"Baking" and the here-before-you-know-it season known as "the holidays" are synonymous to many Minnesotans, including Twin Cities cookbook author and blogger Sarah Kieffer.
"Our tradition of spending time together in the kitchen creating cookies and bars and candy for family and neighbors is an important ritual in the months leading up to the New Year," she writes in her just-released "Baking for the Holidays" (Chronicle Books, $24.95). "The act of creating and giving is central to our celebration."
Over the course of 50-plus artfully photographed recipes, Kieffer has suggestions for all kinds of festivities, including Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, crème brûlée pumpkin pie and triple-chocolate peppermint bark.
In a recent phone conversation, Kieffer, who also wrote "The Vanilla Bean Baking Book" and last year's runaway hit "100 Cookies," discussed the practice-makes-perfect mentality of baking, the joys of unsalted butter and the necessity of instant-read thermometers.
Q: What does the term "the holidays" mean to you?
A: It's not specifically Christmas, but the months leading up to it. It's time with the family, and time spent doing things together, and that often involves baking. That's the holiday season that this book is meant to encompass.
Q: You feature recipes for Danish pastries, monkey bread, doughnuts and other yeast-powered delights. What's your advice for those who are apprehensive about baking with yeast?
A: I felt the same way when I started baking. It seemed so scary to put so much time into something and wonder, "What if it doesn't rise?" But it helps to know that yeast doesn't want to die. Unless you overheat it, it's going to live. It wants to live. That helped my mind-set.
The other thing is practice. Practice helps; it's when you start to trust that it's going to work. You learn what the dough should look like and feel like. Zoë and Jeff's "Five Minutes" concept [the "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" cookbooks, by Twin Cities authors Zoë François and Jeff Hertzberg] is a great place to start if you haven't worked with yeast. It gave me a lot of confidence when I started, and helped me to learn that dough is very forgiving.
Q: You write that you prefer to bake with Land O'Lakes unsalted butter. Why?
A: When I'm testing recipes I use grocery store brands that people have access to, and Land O'Lakes is in most grocery stores. People have heard of it. It was always in our refrigerator when I was growing up, except for that fateful margarine stage. It's also really good butter.
Q: Why unsalted?
A: Because then I can control the amount of salt used in the recipe.
Q: The book has a great tip for toasting and storing nuts. Can you share it?
A: Toasting nuts brings out, for a lack of a better word, a nuttier flavor. It's more intense. I like to toast nuts ahead of time, and freeze them. If you toast them while you're making the rest of the recipe, you have to wait for them to cool. It's a lesson that I learned at a bakery where I worked, where we would toast tons of nuts and pull them out of the freezer as we needed them. I like to toast them in the oven rather than on the stove, because the oven is a more even process. But you have to remember to set the timer. I've forgotten them in the oven, and that's not a good thing.
Q: How do you generate recipe ideas?
A: I find so much inspiration in cookbooks, but I'm not going to lie, my husband is always saying, "Where are we going to put all of these books?" I have a couple of hundred cookbooks. The saddest thing is, I once told my daughter, "One day, this collection will be yours," and she said, "I'll probably sell them for the money."
Obviously there's Instagram, even though it has become overloaded with videos and ads. I love food magazines and food TV shows. And we have so many great local bakeries. I love seeing what the pastry chefs at Bellecour and Patisserie 46 and Black Walnut are making, and then trying to figure out how to make easier versions at home.
Q: I like that you include several time-consuming recipes, tailored for cold winter days that are best spent in the kitchen. There's the Cruffin, for example. What is it?
A: It's the love child of croissants and muffins. It's croissant dough — with lots of extra sugar — that's baked in a muffin pan. I use a popover pan, so they're nice and tall. They've been around since 2013; they were kind of a viral sensation, and I've always been intrigued by them. I love croissant dough, but it can be labor-intensive. I have a cheater croissant dough recipe, and it's a favorite because you can use it so many different ways.
Q: Why should we be baking sablés as gifts?
A: Because they're so easy, and so good, and so buttery. You can add so many things to them and make them unique.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for kitchen-friendly gifts for bakers?
A: I'm a big fan of Nordic Ware's half-sheet pans; they're all that I use. I like the all-plastic spatulas at Williams-Sonoma. They're great because you can throw them in the dishwasher. Sanding sugar, which makes your treats extra-sparkly, that's always fun. And an instant-read thermometer, that's a great one. It helps take away the risk of burning the sugar when you're making marshmallows or caramel. I use the Thermapen. They're pricey, but so worth it.
Q: On the subject of marshmallows and caramels, why should we be making our own?
A: Because they're so much better than the store-bought versions. With marshmallows, they have the same mouthfeel as store-bought, but they taste completely different, and they toast and melt so beautifully. Making caramel can be scary, because you're working with hot sugar, but once you do it a few times, it's easy.
Q: You're both the writer and photographer of your cookbooks, which is a rarity. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that process?
A: It's a lot of work. But I like being able to photograph as I go along, versus a weeklong photo shoot, where everything is prepared and photographed in a few days. I like to hang all the photos on the wall, and if there are any that don't feel right, then I have the luxury of time, which allows me to change it rather than saying, "That's all I have to work with." But that can also lead to overthinking, which I have a tendency to do, and changing things that I really don't need to change.
Q: Do you have another project in the works?
A: I'm working on a fourth book. It's going to be 100 morning baking treats: muffins, scones, Bundt cakes, yeasted treats and a chapter on brunch and savory treats. Right now, the projected release date is spring 2023.
A: Even when you said it, I just cringed. I worked in retail for a long time, and back then stores didn't have a Spotify playlist. The music was often on a loop. That song played over, and over, every hour, and it got to be maddening.
Vanilla Bean Sablés
Makes about 2 dozen cookies.
Note: This dough must be prepared in advance. From "Baking for the Holidays," by Sarah Kieffer.
• 1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
• 2/3 c. granulated sugar
• 1/3 c. powdered sugar
• 1 tsp. salt
• Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean, or 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 2 egg yolks
• 2 c. flour, plus more for rolling dough
• 1 c. turbinado sugar
In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter until creamy, about 1 minute. Add granulated sugar, powdered sugar, salt and vanilla bean seeds (if using) and beat until creamy and combined, about 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add egg yolks and vanilla extract (if using) and mix until combined. Add flour and mix until combined.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Form the dough into a 12-inch log. Place the log on a piece of plastic wrap that's a few inches longer than the log. Sprinkle the turbinado sugar over each side of the log, covering the outside of the dough. Using your hands, gently press the sugar into the dough, then wrap the log in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours, or overnight.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Unwrap the chilled log and slice it into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Space rounds 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets and bake until the edges are very light golden brown but the centers are still pale, 14 to 16 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cookies cool completely on the pan. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.
Citrus variation: Add 2 teaspoons of grated citrus zest (lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit) to the dough along with the salt. Add 1 tablespoon of poppy seeds along with the flour, if desired.
Rosemary-chocolate chip variation: Add 1/2 cup of mini chocolate chips (or finely chopped chocolate) and 2 teaspoons of minced rosemary to the dough after incorporating the flour, mixing gently to combine.
Pistachio variation: Add 1/3 cup of chopped pistachios to the dough after incorporating the flour, mixing gently to combine.
Makes 12 large or 24 small bars.
Note: To toast pecans, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread pecans in a single layer and bake until the nuts darken and become fragrant, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool. From "Baking for the Holidays" by Sarah Kieffer.
• 1 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for pan
• 1 c. sugar
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 egg
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 2 c. flour
• 2 c. chocolate chips (1 12-oz. bag)
• 1 1/2 c. sugar
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• 1/4 c. water
• 3 tbsp. corn syrup
• 1/4 c. plus 3 tbsp. heavy cream
• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 2 c. toasted pecan halves (see Note)
To prepare crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread butter on the bottom and sides of a 9- by-13-inch baking pan, then line the pan with two pieces of parchment paper (placed perpendicular to each other in the pan) that are cut the same width as the bottom of the pan and long enough to come up over the sides, making sure that each side has a bit of parchment overhang and pushing the sheets into the corners.
In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat 1 cup butter until creamy, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt and beat until light and creamy, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add egg and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and mix until combined. Add flour and mix until combined. Press the mixture into the prepared pan and bake until the shortbread is golden brown, about 18 to 22 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and scatter the chocolate chips over the hot crust. Return the pan to the oven and bake for 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and use an offset spatula to carefully spread the chocolate evenly over the crust. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let sit at room temperature until the chocolate is set.
To prepare caramel: In a large, heavy-bottom saucepan, combine 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, water and corn syrup, stirring very gently to combine while trying to avoid getting any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat until the sugar has melted and the mixture is clear, about 3 to 5 minutes. Uncover and cook until the sugar has turned a pale golden color and registers about 300 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce heat slightly and cook for a few minutes more, until the sugar is golden and registers 350 degrees. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and add the heavy cream (the cream will foam considerably, so be careful pouring it in). Add 2 tablespoons butter, followed by 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and stir to combine. Set aside to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.
To assemble: Pour the caramel over the cooled shortbread and set chocolate, using an offset spatula to smooth it evenly. Press the pecan halves into the caramel. Let set at room temperature before slicing. Bars can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.