When it comes to holiday baking, even those who normally feel like cookie-baking pros can feel intimidated or overwhelmed. After all, for many people, holiday baking comes along with holiday traditions, and familial (or friend!) expectations can be an awful lot to live up to. I totally get it. Though I’m not often intimidated by the cookies I choose to make each year (I’ve done them all before!), there is usually a point when I’m icing gingerbread cookies in my parents’ kitchen late at night, right before Christmas, when I start to (or thoroughly) lose my cool. Basically, my point of disclosing that embarrassing information is that we can all use a few tips from pros every now and again.
So, I chatted with cookbook author Shauna Sever, the author of the newly-released Midwest Made (which features plenty of cookie recipes and other special treats for the holiday season) and asked her for all of her best holiday baking tips. Here’s what she had to say.
1. Store-bought really is fine
If you’re a Food Network fan, chances are you associate the phrase “store-bought is fine” with cookbook queen Ina Garten, but Shauna said that it’s absolutely the case when it comes to your holiday cookie platters and tins. That’s right; despite what your competitive coworker might think, there’s no need to make every single thing that graces your cookie platter (or any other item from your holiday baking to-do list) from scratch.
“What are the things that you’re most comfortable making, that you’re most proud of presenting people, that bring you joy? Maybe do two or three of those that are your favorite recipes or things that reflect your family and then think about the things that you can fill in that are store-bought, like could you make a really fun cookie tin by buying some of those beautiful little store-bought meringue kisses and dotting some of those there,” Shauna advised. “Or some homemade caramels. Things like that. Don’t feel like you have to make everything from scratch in order for it to be special, you know what I mean?”
If you’re looking for holiday desserts that aren’t cookies, but there just isn’t time (or motivation) to whip something up from scratch, consider using shortcuts like store-bought puff pastry or Angel Food Cake (which Shauna noted is typically made from the same things you’d make it with at home). She even has some insider-y, professional cookbook author tips to help transform a store-bought pie crust into something that tastes far better than you think it will. (Hint: stock up on your animal crackers.)
There’s no need to make it all yourself. You have enough to do. And now you have a professional’s permission to cross some of those cookies off of your list.
2. Ask for (detailed) help
If you’re attempting a go at your family’s old tried-and-true favorites this year, make sure that you’re talking through it all with the person who makes the recipe best. Shauna suggested that you call, text, or in some way communicate with them to make sure that you understand it all before you try to take it on yourself. Some of what you think might be unimportant can actually make or break your recipe success, so ask questions that are as detailed as possible.
“It’s very important to be specific about the ingredients because ingredients change a lot over time. My family recipes weren’t tasting quite right, and [we realized] that decades ago, everything was always made with salted butter — always — because it preserves the butter, it lasts longer, and so that’s the kind of butter that people would buy,” Shauna pointed out. “Did the person use bleached flour or unbleached flour? If it’s an old recipe, it’s probably bleached flour and salted butter. And those two things will make a big difference in the taste and the texture, so you kind of have to ask those kinds of questions of the person who’s great in your family at making that recipe. What is the brand that you buy? What is the brand, what is the product? Those things make such a difference.”
It might sound too detailed, but, in fact, when it comes to nostalgic recipes, there’s really no such thing.
3. Break up your work
If you’re tackling some recipes that are somewhat complicated or have a number of different elements that need to be made, look for places where you can break the recipe into steps that are more manageable.
“So, if it’s a fruitcake that has like 10 different fruits in it, can you just chop all of that up and put that in a container so that the next time you go to do it, you have all of that stuff ready to go — the most time-consuming parts,” Shauna said. “And that’s a big part of what I do too. I’m always looking at a multi-step recipe, trying to figure out what can I do a day ahead or two days ahead. A lot of times crusts and doughs and things like that store really well a few days ahead of time, and then you’re just doing, you know, a whipped cream or a meringue at the end or whatever it is.”
4. Whatever you do, never skip the rest step
You know that part of the cookie recipe where it tells you to chill the dough and let it rest for a few hours or overnight? While you might be tempted to skip it when you’re short on time, it’s not a great idea.
“If there needs to be a rest, it’s there for a reason, and I think a lot of times it has to do with the finished texture because if you skip that resting step, your flour won’t be as hydrated, and the cookie will spread more, and you won’t sort of get the intended results out of it,” Shauna explained. “So, I think more often than not, resting is a great thing to do for cookies.”
Don’t skip the rest step, OK?
5. When it comes to decorating and packaging, less is most definitely more
Once you’ve made all of your cookies and cakes, next come the decorating and packaging steps. When you see all of the impeccably decorated and packaged cookies gracing your feeds on social media, it can be a bit intimidating when it comes time to do your own — you feel like you’ll always fall short. But Shauna advised that instead of going for broke, you keep it simple (here’s hoping I can remember to take this advice to heart).
Icing doesn’t have to be as beautiful as you see online. Seriously, there’s no need to stress. Cookie decorating is supposed to be fun!
“If you don’t have a really steady hand, and you’re using multiple colors, it can just be an absolute disaster,” Shauna said. “So, I tend to stick to white royal icing and maybe a little bit of red or green as an accent, and I feel like you can’t really go wrong with that, just keeping the colors to a minimum.”
When it’s time to package those cookies up, simplicity should still reign supreme.
“I know that I talk about my dollar store parchment all the time, but I’m serious, just plain white parchment paper, and then in bulk, I will order white cupcake liners. If you’re making a tray of bars to bring to a party, and you cut your bars up and just pop a bar in each one of those cupcake liners and put it back in the original pan, I mean, it just looks so much more professional,” Shauna said.
“Think about how your bakery would package something, you know, with some plain white paper in a nice box, it’s always gonna look great,” she added.
6. When you’re baking with kids, preparation is KEY
Whether you have kids of your own or you’re baking with your nieces and nephews, friends’ kids, or anyone else, make sure that you’ve done all of your preparation ahead of time because it’s going to make or break how the actual baking and decorating goes.
“If you have a kid who actually wants to be involved in the making of the dough, measure everything out ahead of time. Like, you the adult, measure it all out, and then let them dump stuff into a mixing bowl and talk them through the recipe,” Shauna said. “If it is a roll and cut, just have all the doughs out, everything ready to go, so they can just get right down to it because their attention span is so short that you just need to have it all ready to go. Think of it as being like, minutes of fun — not hours of fun, minutes of fun.”
If you’re not ready to go when they are, things can devolve into chaos. Prep (or even over-prep) to keep the project manageable and fun.