Holiday Baking with Maddie LaKind
The month of December brings with it a mixed bag of emotions. Thanksgiving is over—sad. Snow is coming—happy. Temperatures are dropping—nervous! Christmas and Chanukah are nearing—thrilled. And, perhaps most significantly, cookie baking season is officially here—elated!! On that sweet note, Zingerman’s is bursting with ingredients to help turn all of your cookie dreams into a reality. So for all of you eager bakers out there who are gearing up for endless batches of snickerdoodles, thumbprints, linzers, shortbreads and more, here are my top 10 cookie baking essentials this holiday.
1. Heilala Vanilla Products
Is there any ingredient more synonymous with cookie baking than vanilla? It seems to appear in almost every cookie recipe out there, which makes sense given its flavor boosting capabilities and beautiful bittersweet notes. If you’re looking for a way to really amp up your cookie baking skills, its time to talk beans. Vanilla beans that is. Heilala is a family run business started in 2002 by a father daughter team. After being gifted a plot of land in Tonga (a sovereign state of Polynesia), this team spent three years developing, planting, and harvesting vanilla beans. Their product is now sold to chefs and discerning palettes worldwide and is considered by many to be some of the best vanilla in the world. Heilala produces a wide range of vanilla products from extract, powder, paste, and even whole vanilla beans. Try any of them out in your next baked good or specifically these Heilala Vanilla Sugar Drops.
2. Cluizel Cacoa Nibs
Everyone seems to have a chocolate chip cookie recipe in their arsenal. But what about a cacao nib cookie recipe? Cacao nibs are simply a less refined form of chocolate produced by crushing dried/roasted cacao beans. Unlike chocolate chips which have been mixed with sugar, cacao nibs lend a toasty, slightly bitter, coffee-like flavor to pastries. And if you’re going to get your hands on any sort of chocolate this season, Michel Cluizel is the crème de la crème. Based in Normandy, France, Cluizel has been producing beautiful artisanal chocolate since 1948. In addition to maintaining high standards for his actual chocolate products, Cluizel remains firmly committed to preserving direct relationships with all his cacao farmers. Enjoy cacao nibs as a pastry topper or an add-in these Oatmeal Walnut Cocoa Nib Cookies courtesy of the “Joy the Baker” blog.
3. Bourbon Smoked Sugar
Anyone who has delved into the world of holiday baking knows just how much sugar is involved. Specifically, finishing sugars like powdered sugar or sugar in the raw. Just like adding a fancy salt or drizzle of good olive oil to a savory dish, finishing sugars can add that extra something to a cookie, creating fun flavor and textural combinations. For anyone looking for a sophisticated twist on your run of the mill granulated sugar, this bourbon smoked sugar is a must. Produced by Matt Jamie of Bourbon Barrel Foods in Lousiville, KY— the bourbon capital of the US—this sugar comes to life when grainy raw sugar is smoked from staves of old bourbon barrels. This process imparts an intense smoky flavor balanced with caramely, toasty bourbon notes. Try some sprinkled on top of your favorite shortbread or this decadent grown-up Bourbon Salted Toffee from Bourbon Barrel Foods.
4. Mindo Cocoa Powder
If you’re a chocolate fanatic and live in the state of Michigan, then the Mindo chocolate company has probably popped up on your radar a time or two. Founded by two former auto-repair shop workers—Jose Beza and Barbara Wilson—the company maintains a harvesting operation in Ecuador (Jose’s country of origin) and a production facility in Dexter, MI. It is here in Michigan where all of their beans are ground and tempered by hand and then turned into a variety of unique products. While Mindo has a whole collection of delicious treats available for sale, their cocoa powder is the real showstopper. The flavor itself is rich, dark, and slightly acidic. Not only was it ranked one of the best cocoa powders in the country by “Food and Wine” magazine, but it also makes incredible cookies like these chocolate World Peace Cookies from famed baker Dorie Greenspan.
5. Halen Mon Sea Salt
Although you might not know its there, almost every cookie recipe in existence utilizes salt. It is not typically a discernable amount, but just enough to help balance and enhance the prominent flavors. One of my favorite recent trends in baking though takes salting to the next level by sprinkling a light amount of tasty sea salt or fleur de sel on top of the cookie itself. The contrast between sweet and salty is sublime and a fun way to enhance an existing recipe or experiment with a new one. My personal recommendation for finishing salt is Halen Mon Pure White Sea Salt. This now world-renowned company harvests their salt from the seas around the Isle of Anglesey near Wales and, may I say, it is hands down some of the best salt I’ve ever tried. The flavor is clean, bright, and just a tad briny, while the texture is super flaky. Contrasted with a gooey chocolate chip cookie, like these Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies from the “Joy the Baker” blog, it is pure cookie heaven.
6. Epices de Cru Cardamom
One of the newest product lines to come to Zingerman’s this year is the Epices de Cru collection of spices. Based in Montreal, this family run company sources hundreds of spices from around the world and is committed to the highest level of quality they can find. While their entire product line is exceptional, their cardamom pods are an exciting addition to any holiday baking lineup. I know cardamom might not seem like the most obvious spice for holiday baking, but its warm, mild spiciness makes it seem perfectly at home among old standards like nutmeg, clove, allspice, and cinnamon. Epices de Cru procures their cardamom from South India’s Cardamom Hills and sells them whole to be ground at home—ensuring freshness and the best flavor possible in your baked goods. Try this Cardamom out in Dorie Greenspan’s Cardamom Brown Sugar Snickerdoodles for a new twist on an old classic.
7. Echire Butter
Butter. Who doesn’t love luscious, creamy butter? Just like vanilla, salt, and sugar, the quality of the butter you use when baking can make a huge difference in the resulting flavor of you cookies. Two of my personal favorites for cookie baking in particular are Echire Butter and German Butter. Echire butter hails from France and is produced from milk collected from a cooperative of 66 different farms. All of the cows are carefully monitored during grazing in order to ensure a rich flavor and striking golden color in their milk. Once churned, the butter clocks in at 84% butterfat compared to about 80% in your average grocery store butter. The pure, sweet flavor also reigns supreme and is perfect for simple cookies like these Butter Cookies from “Gourmet” magazine.
This next ingredient is definitely the odd ball of the list, but here me out. Membrillo is a paste made out of quince (a fruit that falls in the apple/pear family), traditionally paired with Manchego cheese in Spanish cuisine. While it may not seem like your traditional baking ingredient, membrillo’s tartness and mild sweetness makes it perfect for sandwiching between shortbread or filling thumbprint cookies like these Membrillo Thumbprint Cookies from ‘The Kitchn” blog.
9. Crème Fraiche
Crème fraiche found its way into my life fairly recently, but since it has, I’ve become completely hooked. Crème fraiche is simply soured cow’s milk cream that is similar in texture/flavor to sour cream, but with double the butterfat. This means more richness and an even milkier flavor. My favorite variety is produced by Vermont Creamery, a company famous for the exemplary dairy products ranging from cheeses to yogurts and even butters. With its slight acidity, it lends a welcome contrast to heavily sweet ingredients like fruit, or, my personal favorite, chocolate. Give them a whirl in Vermont Creamery’s own True Decadence Brownies for the ultimate holiday sweet fix.
10. Lemon Curd
Besides peanut butter, there are very few products I will willingly eat right out the jar. Lemon curd is an exception to that rule. With its bright, tart flavor and super smooth texture, curd ranks high as one of my perfect desserts, particularly if it is made by Thursday Cottage, which has been producing traditional small batch curds for over sixty years. Based in England, Thursday Cottage uses all natural, locally sourced ingredients for their curd and stirs each batch in a specially designed curd kettle. While delightful on their own, curds are incredibly versatile in baked goods. Try dolloping some into a thumbprint cookie or sandwiching a spoonful between two shortbread cookies like “Gourmet” magazine’s Petite Lemon Curd Cookies.
To all of you bakers and eaters out there, I hope you find inspiration for your own cookie traditions in this tremendous list of products. Cheers and happy holidays!