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Last-Minute Holiday Baking Tips from a Pastry Chef


December 15, 2022

Whether you love baking and you want to level up your holiday baking skills, you loathe baking but you’re on the hook for a holiday bake sale or cookie swap, or you simply want to gather some tips to streamline the holiday baking process, this post is for you!

As a former professional pastry chef and current home baker, I’ve made a ton of mistakes, had plenty of successes, and discovered some useful tips along the way. I hope the baking tips below help make baking a little more fun and a little less stressful for you as we get into the thick of the holiday season.

5 Tips for Successful Baking

These are baking tips that work all year ‘round, and they’ll come in handy this holiday season:

1. Measure carefully

If you’re primarily a cook rather than a baker, you might be used to adjusting measurements on the fly, adding or reducing one ingredient or another according to your taste. This approach spells disaster.

Baking is not only about flavor but also chemistry, and getting the correct ratios between core ingredients (like liquids, fats, and flour) is crucial to a recipe’s success. So be sure to follow your recipe as closely as possible.

2. Don’t substitute ingredients before checking.

You don’t have baking powder, but you have baking soda. You don’t have self-rising flour, but you have bread flour. Isn’t it okay to swap one for the other?

Not necessarily. I’ve had many failures due to substituting the called-for ingredient with something else I had on hand. Just because ingredients seem similar on a surface level doesn’t mean they are, and a seemingly logical swap can drastically change your outcome. Before substituting any ingredient, do a quick internet search for “can I substitute __ for __?”

3. Be patient.

Sometimes, you have to be patient if you want a recipe to turn out right. That might mean waiting for the butter to soften to room temperature or letting your dough rest for several hours. Don’t rush or skip steps – they’re essential.

For example, melted butter is not a good substitute for softened butter because the two behave differently. And it’s during the resting phase that a dough or batter develops flavor – starch molecules hydrate, and gluten relaxes so the dough/batter can reach the right consistency. Assume that if the recipe writer took the time to include a step, it’s there for a reason.

4. Focus on flavor, not on looks.

In this social media-obsessed age, it’s hard not to compare your humble homemade goods with the incredible confections you see on Instagram or TikTok. But remember that those bakers have likely spent years practicing their skills and many hours staging that single photo or video short.

If you’re a part-time, hobby home baker, keep decorations simple and focus on getting your flavors and textures right. If you’ve ever eaten something that looked fabulous but tasted only so-so, then you know it’s flavor, not Instagram-worthy embellishments, that keeps people coming back for more.

5. Always have a backup.

It’s a big disappointment when you have high hopes for a dessert and it just doesn’t turn out. Believe me, I know! So it’s smart to have a back-up, whether that’s a recipe you’ve made 100 times before and know you can nail, a box of cake mix and a can of frosting in the cupboard just in case, or a package of break-and-bake cookies stashed away in the freezer. This way, if the much hoped-for dessert ends up burned/collapsed/eaten by the dog/all over the floor, you have what you need to whip something up last minute.

Easier, Faster Holiday Baking

The tips and hacks below will save you time and stress on your holiday and Christmas baking.

Bake Ahead! How Far In Advance Can You Do Holiday Baking?

Making or baking ahead is a great time management tip since the holiday season is so hectic. Get a head start on your baking as early as you can. Although this might not help you much at the last minute, it could help prevent a last-minute rush next year! Here are your options:

Make cookie dough or cake batter and freeze for up to three months before baking

Most cookie doughs freeze very well, and some cake batters freeze well, too. Cookies or cakes that rely on whipped eggs for structure (such as French macarons or chiffon cakes) or that are thin due to high water content (from eggs, juice, or milk) do not freeze well, so bake those right away.

Store the dough or batter in the freezer in an airtight container for up to three months* for the best flavor. Many cookies can be baked straight from frozen, so store them in the shape they will be baked, rather than as one big block of dough.

Make and bake cookies or cake layers and freeze for up to 3 months before eating

Or go ahead and bake your cookies or cakes and store them in the freezer for up to three months in an airtight container or wrapped tightly in plastic film. Freeze plain cake layers and cookies before any decorations have been added. The freezer can affect flavor, so keep that in mind – the longer items are left in the freezer, the more “freezer flavor” they’ll take on.

Note that the general recommendation is a maximum of three months in the freezer. This guideline is for quality, taste, and freshness, not for food safety. If you find cookie dough in the back of your freezer a year from now, it’s perfectly safe to cook and eat, so go for it!

Make cookie dough or cake batter and keep sealed and refrigerated for 3-4 days

Homemade dough and batter doesn’t last too long, typically just three to four days in the fridge when tightly covered. But breaking up the task of baking over two days – one day to make the dough or batter, one day to bake – can make it feel simpler, even if you don’t gain a huge time advantage.

Pick a Quicker Recipe

Picking the right recipe to make is half the battle. If you’re looking to cut your baking time or get something made and finished fast, look for a recipe that:

  • Uses fewer ingredients. Fewer ingredients mean less measuring, less processing (like chopping or toasting), and less cleanup. Search for “3-ingredient cookies” or “3-ingredient cakes” and you’ll be amazed at the variety of things you can make!
  • Uses less equipment. Search for “one-bowl” cookie or cake recipes. Not only do one-bowl recipes mean less cleanup, but they’re often more straightforward, too.
  • Doesn’t require the dough/batter to rest. It’s important to let a dough or batter rest if the recipe calls for it, but you can find many recipes that don’t. Often (though not always), the dough for crispy cookies doesn’t require resting time, while the dough for chewy or cakey cookies does.
  • Calls for melted butter or oil instead of softened butter. You really can’t rush softening butter – even using the microwave on low power typically causes some melting – so if you forgot to put out the butter to soften in time, find a recipe that skips this long step and uses oil or melted butter instead.
  • Can be made in tray or bar form. Spreading dough or batter into one big 9×13 pan, sticking it in the oven, then slicing it into squares once it’s cooled is typically faster than shaping individual cookies or filling smaller cake pans. (And be sure to line your pan with foil or parchment paper for easy removal, too.)
  • Doesn’t require the oven. There are plenty of no-bake cookie recipes including stovetop cookie recipes like these delicious oatmeal lace cookies. Don’t forget chocolate treats! It’s actually quick and simple to whip up chocolate truffles, chocolate bark, or chocolate sauce, and they make great holiday gifts!

Start with Store Bought, Add Holiday Extras

Do you feel like you’re cheating if you present a baked good that you didn’t make completely from scratch? Not so! Using some store-bought goods can save you a lot of time while still allowing you to put your own touch on it with holiday-themed additions like red and green sprinkles, frosting, holiday kisses and candies, and peppermint sticks. A few ideas:

  • Get a simple, white frosted cake from the grocery’s bakery section and scrape off any decoration that you don’t need. Add crushed peppermint stick pieces or festive sprinkles in a circle around the top edge and along the bottom of the side of the cake.
  • Start with plain sugar cookies and grab some pre-filled icing tubes or bags and decorate. This is a great option if you’re a skilled artist but not a great baker.
  • Take a package of sandwich cookies (like Oreos) and dip cookies one at a time in melted chocolate (white, milk, or dark chocolate – your choice) to cover. Then decorate with crushed peppermint pieces, sprinkles, holiday kisses, or anything else that’s fun and festive.

Baking should be fun, not a burden. Just do what you can do – don’t overpromise to yourself or anyone else – and try to have fun with it. And always have a backup!

Happy holidays and happy baking!