In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this holiday season will be much different for all of us. But it may also be somewhat special, with so much time at home reawakening many of us to the joys of baking. In March alone, the 230-year-old King Arthur Flour brand experienced a 2,000 percent boost in sales, and it was weeks before it started reappearing on supermarket shelves.
Unlike Thanksgiving—high season for baking fruit pies—December is the time for cakes. That kicks off locally with Hagley Museum and Library’s annual Gingerbread House Competition, which runs Dec. 1, 2020, through Jan. 3, 2021. The event usually attracts about 30 entries, which are displayed in the Millwright Shop on the Hagley grounds. The space allows visitors to comfortably wind their way through the exhibit with adequate social distancing. “This is our third season,” says Jill MacKenzie, Hagley’s executive director. “Families create houses together and then come out and see the results.”
Making a gingerbread house is much easier than it looks. Its four walls are cut from baked dough, two of them peaked. Roof panels are joined together by cake icing. For a great online tutorial, visit the Wilton bakeware company at wilton.com. Pastry chef Michele Mitchell won Hagley’s first gingerbread competition. She was so good at it that its organizers talked her into coming back as a judge and making a demonstration house. “Whether you’re making gingerbread houses or cookies, the key is to find ways to personalize them using colored cake icing,” says Mitchell, who worked for 20 years with Hotel du Pont before starting her own company, MM Pastry Designs.
Aside from gingerbread, fruitcakes are a necessary holiday dessert, even if they’re not for everyone. They’re best when crammed full of nuts and glazed fruits—and moist from soaking for several days in rum or other brown spirits. A dense, damp fruitcake can be slivered off into small slices before being re-wrapped and tucked back in the fridge. Opt for a glass of Cognac or Armagnac to help get in the spirit of things. “My mom is English, so her fruitcakes were very dense and very spicy, with lots of currants and raisins,” says Mitchell.
For the French-inspired bûche de Noël, sponge cake is iced and rolled to resemble a Yule log, the English name it’s sometimes given. An Irish coffee or spiked cappuccino is a fine accompaniment. “Beginners can use the same recipe they would for making a jelly roll from a Betty Crocker cookbook,” says Mitchell, who suggests rolling up the cake in a kitchen towel while it’s still warm.
In honor of her English heritage, Mitchell also enjoys making Christmas trifle. Assembled in a clear, decorative bowl, the deep-dish dessert is not unlike a parfait. Mitchell starts at the bottom with fruit in Jello, tops that with a layer of sponge cake, adds custard, then finishes with freshly made whipped cream. And from Eastern Europe, there’s the braided—often chocolate-layered— babka and the syrupy, creamy rum baba. You’ll need a glass or two of crisp champagne to counter all that richness.
For some holiday bakers, a cake can be too much work and too little variety. That’s where cookies come in. Susan Teiser makes them for her Centreville Cafe & Montrachet Fine Foods. In a good year, she’ll bake as many as 150 dozen—sugar cookies with green and red sprinkles, oatmeal, chocolate chip, gingersnaps, snowballs, hand-painted cookies in holiday shapes, meringues, bourbon balls. “Spritz cookies are my favorites—made with a die-cut piece in a cookie gun, then sprinkled with sugars,” she says.
Part of the preparation involves finding good cookie cutters in various shapes. It helps if they emboss patterns, as well. Searching out flea markets for vintage cutters is always fun.
Of course, eating the finished product is even more fun.