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Holiday baking tips from a pro chef

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

Holiday baking tips for the home chef

Roll up the sleeves on your Christmas sweater, don your apron and break out that rolling pin — it's time to bake everyone's favorite holiday treats.
Woman baking holiday cookies

Before you get started, check out these tips from professional baker Rana Abla, owner of Sableh Sweet & Savory.

Pro baker Rana Abla makes her living baking delicious treats for people year-round. But only those of us lucky enough to live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas can enjoy her sweets for now. Besides, during the holidays, you'll probably want to bake your family's favorites. Rana offers these 25 tips (that's right, she gave us all her secrets!) for turning out delicious cookies, cakes and more. She even shared one of her personal family recipes (something you can't get even if you're a client).

What you need to know about ingredients

  • Unless otherwise specified in the recipe, all ingredients should be room temperature. Take most ingredients out of the refrigerator 60 to 90 minutes before you start cooking.
  • To bring butter to room temperature quickly, you can cut it into small cubes on a plate and let it stand for about 15 minutes.
  • Never substitute baking soda for baking powder or vice versa. Each has a different function.
  • Unless the recipe says otherwise, always use all-purpose flour.
  • Unless the recipe says otherwise, always use unsalted butter for baking.
  • Semisweet and bittersweet chocolate are interchangeable. Semisweet chocolate is dark chocolate. Bittersweet is extra dark.
  • Out of buttermilk? No problem. Just add a teaspoon of vinegar for each cup of homogenized milk and stir.
  • When a recipe calls for eggs, it typically means Grade A large eggs.
  • When a recipe calls for milk, it typically means homogenized whole milk.
  • While it may affect the texture, color and flavor, it's OK to substitute light brown sugar for dark brown.
  • For the best results, always use pure vanilla extract. It makes a huge difference.
  • A pinch of salt brings out the flavors in sweet baked goods.

Pro techniques every home chef should learn

  • The most important thing is to read the entire recipe before you start baking and follow it exactly, especially the first time.
  • Baking is an exact science. Measure all your ingredients carefully, using a glass measuring cup for wet ingredients and regular cups and teaspoons for dry ingredients.
  • Get a separate thermometer to ensure an accurate temperature reading — most ovens run a little hotter or colder than the display temperature.
  • Always wait for the oven to reach temperature before putting cakes or cookies in the oven.
  • A hand mixer works as well as a stand mixer.
  • Sifting is important, but you don't need a sifter. The best way to sift flour is in a bowl with a regular old whisk!
  • The best way to sift cocoa powder is by running it through a mesh strainer.
  • Use shiny baking sheets. Dark or burned sheets absorb heat faster and may cause cookies to burn.
  • Cookies should be baked uniform in size and thickness, so use a level spoonful for drop cookies and a sharp, thin-bladed knife for slicing refrigerator rolls.
  • Don't overmix once the dry ingredients are added. Just mix on low until incorporated.
  • To retrieve stray eggshells in a mixture, use the emptied half-shell. Eggshell sticks to eggshell.
  • Once a cake is completely cooled, wrap cake layers in plastic wrap and place them in the freezer for half an hour before cutting and/or icing them.
  • Every time you make cookie dough, leave it in the fridge for two to four hours. It gives the dough a chance to rest and the flavors a chance to come together.

Tatyana's chocolate cookie recipe

While she doesn't sell this family recipe in her shop, Rana's been making these simple cookies, her daughter Tatyana's favorite, for years. As a special holiday treat, she's sharing this secret recipe with SheKnows' readers.

Tatyana's chocolate cookie recipeYields 25-30

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • 8 ounces mini chocolate chips
  • 4 ounces dark chocolate (not to exceed 60% cocoa), chopped into chunks
  • 4 ounces semisweet chocolate, grated

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.
  2. Sift flour, baking soda and salt into a bowl and set aside.
  3. In a covered microwave-safe bowl on medium power, microwave butter until melted. Allow it to cool slightly.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk the sugar, eggs, butter and vanilla until smooth.
  5. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon (do not overmix).
  6. Stir in all the chocolate.
  7. Scoop heaping tablespoons of the dough onto the prepared pans, spacing the cookies about 2 inches apart.
  8. Bake for 10 minutes. The cookies will be soft in the center.
  9. Using a spatula, transfer the hot cookies onto a rack to cool.

Bonus: Packaging cookies for Christmas gifts

Rana always has to make sure her sweets are packaged as beautifully as they taste. We asked her if she had any tips for people giving edible holiday gifts, and she gave us a little advice.

"Packaging the goodies is another important step, and here you can pretty much do whatever you want, from simple to very elaborate," she says. "You can use a clear bag and 'joujet' it up with a beautiful ribbon and attach the recipe. Or you can place them in a box, decorate it with ribbon and attach an ornament."

She also suggests getting a beautiful basket and placing the cookies in it with the recipe, a rolling pin, cookie cutters and a baking book to make a lovely baking-themed gift for a fellow foodie. She invites you to check out her Facebook page or her website to "steal" as many packaging ideas from her as you can!

Rana AblaAbout Rana Abla

Rana Abla is a self-taught chef in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas. Having cooked with her mother since she was a child, she's turned her passion into profit at her shop, Sableh Sweet & Savory, where her signature cookie is the French sable.

More cookie recipes

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Chocolate pistachio cookies
Chocolate chip lemon cookies

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