For those who celebrate, Christmas calls for their best cooking, and baking represents the essence of it. Puddings, pies, cakes or cookies - biscuits - are all part of Christmas.
Christmas baking and how your ingredients work
Like many of the other Holiday’s that we celebrate, Christmas comes with it’s own stressful cooking marathon. Not only do we feel the pressure to buy the perfect gift for family and friends, but we seem crunched for time when it comes to baking for the holiday season. I use to pull all nighters when it came to getting all my baked goods done before that magical date. Many of my breads were being overcooked, and flat. Muffins and other cake type goodies were ending up undercooked. I wasn’t enjoying my time in the kitchen like I should.
The new rule at my house is that when I see frost on the ground, my oven comes on. Not only does this save you some money by heating your house, but it fills the rooms with the smells of the season. Who can resist the aroma of fresh baked bread? It’s better than any candle. I know several people that use bread machines, for me, I find a lot of therapy by making it by hand. The neighbor lady just bought the last must have toy in stock? Go punch down some dough for cinnamon raisin bread.
I also have figured out how to use my weekends wisely. You can make fruit pies, and freeze them without cooking, for up to six weeks before they begin to lose their flavor. Make your cobbler fillings before hand and freeze them as well. Cookie dough can also be refrigerated or frozen until ready to use. Once you have pre-made all your dishes, it’s a simple matter of taking out only the amount you want to use in a day. Going to a party and need to take with you a pie and a nice assortment of cookies for the host? Bake your items up and they will taste like you had slaved over them the entire morning.
But what if you don’t have winters that are cold enough to need heating, or a Christmas where just the thought of the oven being on all day sends you sweating. I would recommend using a bread machine for those times, or begin your weekends by making up batches of things you wish to bake later that week. Freezing them and only turning the oven on when absolutely necessarily.
The best way I have found to ease your multiple cake, muffin, brownie and cup cakes creating, is to only mix the dry ingredients and store them in an airtight container in the freezer. You can make up the entire item, without cooking, and store it in the fridge. But if you don’t get to it in time, you are looking at a nasty mess of mold. Even baking them and storing them in the fridge will put you at risk, especially if the recipe calls for yogurt, as my bannana nut muffins do. They can be frozen for up to three months, after being baked. Just don’t leave them out in room temperature. Some items, like fudge, need to be made the day before eating them, if not the same day.
I keep a variety of flours on hand to add different textures to my traditional bread recipes. I write the date that I have opened my self-rising flour on the package, as it will lose its lightening ability after six months. I rarely use self-rising flour, so only buy it in small quantities. Remember that the whiter the flour does not mean a higher quality flour. I find the unbleached flour, ones that do not contain either benzoyl peroxide or chlorine gas which is in chemically bleached flour, tends to form strong gluten, which is what you want when baking cookies. Cake flour is made from a soft wheat, rather than the hard winter wheat that all-purpose flour is made from, this means less gluten formation and gives you a more tender crumb. Try to stay away from self-rising cake flour unless the recipe specifically calls for it, as too many leveners will spoil the cake.
Speaking of leveners, your quick breads, muffins, cakes and cookies get their rise from baking soda and baking powder rather than yeast. Unless you plan on a marathon of baking, buy these items in small containers, as they start to lose their lightening ability as soon as they are opened.
When using yeast, the quality of water you use is important. I know it seems strange, but bottled water will lead to a sweeter, fuller flavor than city tap does. The temperature is also crucial when dealing with yeast, it will die in cold water and hot water or liquids hotter than 125 degrees -though some yeast can live up to 170 degrees. The best temperature for your water or milk to be is 110 degrees.
Sugar is a key ingredient to most of your baking, especially cookies. Besides adding sweetness, granulated sugar provides a little structure and chew. Brown sugars lend the caramel flavor that you want in many cookies. The darker brown sugar is stronger than the light, but with cookies it is only the slightest flavor difference. Unless the recipe calls for one or the other, you can use either for a basic brown sugar. Confectioners’ sugar is used when tenderness and a fine crumb are important in the cookie. Powdered sugar is merely granulated sugar that has been pulverized and a little cornstarch has been added to prevent clumping. You will use a lot of sugar for this seasons baking, so be sure to have plenty on hand.
What about salt? There seem to be salt in every recipe out there. Actually there is a good reason to include salt, in baked goods there are salt has several functions. First it contributes to the overall flavor, without salt your goods will come out tasting bland. It also controls the fermentation rate of the yeast. This means that your bread will rise slower and at a steadier level then without it. Salt has a strengthening effect on the gluten protein in the dough, making for a stronger and sturdier dough, Salt also absorbs water so that if it is humid out, your crusty crust won’t be soggy, and help increases the shelf like of the food stuff.
Once you stop thinking of holiday baking as a necessary chore, and start enjoying your time in the kitchen, you’ll discover more time to eat your own home made treats. Plan your baking needs in advance, double check your pantry for all required ingredients, and give the kids their own cookie dough to make, to keep them out of yours.
Happy Holidays from my homestead to yours!