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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
11 months 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?

28 days 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
1 month ago

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

Joelie Pehanick
Joelie Pehanick
4 months 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.

Debbie Gaughran
Debbie Gaughran
4 months ago

I tried to speed up the process of getting my butter to room temperature and I mostly melted it. If I put it back in the refrigerator and do it properly tomorrow, will it be ok? This is a shortbread, so lots of butter

5 months ago

Hi! Can I add a spoonful of jam or jelly to royal icing? Or would that mess up the consistency? Just trying to add some color and taste without plain ole food coloring. Thanks!

Gale M.
Gale M.
5 months ago

Where can I find the recipe for the chocolate/vanilla pinwheel sliced cookie? Not sure what the name is

Nancy Houk
Nancy Houk
6 months ago

Can you still bake a pumpkin, with designs on it in permanent magic marker?

Linda Gardepe
Linda Gardepe
8 months ago

I have a recipe from Fine cooking Magazine for a Berry Buttermilk Cake with Vanilla-Scented Creme Fraiche. It has a crumb topping and everytime I attempt to make it the crumb topping sinks into the. cake. What am i doing wrong?

Peggy J. Weeks
Peggy J. Weeks
9 months ago

I made your Old Fashioned Donut Recipe. I followed the instructions exactly; exact ingredients also. I even bought a neat doughnut cutter for the recipe. I followed step by step the recipe and had all the correct tools to use. They did not turn out well at all I will have to feed the birds with the results. I have photos but do not know where on this page to attach. I have baked several different recipes of yours with Rave results, I am disappointed with how this turned out. Please let me know what I might have done wrong.

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!

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