A lesson from the pros: Local bakers dish out their best tips for holiday treats

Media Credit: Graeme Sloan | Contributing Photo Editor

Capital Candy Jar, a local candy shop, offers peppermint bark and other sweets in its own store and other shops in and around D.C.

As the holiday season approaches, more people are getting back into the kitchen to make their favorite sweet treats. But from gummy pie crust to watery hot chocolate, there are plenty of ways holiday baking can go wrong.

We asked dessert professionals at D.C. local businesses to dish out expert tips about their holiday specialties.

Rich, flaky pie crust has long been a thorn in the side of home bakers. To ensure success, Kandis Smith, a baker at Little Red Fox, advises chilling all ingredients and equipment – even the flour. This ensures the butter is kept cold and does not melt until it is in the oven. Once in the oven, the small pieces of butter melt and leave behind air pockets, which creates flaky layers like the custom pies Little Red Fox sells at 5035 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Smith said another key to great pie crust is using a high quality butter and adding a pinch of salt.

“Adding salt is very important, that’s important for almost any dessert that you make,” Smith said. “People kind of forget to add salt but it’s important, it helps balance everything out.”

For a nontraditional holiday pie filling, Smith likes to make a chess pie, which is made by baking a custard thickened with cornmeal in a pie crust, and is an adaptable Southern classic. For holiday flavors, Little Red Fox makes a buttermilk chess pie with cranberry sauce as well as gingerbread pie ($4.50 for a slice).

Rugelach, a traditional Jewish cookie of rolled pastry with a filling, goes through a lengthy process from prep to serving the dessert. Yael Krigman, the owner of Baked by Yael and a graduate of the law school, said the treat is a specialty at their nut-free and kosher bakery at 3000 Connecticut Ave. NW. The dessert can be difficult to make, as it requires making a yeasted pastry dough and cutting and rolling each individual cookie, but Krigman said patience is key.

“It’s a pretty lengthy process with a lot of different parts to it, but if you follow the directions and you just take your time and you’re prepared to do it a couple times, it’ll come out delicious,” Krigman said.

Krigman also prefers the yeasted Israeli style of rugelach and is a fan of combining chocolate and cinnamon fillings. Krigman said it is worth the extra effort of making yeasted dough, because the air generated by the yeast makes the cookies lighter and fluffier.

Graeme Sloan | Contributing Photo Editor

Baked by Yael offers multiple versions of its rugelach including cinnamon (left) and chocolate (right).

Peppermint bark
Peppermint bark is a popular treat for home bakers because it is relatively easy to make. All you need to do is melt chocolate, flavor it with peppermint and top it with crushed candy canes. It may seem fool-proof, but chocolate can be temperamental.

David Burton, the owner of Capital Candy Jar, recommends using a double boiler to melt chocolate. Heat a few inches of water in a saucepan and place another pan with the chocolate over the steaming pan. The added kitchenware allows for a gentler heat, but Burton said to be careful to avoid getting water or steam into the chocolate.

“The biggest thing that most people don’t understand is how fickle chocolate is,” Burton said. “Water is the enemy to chocolate.”

Burton added that there is no need to spend top dollar on high quality chocolate because once you add peppermint oil, the delicate notes of the chocolate will be overpowered anyway.

Hot chocolate
The key to delicious hot chocolate can be summed up in one word – fat. Victoria Lai, the founder and owner of Ice Cream Jubilee, said that the key to creamy, rich hot chocolate is using whole milk.

Even adding a splash of milk to a package of hot cocoa mix will improve the instant-made flavor. When making hot chocolate in her stores at 1407 T St. NW and 301 Water St. SE, Lai uses whole milk and prefers dark chocolate, she said, because the added dairy mellows out the taste, becoming more like milk chocolate.

Lai said one of the exciting things about hot chocolate is that it is endlessly customizable. Ice Cream Jubilee has unconventional offerings like a white chocolate Earl Grey hot chocolate in addition to classics like peppermint.

“Just experiment with flavors, there are so many different things that you could do,” Lai said. “You can do a little bit of orange zest and some anise and nutmeg, or you can do a cinnamon stick and a pinch of cayenne.”

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