As the holidays roll around, now is the time to show off all the new skills you learned while binging the Great British Bake-Off.
Sugar cookies are always a winner, but with these simple tips from pastry pros, you’ll be perfecting your pies and pavlovas in no time. The best part? Some of the most decadent desserts are deceivingly simple and can be baked in advance, leaving you with more time to socialise at your holiday soirée. And, if you happen to make an extra batch, your pastry spread can easily double as gifts for guests.
[Hero Image Credit: Christopher Testani; Featured Image Credit: Dessy Dimcheva/Unsplash]
“In a nice glass dish, trifle is a showstopper. All it takes is some store-bought ladyfingers (or homemade sponge cake), whipped cream, and some nice fruit tossed with sugar and vanilla.” — Gabriel Kreuther, chef of Gabriel Kreuther Restaurant in NYC and culinary director of Baccarat Hotel New York
“One of my favourite holiday cookies is a jammy thumbprint. This versatile and easy-to-make dough is great to have on hand throughout the holiday season. Use it to make classic thumbprints filled with jam, buttercream, or chocolate, or roll in powdered sugar to make snowballs.” — Bobbie Lloyd, chief baking officer of Magnolia Bakery
“My favourite holiday dessert for Hanukkah is sfenj. It’s an incredibly delicious doughnut fried in oil and then dipped in sugar. At my restaurants, we are using our focaccia dough to make it. It’s vegan and kosher, so everyone can enjoy it.” — Eyal Shani, Israeli chef and owner of the Miznon restaurant chain
“For Hanukkah, it’s sufganiyot (doughnuts) all the way! These little jelly doughnuts are simple to make, and you can use the same frying oil and pan that you already made latkes in. You can have fun with them and customise the filling to your taste. The key is patience — patience in making the dough properly, letting the dough rise enough, and letting the oil come to the proper frying temperature.” — Rachel King, founder and chief development officer of Kaneh Co.
“I’m not usually a sweets person, but brittle is it for me. What I love about brittle is that it’s essentially five ingredients and requires very little to no-cook and prep time. It’s perfect for holiday gifts, and so versatile and easy to make with whatever you add. I do a toasted sesame and gochugaru brittle that’s a little savoury and spicy or a good, old-fashioned buttery peanut brittle that’s equally as satisfying.” — LaMara Davidson, chef and founder of Cornbread & Kimchi
“Chocolate babka has to be one of my favourite holiday sweets by far. I make mine with lots of cinnamon and nutmeg in the layers, and it goes perfectly with spiked hot chocolate. It’s warming, comforting, and perfect for leaving out on the table on Christmas Day for everyone to snack on.” — Nathan Hood, executive chef of Post House in Charleston
“A whole pie is a thing of beauty — until you have to navigate transporting it or slicing and serving. My move is to flip the script and make individual hand pies. With Crisco as the base, the flaky crust comes together quickly and wraps around any brilliant flavour story you or your sous chefs might dream up and bake into these adorable, individual dessert creations.” — Christina Tosi, two-time James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Milk Bar
“The first thing that comes to my mind when you say holiday dessert is pie. The key to any great pie is the crust, and I’m always surprised at how intimated people can be by it. I like to make a simple puff pastry-inspired crust, and the most important part of the process is keeping your butter cold. Pull out your butter, chop it into chunks, and put it in the fridge to chill. Only add it to the dough at the end to mix in, then put it back in the fridge again. As long as you don’t melt the butter before you put it into the oven, you’ll end up with a light, airy, delicious pie crust to accompany any holiday pie your sweet tooth desires.” — Alberto Hernandez, pastry chef of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder
“Airy pâte à choux (choux pastry) are baked and filled with pastry cream and then, with caramel acting as mortar, your tower quickly takes shape. The resulting cream puff tower will delight as a mesmerising and delicious centrepiece for your holiday table.” — Michael Lomonaco, chef and owner of Porter House and Hudson Yards Grill in NYC
“Everyone loves cream puffs, so this is great for making a statement — and it’s fun to pluck the puffs off the tower! Have a large bowl with an ice bath ready so when your caramel reaches the desired colour, you can quickly dunk the bottom of the pot into it to stop the cooking. This will ensure the caramel on all the puffs are the same colour.” — Clarice Lam, pastry chef of Kimika in NYC
“Pumpkin cheesecake is a pretty perfect holiday dessert. It combines two traditional desserts (pumpkin pie and cheesecake) into one incredible dish. My trick is using pure Vermont maple syrup and almond flour instead of regular flour to enrich the flavours.” — Maria Simic, pastry chef of Cibo e Vino in NYC
Bûche de Noël
“It is the dessert expected at a French table on Christmas Eve. I have the best memory of making our very own with my father and sister one year. We went scavenging around Paris to find professional tools to make fancy details and decorations for a cake we devoured in a tenth of the time it took us to make! Over the past few decades, there have been much more elaborate versions of bûche de Noël at patisseries during the holidays, but the original is surprisingly simple. It consists of a sheet of sponge cake slathered in cream and rolled to look like a wooden log. It can be covered in extra cream and dressed up with sparkles and mushroom-shaped meringues fitting for the festive occasion.” — Apollonia Poilâne, CEO of Poilâne Bakery and author of Poilâne: The Secrets of the World-Famous Bread Bakery
“I have been obsessed with rice pudding since the first time I had the version at L’Ami Jean in Paris, and I have done variations on the theme ever since. Slow-cooked creamy rice, dulce de leche to line the bowl it’s served in, seasonal fruits either in a compote or fresh if you have them, and your favourite candied nut for crunch. We use Carolina Gold rice and candied pecans for ours because, well, Georgia and the Lowcountry have these in bulk.” — Robert Newton, executive chef of Fleeting in Savannah
Sticky Toffee Pudding
“For me, sticky toffee pudding is a staple dessert this time of year. The perfect one needs to be light and fluffy while also being rich and decadent. We serve ours with apricot and ginger jam piped in the middle, and, of course, a generous helping of toffee sauce alongside a scoop of clementine gelato to bring everything together.” — Niamh Larkin, executive pastry chef of 45 Park Lane in London
“Sticky toffee pudding is one of my favourite desserts to make (and eat) around the holidays. It is comforting, rich, indulgent, and a true showstopper on the table at any holiday gathering. My biggest tip: Use Billington’s muscovado light and dark sugar for a super luxurious toffee sauce and toffee pudding.” — Carla Henriques, executive pastry chef of Hawksmoor in NYC
Chocolate Pecan Pie
“In our family, we do chocolate pecan pie. It’s a combo of chocolate and pecan pie, and we only eat it this time of the year. Store-bought pie crust is fine as long as you’re using really good chocolate and put a bit of salt in the pecans and a lot of butter.“ — Josh Elliott, executive chef of Orno at THesis Hotel Miami
“Once you’ve mastered a basic pie dough, start playing with the flavours. I fully support adding sharp cheddar cheese for an apple or pear pie or ground toasted nuts for pecan pie. Let’s go one step further with a pinch of cayenne in the crust of a chocolate cream pie, lemon zest for a wild blueberry pie, or a sprinkling of thyme for a peach pie. Why should the pie filling have all the fun flavours?” — Zac Young, pastry chef and founder of Sprinkletown
My roots are Catalan, so my favourite dessert is torró — a must at every Catalan Christmas! Torró, known here as nougat, is taken to the next level in Catalunya. There are obviously some very traditional nougats, which hit close to my heart. But the reason it’s become my favourite is because of the diversity in textures and flavours, which range from yolk- to chocolate-based.” — Ursula XVII, chocolatier and founder of Disset Chocolate
“There’s nothing more comforting than a cup of hot chocolate for the holidays. For us, it’s all about starting with a rich chocolate ganache that creates a silky, smooth cup of cocoa. You can then customise the hot chocolate to make it yours. Here at the bakery, we serve our Blossoming Hot Chocolate, which comes with a marshmallow flower that blooms when it’s placed into the cup. At home, try adding a dash of vanilla or infusing the milk with spices like cinnamon or nutmeg, or topping with a flavoured whipped cream like brown sugar or lavender Chantilly.” — Dominique Ansel, James Beard Award-winning pastry chef and owner of Dominique Ansel Bakery & Workshop in NYC and soon-to-debut Dominique Ansel Las Vegas at Caesars Palace
“With bread pudding, you can use up leftover ingredients from your dinner like fruits, nuts, and spice and incorporate them in your dessert. My favourite flavour combination is chocolate chips and bananas, and I serve it with caramel ice cream.” — Claudia Martinez, pastry chef at Miller Union in Atlanta
“The sugar cookie is so versatile and arguably one of the easiest holiday cookies to make. Mixing the dough is pretty simple, but finding the right thickness and not using too much flour on your countertop is a little more challenging. Keeping your dough chilled before rolling out always goes a long way — and so does flouring your cutter. I enjoy a bit of chew to my cookie, so I always recommend baking until a little brown shows on the edge, which gives enough structure so the cookie will stay together but still have both crispy and chewy bites. They can be topped with coloured royal icing (my personal favourite), buttercream, or even candy!” — Justin Gaspar, head baker at Hommage Bakehouse in San Diego
“When you’re making cookies for the holidays, keep these three tips in mind: Once the ingredients come together in the dough, stop mixing the dough and put it in the fridge until it’s cold. The dough should be cold throughout the entire process of rolling out and cutting. Lightly flour the surface you’ll be rolling the dough on to prevent it from sticking to the surface, but don’t add too much flour or it will make the dough dry. After you cut the dough into festive shapes, place it back in the fridge for an extra 15 minutes before baking. The cold temperature will keep the cookies in perfect shape while baking.” — Laura Warren, executive pastry chef of Puffer Malarkey Collective (Animae, Herb & Wood, and Herb & Sea)
“One of my favourite desserts to master for any holiday is a crème brûlée. It’s so simple to make and can be prepped ahead, and nothing beats the crispy, sugary crust on top. I love the enhancement a little bit of Great Jones Bourbon adds to the dish. One thing I always try to remember is that it’s best to let the custard set overnight.” — Adam Raksin, chef of The Grid in NYC
“Pavlova is perfect for the holidays as it can be made and stored ahead of time. The dessert is extremely versatile and can easily be adapted to fit every season, with fresh berries in summer, macerated figs in fall, and preserves in the winter.” — John Fraser, chef of Ardor at The West Hollywood EDITION
“While other holiday desserts can be heavy and dense, pavlova stands alone as a lighter and brighter alternative while still being decadent. It serves as a blank canvas for whatever winter flavour combinations you choose. I love to feature seasonal ingredients like cranberries, pomegranates, and citrus in a curd that adds brightness to the end of a holiday meal, while whipped cream adds creaminess to contrast with the curd. But the real star is the pavlova’s meringue base, with its crisp, crunchy shell and soft, marshmallow cloud-like centre. The meringue shell can be made a day or two in advance, allowing for an easier time entertaining. This dessert is also gluten-free, and can be made dairy-free, too.” — Ben Yusko, pastry chef of The Barn at Blackberry Farm in TN
“I love to bring a crumble when I’m invited for dinner or serve it while entertaining over the holidays because I can adapt the recipe to anyone’s dietary restrictions by easily making it gluten-free (with rolled oats and gluten-free, all-purpose flour) and vegan (by subbing coconut oil in for grass-fed butter). The trick is in the apple filling; I love to grate a little bit of fresh ginger (readily available at most farmers’ markets this time of year) into the filling before I bake the crumble. It balances out the sweet with some spice and leaves everyone asking for your secret ingredient!” — Sabrina Rudin, founder of Spring Café Aspen in NYC
Apple Tarte Tatin
“Apple tarte tatin is a great twist on a classic apple pie — just make sure you get yourself a nice pint of vanilla ice cream to go with it. Pro tip: Make sure you get good quality apples. The texture of the apples is key, so make sure you don’t overcook or undercook them. Use a nonstick pan and slowly work your apples into the pan to make sure that as they cook, there is no space between them. Once they reach the texture and colour you want, place the pan in an ice bath to prevent them from overcooking and to settle them in place. Once cool, you can cover with puff pastry and finish baking in the oven.” — Adonay Tafur, chef of Osaka Miami
Walnut Snowball Cookies
“We love to make snowball cookies during the holiday season. Not only are they delicious, but the cookies have a beautiful, wintery look to them as well, since they’re aptly named for their generous coating of powdered sugar. We make a sweet and savoury version of these with pecorino and pecans. The salty, tangy pecorino cheese in our version adds a richness to the cookies that pairs perfectly with the nutty, sweet pecans. We recommend chilling the cookie dough in the refrigerator before baking so the cookies don’t over-spread in the oven. This also makes holiday prep easier, since you can prepare the dough up to a couple of days in advance and then bake them at a later time.” — Angie Rito, chef and owner of Michelin-starred Don Angie in NYC and co-author of Italian American
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