The truth is, I want to be someone who bakes for the holidays, but I feel stymied. How can I bake when life is chaos? How can I bake when vanilla beans are so expensive? And how can I bake when no one will like what I’ve made anyway?
So, instead, I’m that person who guiltily contributes a box of Trader Joe’s best and hopes to sneak by unnoticed. Each year, I resolve that this season will be different, but this year I decided to make it happen. For inspiration, I gathered wisdom from several baking wizards.
Cookie shirkers of the world, unite: Together, we can face unafraid the plans that we’ve made. Here are three common obstacles and how to get beyond them.
Obstacle No. 1: Disorganization
However full your calendar, it probably overflows during the holidays. Baking can feel like an unwelcome extra bit of insanity, but it doesn’t have to. Sarah Jampel, recipe developer and test kitchen manager for King Arthur Baking, says that pre-measuring dry ingredients for your recipes cuts prep time significantly: “Just be sure to label the containers with contents and amounts so you don’t mix them up.”
A one-bowl sheet-pan cookie so easy a child taught me how to make it
She also advises printing recipes and noting bake temperatures, times and pan sizes (or other required equipment, like cutters, sifters, mixers and thermometers) at the top of the page. “You’ll avoid accidentally baking your cookies at too high of a temperature, you’ll make sure you have all of the equipment you need, and you can make a list of [baking order], starting with the lower temperature bakes and working your way up,” she said.
Working ahead also can relieve holiday gridlock. “You can even start holiday baking [early] and freeze things,” said Dorothy Kern, who blogs at Crazy for Crust. If you have storage space, you can make most cookie doughs and refrigerate or even freeze them. If you want to actually bake ahead and freeze, brownies and bar cookies are particularly good choices, Kern said.
Sugar and chocolate are pricey enough, but add in specialty ingredients and it could break your budget. That’s why Dan Pelosi, food and lifestyle creator of GrossyPelosi, encourages the inexperienced to start with simple, well-tested recipes. “My Peanut Butter Blossoms use normal pantry ingredients, even for non-bakers,” he said. “The hardest part is peeling the wrappers off the chocolate Kisses, and they are always the most popular cookies on the table.”
If you must have a pricey ingredient, Pelosi tries friends and family first, then encourages buying just the minimum. “Go to a bulk store and see if you can buy just the exact amount you need,” he said. If you belong to a neighborhood Buy Nothing group or have friends to ask (the women in my local She Runs This Town are so helpful), see if someone has what you need and wouldn’t mind offering up a bit — obviously, in exchange for some cookies.
Paul Arguin and Chris Taylor, authors of the new “Fabulous Modern Cookies,” support a well-placed swap of like for like, saving money and frazzle. “For example, macadamia nuts are delicious, but also very pricey. Substituting another type of nut, like cashews, is smart,” Arguin said. “Will the cookie taste exactly the same? No, but if you’re saving $10 per pound, it might be good enough.”
While essential ingredients, such as almond paste, are absolutes, Jampel pointed out that some ingredients can be skipped completely, if not subbed. “Check out the recipe’s reviews for successful substitutions,” she added.
Obstacle No. 3: Fear of failure
Ultimately, people like cookies and they’re not going to blast you for your efforts (forgetting a dear friend who called the chocolate chip cookies I made for his birthday “a little dry”). “We see baking as a form of love,” Taylor said. “If you are baking with love, it doesn’t matter if your cookies end up a little misshapen or darker at the edges.”
They also mentioned that cookies are much easier to make the second time around, once you’ve done a trial batch. “If you have the time, budget and patience, you can remake anything you’re not happy with.”
But if you’re still feeling less than confident, Kern has the solution: Employ sweet camouflage. “Slap on some frosting and a generous amount of colorful sprinkles and no one will notice,” she said.
“Release expectations of perfection,” Pelosi said. “Let a mess happen. People can taste the energy that goes into what you are baking, so make sure it’s delicious.”
If the mood stays light and sweet, the cookies will be the same.