Originally created 11/26/03

Small portions

Cooking blitz

Before you get into the high-holiday cooking mode, take a moment to clean and organize your kitchen. Check your pantry and make sure you have spices, fresh baking powder and enough supplies for impromptu entertaining. Stock up on nibbles such as spiced nuts, olives, crackers, spreads, bread sticks, wasabi peas, prepared doughs and dried fruits.

Menu planning

When planning a big holiday meal, don't include all new recipes. Try a few new dishes along with a couple tried-and-true ones. Cooking for a crowd can be stressful enough and if the whole meal is new to you, you may set yourself off the pressure meter.

Holiday gifts

Cooking tools such as pie crimpers, wooden spoons, and fine-toothed microplane zesters, tied together with a pretty bow make for great little holiday gifts for baking buddies. If you have a master griller on your list, an instant-read thermometer, an exotic spice rub and a handy mop brush might cheer up their holiday season.

Decorating cookies

  • Decorating holiday cookies is a great way to indulge you creative spirit while making something tasty. There are a multitude of ways to embellish your holiday confections, but simple is often better. Don't despair if you don't have a bounty of fancy decorations; crushed candy canes and chopped nuts are perfect holiday stand-in for sprinkles and dragees.
  • When adding food color to royal icing, add it slowly drop by drop; it is potent stuff, and before you know it, your icing can be as intense as a neon light.
  • If you don't have a pastry tip, use a plastic sandwich bag. Drop icing into the bag, push it to the corner and snip off the corner tip.
  • Better folding

    When folding a batter together, draw the spatula through the center of the batter, but make sure to keep it flat to maximize each fold instead if slicing through the mix. Folding with a spatula is kind of like rowing an oar through water: If it is turned sideways you won't get anywhere. Try giving the bowl a quarter-turn as you fold, and your mixture will come together quicker without deflating or overworking it.

    Sugar is sugar

    To a chemist, cane sugar and beet sugar are identical: pure sucrose, both of them. A cook, however, might beg to differ.

    Though claims have been made (mostly by cane-sugar producers) as to the inferiority of beet sugar - it doesn't caramelize properly, it is unreliable in recipes, it absorbs undesirable odors, it is more likely to foam up - there has been little evidence to back this up. Sugar beets do contain more unpalatable impurities than sugar cane - which is why the molasses produced during beet-sugar production is foul-smelling and generally reserved for farm animals - and therefore require more extensive refining. But the end product is incredibly pure 99.95 percent sucrose. Nevertheless, to many, beet sugar does taste sweeter.

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