Holiday Baking Tips

You asked, she answered

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

Dorie Greenspan is a national treasure. She can make homemade Oreos like you've never had before, has written more cookbooks than there are months in the year and exudes a free-flowing love of butter. So during the holiday season, when baking conundrums are more pressing than ever, we'd be hard-pressed to find a better person to offer advice.

This month, members of our Tasting Table Cookbook Club (which you can join, too!) are cooking through Baking: From My Home to Yours. And as they are discerning pies from tarts and baking scores of scones, they're finding they have questions. Here, their questions answered by Greenspan herself.

Tasting Table: How do you make holiday entertaining as stress free as possible?

Dorie Greenspan: Remember, it's all about the people, not the food, not the wine, not the decorations. Keep the food simple, and you'll have as good a time as your guests. Do as much as you can ahead of time. No matter the season, if I've got a bunch of people coming, I make a menu that can be served at room temperature—think indoor picnic. And don't forget dessert! Cookies are the perfect do-ahead, as are Bundt and loaf cakes.

TT: Any advice for making meringue that doesn't weep? Is there a way to stabilize it? Or to extend its shelf life?

DG: Here are a few tips for making meringues:

• Always start with room-temperature egg whites—let them sit out for a couple of hours before you start beating them.

• I add a little cream of tartar or some vinegar to the whites at the start.

• Add the sugar one tablespoon at a time. It's really slow, and it can take about five minutes, but it's important.

• After the granulated sugar is incorporated, I add a mix of one tablespoon granulated sugar, plus two tablespoons powdered sugar (for three egg whites).  It's nice for the texture of the meringues.

• Make sure to thoroughly bake the meringues.

• Most important, make sure to thoroughly dry them. At the end of the baking time, prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon to release the moisture, and then let the meringues rest in the oven for at least two hours.

• Humidity is the enemy of meringues. Make sure to store them in a dry place. I usually keep meringues uncovered.

TT: Would you suggest some (non-chocolate) cookies that freeze well? And, if I freeze the dough (instead of the finished product), can I use any recipe, or are there certain types of dough I shouldn't freeze?

DG: Freezing dough instead of finished cookies is a good idea. Most butter cookie dough freezes well; ditto for cutout cookies. Roll the dough, freeze, and then cut and bake as you'd like. You can usually freeze drop-cookie dough as well—scoop out the dough, freeze the balls on a baking sheet, and then pack in airtight containers. I wouldn't freeze dough that has whipped egg whites in it.

TT: I have real trouble with the frequent direction in every cookbook to "stir dry ingredients into wet until just incorporated but don't overmix." How do I visually tell when I've reached the right balance? I only have a hand mixer so usually mix ingredients together by hand.

DG: A very good question. When the dry ingredients are no longer visible—when the flour disappears into the batter or dough—you're done. "Overmixing" means beating the batter, something you don't have to worry about if you're working by hand or with a mixer on low speed.

TT: Why do I have to divide the oven in thirds and rotate pans from front to back and top to bottom? Shouldn't the cookies bake evenly in the oven without opening it and letting the heat escape, therefore making the oven temperature different?

DG: You rotate pans to avoid uneven baking. However, if the baking time is short, as it often is with cookies, then it's best not to rotate, so that you can keep the oven temperature steady. If you know that your oven has serious hot spots, then you should rotate or bake one sheet at a time in the center of the oven.

TT: I have a tiny freezer with two shallow drawers instead of shelves so I can't freeze much, especially not things like rolled piecrusts in a pie pan. Can I freeze the dough before rolling it, and then roll it after it's thawed? As for freezing things like cookies, is it OK to freeze the rolled cookie dough instead of the baked cookies (if the recipe doesn't specify)?

DG: It sounds like the best dessert for you is slice-and-bake cookies—the rolls of dough are compact, and you can slice them while they're still frozen. Yes, you can freeze pie dough, defrost, and then roll it.  And it's great to freeze rolled-out cookie dough—it makes cutting easier.

TT: Are there any secrets to super-moist cakes?

DG: Moistness is usually built into the recipe's proportions. That said, to keep the cake moist, don't beat the cake more than directed (particularly after you've added the eggs) and don't overbake it.

TT: What's your favorite recipe to take to a cookie swap?

DG: World Peace Cookies! I've never met a person who doesn't love them. (Editor's note: This is a fact.) And, because they're slice-and-bake, they're easy on the baker.

TT: Do you have suggestions for a Christmas dessert that can be made in advance? (Bonus points if I don't have to refrigerate it!)  

DG: Poached or roasted fruit is nice, but my favorite would be a Bundt cake—pretty, easy and no refrigeration needed. I always make my All-in-One Holiday Bundt Cake. It's got pumpkin, apples, cranberries and nuts, "all-in-one."