Baking from a cookbook is like completing a trust fall — the home baker putting all their trust in the author. If an author has done their job well then, the home baker will come up with beautiful results. Many of us feel tentative as we look through baking books at the impossibly perfect pictures with the seemingly easy instructions. We pull out the ingredients and then we “fall,” as it were, into the baking of the recipe. Whether or not the recipe is there to catch us is another matter. One author who understands the importance of trust in the relationship between the home baker and the baking book is Sarah Kieffer.
The two things that work together in Sarah Kieffer’s books to build trust are the precise, well-tested recipes and the results. In her most recent book, Baking for the Holidays, she continues to offer recipes with ingredients given in both volume (cups) and weight (g) as well as showing representative photos of the results along with some process shots of how to get there (how to form the dough into rolls, stars, and braids as well the steps involved in properly folding butter into the dough to create the laminated effect of croissant dough). Like the tiresome person I am, I’ll tell you that to achieve near-perfect results get yourself a weigh scale. It’ll change your life and you’ll eventually wonder how you ever baked without one.
While there are many holidays scattered throughout the year, Baking for the Holidays really focuses on the holidays that fall between the late autumn months to the early spring. While the holidays for Kieffer mean Christmas celebrations and that season that stretches from Thanksgiving until Easter, she encourages people to look upon this book as one to use when we’re enjoying time and celebrating special days with our loved ones. The flavour profile and ingredients follow along with the holidays — lots of lovely butter, rich caramels, fresh mint, chocolate, a variety of nuts, spices, apple, pumpkin, cranberry, and citrus. The book is organized into 5 chapters: Morning Breads and Pastries, Holiday Desserts, Gift Giving, Beyond Christmas, and Extras. And, with over 50 delightfully festive recipes to get you in the holiday mood there’s a little something for everyone in this book.
Baking for the Holiday, but in September? Did I wholeheartedly jump into baking from Kieffer’s book as soon as it arrived from the publisher? Yes! Even though it’s only September, I find that these Pandemic years and the loneliness I feel being so far away from my family has me really excited at the prospect of baking for my friends and neighbours like I’m already baking for cookie box season. So, I baked up a couple of treat boxes for my friends and neighbours over the past few weeks which have been cheerfully received! I started with a combination of Red Velvet Crinkle Cookies and Turtle Bars in one box (there is an art to choosing your seasonal cookie/treats wisely, which I won’t get into here, but I highly recommend reading this Lottie & Doof post written by Tim Mazurek), then the Chocolate Gift Cakes in another. The beautiful burgundy and subtle chocolatey flavour of the Red Velvet Crinkle Cookies paired well with the Turtle Bars (layers of caramel, chocolate, and buttery shortbread topped with toasted pecans). It may surprise some of you that I’ve never made caramel before — candy making terrifies me a bit but since I have such trust in Kieffer’s recipes I knew that if I followed her directions that I could accomplish it!
It has never occurred to me that cakes could be gifted with the same casualness as one gifts cookies. Maybe it’s because cakes seem like more trouble to bake and decorate, but in the case of Kieffer’s Chocolate Gift Cakes, you can bake up three little frosted 6″ cakes with less effort than if you baked up a dozen cookies. Her math here is also very good — one cake to keep and two to give (unless you’re my husband and your math counts three people in our household, each getting their own cake). Very much like a rich Devil’s food cake, it gets frosted with a thick and glossy chocolate buttercream. I added my own flair by throwing on some metallic sprinkles and candy-coated chocolate balls. This is where I’m glad to have a stash of boxboard bakery boxes that make gifting goodies easy.
Kieffer is most famously known for her Pan-Banging Cookies, and I feel quite strongly that her recipe for Panettone Scones could be another viral recipe. After making this recipe from Baking for the Holidays and then posting about it on my Instagram feed I confidently proclaimed that these are my most favourite scones I’ve ever baked. High praise considering I have baked hundreds of scone recipes and I seldom, if ever, commit myself to using the words “most favourite.” But I baked them, and they are my most favourite, so there you have it. What makes these scones better than all the rest is the simple fact that there is a thin layer of almond paste (marzipan) folded into the scone which happens to go very well with the dried fruit in the dough (I used dried tart cherries along with chopped apple here, but any combination of dried fruit would be great — candied peel, crystalized ginger, etc. The only thing that could make it better is if chopped chocolate was added to the dough — is there anything better than marzipan and chocolate??)
Finally, would it be a holiday if there weren’t pastries or sweet breads to enjoy with a morning cup of coffee? My family feels very definite in their preference for frosted cinnamon buns on Christmas morning but after baking Kieffer’s recipe for Morning Buns, they might be swayed. The buns are made from the Cheater’s Croissant Dough (inspired by Dominique Ansel and Mandy Lee recipes) and, I found this dough both easy to make and work with AND the resulting morning buns were flakey on the inside with a buttery crispness on the outside. These have that signature cinnamon-sugar combination with the added bonus of a liberal addition of orange zest.
I think one of the reasons I enjoy baking from Sarah Kieffer’s books is that the results are so good! Always good enough to share — there’s nothing worse than baking something only to feel too embarrassed at the results to share it. With her last cookbook, 100 Cookies, my neighbour loved the cookies so much he thought I had a special oven (I don’t!) or some sort of special power (I wish!) which goes to prove my trust in her recipes. And with Baking for the Holidays, home bakers are again treated to recipes that are delicious and delightful in every way.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Raincoast Books and Chronicle Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.