Baking without losing your mind

Hi there. How is this holiday season treating you? Are you overwhelmed? Did you bite off more than you can chew? Boy, do I hear you. I am the queen of “well, sure I can probably add 6 more things to my plate” and I usually end up in a state of constant low-level stress, which results in me getting massively sick either just before or just after family parties. I often ring in the new year with a cold.

This year, I’m trying to map things out a bit better. I have a planner in which I actually wrote down major activities I hoped to accomplish each evening. I’m actually staying on top of things, much to my own amazement, and feeling like I can tackle all of the things that I intended to get to by the time my parents and sister arrive on Sunday. What? Awesome. One of the things I have plotted out is baking, and I thought I would share a few tips with you. These are not your “add the dry ingredients in 3 parts” sorts of tips. These are “here is how to strategize several different beloved cookie recipes across the space of a week without getting excessively dramatic” sorts of tips.

love baking Christmas cookies. It connects me to my momma, who always made our family favorites growing up, and being an adult now, I can see the time and commitment that took. (Granted, she enlisted our help. I’ve always secretly thought it’s because some of the recipes call for sifting flour, which NO ONE likes, but she could con us into. Squeeze-sifters are the worst, by the way. Get a crank-sifter, your forearms will thank me.) Baking cookies with my mom is a cherished set of memories and I’m deeply grateful to have them, so she’s always on my mind when I’m rolling peanut butter blossoms in colored sugar on December 20th.

Baking cookies also makes me think of college, when my best architecture friend and I would get through the end of fall semester by promising ourselves a massive holiday movie marathon, while making Christmas cookies. (Okay, we lived in dorm rooms, so they were slice-and-bake, but the thought still counts.) One of the benefits to an architecture major is that the lion’s share of your work happens just before finals week, and to reward yourself for 5-6 days of minimal or no sleep, you can sit in your pajamas guilt-free with another survivor, powdered sugar dusting your cheek as you sigh dreamily to the end of White Christmas and dream of having your own lovely red satin gown someday. Everyone else was stressing about finals and we were living the sugar dream and enjoying a little downtime before catching a train back home.

So, yeah, baking Christmas cookies makes me happy and excited about the season. I used to ship off tins of cookies to my far-flung friends for a few years, but working out the timing of mailing vs having fresh cookies for parties eventually got to be too much. Now I hold off on my baking until later in the season and try to time things out a little more conveniently. I usually make  at least 4-5 kinds of cookies, many of my family favorites (I’ll be sharing recipes later!), so I know from attacking lots of different kinds of cookies in a short time frame. Let me share a few things I’ve learned with you.

Now Is the Time for Organization

I am my momma’s daughter in many, many ways, but the similarity that amuses me most is that I’ve adopted my mother’s appreciation for the organizational power of the spreadsheet. I have probably mentioned this before, but I’ve made most of my major life decisions using a spreadsheet (college, wedding planning) and Tim also is a fan (you should see the masterpiece he put together when deciding which cable company to choose a few years ago). I actually have an entire Christmas spreadsheet, with different sheets which help me track gift ideas, orders I’ve placed, my local shopping list and to-dos, menus, status on addresses for packages, and songs to include on my yearly mix CD. Relevant to this post, though, is the baking sheet.

Pro tip: Freeze the top few rows so you can still see the recipe names as you scroll down the list of ingredients.

Pro tip: Freeze the top few rows so you can still see the recipe names as you scroll down the list of ingredients.

I decide which kinds of cookies I’m tackling this year, and on the left side, I list all of the ingredients. I go through each recipe to determine how much I need of what and then I tally it across. Once I realize I need 13 and 3/4 C of flour, I can make a judgement call on whether we’ve got enough. I go through my kitchen, checking every single ingredient so I’m not surprised that I thought we had peppermint extract, but now I can’t locate it anywhere. This all goes on the grocery list (fine on brown sugar, but dear god, I’m going to need eggs), so I can make one trip to the store. Feel free to comparison-shop, but I tackle it all at one place if possible, taking care of ingredients in one fell swoop.

The other important component of my baking list is figuring out the ideal timing for the cookies. Oatmeal lace cookies have to be put off as long as possible, because they’re pure butter, so they are greasy and don’t hold up for long stretches of time. When scheduling all of this out, make sure to re-read the recipes to make sure your choices are feasible. I made my friend’s chocolate crinkles this year, which I originally had scheduled to bake on Sunday, until I realized they’d need a few hours of chilling in the fridge before I could roll and bake them, so I switched it up and chose to prep the batter Sunday and bake them Monday. I would probably not have the time to do batter and chill before baking on a weeknight, so if I’d put them off, I would have prepped batter the night before and baked them the next day. Important details like that are good to observe in the planning stage, so you are less likely to be up at 11:30 at night, chocolate up to your elbows.

Pre-Measure Ingredients When Possible

It looks chaotic, but all of my ingredients are ready to go and I know they're measured correctly.

It looks chaotic, but all of my ingredients are ready to go and I know they’re measured correctly.

One of my short-comings as a cook is that timing is NOT my strong suit. I am not speedy with a knife, and onions and garlic tend to get a little more done than intended as I’m prepping the next ingredient to go in the pan. I should be better at this about cooking, but I’m decent at it with baking. I read through the recipe and measure things out into little bowls, combining them when appropriate. (If something says to add 4 different dry ingredients to the batter at once, you’re generally safe to mix them in a small bowl ahead of time.) Baking very often uses leaveners that can be activated when they mix with wet ingredients, so the longer you let batter sit (unless instructed to), the less ideal it generally is. I would rather have everything squared away before I start mixing things together, so it’s a matter of adding bowls of things, rather than locating a clean measuring cup to pour out molasses while my batter is half-assembled. It creates a few more dishes, but to me, it’s worth it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gotten flustered while feeling behind in assembling something and mis-read a measurement, or realized that the next step involved more prep work than I anticipated (I’m looking at you, finely-grated-ginger). Pre-measuring eliminates that, because you’re measuring it all out in a low-stress environment, with plenty of time to double-check whether that said baking powder or baking soda. I especially do this if I have to wait for butter to soften before I can begin baking anyway.

The Right Tool Makes a Difference

My cookie scoop is invaluable. You know, as far as kitchen implements go. I'm aware I'm prone to hyperbole.

My cookie scoop is invaluable. You know, as far as kitchen implements go. I’m aware I’m prone to hyperbole.

What’s funny is that this philosophy also applies to our home renovations in a big way. I am always on board with getting the right tool for the job, while not going overboard. This really carries over to my attitude in the kitchen. I do not need 37 different knives, or a specialized appliance for making kettle corn. Heck, I don’t even own a double-boiler. (I am just fine with balancing a heat-proof bowl over a pan of simmering water when I’m melting chocolate.) But I never enjoyed making biscuits until I got a dough blender, because using a knife and fork to do the same job was a royal pain (and frankly, not as effective). Similarly, my cookie scoop and I are inseperable for some recipes. “Drop by rounded tablespoonful” was always the most annoying instruction. A cookie scoop makes it speedy and easy to get equal amounts of dough onto your cookie sheet in record time with little mess. I also adore my scoop for portioning batter into muffin tins without dripping all over the place. I still don’t own a metal cake tester, because 85% of the time a wooden toothpick will serve me fine, but when a tool legitimately makes such a difference in a task that you don’t mind having an extra “thing” in your kitchen drawers, it’s worth it to me.

Parchment Paper Is a Lifesaver

Okay, this correlates to having the right tools, but parchment paper is so great that I felt it needed its own little section. Pardon the dramatic overstatement, but parchment paper is probably my favorite thing in the kitchen. Until I got some on a random sale, I turned my nose up at all of the mentions of lining a sheet with parchment paper. Now I rarely bake without it. Sure, you can grease your cookie trays to get things to slide off (and I still grease cake-pans as instructed), but then you’re adding an extra layer of moisture at the bottom of the cookie. Recipes that I was tempted to give up on because I’d destroy delicate cookies trying to pry them loose from the sheets have suddenly been resurrected thanks to the easy release situation that parchment paper presents. And not for nothing, but it can be REALLY nice to keep your cookie sheets clean by lining them when you’re doing multiple kinds in a single day. Speaking of which…

Clean As You Go

I know, it’s no fun. Baking produces dishes. But baking also produces deliciousness! I really find that the second thing outweighs the first, though it’s daunting to see what damage 5 hours of producing amazing baked goods can do when it’s over. To keep from feeling discouraged by it, I make it a point to start washing dishes when I get a chance. If there’s a lull while you’re waiting for the next tray of cookies to be switched out, wash up those measuring cups and the sifter. Are you supposed to let the cookies rest 5 minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack? That’s the perfect time to take care of the mixing bowl. This is especially key if you’re tackling some high-volume baking. We don’t have an unlimited number of measuring cups and spoons in our kitchen (though we do have nearly two full sets of each) and I’m going to need to get rid of the peanut butter residue in that half-cup measure before I can pack it full of brown sugar. If you clean as you go, you’ll have your implements on hand and you won’t end your baking experience with a massive pile of dishes that make you wish you hadn’t started in the first place.

Get Comfortable

Yup, this is my kitchen gear.

Yup, this is my kitchen gear.

I have the dumbest admission. I own baking slippers. I know. Right? Except that a few years ago while I was baking several kinds of cookies for a cousin’s wedding, my shins started protesting like crazy. “Too much baking,” they seemed to be telling me. That’s when I realized I had spent the entire afternoon barefoot, standing and mixing, walking back and forth to the oven to rotate sheets, washing molasses out of our Pyrex. That amount of baking is generally more than I’d do in one day, but I’m no stranger to being stuck on my feet for a few solid hours in the kitchen sometimes. I wanted to enjoy creating something with my hands, so I bought some padded slippers and never looked back. Things get serious when I go fetch my slippers. There’s about to be some deliciousness up in here. My point is that I want to continue to like baking (and cooking and washing dishes, etc). I don’t bake Christmas cookies because it’s an obligation, but rather because I love to make my family’s recipes and have delicious things to share with my friends and family. So I do what I can to make the experience awesome. The TV in the kitchen is certainly helpful, but if there’s nothing on that I want to watch (or I’ve depleted my stockpile of terrible TV movies that are perfectly mindless entertainment for kitchen duties), I’ll put on some music and sing along. I’ve baked with friends. I love hanging out with Tim and working side-by-side on kitchen projects. Do what you need to enjoy your time. If you’re not enjoying it, what is the point?

Anyway, I hope at least a sliver of that is marginally helpful. I front-loaded some of my seasonal baking over the weekend (orange pumpkin muffins for my office potluck, as well as a few recipes from a friend I was told were good to freeze, so I could tackle them in advance) and these things just wandered into my mind. What is it that you do when faced with high-volume baking? Talk your children into working the sifter in exchange for snippets of cookie dough? Cruise the grocery bakery instead? I’d love to know!

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2 comments on “Baking without losing your mind

  1. Doug and Marty Huss says:

    Wow! What a long – but great post! I loved reading it and look forward to sharing your output. I’m bringing lemon squares, spiced pecans, and forgotten cookies :)

    • Kate says:

      Thanks, Mom! (Me? Wordy? Nooooo.)

      I’m glad you’re making lemon squares, I thought about it but hoped you’d end up doing them instead, hee. Also, I have given up on forgotten cookies, because mine never turn out. Thanks for supplying delicious sugar!

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