FAIRFIELD, Conn. — The holiday season inspires bakers of all types, from those rolling out their first batch of sugar cookies to veterans who can whip up a buche de Noel without breaking a sweat.
Are you planning to bake something special for Christmas?
Yes — I already started
Yes — I will get to work this weekend
Yes — if I can get someone to help
No — I will head to a bakery instead
Regardless of where you fall on the experience spectrum, Fairfield baker Abigail Johnson Dodge, author of 10 cookbooks, including "The Everyday Baker" (published by The Taunton Press in Newtown), has some advice to help during this busy baking season.
First, love what you make.
"Perfection is unattainable, so let's agree to let go of that goal right now," she says. "It doesn't matter a lick if your finished product looks exactly like mine. Even if the bread is lopsided or if the frosting is speckled with cake crumbs, be proud of what you hand-crafted with care. It will still taste delicious."
Second, be honest about your schedule.
"Be real about your available time," Dodge says. "Before diving full speed into a recipe, make sure you choose one based on the time you have available. Trying to squeeze too much into a limited time will only make you feel crazed and your results will suffer. For time-pressed bakers, check to see if your recipe has a make-ahead section where the recipe has been broken down, when possible, into manageable steps."
Third, set yourself up for success.
"Just like making a stir-fry," Dodge says, "it's important to have all the ingredients prepared and measured before you start baking. Mise en place—French for "put in place"—is the process of organizing and prepping your ingredients—and equipment, too—so that you are 100 percent sure you have everything and can work through the recipe smoothly and efficiently."
Fourth, be sure that your kitchen gear is operating optimally.
"Because temperatures are so important in baking," Dodge says, "it’s not enough to trust the digital read-out on your oven, fridge and freezer. You need to take their temperature and adjust the controls as needed until the temp on the thermometer is accurate." Ideally, you should have thermometers in the oven, fridge, and freezer to ensure accuracy.
Fifth, make correct measurements for the best cookies and treats.
"Size does matter! Using a ruler to measure your lengths, widths and slices is the only way you’ll know that your pan or pastry/cookie dough is the same size that’s called for in the recipe," Dodge advises.
Also, don't be afraid to trust your instincts while you're baking.
"Engage all of your senses (sight, smell, touch, taste) and remind yourself that baking takes some patience, trust in your instincts, and, sometimes, a little courage to try something new," Dodge says.
Finally, take notes.
"When I’m baking and cooking," Dodge says, "I use those side margins in magazines and cookbooks (not just mine) to make note of all kinds of info that will come in handy the next time around." If you don't necessarily want to write in your books, keep a pad of Post-it notes nearby. Then your notes will still be there the next time you open up that recipe.
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