For many of us, baking during the holidays is a beloved tradition spent with family and friends. The act of making desserts together is as much a part of our celebrations as gathering around the table, whether we’re decorating gingerbread houses, baking pies, or proofing loaves of bread.
But, as many of us have probably learned over the years, the art of pastry making is an exacting, sometimes unforgiving science. So, who better to help us with our holiday baking needs than some of the nation’s top pastry chefs?
Tip No. 1: Read that recipe very carefully.
“When following a recipe, make sure to read it all the way through before making it and plan accordingly,” says Nick Montgomery, co-owner and chef of Konbi in Los Angeles. “If you need soft butter, make sure to let it soften,” adds Konbi pastry chef Jennifer Yee. “If you need room-temp eggs, let them come up to temperature. Check what equipment you might need before getting started and make sure you have everything you need on hand.”
Tip No. 2: Invest in the right tools.
Konbi chef and co-owner Akira Akuto recommends home bakers invest in a digital scale. “The accuracy will make a big difference in the end result.” A good thermometer is also crucial; he and the Konbi team are partial to anything made by ThermoWorks. “It’s a bit pricey, but they’ll last forever and they’re incredibly quick reading and user-friendly.”
Tip No. 3: Plan ahead as much as you can.
All five pastry chefs we spoke to could not stress this enough: Give yourself enough time and prepare as much ahead of time as you possibly can.
“Make ahead, freeze raw, and bake fresh,” says Laurel Almerinda, pastry chef and director of bakery operations at Huckleberry, the sister restaurant to Rustic Canyon, Cassia, and Birdie G’s, among other Los Angeles restaurants.
Natasha Gaskill, pastry chef at The Grey and The Grey Market in Savannah, Ga., always keeps her freezer at home stocked with logs of shortbread cookie dough, just in case.
Almerinda adds, “I like to make baked goods weeks ahead when I have plenty of time to enjoy the process. Then I freeze them raw. This way, I’m always at the ready to bake off something fun, whether I end up hosting or needing a hostess gift. Many doughs freeze very well, especially scone or biscuit dough, cookie dough, pies, and galettes. Put cookies and scones away, shaped and ready to hit the oven.”
Tip No. 4: Turn to your pantry for a no-bake dessert.
If you don’t have time to bake something for dessert, consider putting together a final course using the contents of your pantry, says Gaskill. “I love to put out a sweet board at the end of a meal. Think charcuterie, but swapped with treats.”
She suggests stocking your pantry with 70% dark chocolate and milk chocolate bars (she’s partial to Condor chocolate bars), dried fruit, and roasted nuts. And to that, you can add satsumas, pomegranates, dried figs, freshly baked spelt shortbread, roasted and salted rosemary pecans, and some chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. “Don’t forget some water crackers, olive oil, and crunchy salt,” Gaskill adds. “And pour some bourbon or bourbons!”
Tip No. 5: Make sure you have a mix of sweets on hand.
Offering a variety of different types of desserts is a good idea when you’re entertaining, says Almerinda. “Even if you’re only happy when eating chocolate, there will be people at your table who love citrus and abhor chocolate. I like a grouping of three items, and one can be simple like a cookie. Try to represent fruit, chocolate, citrus, spice, and nuts.”
Tip No. 6: Add some grains to your pie crust.
To put your own unique twist on holiday pies, Gaskill suggests adding grains to the crust. “Pie crust is my favorite thing to make and the best part of the pie, as far as I am concerned,” she says. “Think of grains as ingredients to add more interest to your pie. Sub out a third of your all-purpose flour with a more flavorful (and more nutritious) grain in your dough recipe to enhance the filling.”
For apple pie, she suggests rye. For pumpkin pie, how about Anson Mills’ rustic coarse graham wheat flour? For a chocolate chess pie, “Einkorn flour or benne seed flour or both would be my picks,” she says.
Tip No. 7: Consider a set cream for dessert.
For a no-fuss holiday dessert, Gaskill says set creams are “super simple” and ideal for dinner parties. “You can do it ahead of time and pour into individual servings,” she says. “It acts as a beautiful canvas to zhuzh up the final act of your holiday meal. Add crushed cookies, chantilly, fruit, chocolate shavings, buttered bread crumbs, whatever … go wild!”
Tip No. 8: Start baking dessert just before you begin the meal.
“One show-stopping entertaining trick is to bust out absolutely anything warm from your oven,” says Almerinda. “If you can manage to mind a timer while you entertain, throw a pie, galette, or cake into the oven just before sitting down to the meal. While your guests dine, they will be treated to the aroma of whatever you have in store.”
Tip No. 9: And if all else fails …
Truth be told, some things are better left to the professionals. Remember, there is no shame in buying your dessert, says Gaskill. “It’s tough for restaurants and bakeries right now in this COVID-19 world. Get out there and support your local ones.”
The Grey and The Grey Market sell their buttermilk biscuits, chocolate pot de creme, salted honey pies, spiced chocolate chess pies, and chocolate chip cookies via Goldbelly for delivery across the country. We also got the recipe for the cookies from chef Gaskill.
If you happen to live in Los Angeles, you can easily swing by Huckleberry this holiday season for “Hucktivities” like jarred dry mixes (Zoe’s Dad’s Pancakes, gingerbread mix, gluten-free oatmeal raisin cookie mix), take-and-bake treats (cinnamon roll scones, coffee cake, chocolate chunk cookies); and DIY kits for decorating cookies and cupcakes or making your own sourdough bread at home.
Almerinda also shared her recipe for Pear Whole Wheat Crumb Cake from the Huckleberry cookbook, which you can order directly from the restaurant or purchase from your local bookseller.