By now, most of us have started making firm plans for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and New Year’s. Typically, we savor familiar foods that, in many cases, have become cross-generational favorites. After all, what would Thanksgiving be without Pumpkin or Apple Pie (unless you come from that part of the country that relishes Key Lime Pie or Caramel Pie)?
Sharing yummy foods and beverages with our families and friends is probably one of the most cherished customs of this time of year, and for those who are in the kitchen, we need to make baking and meal preparation a fun event, not a stressful one. Here are some tips that can help streamline your preparations, and ideally save all of those last minute trips to the store for the one ingredient we forgot we needed.
It’s All About the Pantry
What could be a better time to clean out, take inventory, and restock your pantry? This is when we notice that over the passage of time, the system we last put into place has gone haywire! Food that is past its expiration date needs to be discarded; bits and pieces of opened food should likewise be evaluated for freshness. Particular attention should be paid to your baking supplies: flour, sugars, spices, nuts, chocolate, baking powder and soda, yeast, food colorings, flavorings and decorations.
Experts tell us that spices have a shelf life of 6 months, and no one wants a cookie or pie recipe spoiled by old, flat-flavored spices. Toss them out, and consider shopping for fresh ones at a store that carries loose spices, so that you can choose the amount that you will need and use, rather than what the manufacturer offers. Better to purchase more often and get the good stuff!
Another ingredient that needs to be impeccably fresh is baking powder. If this is past its prime, your cakes and sweet breads won’t rise. Of course, fresh yeast is essential for rolls and breads, and baking soda can lose its potency, as well, so plan to replace these items.
How to Save Some Money
Here’s a trick to make life easier and more economical. Create a master list to shop and restock your pantry. Go through your holiday recipes and tally the cups of sugar, brown sugar, flour, etc. you will need to create all of your culinary favorites. This may seem a daunting task, but it is easier than you might think, and getting all 14 pounds of flour at once can save a great deal of time, energy and frustration. Once you have calculated that each of your pies, cookies, cakes and candy will require a specific amount of the ingredient, add them all up and you will know exactly how much to buy! For instance, 3 ¾ cups of All Purpose Flour equal 1 pound, while 2 ¼ cups of sugar equal 1 pound. You can buy accordingly, and make life a lot easier.
Other Preparations for Fun Holidays
Be sure to check all of your baking pans and cookie trays, as well as your roasting pans and storage containers. Many of us store these space-takers in our offsite self storage units; others are sent to attics or basements. Sometimes, we forget that the last time we used them, we discarded some that were over-used or not in optimum shape. Take stock now so you aren’t caught off guard. Be certain, as well, to stock up on foil, wax paper, and parchment paper, to be sure you don’t run out at the worst possible time.
Once you are armed with your holiday master shopping list, you can take advantage of the big box stores, or restaurant supply stores, to buy more economically in bulk. Be sure to include the perishables that will keep well (such as butter and eggs). Check expiration dates to be certain you have a good window of usage. Better yet, go with a friend, and the two of you can split purchases!
If this is the time of year that you like to indulge in appetizers and fancy foods, include them on your list. And don’t forget to get all of the wines, bubbly and other beverages for your celebrations with your friends and family! Remember, a little extra effort upfront will pay off when you are well-prepared for all the upcoming fun.