ingredients should be the same temperature,” Daniel stressed. “People are afraid of leaving things out, but temperature is incredibly important.”
Lastly, when it comes to resources, Benjamin likes to keep it traditional: “Julia Child or Jacques Pepin are the best (references) for technique.”
Chef Amy Tornquist knows her cakes. As the owner of Durham N.C.’s Watts Grocery as well as Hummingbird Bakery and Sage & Swift Gourmet Catering, Tornquist has been baking cakes for every occasion for decades. She grew up having caramel cakes as a holiday tradition, and now they are one of her customers’ favorites. “It wasn’t a holiday without cakes,” Tornquist remembered.
The No. 1 mistake she sees home bakers make? “Opening the oven door at the critical place where the cake is rising,” Tornquist said, thus lowering the oven temperature and causing the cake to fall.
Tornquist also emphasized knowing how your oven works. “My oven at home burns everything,” Tornquist said. “So I don’t bake anything that isn’t flat there. And I also adjust the temperature and I put extra baking sheets under what I’m baking to help disperse the heat.”
Equipment is also key. Tornquist suggested investing in good cake pans and making sure you have parchment paper, measuring spoons, and both wet and dry measuring cups on hand. As for that expensive Kitchenaid stand mixer? “I like having a stand mixer,” she says, “but actually a hand mixer is often better – and cheaper.”
And for additional recipe inspiration? “I like Smitten Kitchen (blog). I like (Chapel Hill, N.C., cookbook author) Nancie McDermott,” Tornquist said.
Tornquist finds herself adapting proven recipes, like adding black walnuts to McDermott’s chocolate pound cake, replacing the fat in a recipe with banana, or adding lemon juice and zest to a vanilla cake recipe. A few simple tweaks, Tornquist said, can turn a recipe into something all your own.
Phoebe Lawless, owner of Durham’s Scratch Baking, is something of a pie whisperer.
Customers regularly queue up outside the door for a chance to get a slice of her pies. This time of year, Lawless can be found in the kitchen baking dozens and dozens of pies for holiday orders. Her best advice is to practice, practice, practice.
“They don’t practice ahead of time,” Lawless said. “They assume that they can bang out a stellar pie the day before it’s needed without taking the time to get comfortable making pastry.”
Pie dough can be fickle, but it can also be forgiving. “If you ever feel like your fat is getting too soft at any point in the process, you can always stop and refrigerate for 15 to 20 minutes,” Lawless advised. “Don’t try to make your pastry and bake your pie in the same day. The pastry benefits from a few hours rest.”
When it comes to equipment, Lawless recommends a good oven thermometer to ensure your oven is at the correct temperature. She also eschews the traditional rolling pins. “A lot of folks use a traditional pin with handles that can be too heavy and cumbersome. French pins with tapered or straight ends allow you more control.”
When it comes to pie inspiration and trouble-shooting, Lawless goes old school. “I really love ‘The Fannie Farmer Baking Book,’” she said. “It has an extensive chapter on pies with all the major categories included.”
Lawless has one last suggestion for those trying to up the ante with this year’s holiday pie: “Smoke Signals Baking out of Marshall, N.C., does gorgeous things with stencils to really beauty up your pastry.”