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Eating in: Ultimate bake swap recipes
A delicious roundup of the best homemade baked goods for festive holiday gift giving.
Megan McCarthy is as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve. Tonight, it isn’t Santa Claus who is coming over with goodies in his bag. It’s a group of friends who will come bearing treats for a holiday cookie swap.
Though she works as a librarian at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, McCarthy is known among her friends for her baking prowess. She admits to having a sweet tooth but at least she’s among others who share in the love for sweet stuff during this time of year.
McCarthy can’t wait to see who—and what—will come through the door. The group coming tonight love celebrating all things homemade—from the cherished family recipe to the creation of new favourites. “Last year, I received my first ever alfajore,” McCarthy says. “It’s a sandwich cookie with a layer of dulce de leche in the middle.”
The holidays are a time of feasting. We acknowledge our love for friends and family over ornate meals and gorge on boxes of cellophane-wrapped candies. But the foods we remember are the ones our friends make for us, gifting them in homemade boxes or recycled tins.
The idea is simple—bring your own, trade with others, eat and leave with a personalized booty of baked goods. The swap has become an annual tradition for McCarthy and her friends. “Holiday bake shares are such a fun way to try lots of different things,” she says. “I appreciate it whenever anyone bakes for me because I know the time and care that has gone into it.”
The pleasure is two-fold: she gets to eat what she receives as gifts and also gets to make some of her own favourite holiday treats, such as her Scratch-Me-Backs, a coconut and oat cookie.
For Sylvia Prince, the holidays just give her an extra excuse to bake more. In order to get all of her holiday baking done on time, this retired nurse from Paradise, Newfoundland bakes almost every day leading up to the holidays. “I like to do it as close to Christmas as possible so that everything will be very fresh,” she says.
Freshness is key when it comes to Prince’s baked goods, particularly her steamed puddings. Raised among six siblings in an outport community, she uses an old family recipe for her Christmas Pudding. It calls for lots of dried fruits and foodstuffs that are staples in rural larders. “I was always used to having homemade goodies,” Prince recalls. “As a result, I prefer to make my own desserts. It gives me great pleasure to treat my family, friends and guests to my sweet treats as opposed to those already prepared in stores.”
For her, “sweet treats” are more than just tasty gifts. She spends extra time wrapping her puddings in a festive fashion, with bows and seasonally themed wrapping paper. “These days, when most people give and receive material gifts, a beautifully wrapped homemade gift of a cake or a pudding, created with much love and care, is special in that it can be shared at gatherings with family and friends,” Prince says. “From my point of view, these are gifts from the heart for those who hold a special place in mine.”
But it’s not only home bakers who enjoy the holidays. Annaleisa Scigliano is no stranger to the world of flour and batter. The self-proclaimed “Sugar Queen” (the name of her catering company in Halifax) has been working in the world of sweets for years, as a former pastry chef at the Prince George Hotel and a teaching assistant at the Nova Scotia Community College.
Although she doesn’t bake much at home (“I find I make more of a mess at home,” she says ) the holidays are an exception. “People just expect me to make a dessert,” she jokes. Scigliano may be well known for her cakes and her beautiful macaroons—a delicate French confectionary—but during the holiday season, this baker finds comfort and joy in a less refined kind of decadence. “I like to keep it simple and traditional during the holidays,” she points out. “At Christmas time, it’s all about the gingerbread. I love gingerbread with caramel sauce and whipped cream. I love to eat comforting and homey desserts.”
If comfort and joy is the theme of the season, it’s no wonder that baked goods and the warm aromas of spices find their way into our homes during the holidays. Holiday cookie swaps are an easy to way to fulfil that. “Giving someone something you’ve baked is saying, ‘I was thinking about you,’ McCarthy says. “To me, baking is associated with care. Both the care that goes into it and the care you have for the people who receive it.”
First-time bakers often find the precision needed for baking intimidating. But it doesn’t need to be.
- Ovens can be anywhere from 25 to 50 degrees off from the display. If you use yours often, it’s worth the $10 (or less) to buy an oven thermometer for a more accurate reading.
- Some ovens have hot and cold spots. Rotate your baked goods halfway through baking to prevent burned or undercooked spots.
- For more consistent results, weigh your ingredients, rather than use volume-based measurements.
- If you don’t have a scale, sift an amount of flour, then spoon it (one spoon at a time) into your cup measures. It’s not as precise as a scale but it won’t be packed as heavily as flour from the scoop and scrape method.
- One cup of unbleached all-purpose flour weighs 4.5 ounces or about 130 grams.
- Spices are perishable and can lose intensity and flavour over time, leaving you with dull tasting baked goods. Ensure freshness by grinding or grating them yourself.
- Buy spices from grocers with high turnovers, such as ethnic grocers. They also sell most spices whole.
- If pre-ground, date spices when you buy them. Six months is the limit for pre-ground spices.
- If in doubt, smell or taste your spices. If tasting bland, buy some fresher ingredients.
Recipes featured in this article:
Sylvia’s Christmas Pudding
Sugar Queen’s Gingerbread
Ginger Whipped Cream
Brown Sugar Caramel Sauce
Peanut Butter Balls
Augustin’s Sugar Cookies