Tuesday, November 27, 2007

One cook's garam masala is another baker's gingerbread

One of the secrets to making great-tasting cookies (or great-tasting anything, for that matter) is to start with really good ingredients. But, you may not want to spend big bucks for premium vanilla and whatnot, especially if you are not into baking year-round. I thought that I would share some of my favorite places to buy ingredients for holiday goodies.

I like to buy spices such as cinnamon, ginger, and coriander at an Indian market. There’s one right in Malden center, on Pleasant Street. The quality is soooo much better than that brand that starts with an “M,” and the price is much better too –~$4 for a 4-ounce bag of cinnamon. (If you think you can’t use that much cinnamon, go shopping with a friend and share everything). Indian markets are also good places to get golden raisins (for fruitcake!) and cashews (for nut brittle, mixed nuts, spiced nuts…).

Trader Joe’s has good prices on good-quality spices, nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate. I like their 4-ounce bottles of vanilla for ~$5 – swanky brands of vanilla are nice, but unless you’re making a cookie in which the vanilla is the main flavor (like a butter cookie), I think it’s a waste of money. Also Marty’s Liquors in Allston used to carry vanilla, chocolate and some nuts; I haven’t been there in a while but I got some good deals in years past.

If you want to spend a little more money for premium nuts and dried fruit, go to Dairy Fresh Candies in the North End. It’s a tiny little store that’s a baking junkie’s heaven. They also have chocolate, almond paste, and marzipan. Polcari’s, which is also in the North End, carries some nuts and dried fruit in bulk as well.

If price is no object, then try one of the mail-order companies offering everything that your little baker’s heart desires. Check out Penzey’s, or the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Catalog for a dizzying array of ingredients (just how many kinds of vanilla are there, anyway?). Maybe Santa will put a Penzey’s gift certificate in my stocking this year.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Some thoughts on upcoming holidays

For many people, things start to get crazy busy this time of year. Family dinners to plan, holiday parties to juggle, and maybe some shopping to do. So this year, we’d like to remind everyone who feels overwhelmed by the whirlwind to remember to stop and… well, just…stop.

That’s right – Relax! Everything will be fine. Somewhere along the line, preparing a holiday dinner turned into a competitive sport. It’s time to take a deep breath and let go of all that. No matter how well prepared you are, how many lists you’ve made (or spreadsheets – I’m one of those spreadsheeters) or timetables you’ve developed, something will probably go wrong.

Every Christmas, we bake hundreds of cookies. We make the same recipes from year to year and you’d think that we’d have everything down pat by now. Nonetheless, a few key points are always forgotten on one or two types of cookies. After much gnashing of teeth and shouted colorful expressions those essential bits of information finally pop back into the conscious mind, and at least part of the batch is usually salvageable.

The point is, nobody’s perfect. Television chefs have an army of assistants and food stylists to make everything look perfect (and they still run into trouble sometimes). Unless you’re willing to get out the blowtorch for touch-ups, that Thanksgiving turkey is probably not going to be perfectly golden brown. And we say, that’s okay.