Black bottom toasted milk banana cream pie

banana cream pie

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I don’t like raw bananas. So banana cream pie was never an appealing dessert option for me. Why choose something with mushy raw bananas when you could have apple, or pumpkin, or pecan, or pretty much anything else? But a few years back, my dad — who generally doesn’t like or eat sweets — mentioned that his favorite pie was, you guessed it, banana cream pie. And because the real reason I like baking is making my favorite people the things they like to eat, it was determined: I needed to make one.

After a couple of meh versions, I finally nailed my forever banana cream pie recipe this past Christmas. I present to you:

Black bottom toasted milk banana cream pie.

Let’s break it down. It starts with a black bottom layer (i.e. chocolate ganache), which adds flavor and texture and keeps the bottom crust crisp for days (if the pie lasts that long). Next is a toasted milk cream diplomat. Cream diplomat is just the term for pastry cream that is lightened with whipped cream and set with gelatin, which gives both airy-smooth texture plus a beautiful slice. We’ve talked about toasted milk powder before, and I thought its roasty, toasty notes would be the perfect flavor to enhance a classic banana cream pie. (It is perfect. My husband called it “a revelation.”) That’s all layered up with just-ripe bananas, then topped with a sour cream whipped cream. Sour cream adds both flavor and stability to the whipped cream so you can have the whole pie prepped a few hours in advance if needed. If you want your cream to have even more staying power (i.e. longer than 6 hours), you can add some gelatin as well.

Although I’m still never going to reach for a raw banana to quell my hunger, I thoroughly enjoy this pie. I hope you do too.

Baker’s notes:

  • For best combination of flavor and texture, choose bananas that are mostly yellow with just a little green. They should be sweet but still on the firm side.
  • I’ve found that some brands of nonfat milk powder dissolve better than others. I’m not sure of the exact reason, but I’m guessing it has to do with the amount of moisture in the powder. To help it dissolve as best as possible, I recommend sifting in the powder to eliminate any lumps, then straining the pastry cream after cooking. Any bits that might remain after that seem to dissolve into the custard during the setting process. If you’re really concerned about it, you can try blending the powder with the milk on low before heating it.
  • For a more classic custard filling, omit the toasted milk powder and increase the vanilla to 2 teaspoons (or add the seeds of a vanilla pod if you’re feeling fancy!)…
  • But you should try the toasted milk powder.
banana cream pie unsliced

Black bottom toasted milk banana cream pie

Makes one 9″ pie

Ingredients:

For the toasted milk powder (makes more than needed for the pie):

  • 150g nonfat milk powder

For the toasted milk pastry cream:

  • 3g (1 tsp) powdered gelatin
  • 18g whole milk (for blooming gelatin)
  • 600g whole milk (for pastry cream)
  • 60g toasted milk powder
  • 125g granulated sugar
  • 45g cornstarch
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • 2 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks
  • 52g unsalted butter, cold and cut into quarters
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract

For the black bottom chocolate ganache:

  • 100g semisweet chocolate (I used Callebaut 54.5%), finely chopped
  • 80g heavy cream (35% milk fat)

For the toasted milk cream diplomat:

  • All of the toasted milk pastry cream
  • 125g heavy cream (35% milk fat)
  • 20g icing sugar

For the sour cream whipped cream:

  • 3g (1 tsp) powdered gelatin (optional)
  • 18g whole milk (for blooming gelatin) (optional)
  • 250g heavy cream (35% milk fat)
  • 60g full-fat sour cream
  • 30g icing sugar

To assemble:

  • One standard 9″ pie crust, blind-baked and cooled completely (I used the recipe from my book)
  • 450g (about 3 large) ripe but firm bananas, sliced 1/4″ thick
  • Grated chocolate, for garnish (optional)

Method:

Make the toasted milk powder:

Microwave method: Place the milk powder in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave in 30-second bursts, stirring with a fork after every burst, until the powder is deeply golden and toasty-smelling. (For me, this takes about 10 minutes’ worth of microwaving.) Cool completely, then store in an airtight container at room temperature. (See tutorial on Instagram here.)

Instant Pot method: Place the milk powder in a 12-oz canning jar. Place a standard snap lid on top, then screw on the ring until finger-tip tight (i.e. lid should be sealed, but not too tight — if sealed too tightly, the jar may break during cooking). Put a trivet or steamer rack insert in the Instant Pot and add about an inch of water (the water line should stop just below the top of the trivet). Place the jar on top of the trivet. Seal the lid and cook on manual for 90 minutes. Allow pot to depressurize to release naturally. Cool completely before using. (See reel on Instagram here.)

Make the toasted milk pastry cream:

Place a strainer over a large heat-safe bowl.

In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin evenly over 18g cold milk and bloom while you prepare the rest of the pastry cream.

Off heat, pour 600g milk into medium saucepan. Sift in the toasted milk powder and whisk to dissolve.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Add the eggs and egg yolks and whisk vigorously for about a minute until well combined and lighter in color.

Heat the milk over medium heat until steaming. Remove from the heat. Pour the milk in a slow, steady stream into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Scrape the custard mixture back into the saucepan and return to medium heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and large bubbles appear on the surface. Once the bubbles appear, turn the heat down to medium-low and continue whisking on the heat for 2 minutes.

Remove the custard from the heat and whisk in the bloomed gelatin. Once the gelatin has dissolved, whisk in the butter one piece at a time, making sure each addition is fully incorporated before adding the next. Whisk in the vanilla. Strain the pastry cream into the prepared container. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the pastry cream and cool for 10 minutes, then place in the refrigerator and cool just to room temperature (about 45-60 minutes). Don’t let the pastry cream get too cold or the gelatin will start to set firmly, making it difficult to incorporate the whipped cream.

Make the black bottom chocolate ganache:

While the pastry cream is cooling, make the chocolate ganache for the black bottom layer. Place the chopped chocolate in a medium heat-safe bowl. In a small saucepan over medium-low, heat the cream just until steaming. Pour over the chocolate and let stand for two minutes. Gently whisk to form a smooth, shiny ganache. Scrape ganache into the bottom of the prepared pie crust and use a small offset spatula to smooth into an even layer. Chill in the refrigerator while you prepare the cream diplomat.

Make the toasted milk cream diplomat:

Prepare this as soon as the pastry cream has reached room temperature. In a medium bowl, combine the heavy cream and icing sugar. Whisk to medium peaks. Whisk the cooled pastry cream until smooth, then fold in the whipped cream in two additions. Use immediately.

Assemble the pie:

Spread about 1/2 c of cream diplomat over the bottom of the pie. Add half the banana slices, cut side up, in an even layer. Smooth on half the remaining cream diplomat. Add the rest of the banana slices as before, followed by the rest of the cream diplomat. Refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours. (I leave it uncovered but you can press a piece of plastic against the surface if you prefer.)

Make the sour cream whipped cream:

Thanks to the addition of sour cream, this whipped cream will hold nicely in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours. If you need the cream to hold longer than that, I recommend adding the gelatin.

If using the gelatin — in a small, heat-safe bowl, sprinkle the gelatin evenly over 18g cold milk and bloom for 5 minutes. Microwave for 10 seconds until liquefied.

In a medium bowl, combine the sour cream, heavy cream, and icing sugar. Using an electric hand mixer, whisk just until the cream starts to thicken but is not quite holding soft peaks. Slowly stream the gelatin mixture into the cream while whisking constantly. Continue whisking to medium-stiff peaks. Immediately pipe or dollop the whipped cream onto the surface of the pie and garnish with chocolate shavings. Refrigerate uncovered until ready to serve.

Storage:

Pie is best served within 24 hours. Store leftovers uncovered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. After about a day the bananas will start to brown, but the pie will still taste good. The crust will progressively soften over time though the ganache helps to delay that.

banana cream pie slice out

Lemon Almond Poppy Seed Loaf

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lemon poppyseed

When the dazzle of the holidays has faded and January begins to fully assert herself, thank God for citrus. The bright color and sharp taste of citrus fruits is one of the few things I look truly anticipate in the often-gloomy winter months. In other words, it’s the perfect time for lemon poppyseed cake.

I have a lemon poppyseed loaf in my cookbook, but I’ve been on an almond flour kick lately and wanted to bring that to the party this time — almond + lemon is a beautiful combination, and almond flour produces baked goods that are remarkably tender and long-lasting. I also wanted a loaf that would perfectly fit a Pullman pan for some sexy square slices, because let’s be honest — we all need a little excitement this time of year.

This recipe takes inspiration from Melissa Clark’s version of Lindsey Shere’s famous almond cake. I loved her use of a DIY almond paste because even though I have a very well-stocked baking pantry, even I never keep almond paste on hand. I do, however, always have almond flour, icing sugar, and egg whites around so there you go!

Partway through researching and planning out this recipe I also realized Tartine has a lemon-almond poppyseed tea cake in their first cookbook; and its proportions are remarkably similar to Shere’s/Clark’s. I’m not sure if there’s some shared inspiration there or just a matter of great bakers thinking alike, but it’s worth mentioning.

From my own lemon-poppyseed recipe development in the past I knew that the triple threat of lemon zest, lemon oil, and lemon soak (with fresh lemon juice, please!) was key to a lemon flavor that sings. If you’re always disappointed with not enough lemon flavor, do not skip the lemon oil. It is worth the investment and easy to source online or at baking supply stores. We also do not skimp on the poppyseeds because I don’t understand lemon poppyseeds that contain 1 or 2 tsp of seeds per loaf. Three full tablespoons, plus more for garnish if you like.

You’ll also be rewarded if you let this loaf cake rest overnight before tucking in. I know, it’s a lot to ask. But that bit of patience allows the syrup to fully soak in and make for a perfectly tender and m-m-moist loaf that will last you a week, if you let it.

lemon poppyseed loaf

Baker’s notes:

  • I scaled this recipe specifically to fit my 9x4x4 pullman pan. Without having tested it I am fairly certain it will fit in a standard 9×5 loaf pan (it will be too much batter for an 8.5×4.5). If you do use a regular 9×5 loaf pan, just leave ~3/4″ at the top (this loaf doesn’t rise too much) and bake off any extra batter as cupcakes, and check for doneness a little sooner as the increased surface area may shave a few minutes off the bake time. And let me know if you try it!
  • Pro tip: even if your recipe only calls for citrus juice, always zest the fruit beforehand! Store the zest in an airtight container in the freezer and your future self will thank you.
  • Always store your poppyseeds in the freezer and check that they’re still good before baking with them. They go rancid remarkably fast.

Lemon Almond Poppy Seed Loaf

Makes one 9x4x4 pullman loaf | Inspired by Baked to Order, Lindsey Shere/Melissa Clark via the New York TImes, and Tartine

Ingredients:

For the lemon almond poppy seed loaf:

  • 125g almond flour, preferably blanched and superfine
  • 125g icing sugar
  • 4g (1 tsp) kosher salt (I use Diamond Kosher)
  • 1 Tbsp lemon zest (from about 2-3 lemons; save the lemons for the syrup and glaze)
  • 1 large egg white plus 6 large eggs, at room temperature and divided
  • 3/4 tsp pure lemon oil (I use Boyajian)
  • 3/4 tsp pure almond extract (I use Nielsen-Massey)
  • 225g granulated sugar
  • 250g unsalted butter, at room temperature and cubed
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 125g all-purpose flour
  • 27g (3 Tbsp) poppyseeds 

For the lemon soaking syrup:

  • 50g lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 50g granulated sugar

For the lemon glaze:

  • 120g icing sugar, sifted
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • 1-2 Tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • Poppyseeds, for garnish (optional)

Method:

Preheat the oven and prepare the pan: Preheat the oven to 350F with a rack in the middle. Lightly spray a 9x4x4 pullman pan and line with parchment paper, leaving 2-3 inches of overhang on the long sides for easy removal.

Mix the batter: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, place the almond flour, icing sugar, salt, and lemon zest. Mix on low for 30 seconds to combine. Add the egg white, lemon oil, and almond extract. Continue mixing until all the dry ingredients are moistened and the mixture is beginning to clump but not a cohesive mass. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle attachment.

With the mixer still running on low, slowly add the granulated sugar a spoonful at a time. This is to help keep the almond paste from clumping too much and ensure the ingredients are evenly distributed. Once all the sugar has been added, continue beating on low until the mixture resembles wet sand and does not have any large lumps, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle attachment.

With the mixer still running on low, add the butter a couple cubes at a time. Once all the butter has been added, add the baking powder. Turn up the speed to medium. Mix until light, fluffy, and creamy, about 5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and paddle attachment once or twice during mixing.

Crack all the eggs into a measuring cup with a spout and lightly whisk to combine. With the mixer on medium speed, stream in the eggs a couple tablespoons at a time, letting each addition absorb before adding the next. Patience here will help the batter emulsify properly and ensure a beautifully even crumb. Once all the eggs have been added, yep, you guessed it — scrape down the sides of the bowl and paddle attachment.

With the mixer on low speed, add the flour and poppy seeds. Mix just until the flour has disappeared. Use a flexible spatula to gently fold the batter several times to ensure it’s evenly mixed. Make sure to thoroughly scrape the bottom of the bowl where pockets of flour like to hide. The batter should be thick and homogenous.

Scrape about a third of the batter into the prepared pan. Use a small offset spatula to smooth the batter evenly into all the corners of the pan. Repeat twice more until all the batter has been added. Tap the pan firmly on the counter several times to settle the batter any dislodge any air bubbles. The pullman pan should be fairly full; this is normal.

Bake until the loaf is deeply golden and springy to the touch, and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 60-70 minutes. A digital thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf should register 200F.

Make the Lemon Soak: While the cake is baking, combine the lemon juice and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and pour into a heatproof container.

Soak the cake: When the cake is done, transfer the pan to a wire rack. Use a skewer to poke holes all over the top and brush generously with the lemon soak. Wait for about 5 minutes for the liquid to absorb, then brush on more soak, aiming to use about half the syrup. Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes, then carefully turn it out of the pan onto a clean piece of parchment paper set on a wire rack. Poke the bottom (now top) of the loaf with the skewer and brush the remaining syrup over the top and sides of the cake. Don’t be afraid to use all the syrup.

Let the cake cool completely before glazing. (For best flavor, I like to wrap the unglazed loaf in plastic once cool and rest overnight at room temperature, then glaze the next day right before serving.)

Glaze the cake: In a medium bowl, whisk together the icing sugar and salt. Add 1 Tbsp of lemon juice and whisk to combine. Add more lemon juice as necessary to obtain a thick but pourable glaze. Pour the glaze over the top of the loaf, using a small spoon to nudge it over the edges in places. Sprinkle with poppy seeds if desired. Let the glaze set for 10 minutes before slicing and serving. Store leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for several days.

lemon poppyseed loaf side

Chewy brownie amaretti cookies

amaretti cookies
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Happy new year! I thought I’d start out 2022 by sharing one of my favorite back pocket recipes, amaretti cookies. Amaretti are one of my favorite things to make when I have extra egg whites — they’re super simple to make, store well, and have a delightful chewy texture. If you love marzipan and/or almond-flavored bakes, you will love amaretti! They also happen to be naturally gluten and dairy free.

While classic amaretti never disappoint, here I’ve added a little cocoa and espresso powder for brownie-esque vibes. Go for a very good quality cocoa powder here — I like Cacao Barry Extra-Brute for its deep flavor. Likewise, make sure you use a pure almond extract that you love as its flavor is prominent in this cookie — I like Nielsen-Massey.

Amaretti get their signature crackles from a coating of icing sugar applied just before baking. As the cookie expands from the oven heat, the fissures that form contrast with the stark white of the icing sugar. I also like to toss the dough in a light layer of granulated sugar before the icing sugar, which gives the coating a little extra crunch.

I hope you enjoy these chewy brownie amaretti cookies. To me, they’re the perfect teatime treat and just the right size for satisfying a sweet craving. Enjoy!

amaretti with bite

Chewy brownie amaretti cookies

Makes 22-24 cookies

Ingredients:

For the brownie amaretti cookie dough:

  • 180g almond flour, preferably blanched and superfine
  • 15g good-quality Dutch-processed cocoa powder (I like Cacao Barry Extra-Brute), sifted if lumpy
  • 180g granulated sugar
  • 1/4 tsp fine sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp espresso powder
  • 70g (about 2 large) egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/4 tsp cream of tartar or 1/2 tsp lemon juice (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp pure almond extract

To finish:

  • 20g granulated sugar
  • 50g icing sugar, sifted

Method:

Preheat the oven to 325F with a rack in the middle. Line a large baking sheet (at least 1/2 sheet size) with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the almond flour, cocoa powder, sugar, salt, and espresso powder until very well combined. Set aside.

Place the egg whites and cream of tartar or lemon juice, if using, in a spotlessly clean medium bowl (preferably glass or metal, not plastic). Using an electric handheld mixer (or a whisk and some elbow grease), whip on medium speed until soft peaks. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and whisk just until combined.

Add the egg whites to the dry ingredients. Use a flexible spatula to fold the two mixtures together. The dough may seem crumbly at first, but keep folding until homogenous and all the dry ingredients are moistened. You may need to use your hands towards the end. The dough should be stiff but a bit sticky.

Place the 20g granulated sugar and the 50g icing sugar in separate small bowls.

Using lightly damp hands or a small cookie scoop, portion the dough into small balls (about 20g each). Roll each ball into a sphere. Toss each ball first in the granulated sugar followed by the icing sugar. Place on the prepared baking sheet, spacing about an inch apart. The amaretti won’t spread much — you should be able to fit all the cookies on a single sheet.

Bake until cookies are lightly puffed and the tops are cracked and firm, about 25 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack before eating. Store leftovers in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Make-ahead: You can freeze the unbaked dough balls before tossing in the finishing sugars. Place the dough balls in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze uncovered until firm, then transfer to a ziplock bag or airtight container. Bring to room temperature, then toss in the sugars before baking.

Vacation baking: Croquembouche

croquembouche
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I know, I said my last post was the final recipe of the year. But…croquembouche!

Making one of these iconic cream puff towers held together with caramel has been on my to-bake list for years. My kids have actually been begging me to make one after witnessing croquembouche construction on the Cupcake Jemma channel. But for obvious reasons we haven’t had a large gathering since then (AKA an excuse for croquembouche).

On Christmas, we finally had plans to see my family (first time in two years). If ever there was an opportunity for croquembouche, this was it. We are at my parents’ place so I didn’t have my normal arsenal of baking equipment. But after looking at a few tutorials online I was pretty certain we’d survive. Here’s how it went down.

(Note: this is less of a formal recipe and more thoughts and tips from the experience, which I wanted to jot down before I forget. However, I have included the chocolate creme legere recipe because yuuuuuuuum!)

Equipment

I tried not to buy much special equipment for this bake, but I did get some piping bags and tips at a local craft store as well as a 12″ cake round for presentation. I also recommend the following tools:

  • A digital scale
  • At least 2 large baking sheets for piping and baking choux buns
  • A 1″ round cutter (or something similar; I used a bottle cap) for cutting craquelin and tracing guides
  • Rolling pin for craquelin
  • Parchment paper for rolling craquelin and baking choux
  • Electric hand or stand mixer for making choux and whipping cream (I used an electric hand mixer. You could potentially do this all by hand with a wooden spoon, whisk, and a bit of elbow grease.)
  • Medium saucepan for making pastry cream and caramel
  • Whisk for pastry cream
  • Silicone spatulas for pastry cream and filling piping bags
  • Chopstick or paring knife to make holes to fill choux
  • Protective gloves for working with caramel
  • Skewer or fork for spinning sugar

Step 1: Choux au Craquelin

I made the croquembouche over two days. On day one, I made the choux and pastry cream base; and on the second I finished the pastry cream with whipped cream, filled the puffs, and assembled the tower.

I didn’t have a mold to aid construction, so for structural stability I knew it was especially important to make my choux all the same size. Adding craquelin topping helps choux rise evenly (and tastes delicious), so that seemed like a step worth taking.

My goal was to make ~70 cream puffs. I was aiming to make the bottom of the croquembouche 11 cream puffs round, then decrease each successive round by 1 puff to form the cone shape. Mathematically, this requires 66 puffs, but it’s always prudent to have a few extras.

I made the craquelin topping first, as it needs time to chill so you can cut out the rounds. Once chilled down, I used a 1″ bottle cap to cut out the rounds, then froze them until ready to bake the choux.

To ensure the choux were all about the same size, I used the same bottle cap to trace 70 rounds on parchment paper (35 per sheet). All in all, I ended up having enough choux paste for about 85 small/medium puffs.

Once all my puffs were baked and cooled, I picked out 11 and arranged them in a round so I could estimate the size of the base, then marked out a circle in the center of my cake board for reference. (You definitely don’t want to be fiddling around with this when working with hot caramel, so do as much architectural planning as you can beforehand!)

Step 2: Chocolate Crème Légère

You could fill your choux with anything, but I was in the mood for something creamy and chocolate-y. Enter: chocolate crème légère — or chocolate pastry cream “lightened” with whipped cream. I thought that in addition to tasting delicious, the chocolate would help create an extra-stable pastry cream that would hold up at room temperature (it worked). I would definitely make this filling again — it was delicious and almost mousse-like, and the bitterness from the chocolate helped temper the sweetness of the caramel.

To fill the cream puffs, I used a chopstick to make a hole on the bottom of each puff. Then I used a piping bag fitted with a bismarck tip to fill each puff until heavy, then cleaned up any overflow with a small knife. I definitely overfilled my pastry bag the first time which made it harder than necessary to fill the puffs. So word to the wise: don’t fill the bag more than halfway to make life easier and less messy!

filling choux buns

Chocolate Crème Légère

Makes enough to fill 70+ small cream puffs, plus some extra for snacking

Ingredients:

For the chocolate pastry cream:

  • 600g whole milk
  • 125g granulated sugar
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • 40g cornstarch
  • 20g Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 4 large egg yolks + 1 large egg
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 42g unsalted butter, cold and cubed
  • 170g chopped bittersweet (~70%) chocolate

To finish:

  • 500g heavy cream (35%), chilled
  • 25g icing sugar

Method:

Place a strainer over a large heat-safe bowl.

Off heat, combine the milk, 50g of the sugar and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 75g sugar, cornstarch, and cocoa powder. Pour in about 2 tbsp of the milk mixture and whisk to form a smooth paste. Add the egg yolks and whole egg and whisk until smooth.

Heat the milk over medium heat until steaming. Remove from the heat. Pour the milk in a slow, steady stream into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Scrape the custard mixture back into the saucepan and return to medium heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and large bubbles appear on the surface. Once the bubbles appear, turn the heat down to medium-low and continue whisking on the heat for 2 minutes.

Remove the custard from the heat and whisk in the vanilla extract, butter, and chocolate. Strain the pastry cream into the prepared bowl. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the pastry cream and cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until set (at least two hours, or up to 3 days).

When ready to fill the puffs, whip the heavy cream and icing sugar to soft peaks. Whisk the pastry cream to loosen, then use a flexible spatula to gently fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream in three additions. Fold just until homogenous and no streaks of cream remain.

Transfer the cream légère to a piping bag fitted with a plain round or bismarck tip. Use immediately. Leftovers make a great mousse-like dessert; enjoy plain or with a sprinkle of crushed cookies!

Step 3: Caramel

Caramel is the glue that holds a croquembuche together. I decided to also dip the tops (craquelin side) in caramel, which is optional but gives the whole thing an extra pretty shine. If you go this route, I definitely recommend making your caramel in two batches — one for the dipping the tops, and one for gluing the puffs together and spinning around the tower. I thought I could just reheat the caramel as needed to reliquefy it, but you can only do that so much before the caramel just gets too thick to work with.

For this sized croquembuche I ended up caramelizing ~600g granulated sugar in two 300g batches. I used the wet method as it’s more hands-off, but dry works too.

The assembly was fairly straightforward. Slightly tip the puffs in so you get a nice cone shape, and decrease by one puff each layer so the shape forms naturally. As you move up, place the puffs in the divot between the two below it. When you get to the last puff for each round, take an extra few seconds to find the puff that fits best.

It definitely helps to have an extra set of hands to help with assembly — one person can hold together puffs as the caramel sets while the other dips and arranges the next. And as always, caramel is HOT so wear gloves and keep kids and pets in a different room. Gently stir the caramel with a skewer every few dips to redistribute the heat and keep it liquid as long as possible.

I ended up building the tower as planned starting with 11 puffs at the bottom and decreasing each round until I reached 4 cream puffs. Then I just finished it off on the top with a single, slightly-larger puff.

Once constructed, I used a skewer to spin leftover caramel in threads around the entire tower. This was definitely my favorite part of the entire project!

And that’s it!

Thanks to my sister-in-law Janelle for helping with the photos!

A simple enriched yeasted dough, plus classic cinnamon rolls and snowflake bread

cinnamon rolls
snowflake bread

Popping in for the last time this year to share my go-to enriched dough recipe, along with a couple festive ways to use it. While I will forever love my sourdough enriched breads, I know not everyone has a sourdough starter; and even if you do, there are days when you need something a little faster. This is the dough for you! I’ve made it both with a stand mixer and by hand and it works beautifully either way. You can make and bake it all in the same afternoon, or let the dough rise in the fridge for up to a day before shaping and baking. It’s the versatility we all need any time of year, but especially now. I hope it brings you a little joy this holiday season.

Baker’s notes:

  • I’ve tested this dough with a few different flour combinations, and my preference is a mix of bread and all purpose for a balance of rise and texture. You can use all bread flour; the dough will be a little chewier. I haven’t tried with just all-purpose, but that should work as well. I would hold back 10-20 grams of the milk in the final dough to start — you can add it in during mixing if the dough seems dry.
  • If you want to include a whole grain flour such as spelt or whole wheat, I would use 275g bread flour and 50g whole grain flour in the final dough. Depending on your flour, you may need 10-15g additional milk in the final dough — add it in during mixing if the dough seems dry.
  • Nonfat milk powder is one of my “secret weapon” ingredients for a beautiful enriched bread that is extra fragrant, high-rising, and bronzed. I urge you not to skip it — it’s readily available at grocery stores and online. I promise, I have plenty of recipes that use it so none will go to waste.
  • This dough uses the tangzhong technique, which involves pregelatinizing some of the flour by cooking a portion of it with milk. Using tangzhong allows us to add a higher percentage of liquid to the dough, which increases the softness and shelf life of the bread. I add cold milk and an egg directly to the tangzhong so there’s no waiting for it to cool down before mixing the dough.
  • This dough isn’t overly sticky and I never use flour to roll it out. If you have a silicone or pastry mat, you can roll it directly on there; a lightly greased surface works fabulously as well. Just don’t cut directly on a silicone mat, as they’re easily damaged.
  • This bread tastes best the day it’s baked. But with a light rewarming, this bread remains soft for several days after baking. To reheat, cover with foil and bake at 350F for ~10 minutes or until warmed through. Or you can microwave individual portions for ~15 seconds. I recommend only icing the portions you plan to eat right away.

Classic Cinnamon Rolls and Snowflake Bread

Makes 9 large rolls or one large snowflake bread | Adapted from Baked to Order

Ingredients:

Tangzhong:

  • 25g bread flour
  • 125g milk

Final dough:

  • All the tangzhong
  • 100g milk, straight from the fridge
  • 50g egg (about 1 large), straight from the fridge
  • 225g bread flour
  • 100g all purpose flour
  • 35g granulated sugar
  • 21g (3 Tbsp) nonfat milk powder
  • 7g (1 3/4 tsp if Diamond Crystal) kosher salt
  • 6g (2 tsp) instant yeast
  • 56g (4 Tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature

Filling:

  • 56g (4 Tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 100g (½ cup) brown sugar (light or dark)
  • 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt

Cream Cheese Frosting (for cinnamon rolls):

  • 90 g (6 Tbsp) cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 56 g (4 Tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¾ tsp pure vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • 68 g (½ cup plus 1 Tbsp) icing sugar

To finish (for snowflake bread):

  • 1 large egg, whisked with a splash of milk or water and a pinch of salt
  • Granulated or coarse sugar, for garnish (optional)
  • Icing sugar, for garnish (optional)

Method:

Make the Tangzhong: In a small saucepan, whisk the flour and milk together until smooth. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens enough for the whisk to leave lines on the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Alternatively, if mixing by hand, transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Mix the Final Dough: Whisk the cold milk into the tangzhong, followed by the egg. Whisk in the remaining final dough ingredients.

Knead on medium-low speed until the gluten is moderately developed, about 5 minutes. The dough will start out sticky and rough but should gradually come together and feel quite smooth and stretchy. Turn the mixer to low and add the butter about 14 grams (1 tbsp) at a time, incorporating each batch before adding the next. Turn the speed back up to medium-low and continue kneading until the gluten is very well developed and the dough passes the windowpane test, about 10 to 15 minutes. The dough should be smooth and supple.

If mixing by hand, follow the same mixing order as above but note that mixing times will take longer. I like to use the slap-and-fold method to knead this dough. (See an example in my instagram highlights.)

Shape the dough into a smooth ball and transfer to a lightly oiled container. Cover and let rise at room temperature until doubled, 60-90 minutes. (Alternatively, allow dough to rise in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or up to 24.)

Make the filling: In a small bowl, make the filling by creaming together the butter, sugar, cinnamon, and salt to form a spreadable paste.

To make cinnamon rolls:

Shape, Proof, and Bake the Rolls: Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C) with a rack in the middle.

Lightly grease a 9 x 9-inch (23 x 23-cm) baking pan or a 9- or 10-inch (23- or 25-cm)-round cake pan (preferably aluminum, not glass). Take the dough out of the fridge and transfer to a lightly greased surface or a silicone/pastry mat. Roll into a 14-inch (36-cm) square, doing your best to maintain an even thickness.

Spread the filling mixture evenly over the dough, going all the way to the edges.

Roll the dough up like a jelly roll, pinching to seal. Turn the roll so the seam side is down.

Cut into nine even pieces using a sharp knife or unflavored dental floss (my preferred method). Transfer the rolls, cut side up, to the prepared pan, leaving space between each (they will grow into each other during proofing).

Cover the rolls with a piece of lightly oiled plastic wrap. Proof at warm room temperature until the dough is very puffy and nearly doubled, 30-60 minutes. If you poke a roll gently the indentation should fill back very slowly.

Bake until the rolls are lightly golden and register 195 to 200°F (91 to 93°C) in the center, about 20 minutes.

Prepare the Cream Cheese Frosting: While the rolls are baking, combine the cream cheese, butter, salt, and vanilla in a medium bowl and beat on medium speed until smooth. Add half of the icing sugar and beat to combine. Add the remaining icing sugar and beat for 1 to 2 minutes, or until fluffy.

Allow the rolls to cool on a wire rack before spreading with frosting. Serve immediately.

To make snowflake bread:

Shape, Proof, and Bake the Bread: Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) with a rack in the middle. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Turn the dough onto a lightly greased surface or silicone/pastry mat. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces, about 180g each. Form each piece into a ball, cover with oiled plastic wrap, and rest for 10 minutes.

Working one at a time, roll each ball into a 10″ round. Rotate the dough frequently to keep the shape round and prevent sticking. Transfer one round to the prepared baking sheet. Spread with about 1/3 of the filling, leaving a 1/2″ border around the edge. Top with a second round. Spread with another 1/3 of the filling, leaving a 1/2″ border around the edge. Repeat process with a third round. Finish by placing the final round on top.

Place a 2 to 2 1/2″ round cookie cutter (or similarly shaped round item, such as a glass) in the center of the circle to act as a guide. Using a sharp knife or bench scraper, cut the circle into 16 equal portions, like the rays of a sun. For each cut, you’ll cut from the outer edge of the center guide to the outer edge of the dough circle, cutting through all four layers each time. I find it easiest to cut into quarters first (at the north, south, east and west positions), then divide the quarters in half to make eighths, then divide each eighth in half to make sixteenths.

To form the star, work with two side-by-side strips at a time. Twist the strips away from each other twice, then pinch the ends together firmly to form a point. Continue until you’ve twisted all the strips; you should end up with 8 points total. Brush the entire surface with egg wash and cover loosely with oiled plastic wrap. Proof at room temperature until noticeably puffy, about 30-45 minutes. Right before baking, brush with a second coat of egg wash and sprinkle the center with sugar, if desired.

Bake until golden and the center measures 195F, about 20-30 minutes. Rotate the sheet halfway through baking for even coloration. Cool bread on the sheet for about 15 minutes. Dust with icing sugar before serving, if desired.

Storage:

Bread tastes best the day it’s baked. But with a light rewarming, this bread remains soft for several days after baking. To reheat, cover with foil and bake at 350F for ~10 minutes or until warmed through. Or you can microwave individual portions for ~15 seconds. I recommend only icing the portions you plan to eat right away. If you do want to bake the bread the day before serving, you can brush the finished bread with melted butter as soon as it comes out of the oven — this will help keep it soft and moist for longer.

jam rolls

Mocha Oreos

mocha oreos

Introducing one of the new additions to this year’s holiday treat boxes: Mocha Oreos! While peppermint or matcha were also flavor contenders, I already had peppermint marshmallows and peppermint bark brownies and matcha shortbread. And although coffee is one of my favorite flavors ever, it was not yet represented in my edible box of happiness. So it was decided. I think they’re a winner and definitely contend for a permanent place in the year-round cookie jar.

Baker’s notes:

  • It’s important to roll the dough to 1/8″ thickness or your yield will be significantly less. The ratio of cookie to filling is ideal when the wafers are fairly thin. My favorite hack for uniform dough is to use brass dowels — I found them at the local hardware store, but they’re also online (1/4″, 3/16″, and 1/8″ are my most used thicknesses). You can watch a demonstration of the technique on my Instagram highlights.
  • Do NOT substitute natural or black cocoa for the Dutch-processed cocoa. I like Cacao Berry Extra Brute.
  • As with my pumpkin spice latte pie, the key to a rounded coffee flavor here is a mixture of infusion and espresso powder. For the filling, I infuse the butter with whole coffee beans then add a little espresso powder during mixing.
  • The filling must be used as soon as you’re done mixing — it sets quickly. It may seem slightly loose and warm but that’s ok.
mocha oreos top down

Mocha Oreos

Makes about 45 small sandwich cookies | Adapted from Bravetart

Ingredients:

For the chocolate wafers:

  • 115g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 100g granulated sugar
  • 55g golden or light corn syrup
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
  • 165g all purpose flour
  • 35g Dutch-processed cocoa powder (I like Cacao Berry Extra Brute)

For the coffee filling:

  • 175g unsalted butter
  • 30g whole coffee beans
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
  • 1/2 tsp espresso powder
  • 240g icing sugar, sifted
  • 7g (1 Tbsp) Dutch-processed cocoa powder, sifted

Method:

Make the chocolate wafers: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine butter, sugar, golden syrup, baking soda, and salt. Mix on low until combined, then turn the speed up to medium and beat until fluffy and light, about 5 minutes. Scrape down the the bowl and paddle a couple times during this process to ensure even mixing.

Sift together the flour and cocoa powder. With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture. Continue mixing on low until a smooth dough forms. Turn off the mixer and use a flexible spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, ensuring there are no patches of flour remaining.

Roll the dough: Split the dough in half (about 235g each). Flatten each half into a disc. Wrap one with plastic and keep at room temperature. Transfer the other half to a large piece of parchment. Place another piece of parchment or plastic wrap over the top and roll to 1/8″ thick. Lift the top piece of parchment/plastic occasionally to avoid forming creases in the dough.

When the dough has reached the desired thickness, transfer, still sandwiched between parchment/plastic, to a sheet tray. Refrigerate while you repeat with the other half of the dough. Slide the second piece on top of the first and continue chilling until both pieces of dough are firm, about half an hour.

Cut and bake the wafers: Preheat the oven to 350F with a rack in the middle. Line 2-3 baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove one sheet of dough from the fridge (keep the other refrigerated). Flip the dough over so the bottom is on top. Peel off the parchment, then replace the parchment and flip the dough right side up (this will help prevent the dough from sticking to the parchment). Peel off the top layer of parchment/plastic.

Using a 1 1/2″ round cutter, cut as many rounds as possible out of the first sheet. Using an offset spatula, transfer the rounds to a prepared baking sheet, spacing about 1/2″ apart (they won’t spread much). Repeat with second half of dough. Gently press together scraps, reroll, and cut more rounds — you should end up with about 90.

Bake the cookies one sheet at a time until the cookies are dry and firm to the touch, 10-12 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack before filling.

Make the coffee filling: Prepare the cookies for filling by turning half of them upside down. The filling sets quickly and must be used right after mixing. Prepare a pastry bag fitting with a 1/2″ piping tip.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Once the butter has melted, stir in the whole coffee beans. Continue heating the coffee-butter mixture, stirring frequently. It will foam and sputter, then eventually fall silent. We’re not trying to brown the butter, so if you notice the milk solids starting to brown, turn the heat down. (We’re basically making coffee-infused ghee.)

Strain the coffee-butter into a clean, heatproof bowl; discard the beans and solids. Measure out 140g butter and place in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.

Add the vanilla, salt, espresso powder, icing sugar, and cocoa powder. Mix on low to combine, then turn the speed up to medium. Beat until creamy and soft, about 5 minutes. It may still be a bit warm; that’s normal. Immediately scrape into the prepared pastry bag.

Pipe a dollop of frosting onto the upturned cookies (about 6-7 grams, if you want to be precise). Sandwich with the remaining cookies. Let cookies stand at room temperature until set, about 30 minutes. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week; freeze for longer storage.

mocha oreos angled

Marbled Peppermint Marshmallows

peppermint marshmallows
Note: This post contains affiliate links.

I believe everyone should try making marshmallows at least once, whether or not you think you like them. Why? First off, homemade marshmallows taste miles better than anything store bought — pleasingly bouncy texture, and real flavor (vanilla and peppermint here, or perhaps you’d prefer honey and sea salt?). Second, you’ll feel like a magician as you witness the clear syrup transform into a billowy white cloud.

Peppermint marshmallows just might be my favorite flavor — probably because if I’m making them, it’s getting close to Christmas and a festive playlist is almost certainly filling the air. These are a must-include in my holiday treat boxes each year, and usually one of the first treats I make (stored airtight, marshmallows have a great shelf-life). Use them to top your hot cocoa or put out a tray of these instead of after-dinner mints at your cookie exchange!

Here are a few tips for marshmallow success:

  • Read the recipe through completely a couple times before starting. Marshmallows aren’t difficult to make, but they do require close attention to temperatures and working with hot syrups. Syrups wait for no one and once you hit the right temperatures you need to move on quickly to the next step. Measure everything ahead of time and prep all your equipment. This is a project best done without small children or animals underfoot.
  • Use a digital probe thermometer for gauging temperatures. I have both a Thermoworks DOT thermometer and Polder digital probe thermometer; both work beautifully. Make sure that the tip of the probe is fully immersed in the syrup but not hitting the bottom of your pot to ensure accurate readings.
  • Most marshmallow recipes are pretty similar in terms of ingredients. The biggest differences you’ll notice are in the temperature for cooking the sugar syrup — I’ve seen everything from 225F to 250F. I’ve been using this method from Bravetart for years (first from her sadly archived blog and then her cookbook). Though cooling the syrup may seem like an extra step, it’s safer than pouring boiling hot syrups into a mixer. Plus it ensures that the setting power of the gelatin won’t be compromised through overheating.
  • The small amount of butter is optional — it adds a little extra flavor and tenderness.
  • While you want to whip the mixture sufficiently so your mallows are nice and fluffy, don’t whip too long or the mixture will start setting in the bowl. This makes an already sticky process even messier, plus you end up losing more marshmallow than necessary to the bowl and beater. I like to pan the mixture when it’s fluffy but still sliiiightly warm and a little fluid. A greased flexible bowl scraper is by far my favorite tool for scraping the marshmallow out of the bowl and into the prepared pan.
  • Use pure peppermint extract for the best taste — a little goes a long way. Do not use peppermint oil as that can cause the marshmallow to deflate.
  • Watch me make these marshmallows in my Instagram highlights and this reel!

Marbled peppermint marshmallows

Makes one 8×8 pan | Adapted from Bravetart

Ingredients:

  • 21g (3 Tbsp) powdered gelatin
  • 115g (1/2 c) cold water, for blooming gelatin
  • 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 115g (1/2 c) water, for the sugar syrup
  • 140g (1/3 c plus 2 Tbsp) corn syrup
  • 340g (1 3/4 c minus 1 Tbsp) granulated sugar
  • 1g (1/4 tsp) kosher salt
  • 14g (1 Tbsp) unsalted butter, melted (optional)
  • 1/8 tsp pure peppermint extract
  • A few drops red gel food coloring (optional, for marbling)
To finish:
  • 30g cornstarch
  • 30g icing sugar

Method:

  1. Prepare the pan: Lightly grease an 8×8 square pan with cooking spray.
  2. Bloom the gelatin: In a small, wide bowl, mix the gelatin with 115g (1/2 c) cool water and the vanilla extract. Stir to combine, making sure all the gelatin is saturated. Leave to bloom while you prepare the sugar syrup.
  3. Cook the sugar syrup: In a 3.5 or 4 L heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the remaining 115g (1/2 c) water, corn syrup, sugar, and salt. Stir to combine. Place over medium heat. Stir occasionally with a heat-proof spatula or fork until the mixture starts bubbling, then stop stirring (stirring a boiling sugar syrup can encourage crystallization). Clip on a digital thermometer and continue cooking the syrup until it reaches 245-250F.
  4. Cool the syrup: Once the syrup reaches temperature, pour the syrup into the bowl of a stand mixer, using a flexible, heat-resistant spatula to scrape the pot. Let the syrup cool until it registers 212F, about 5-6 minutes.
  5. Whip the marshmallow: Once the syrup has cooled to 212F, scrape the bloomed gelatin into the bowl. Carefully transfer the bowl to the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on medium low until the gelatin has melted, then increase the speed to medium-high and whisk until the mixture is fluffy, thick, and roughly tripled in volume, about 8-10 minutes. The bowl should be slightly warm to the touch. Reduce the speed to low and drizzle in the melted butter, if using, and the peppermint extract; then increase the speed back to medium high and mix for a few seconds just until incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer and add a few drops of red food coloring, if desired. For the marbled effect, fold the mixture just a couple times with a greased spatula — most of the marbling will happen naturally as you pour the marshmallow into the pan, so don’t fold too much.
  6. Pan, cure, and cut the marshmallow: Use a greased spatula or flexible bowl scraper to scrape the marshmallow mixture into the prepared pan. Let sit, uncovered, for at least 4 hours (preferably overnight) to “cure” or set the marshmallow.
  7. When ready to cut, sift together the cornstarch and icing sugar to make the marshmallow dust. Sift some of the dust over a cutting board, then invert the pan with the marshmallow onto the board, gently tugging it free with your fingers. Sift more of the marshmallow dust over the marshmallow. Use a sharp, oiled knife to cut the marshmallows into 6 strips (or whatever size you’d like); then cut each strip into 6 even pieces. Clean the knife between cuts for best results. Toss each marshmallow in the remaining dust to ensure it doesn’t stick. Store marshmallows in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

Related recipes:

Gifts for Bakers (that they’ll actually use)

Note: this post contains affiliate links.

This gift guide for bakers includes the tools I use most regularly in my home kitchen. I aim to be a minimalist in terms of kitchen gear, but I either can’t imagine baking without these things or truly relish the bit of luxury it provides. For even more product recommendations, see my Amazon storefront. None of these products are sponsored, though with some links I may earn a small commission at no cost to you. Thank you for supporting this blog!


Digital Scales

Standard digital food scale: A digital scale is a must for any serious baker. Using a scale instantly improves accuracy and consistency; plus, it is cleaner and faster than measuring with volume cups. I have used an OXO digital scale for years and highly recommend it. My pick: OXO Good Grips 11-Pound Stainless Steel Food Scale with Pull-Out Display


High precision scale: For bakers who work with measuring salt, yeast, and gelatin frequently, I also recommend a high precision scale. These highly sensitive scales will measure these ingredients accurately to the tenth of a gram. My pick: Starfrit T092726 High-Precision Scale, One Size, Silver


Sheet Pans

Quarter sheet pans: I use quarter sheet pans for everything from holding prepped ingredients to toasting nuts to baking off a test cookie (or two). Get a lidded one and they’re also a convenient cookie or brownie storage container. My pick: Nordic Ware Natural Aluminum Commercial Baker’s Quarter Sheet with Lid


Two-thirds sheet pans: Two-thirds sheet pans are the largest sheet pans that fit in standard home ovens (at least in North America), and I pull them out much more frequently than the standard half sheet pan. Use two-thirds sheet pans for anything from roasting turkeys to making an extra-large batch of cookies. My pick: Winware 2-Piece Sheet Pan, 16 x 22-Inch, Aluminum


Specialty pans

Pullman pan: I have long been a fan of this straight-sided loaf pan, not just for beautiful sandwich loaves but also for elegant loaf cakes and quick breads. My pick: USA Pan Bakeware Pullman Loaf Pan With Cover, 9 x 4 inch, Nonstick & Quick Release Coating, Made in the USA from Aluminized Steel


Bundt pan: Every baker needs at least one fancy bundt pan to make even the simplest pound cake an elegant affair. NordicWare makes the best quality bundt pans I’ve used — they come in a variety of beautiful shapes and sizes. My pick: Nordic Ware 75th Anniversary Braided Bundt Pan (large) or Nordic Ware Heritage Bundtlette Cake Pan, Metallic, Silver (mini)


Cookie scoops / dishers

Dishers are perfect for scooping out cookie dough or portioning out loose batters (think waffles, pancakes, cupcakes). These come in all sizes, but I especially like the 1/2 oz (for small cookies or filling tartlets) and the 1 5/8 oz (for cupcake batter and medium-size cookies). My picks: Vollrath 47402 Pink Handled .54 Ounce Squeeze Disher and Vollrath (47144) 1-5/8 oz Stainless Steel Disher – Size 20


Small pastry tools

Small offset spatula: Small but mighty, the 4.5″ offset spatula is one of my most frequently used kitchen tools. Perfect for leveling batter and icing cakes. My pick: Ateco 1385 Offset Spatula with 4.5-Inch Stainless Steel Blade, Wood Handle, 4.5 Inch, natural


Mini spatulas: How many mini spatulas does a baker need? At least one more than s/he has right now. These little guys are incredibly handy to have around — I use them for feeding my sourdough starter and scraping down pots and bowls, among a dozen other things. My pick: GIR: Get It Right Premium Silicone Spatula – Non-Stick Heat Resistant Kitchen Spatula – Perfect for Baking, Cooking, Scraping, and Mixing – Mini – 8 IN, Red


Bicycle cutter: OK, this one is a bit of a luxury but I love it so! Use this multi-wheeled cutter for evenly sized pie lattice strips, perfectly uniform pastries, or evenly dividing brownies. My pick: Ateco 7 Wheel Stainless Steel Cutter, 2 1/8 Inch Wheels


Graduated round cookie cutters: I love this versatile set for cutting out dough in various round sizes and scooting cookies into shape after baking. My pick: Round Cookie Biscuit Cutter Set, 12 Graduated Circle Pastry Cutters, Heavy Duty Commercial Grade 18/8 304 Stainless Steel Cookie And Dough Cutters


Mixers and small appliances

Stand mixer: My most beloved kitchen appliance. It has saved my wrists and hands by kneading enriched breads, whipping up egg whites, and creaming lots of butter and sugar. I personally use a 6-quart bowl lift style and appreciate the generous capacity. Yes, it’s an investment; but take good care of it and it’ll last you decades. My pick: KitchenAid KP26M1XMH 6 Qt. Professional 600 Series Bowl-Lift Stand Mixer – Milkshake Color


Hand mixer: Despite having a stand mixer, I still pull out my trusty hand mixer frequently for small batch baking and whipping up petite batches of cream or egg whites. My pick: KitchenAid KHM512WH 5-Speed Ultra Power Hand Mixer, White


Immersion blender: I like this budget-friendly immersion blender for making purees and emulsifying ganache and glazes. The mini food processor attachment is handy for chopping small quantities of nuts or herbs. My pick: Hamilton Beach 59765 Immersion Hand Blender with Blending Wand, Whisk and 3-Cup Food Chopping Bowl, 3-Piece, Silver and Stainless Steel


Thermometers

Oven thermometer: Most home ovens don’t run true-to-dial, and an oven thermometer is the only way you’ll know exactly what temperature you’re working with. I prefer a digital one for speed and ease of reading. My pick: The Thermoworks DOT thermometer paired with a high temp probe with grate clip.

Instant read thermometer: Fast and accurate digital probe thermometer for checking internal temperatures of baked goods and dough, or for monitoring temperatures during chocolate tempering or candymaking. My choice: Thermapen One

thermapen one

Bits and bobs

Fancy sprinkles: Luxe sprinkles can really make your special occasion baked goods pop! My pick: Sweetapolita

Gourmet tweezers: For perfectly placing aforementioned sprinkles and other delicate kitchen tasks. My pick: Wusthof Gourmet 8″ Pinzette

Campbell’s Dough Knife: This non-stick dough knife/bench scraper is the best I’ve ever used. Makes handling bread dough even more enjoyable! My pick: Campbell’s Dough Knife

Freshly milled flour: Organic freshly milled flour brings depth of flavor to any baked good, sweet or savory. My pick: Flourist Starter Flour Bundle or Flourist Specialty Flour Bundle

Pre-cut parchment paper: Having perfectly cut parchment paper to line my pans anytime I need them feels like such a luxury. My pick: Kana Goods 9″ Parchment Rounds, Kana Goods Half-Sheet Parchment

Baked to Order: My cookbook, with 60 sweet and savory recipes. I think it’s a great gift for bakers of any level (not that I’m biased or anything 😉 )! My pick: Baked to Order

Tips for creating beautiful holiday treat boxes

Christmas cookies selection
Note: this post contains affiliate links.

For the better half of the past decade, one of my favorite parts of the holiday season has been creating treat boxes for our friends, neighbors, and families. I don’t remember a lot of the gifts I received as a kid, but I do remember the couple annual homemade cookie packages we’d receive every Christmas. While I didn’t have a clue about baking then, I admired the care and time required to create something so special.

Once I started baking, I knew I wanted to start my own tradition of spreading cheer through edible gifts. If you want to do the same but don’t know where to start, have no fear! This post lays out all my best practices for creating beautiful treat boxes, stress-free. In this guide, you’ll find advise on:

  • Treat selection
  • Scheduling, including a suggested timeline
  • Packaging supplies
  • Storage
  • Shipping cookies
  • Bonus pro-tips
  • Recipes to get you started

Treat Selection

Variety

For the most interesting treat box, variety is king. I aim for 8-12 different treats; but even 4 to 6 varieties will dazzle. Variety can be visual — think different shapes, colors, and sizes. But also consider varieties of texture and flavor. For example, I aim for a range of chewy, crunchy, and melt-in-your-mouth buttery textures.

When it comes to flavors, I like including at least one treat in each of the following categories:

Think Beyond Cookies

In addition to cookies, I love adding chewy caramel candies, marshmallows, English toffee, peppermint bark, and even little packages of savoury crackers in my holiday treat boxes. An added bonus is that many confections last for several weeks when stored properly, so you can make these ahead of time.

Familiar vs. new recipes

I know how it is. Your favorite blogger or foodie magazine publishes a dozen new holiday recipes. You want to make All. The. Cookies.

If you are trying to make holiday treat boxes on a somewhat large scale (i.e. more than a dozen), I HIGHLY recommend making a test batch of any new recipe you want to include. There’s nothing more disappointing than having a flop right in the middle of production with no time, ingredients, or energy to replace it with something else. At the very least, bake one test cookie for new batches so you can determine the proper bake time and temperature for your oven. King Arthur Baking has an excellent article on how to effectively bake test cookies.

I usually make about 2/3 familiar favorites and 1/3 new recipes each year. If you do treat boxes year after year, eventually you’ll build up a varied repertoire of cookies that you can mix and match to keep things fresh for both you and your recipients.

Time and Energy

Are you swamped every December with barely any time to bake? That doesn’t mean you can’t pull off a beautiful treat box, but you’ll need to plan your baking schedule carefully and choose recipes that aren’t too time-consuming. For example, bar and drop cookies are faster to make than cutout or sandwich cookies.

Do you genuinely like decorating individual gingerbread men with royal icing or do you lose steam after the first cookie (*raises hand*). Go for treats that you actually enjoy making and add flair with simple flourishes like sparkling sugars, festive sprinkles, or dipped glazes.

In the end, creating these boxes is about bringing cheer to others. It’s hard to do that if you’re stressed and overcommitted, so take some time to plan a selection that’s appropriate given your time and skill. Have fun!

Scheduling

I give myself about a month to plan out and execute treat boxes. A slow and steady approach allows me to enjoy the process without getting stressed out. Here’s how I break it down:

  • 4 weeks out
    • Create recipient list
    • Make treat selection and calculate number of batches needed per recipe
    • Do test batches for new recipes
    • Inventory and shop for packaging supplies
    • Can start making and freezing cookie dough
  • 3 weeks out
    • Inventory and shop for ingredients
    • Continue making and freezing cookie dough
  • 2 weeks out
    • Make and package confections
    • Bake longer shelf-life cookies
    • Continue making and freezing cookie dough
  • 1 week out
    • Print any labels or lists to include inside boxes
    • Finish making all cookie dough (freeze or refrigerate per recipe instructions)
  • 1-2 days before delivery
    • Bake shorter shelf life cookies
  • 12-24 hours before delivery
    • Assemble packages

Storage

Once you’ve baked your treats, cool them completely before storing. Keep each type in a separate container. If you store everything together, dry-textured cookies will pull moisture from chewier cookies; and individual flavors will all start melding into each other (peppermint-flavored gingerbread, anyone?).

To keep everything as fresh as possible, I try to package treat boxes within 24 hours of delivery. Let your recipients know that the contents are best consumed ASAP!

treat boxes

Packaging

While there are a myriad ways to package your treats, I like using bakery-style window boxes. They’re professional-looking, budget-friendly, and available in various sizes. I buy mine from a local packaging company here in Toronto. Check your local baking supply store for options. If you go with any paper style box, lay down some tissue or parchment paper on the bottom to prevent grease stains.

Here are some other packaging materials I use every year:

  • Clear candy bags for confections or anything that needs an extra layer of protection. These come in many sizes.
  • Twisting wax paper for individually wrapping caramels or other sticky candies. A huge time saver!
  • Cupcake liners of different sizes to separate different treats. Get them in festive patterns to add some color!

I also like to include a list of all the cookies included (noting any that contain nuts or other allergens) so that people have an idea of what they’re getting.

Execution

The freezer is your friend

Most cookie doughs freeze well for several months, so you can actually prep many recipes well in advance. You can freeze some fully baked cookies, though avoid any with a sugar coating or glazes — those elements don’t hold up well in the freezer. In general, I prefer freezing unbaked dough vs. already baked goods. I try to bake off dough within two months for optimal freshness.

Whether you freeze your cookies baked or unbaked, keep them well wrapped and sealed, and label everything clearly. The biggest enemies of frozen goods are freezer burn and unwanted scents.

Create a game plan

Once you’ve selected what treats to include, determine the approximate order of when items should be prepared. Many recipes include shelf life and make ahead information; if not, google is your friend. I like make all my confections (marshmallows, caramels, toffee) first, as they have a longer shelf-life than cookies. Next come sturdy/drier cookies, such as shortbread and biscotti. Bake drop-style cookies last as they usually are at their peak for 3-5 days.

Assembly line

If you’re packaging up more than a couple boxes at a time, have each item prepped before doing your final assembly. Confections should be sealed up, and cookies can be portioned out and placed in cupcake liners. Put together one sample box to make sure everything fits the way you like, then use that as your guide for packaging all the other boxes.

Shipping cookies

While I don’t mail cookies, I’ve often flown across the country with packages of baked goods. My best advice is to pack your baked goods in airtight, sturdy, non-crushable boxes — tins are great. Wrap pairs of cookies like sandwiches in plastic wrap and use plenty of padding material so they can’t move. If the cookies can rattle around, they’ll probably break. Stick to sturdy cookies and bars. Here are a few excellent articles for more information on shipping cookies successfully:

Bonus Pro-Tips

If you’re changing a recipe’s batch size, write out the new ingredient quantities.

If you’re halving, doubling, or tripling a recipe, calculate and write out the new ingredient quantities before starting. Do not depend on your mental math in the moment. At some point you will forget you’re not making the recipe as written and ruin your batch of cookies by not properly scaling the sugar, raising agent, or flour. I SPEAK FROM EXPERIENCE.

On big baking days, bake recipes starting from low oven temp to high oven temp.

To maximize efficiency when baking multiple types of cookies, take a minute to check the oven temperatures for each recipe. Start with the cookies that require the lowest temperature, then work up to those with the highest oven temperature. As always, I recommend an oven thermometer to make ensure your oven is running true to dial. My favorite is the ThermoWorks Dot coupled with a high temperature probe and clip.

Take notes during and after assembly.

If you want to make treat boxes an annual tradition, your future self will appreciate your taking good notes about the process each year. Beyond a basic thumbs up or down for each new recipe, I like to include logistical details (i.e. Only include x number of cookies per tray or they’ll spread into each other! Cut marshmallows into an 8×10 grid so you have enough for everyone!) and links to products I found especially useful. Every year I learn something new and the entire process feels more efficient.

christmas cookies on sheet tray

Recipes to get you started

Pumpkin Cream Cheese Bundt Cake with Maple-Olive Oil Glaze

pumpkin bundt cake
Note: this post contains affiliate links.

Several years ago, while looking for a new way to use up some pumpkin puree (in Canada, a typical can size is almost twice as big as the 15-oz. can in the States, so I ALWAYS have some leftover after making pumpkin pie) I stumbled upon Yossy Arefi’s beautiful pumpkin bundt cake recipe in the New York Times. After the first bite I remember thinking, “This is it, this the only pumpkin cake I need.” It’s perfectly textured and spiced (please use freshly ground cardamom and black pepper — it makes such a difference!), simple to make, and keeps like a dream.

I’ve been meaning to remake and post about it every year since then; it’s taken a few years, but better late than never. Of course I couldn’t help tinkering a bit, as am wont to do. I swapped in some barley flour, my most recent obsession in sweet baking. Pick up a bag if you have a chance — barley flour is sweet and nutty and subs really well for all purpose, particularly in tender baked goods as it has a low gluten content. I’ve been using it in pancakes/waffles/banana bread/cookies with great success (start with a 1/3 swap and try more the next time if that works out well).

I also added a cream cheese filling because pumpkin and cream cheese are BFFs. And though the brown butter glaze in the original recipe is delicious, I went for an even easier, no stove required maple-olive oil glaze (another Yossy recipe) to echo the olive oil in the cake itself. The addition of olive oil makes an especially rich, glossy glaze — save extras for drizzling over individual slices, if you like.

Baker’s notes:

  • I used my 6-cup heritage bundt cake pan for this cake (a scaled down size of the original recipe). You can double the recipe but make sure to use a 12-cup or larger bundt pan; many large bundt pans are only 9 or 10-cups and I’m pretty sure a double batch would overflow in that size.
  • The eternal question of how to prep a bundt pan…these days I favor cake goop for prepping my bundt pans, but use whatever method works for you! Make sure to get every nook and cranny and don’t forget the middle tube! Let the cake cool for 10 minutes in the pan before turning it out.
  • For the minimalistic glaze drizzle I only needed a tiny amount of glaze (I still had extra, which we drizzled onto slices). If you have a bundt shape that handles more glaze or you want a generous drizzle, make 1.5x the amount listed.

Pumpkin Cream Cheese Bundt Cake with Maple-Olive Oil Glaze

Makes one 6-cup bundt cake | Cake barely adapted from the New York Times | Glaze recipe from Yossy Arefi

Ingredients:

For the cream cheese filling:

  • 113g cream cheese, softened (about half a block)
  • 30g granulated sugar
  • Dash of vanilla extract
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • Squeeze of lemon juice

For the pumpkin bundt cake:

  • 57g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 200g light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • Scant 3/4 tsp kosher salt (I use Diamond Crystal)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom (preferably freshly ground – I use 6 pods)
  • 1/8 tsp cloves
  • Few cracks of black pepper
  • 55g extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 213g pure pumpkin puree
  • 60g sour cream, at room temperature
  • 125g all purpose flour
  • 67g barley flour (or substitute spelt or more all purpose)

For the maple olive oil glaze:

  • 50g icing sugar, sifted
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • 12g (1 1/2 Tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
  • 15g (1 1/2 Tbsp) maple syrup
  • 1 tsp hot water, plus more as needed

Method:

Make the cream cheese filling: In a small bowl, whisk together all ingredients until smooth. Transfer to a piping bag and set aside while you prepare the cake batter.

Make the pumpkin bundt cake: Preheat the oven to 350F with a rack in the middle. Grease and flour a 6-cup bundt pan (or brush it with cake goop), making sure to get all the crevices and the middle tube, where cake especially likes to stick.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and spices. Mix on medium speed until smooth and combined, 1-2 minutes (the mixture will be thick). Scrape down the bowl and paddle and add the olive oil. Mix on medium-high until light and thickened, 2-3 minutes. Add the egg and mix on medium for 20 seconds. Scrape down the paddle and the bowl. Add the pumpkin and sour cream and mix until well combined. Remove the bowl from the mixer.

Whisk the flours together in a small bowl, then add to the wet ingredients (sift them in if lumpy). Use a flexible spatula to fold the flour in until smooth and no dry bits remain. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure the batter is well combined.

Add about half the batter to the prepared bundt pan. Tap to level and dislodge any air bubbles. Snip the end off the piping bag and pipe the cream cheese filling on top, leaving a 1-inch border on each side (try not to touch the edges of the pan). Add the remaining cake batter on top and smooth the top with an offset spatula. Place the bundt pan on a baking sheet.

Bake until the cake is puffed and a skewer inserted near the center comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs, 40-45 minutes. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack and cool completely before glazing.

Make the maple olive oil glaze: When the cake has cooled, make the glaze. In a medium bowl, whisk together all glaze ingredients to make a thick and pourable glaze. (Add hot water a 1/4 tsp at a time if needed to thin the consistency). Pipe, spoon, or drizzle glaze onto the cake. Let glaze set for 10 minutes before serving. Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for 4-5 days; bring to room temperature before serving.

pumpkin bundt cake slice

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