I know, I know, we’re barely past Thanksgiving, but it’s time to get the jump on Christmas and Hanukkah baking, and I have plenty of ideas on how to help you do it. Professional bakers always strive to bake fresh every day, but that doesn’t mean we start from scratch everyday. It’s impossible to stock a bakery case full of 25 items, or produce a complex dessert menu when starting from ground zero each day. We have lots of tricks for getting ahead that easily translate to home baking. If you have a few hours here and there, you can stock your freezer and refrigerator so holiday events and gifts are as stress-free as possible.
Every recipe in The Art and Soul of Baking provides detailed information on which steps can be done in advance, so it’s a great resource for fitting baking into a busy schedule. If you don’t have the book, here’s a rundown of the most useful get-ahead tips for holiday baking:
Most yeast-risen doughs can be made 24 hours in advance, covered and refrigerated overnight, then shaped, proofed (the final rise) and baked the following day. The same doughs can be shaped into loaves or rolls, frozen until hard, then transferred into ziptop freezer bags, or wrapped twice with plastic wrap on a sheet pan and frozen for up to four weeks. To use the shaped doughs, thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then proof at room temperature until nearly doubled in size. Note that thawing and proofing frozen dough takes quite a chunk of time (several hours at room temperature), though none of it is hands-on time. Think about dinner rolls for special dinners, coffee cake, pizza, sticky buns, and more.
There’s nothing like the flavor and drama of homemade puff pastry, croissants or Danish pastries. Once you’ve finished making any of these doughs, I suggest you roll it out to a rectangle (or two) that is ¼-inch thick. Freeze flat on a parchment lined baking sheet, wrapped well with plastic. Then, when the baking mood strikes, your dough is already rolled out and ready to go for filling and shaping. You can also freeze filled and shaped croissants and Danish for several weeks. Thaw the shaped pastries and proof as described in the yeast breads above – be sure to allow yourself plenty of time. You might also want to bake the croissants or Danish, then freeze them for another day. I don’t think these are quite as tasty as fresh-baked, but many people think they are great. Just be sure to warm them before serving to refresh, crisp, and bring the flavors forward.
The dough for most scones and biscuits (except for very wet southern-style biscuits) can be made and cut into baking portions in advance – a great help when planning ahead for dinner biscuits or breakfast and brunch entertaining. Store for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator, or four to six weeks in the freezer. Transfer them straight into the oven for baking, allowing a couple of extra minutes for the frozen versions.
Pies and Tarts
Pie and tart dough can be prepared far in advance, and I heartily recommend doing so. I always make several batches at a time, roll each portion into a 12-inch circle, and layer them on a baking sheet between parchment. Wrap the whole sheet tightly with plastic and refrigerate overnight or freeze for four to six weeks. Then, whenever you want to make a pie or a tart, take out a circle (or two) of dough, thaw on the counter for 5 to 10 minutes at room temperature, fit it into the pie or tart pan and proceed with the recipe. To get even further ahead, after rolling out the dough circles, fit them into pie or tart pans, then wrap each pan with plastic and freeze. On baking day, simply transfer from the freezer to the oven (they will only take a couple of minutes longer to bake than dough that has been refrigerated). If a recipe calls for pre-baking the pie or tart shell, you can do this several days in advance. Once cooled, wrap in plastic and store at room temperature until you are ready to proceed with the recipe.
Fruit Crisps and Crumbles
There’s nothing like the simplicity of warm, bubbling fruit under a buttery streusel topping on a cold night. The topping for crisps and crumbles can be prepared six to eight weeks in advance and frozen in an airtight container. I always double or triple the recipe and freeze it in a ziptop freezer bag. I leave out any nuts when I’m making the topping in advance, then throw in some nuts on the day I bake the dessert. That way, I can match the nuts to the fruit (hazelnuts and pears, walnuts and apples, almonds and peaches, or whatever your favorites might be). Some crisp topping stashed away is great for a little all-to-yourself dessert, just slice up a piece of fruit, top it with a handful of frozen topping and pop it in the oven. Instant satisfaction.
Cookies are one of the best desserts to have stashed in the freezer. Most buttery cookie doughs freeze quite well. These include chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal, spritz, slice and bake logs, and the like. I always have 5 or 6 different types of cookie dough in the freezer for quick and easy treats and hostess gifts. During the holidays, I up the number to 10 types of cookies, then bake a variety whenever I want to assemble a cookie tray for a gift. Make your cookie dough as usual, then use a small ice cream scoop to make evenly-sized balls of dough, setting them right next to each other on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Refrigerate or freeze until the dough is hard, then transfer the cookies to ziptop freezer bags and store for up to 12 weeks. Be sure to label each bag with the type of cookie, because they all start to look the same once frozen! Add the oven temperature and baking time on the bag, and you won’t have to look up the recipe when it’s time to bake. Then, anytime you want a couple (or a couple dozen) cookies, all you need to do is preheat the oven and arrange the dough balls on a baking sheet. Let them defrost for 10 minutes or so (they should still be cold to the touch), then bake.
While you can’t freeze cake batter, once baked, many cakes do freeze very well. Dense butter cakes such as pound or bundt cakes freeze beautifully for six to eight weeks. Sponge cakes like chiffon cake, nut tortes, flourless chocolate cake and genoise also freeze quite well for the same period of time. Make sure that the cake is completely cool before wrapping twice with plastic wrap. I like to leave the parchment paper on the bottom of the cakes and set them on a cake cardboard before wrapping them for the freezer, as these protect against cracking or damaging with any jostling in the freezer. Don’t layer with fillings or apply icings, frostings or glazes until you have defrosted the cake for serving or gift-giving (the finishing touches often discolor, streak, or get otherwise damaged during freezing and thawing). To thaw, unwrap the cake and allow at least 1-1/2 to 2 hours for it to defrost completely (of course mini loaf cakes will thaw much faster).
Pate a Choux
Pate a choux is a versatile and fairly simple dough that can be used to make éclairs, cream puffs, ice cream profiteroles, and gougéres (cheese-flecked appetizers). This dough is a favorite of caterers, who love its versatility and make-ahead options. The dough can be prepared and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days before piping and baking. To freeze, pipe desired shapes onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, then wrap with plastic and freeze until the day you want to bake the pastries. You can also bake the piped pâte á choux shapes, cool them completely, then toss them into a ziptop freezer bag – they’ll keep in the freezer for four to six weeks. Just be sure to warm them in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes to refresh and crisp them before filling or serving.
Tools of the Trade:
Recipes and Photos are reprinted with permission from Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC. The Art and Soul of Baking © copyright 2008 by Sur La Table, Inc.