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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!

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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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Ed Tesner
Ed Tesner
2 years ago

I want to bake a pie. Receipt says bake at 425 degrees. What would the result be if I bake at 325? Just longer baking time?

5 months ago

I appreciate that you offer so many how-to’s for making pantry staples and have been looking for ratios for cinnamon sugar (for cinnamon toast). What is your ratio of cinnamon to sugar?

8 months ago

Can I put dry ingredients for mug cakes in airtight jars to have ready on hand ?

1 year ago

Hi Gemma. My question is I live New Zealand with heaps of fresh fruit at present, it’s summer. How can incorporate into your cook in a mug recipes

nancee araigno
nancee araigno
1 year ago

I have been making brown sugar per your video and love it, however for Christmas Cookies I bought a bag of light brown sugar and it’s hard as a rock! How can I soften it?

1 year ago

Gemma this is not your typical baking question but I bet with your skills it is one you can answer. Why does my cheese and/or milk curdle when I am making baked scalloped potatoes and/or Mac and Cheese? I have tried various techniques, milks and cheeses and the dish curdles every single time. Help please and thanks. Love your videos and recipes. Merry Christmas to you and your family. 🥧Nettie

1 year ago

I made some molasses cookies last week and turned out perfectly with the cracks on top but when I made them today they didn’t flatten or get cracks on them. Why?

2 years ago

Hi Gemma, I need help. I’ve overwhipped condensed milk and cream and have a very sweet butter and a cream liquid. What can I do with them as I don’t want to waste it

Karen King
Karen King
2 years ago

How much baking powder should I use for chocolate chip cookies in place of one tsp. baking soda?

Joelie Pehanick
Joelie Pehanick
2 years ago

I have an old cake recipe that calls for four Bakers unsweetened chocolate squares. I can only find Guittard 2 oz. bars. How many of the 2 oz. bars would equal four of the Bakers? The latter doesn’t seem to be made in the same size anymore.
Thank you for your answer.

About Us

Meet Gemma

About Us

Meet Gemma

Hi Bold Bakers! I’m Gemma Stafford, a professional chef originally from Ireland, a cookbook author, and the creator of Bigger Bolder Baking. I want to help you bake with confidence anytime, anywhere with my trusted and tested recipes and baking tips. You may have seen one of my 500+ videos on YouTube & TikTok or as a guest judge on Nailed It! on Netflix or the Best Baker in America on Food Network. No matter your skills, my Bold Baking Team & I want to be your #1 go-to baking authority.


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