Making Baked Goods Great
Holiday desserts with Brianna Shear
Photos by Simon Hurst
Christmas dinner features many of the same dishes found on the table at Thanksgiving; it’s about the presents, after all, not the meal. One major exception is quite possibly a cultural axiom: Thanksgiving is about savory, but Christmas is about sweet.
Yes, if your parents were teens in the 1950s or before, they also put unroasted nuts in your stocking: Brazils, pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts. Smashing them – the nuts, not the parents – with a hammer or nut cracker (especially one shaped like a Nutcracker) is a perfectly reasonable and enjoyable thing to do, but we all know we were digging for candy and tossing aside fruits, socks and nuts.
Sweet makes it to the table at Christmas, too. Oklahoma tradition almost demands homemade candy, cakes and pies – especially divinity, fudge, fruitcake and pumpkin pie. For the families with a skilled baker, homemade cheesecake is another holiday treat. Brianna Shear’s is a cheesecake family, and the sous chef at Packard’s, who is a dessert expert in her own right, has tips for enhancing your holiday baking.
And because it is a worthy tradition, we asked for her help with pumpkin pie, too.
“I love the way rich dishes take over the house around the holidays,” Shear says. “Cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and warm chocolate from very dark to white are the aromas and flavors of Christmastime.”
Delivering the (Baked) Goods
Tips for Creating Homemade Marvels
Shear got married this summer, and now that she is choosing her own family traditions to pass on, her favorite holiday cheesecake is a chocolate mocha or espresso flavor. She points out that this advice works for chocolate cakes, too, and because family recipes have that status for (hopefully) good reasons, she offers these tips to enhance your desserts.
► Chocolate Mocha Cheesecake
• Add a teaspoon of instant coffee, cooled brewed coffee or ground espresso to the mix. It will deepen the flavors and enhance the chocolate.
• To keep the flavors consistent and provide a range of chocolate notes, use a homemade chocolate piecrust, not the standard graham cracker crusts.
• A mixture of sour cream (one cup) and brown sugar (two Tbsp) added to the top of the cheesecake will kick up the richness considerably. Apply for the last 10 minutes and increase temperature to 425 degrees.
• For an interesting holiday variation, add a handful of peppermint chips to the mixture. It will provide textural variety, as well.
• “Remember, with cheesecake, it is very important to allow a good window of time to cool at room temperature before refrigerating,” she says. “Too drastic a temperature change can cause the center to fall.”
• “Before Thanksgiving every year, my mom would send out an S.O.S. to our family all over the state who were trying to figure out what to do with their leftover fall decorations: hand over your pumpkins. The reward was a homemade pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving or Christmas. I love pumpkin pie so intensely, I had it on the cake table at my wedding.”
► Pumpkin Pie Prep
• Use a quality food processor. Many squashes are stringy even after cooking, and this stringiness will make it into your pie if you don’t process it well.
• Cube the raw pumpkin before boiling. It also breaks down the strings, and helps it boil faster.
• Homemade crust really makes the pie. Don’t skimp here. Make the crust yourself; it will be totally worth it.
• In addition to the traditional spices – nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and cloves – try ground ginger or anise to change things up. But take it easy; a little goes a long way with those two.
• “I prefer it served cold with fresh whipped cream, but it’s acceptable warm, too,” Shear says. “Fresh whipped cream, not the stuff in a bucket.”