Are you planning to give baked goods as gifts for the holidays? Over the years I've learned from many mistakes and mishaps and have put together a list of advice to help you prep and plan for bulk Christmas baking.
Choose Your Recipes
This is an obvious step, but it's best that we start at the beginning. Choose the recipes you want to include in your gift sets. You can choose just a couple of things or you can choose several. I like to have a good mix of flavors and textures, so I include a variety of treats that are soft, chewy, crunchy etc. I also like to have at least one chocolate item and something with fruit. Mini loaves of quick breads are great as they package beautifully and are simple to prepare. Cookies are another obvious holiday staple that are always well-received. Sometimes, I will include an item that's a little out of the box in hopes that I can introduce a new favorite treat to someone. Once you have made your selections, print a copy of each recipe so that you can have it in front of you as you continue to plan.
Be wary of treats that will need to be refrigerated after they are prepared. If your gift sets will be packaged and shipped or if the recipients won't have access to their refrigerators soon after receiving them, you will want to choose different recipes that will stay fresh at room temperature.
Read... Then Read Again
Sit down with your printed recipes and read the instructions thoroughly. Make note of any time-consuming steps so you can plan to start early enough to avoid any schedule hiccups. It can be stressful and frustrating to be halfway through a recipe only to realize that a dough needs to chill overnight or that a dessert will take hours to set before it can be cut and packaged.
Time To Shop
Determine how many gift sets you need to make and decide how much of each item you want to include in each set. Then look at the yield for each of your recipes to determine how many batches of each that you'll need to make. Once you have that information, it's time to sit down and make a shopping list. Study the ingredients lists for each recipe and write down the total amounts of everything that you need, right down to the simple things like salt and baking powder. It's a real bummer to be in the thick of things and realize you didn't buy enough chocolate chips or that you're scraping the bottom of your canister of cocoa, so spend some time putting together a thorough list. Go ahead and add a bottle of wine to that list too if you want, I won't tell anyone.
Spread It Out
Whether you are making several different recipes or a large amount of a single treat, spread the work out over several days to prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed. Give yourself more time than you think you need to get everything completed. We usually tackle 1 or 2 recipes per day, leaving plenty of time at the end of the evening for family Christmas activities such as watching movies or driving around looking at lights. Remember that this is supposed to be a fun project, and trying to do everything in a single day could have you sitting on your kitchen floor at midnight covered in flour and tears.
The Order Matters
Since you'll be starting to bake several days before your goodies will be received, make sure you start with the items that will stay freshest the longest. Good things to start with are cookies, biscotti, fudge, snack mixes, brittles, and barks. Save the more fragile items such as quick breads, muffins/cupcakes, and pastries for the very end.
Bigger the Better
If you'll be making several batches of the same recipe at once, make sure that you have large enough pots and mixing bowls, and plenty of baking pans and cookie sheets to help you be more efficient with time. It's worth the investment to pick up a few extra supplies if it means you can make many recipes at once without constantly having to wash pans or wait for a baking sheet to cool before it can be used for the next batch. Over the years, we've accumulated a great collection of baking supplies and though my cabinets are busting full and I've repurposed most of my laundry room into an extension of my pantry, it's worth it!
Seriously... Have Fun
I feel like this needs to be said again: this is supposed to be fun! If you find yourself getting overwhelmed and irritable, then it's time to take a step back for a moment and remember why you started this whole thing. Put down the spatula for a few minutes, crank up the Christmas music, and dance around the kitchen with your kids, spouse, or just yourself. Sneak bites of festive M&M's , warm fudge, and gooey cookies fresh out of the oven. And remember the wise words of Buddy the Elf: "The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear."
Clean As You Go
You're going to make an epic mess in your kitchen and there's no way to completely avoid that, but cleaning as you go can make things less chaotic and prevent your workspace from getting too cluttered with dirty dishes. After getting a batch of something into the oven, I like to head to the sink and wash a few dishes or put away things that are in the drying rack on my counter.
Mistakes Will Happen
While juggling several things at once you are bound to encounter a flub or two, and that's okay! This year we had a pan of lemon crumble bars fall apart because the bottom crust wasn't thick enough. While they weren't sturdy enough to cut into bars and package into the gift baskets, they were still delicious, so we just left them in the pan and took the whole thing to a Christmas Eve dinner instead. Try to find the silver lining in your mistakes and if something truly can't be salvaged, just toss it out and either forget about it or push up your sleeves and start over. It'll be okay and you may end up with a funny story to tell later.
Save Some For Yourself
It's only fair that you also get to enjoy the result of all of that work, so don't be afraid to make extra so you can also enjoy all of those goodies at home. That is unless you're trying to control your intake of carbs and sugar over the holidays, and in that case we just can't be friends, I'm sorry.
Ask For Help
Give everyone in the house a job to do. This is a great way to spend time together as a family! My husband was my biggest helper, sometimes taking over entirely while I had to stop and tend to our 6 week-old daughter. My two year-old was given easy tasks that he likes to do like closing the door to the dishwasher and pushing the buttons to start it. Mostly he acted as our official taste tester!
Package Them Up
There are so many options for cute packaging depending on how many goodies you are gifting to each person. You can use tins, baskets, mason jars, holiday-printed Chinese take out boxes, colorful cellophane, printed gift bags, or inexpensive holiday platters.
For cookies, I love these gift bags that come with a printed cardboard circle to put at the bottom of the bag so that the bag holds it shape when filled with a stack of sugary goodness.
Over the years I have amassed quite the collection of extra printed cellophane bags. If you plan to bake every year, hit the after Christmas sales and you can load up on packaging materials for next to nothing.
The bags are versatile and you can use them for almost everything that you make. If you're packaging fragile things like mini bread loaves, you may want to first wrap them in foil or cling wrap before placing them into the printed bag.
This year, I purchased these adorable holiday platters for $2 each and placed all of the bags upright. Then I wrapped the entire thing, platter and all, in clear cellophane and tied it at the top with a pretty ribbon. We only did 8 platters this year so I really loaded them up, as some of the platters were meant for more than just a single person.
I've heard it said that giving homemade gifts is taking the easy way out, I believe that nothing could be further from the truth. Creating something homemade takes a lot of planning and work, so much more than going into a store and purchasing a gift (though there's nothing wrong with that either). Part of the fun of the Christmas season for me is giving personal gifts and I hope these tips help give you the confidence to tackle a project like this!
Questions for you: Do you have any tips to add to this list? What are some funny stories you have while baking for the holidays?