When it comes to holiday eats, it's all about dessert. Whether you're hosting, or just looking for a great edible hostess gift idea, here are some delicious baking tips from some of the world's best pastry chefs.
I think there's a huge connection between food and childhood memories, and I try to recreate that memory with an adult version.
Tip #1: Don't Always Follow the Recipe
Recipes are especially important, but Chef Rebecca Eichenbaum of Wassail Restaurant says trust your intuition: "Don't always follow a recipe if it doesn't seem right. Use your own judgment." Remember that things like elevation, humidity, and the sweetness or moisture in fruit can all affect the baking process—not to mention the occasional typo! If you feel unsure, compare with other similar recipes to confirm measurements, and don't be afraid to use your taste buds; that super sweet apple pie filling might require an extra squeeze of lemon juice while a too-thick cake batter may need an extra splash of milk.
Tip #2: Prep First; Finish Later
Some desserts taste best when they're fresh out of the oven. If you're visiting someone's home, Chef Zohar Zohar of Zucker Bakery in NYC offers this idea: "Bring unbaked apple pie with a pint of ice cream and put it in the oven at the end of the night. It's fresh, warm, and makes the house smell great." If you're worried about oven space, think about other easy desserts that can be prepared on site, like made-to-order ice cream sundaes (bring ice cream and toppings) or a classic New Orleans-style bananas foster (bring ripe bananas and a bottle of rum). If you're hosting friends at home, prep the cookie dough or pie in advance, then pop in the oven when you sit down to dinner—it'll be ready to enjoy when you are!
Tip #3: Reinvent the Classics
During the holidays, people crave their sentimental favorites, but this doesn't mean you can't stray from the traditional. Chef Eileen Avezzano of Eileen's Special Cheesecake is often inspired by classic ice cream flavors when creating her cheesecakes, while Chef Zohar loves adding a grown-up twist to the childhood desserts she grew up enjoying: "I think there's a huge connection between food and childhood memories, and I try to recreate that memory with an adult version." This might mean adding salted caramel to your usual apple pie, or a dash of cinnamon and chili flakes to your mom's classic brownie recipe. Consider the desserts your family loved growing up, and use them as a starting point for something new.
Tip #4: Start with the Right Tools
You don't need to go on a cookware shopping spree, but baking does require a few basic tools. Chef Eileen recommends "a hand mixer that feels comfortable in your hand, a sturdy mixing bowl, a rubber spatula, and measuring spoons and cups." And don't forget to read the recipe before you hit the stores; this will help you avoid disasters like discovering that you're supposed to divide the batter into two cake pans when you only own one!
Tip #5: Don't get Discouraged by Disasters
Burnt cookies or sunken cakes will occasionally happen, but don't let that discourage you. Chef Eileen reminds herself that "Success is failure turned inside-out," while Chef Rebecca finds a way to just "make it work." When something doesn't go right, use it as a learning experience. A stuck or broken cake can be turned into a trifle, while cookies can be turned into a fun crumb topping for fruit or ice cream. Mistakes can sometimes even lead to the creation of something new. Chef Zohar once forgot to add the sugar to a cake, only to discover that it made "an amazing savory vegan bread."
Tip #6: Don't Bake Alone
The holidays are about sharing, so why not invite over friends or family to bake with you? You can have a cookie baking party or work together to create a variety of pies. This is especially helpful if you're a new or nervous baker. Chef Zohar notes "The best way to learn is from someone in your family or a friend who knows how to bake. It will make it so much fun and less scary. And it will be personal."
Tip #7: Find Your Signature Dessert
Keep one simple go-to dessert in your back pocket for those last-minute occasions. For Chef Eileen, it's a no-fuss chocolate chip pound cake. Chef Rebecca always gravitates toward a seasonal fruit crumble or crisp, since it doesn't really require a recipe. Whether your go-to is a batch of cookies or those brownies you've been making since you were a kid, it's always good to know that you can whip up something sweet at a moment's notice.