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Ask Gemma…Your Holiday Baking Questions Answered!

As a professional pastry chef, I have your Holiday Baking Questions answered. If you don't see your question, just ask me in the comments and I'll answer!

Hi Bold Bakers!

Christmas is when novice and experienced bakers alike dust off their aprons and get into the Holiday Baking Season. For some it has been a year since you last used your baking powder or maybe you use it so much you have run out and need a substitute fast! That’s where I come in! With more than 10 years of experience working as a professional chef, I’m here with answers to your top holiday baking questions. If you don’t see your question in this post, ask me in the Comments section below and I’ll get back to you.

Q: How can I tell if my baking powder or baking soda is still fresh?

A: If you are an avid baker, you probably replace these two staples frequently. If you reserve your baking for the holiday season exclusively, you’ll want to test those cans before you get started.

Here’s how:

  • For baking powder: place 1/4 teaspoon baking powder into 1/2 cup hot water
  • For baking soda: place 1/4 teaspoon white or apple cider vinegar into 1/2 cup hot water. Add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda.
  • The mixture should bubble immediately — if so, your baking soda/powder is still good. If not, replace it.

Q: How important is it that ingredients are “room temperature”?

A: You’ll notice that most baking recipes call for certain ingredients such as eggs, butter, milk to be at room temperature. This is actually quite important for the final outcome. Cold ingredients will not incorporate smoothly or evenly, so your batter won’t get enough “rise” when it hits the oven. This results in dense cakes and hard, flat cookies. Be sure to allow enough time for your ingredients to sit out and warm up (depending on your kitchen and the time of year, this can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour).

If you’re pressed for time (or simply forgot), you can place eggs in a bowl of warm (not hot) water for 15 minutes. Butter can be diced (or grated on the large holes of a box grater) to speed up the process. Also you can place it in a bowl of hot water like this. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut for milk.

The opposite of this rule applies to pie crusts, pastries, and biscuits. Here, you want your ingredients to be super cold, so when the dough goes into the oven the bits of butter melt, expand, and create those flaky layers.

Bold Baking Tip: If your recipe calls for separated eggs (whether whites, yolks, or both), always do so while they’re cold. Cold yolks stay more intact and are less likely to run into the whites.

Q: How do I prevent chocolate from seizing up in the microwave?

A: Chocolate hardens and burns when it gets too hot.  The best way to eliminate this problem is to melt chocolate in a double boiler. To melt it in the microwave cook it at half power for one minute, stir and repeat in 20 second increments until the chocolate is fully melted. Make sure to check out my video and recipe on How to Temper Chocolate.

There is no saving burnt melted chocolate but the best method for melting is low and slow.

Q: A recipe calls for buttermilk but I don’t have any on hand. Can I substitute something else?

A: Absolutely! To make buttermilk, place 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice in a liquid measuring cup. Add enough milk to bring the liquid up to 1 cup. Let stand for 30 minutes and it’s ready to use.

Make sure to check out my video and recipe on How to Make Buttermilk.

Q: The recipe calls for unsalted butter but I only have salted available. Can I still use it?

A: Yes you can! Some baker choose to omit salt from a recipe if they use salted butter. I don’t, I leave in the salt. Never in all of my years have I baked something that was salty. Remember salt is not just a seasoning for savory food, it’s also a seasoning for sweets too to bring out all the flavors.

Q: Can I use brown sugar instead of white sugar?

A: Yes, you can HOWEVER brown sugar gives a caramel flavor to your baked good that white sugar doesn’t. The difference between brown and white sugar is the addition of molasses.

Did you know you can actually make Brown Sugar? It is so simple and makes a great addition to your baked good. I’ll show you How to Make Brown Sugar in my post and video.

Q: Can I substitute regular sugar for confectioners’ sugar?

A: Confectioners’ Sugar or Powdered Sugar has a much finer texture as well as a bit of cornstarch.  Therefore, it is NOT recommended to switch one for the other.  The only time these two sugars could be substituted would be in the case of decorating.

Did you know you can make it homemade? I’ll show you How to Make Powdered Sugar in my post and video.

Q: Why do my Christmas cookies spread out so much while baking?

A: Your butter is probably too warm. Try chilling the dough for a minimum of 30 minutes before baking to reduce spreading.

Bold Baking Tip: Try “aging” your cookie dough. Store your dough in the fridge for up to 5 days before baking it. The flavor will be more developed and your cookie will have lovely crackles on top.

Q: How long do spices actually last and what is the best way to store them?

A:  This is a great question! I am pretty sure that I can go into most home kitchens and find improperly stored, or ridiculously outdated spices. I suggest tossing ground spices if you are unable to use them within one year from the purchase date.

As for storing spices in your kitchen, always keep them in a cool, dark place away from heat and as far away from the stove as possible. Yes, that actually means that you should find a better place other than that odd cabinet above your stovetop! For the freshest flavor from your spices, consider purchasing whole spices instead of pre-ground, and grind them yourself using a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder that is only used for spices.

Q: Why is my fruit sinking in my cakes?

A: For cakes, muffins and other quick breads, and tarts that have fruit, toss the fruit with just enough flour to coat it well before you add it to the batter. Also, the lighter the pieces are, the less likely they are to sink through the batter. Fruit tends to sink in thin batters.

Q: Why is my chocolate a gray color?

A: Don’t be worried about that gray–white cloudy covering on your chocolate called “bloom.” It’s simply the result of being stored for a while at a somewhat warm temperature. Absolutely still use this chocolate in your baking. It will work just fine.

Q: Can I freeze cookie dough?

A: Nearly all kinds of cookie doughs freeze well for up to three months. Form the dough into a log, wrap it tightly in plastic. For more information about freezing and baking cookies, check out my How to Bake a Perfect Cookie post and video.
Go to my Holiday Baking Headquarters page for all your Holiday Baking needs!


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Jackie
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Jackie
6 days ago

Can you tell me what item makes these squiggly line cookies? I can send a picture.

anna campbell
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anna campbell
17 days ago

Hi Gemma In your latest recipe I got today it shows a very easy rustic bread. If I am baking for a celiac person, how do I make this bread and any of your easy bread ,rolls,buns etc. Gluten free isn’t easy baking for yeast baking choices. I have mastered the art of baking Gluten free by using blends of flours. Pamela’s GF flour is always the base though, and through some GF books I have made my own blends. But yeast bread? is that possible??? Help…I have tried the 3 ingred breadsticks you had as an option , not… Read more »

Laura
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Laura
17 days ago

Hi Gemma! I’m going to make a no bake dessert and it calls for sandwich cookies. The recipe doesn’t say to leave out the icing in-between the cookies. The instructions say to crumb the cookies and add melted butter and mix, then press mixture in bottom of dish and refrigerate. My ‘guess’ is to remove the filling
from the cookies, and just use the cookie parts.
Could you let me know what you think about this please?

Kathy Lawrence
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Kathy Lawrence
29 days ago

Does sticky dough have to rise a lot. Difference between dough rising and fermenting.

Paulette
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Paulette
1 month ago

If I have a box of cake flour (unopened) that says “best if used by 2013” I suppose I should throw it out instead of trying to use it 🙂

Dayna Higa
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Dayna Higa
1 month ago

what will happen if accidentally added an extra 1/2 cup of sugar to cheesecake recipe?

Deborah Arpin Arpin
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Deborah Arpin Arpin
1 month ago

Hi, Gemma. I make some thing called Fudge meltaways. They have a thin layer of unsweetened chocolate spread on top. When I cut them, the chocolate cracks. I even tried heating water in a microwave and dipping my knife and it still cracked. Any suggestions? Thanks!

Finn
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Finn
1 month ago

After baking I came to know that my cookies have a lot of salt in them and do not taste good.

Please help

GINA RUBEN
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GINA RUBEN
1 month ago

Hi Gemma, here’s a question for you: Can you substitute European butter (such as kerrygold) in a cake recipe that calls for regular butter? I know the fat content is different from American butter.

kelly Maloney
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kelly Maloney
1 month ago

I have a recipe from Grandma with chocolate covered peanut butter being the main ingredients. About every other time I make them, for some reason the chocolate does not harden properly. The ingredients include Karo Syrup, and it’s almost as if there is too much. But following the same recipe each time renders different results. What am I doing wrong? I melt chocolate chips, butter and Karo Syrup over low heat. Then I dip my peanut butter balls into the chocolate, put them on a baking sheet in the fridge for a few hours. They are so great when they… Read more »

About Us

Meet Gemma

About Us

Meet Gemma

Hi Bold Bakers! I’m Gemma Stafford, a professional chef originally from Ireland, and I want to help you bake with confidence anytime, anywhere! No matter your skills, I have you covered. Sign up for a FREE profile and join millions of other Bold Bakers in the community for new dessert recipes, baking techniques, and more every week!

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