It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

At the holidays, my instinct is always to go full Martha: every room decorated with its own theme; every beloved cookie, bread and cake baked, along with a handful of new recipes; host one big party for friends, and host Christmas Eve for family; mail homemade and hand-written cards; on top of attending rounds of parties and events.

You can see why some years haven't had the comforting glow of holiday cheer promised by the glossy magazines.

Enlightenment struck when we hosted the monthly poker game at the beginning of December: plan the party as normal, and add one easy and fast holiday item. For poker night this meant a big batch of chili (30 minutes prep then it sits on the stove) with rice and cornbread, spice cake (baked and frozen weeks before) with cream cheese frosting, and whatever the gang brings. They've played poker for so long everyone brings the same thing: Good's potato chips from Lancaster, baba ganoush and hummus from a shop in West Philly.

I made alcohol-free cooked eggnog and let everyone add their favorite spirit (bourbon, rum, or brandy). It takes about 20 minutes for a single batch, and is much richer and tastier than store-bought. Friends who'd never had home-made immediately swore off store-bought. (The twelve-year-old wouldn't try it and has had store-bought for breakfast every morning the last two weeks.)

Remember that Martha has staff and a fortune and can do (or have done) 50 holiday-themed niceties for any party. For the rest of us with limited time and budgets, here are some things under $20 that take under 20 minutes to turn a get-together into a holiday party:

A champagne toast: Even here in state-controlled Pennsylvania you can find nice bubblies under $20. I like Freixenet. Pour everyone a glass as they arrive or serve with dinner or dessert.

[Oranges and stick cinnamon steeping in wine; copyright 2015, Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved]

Mulled wine and cider: Either red or white wine. Under no circumstances should you use nice wine for mulled wine; the spices will overwhelm it. Cider is a nice non-alcoholic option that the drinkers can add some dark rum or sherry. Any of these options takes five to ten minutes to set up, and then sits covered until ready to serve. As a bonus, your home will smell delicious.

Egg nog: Homemade nog pushes the 20-minute limit, unless you feel confident with nog from raw eggs, or you can buy from the grocery store, add bourbon or rum, and top with whipped cream and grated nutmeg.

Napkins: Check out the party and big box stores for holiday-themed napkins or even solid red and green, or gold and silver. The great thing is if you buy one or two giant packs, you'll have napkins for holidays to come.

Candles: Something about mid-Winter holidays calls for candlelight, thick pillars in colors or metallics, tea-lights in votive holders, menorahs, and Advent wreathes. Make a centerpiece on the table or scatter everywhere. Just don't leave them unattended.

[Variety of candles lit for Advent; copyright 2005, Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved]

Cookie plate or holiday breads: If the cookies or breads are already baked, bring them out! This does not mean spend hours baking, but if you've got it, share it!

Hot cocoa: Homemade cocoa is pretty easy and can be fixed up in so many ways. A hot cocoa "bar" is easy to assemble with marshmallows, short candy canes, whipped cream, and some liqueurs (or not) for the drinkers. Make a quart or more and hold it warm in a coffee carafe.

Signature dessert: If you have a signature dessert, make it when you have time and freeze, then defrost when you need it. The big family party always has chocolate roll and hazelnut torte, always baked ahead and frozen, and sometimes still a bit icy when served.

The important thing is that you need do only one thing to make a gathering feel festive, and that thing doesn't need to take hours from your day or most of your budget.

Le Cordon Bleu Professional Baking and The Culinary Institute of America Baking and Pastry

My final go-to volumes for basic cakes are two textbooks from Le Cordon Bleu and The Culinary Institute of America given to me by my aunt-by-marriage, food writer Anne Mendelson. Both focus on basic technique and recipes &emdash; building blocks &emdash; rather than a specific dessert. Meant to be used in a retail or commercial bakery, the yields are usually triple a home recipe (six dozen cupcakes or six nine-inch cake layers). Very useful for wedding cakes, and other situations calling for insane amounts of cake.

Interestingly enough, they don't have the same recipes. From Gisslen's book, I bake the spice cake and angel food cake. From the CIA cookbook, I bake the lemon chiffon cake, creme anglaise, German buttercream, and cream cheese icing (which is equal weights of cream cheese and butter, and less powdered sugar). I refer to both for basic research when I need a new cake or sweet yeast bread recipe; they provide me with good ideas and point me in the direction to go.

From these basic recipes, both show how to build ever-more complex pastries up to architectural wonders.

If you don't want or need six dozen cupcakes (or you need twelve dozen, or four fifteen-inch layers), Professional Baking has a chart of how much batter to use for any size layer. Both teach scaling (how to increase and decrease a recipe for more or fewer servings) and basic recipe ratios. The also cover most baking ingredients, from all-purpose flour through lychees, and equipment from measuring spoons through steam-injection ovens.


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