Now’s the time when many of us disappear into a whirlwind of flour and sugar, to emerge just before Christmas with cookies, cakes, pies and bread for holiday giving. Others may decide to bake a seasonal treat for the first time, approaching their ovens with courage and determination.
Whichever you are, the area has a crew of seasoned bakers with great advice for cooking in quantity, as well as a number of back-up plans if things don’t go well.
In Nelson County, Anne Buteau makes fruitcakes studded with currants and nuts, beautiful dense rounds from a tradition that came with her from her native England. The cakes are rich, and Buteau recalls cutting off very narrow slivers for desserts and snacks. “My mother rationed our Christmas cake and we would sometimes still have a bit left at Easter,” Buteau said.
If you want to try your hand at a fruitcake yourself, Buteau said she uses organic flour, free range eggs, good butter from grass-fed cows, and raw or organic sugar. She makes sure the nuts are not old or bitter, and searches for dried fruit that’s organic if possible. If there’s no organic option, she grabs the plumpest and juiciest dry fruit she can find, making it a point to shop where she can taste the fruit before buying. She eschews the red candied cherries, which contribute mostly artificial color and chemicals to the batter.
For frosting, she recommends pure British icing sugar if you can find it, rather than the ubiquitous commercial powdered sugar laced with cornstarch. You just need a dusting, she said. The final flourish—a few weeks before Christmas—would be to administer good soaking of brandy. And don’t forget while baking that you need to watch these heavy cakes closely near the end. “It is easy to go from being just right to burnt fruit on top,” she said.
If all this seems exhausting, you can buy Buteau’s Christmas cakes, along with other home-baked and farm-raised food at the Rockfish Gap Community Center Christmas Market Saturday, December 16, in the morning; or at the little market stall at the concession stand in back of the Center on Wednesdays and Fridays. Or call Buteau, 434-263-4946.
When you’re baking, “the devil’s in the details,” said Rachel Willis, owner and chief baker of Cakes by Rachel on Jarmans Gap Road. “Follow the recipe exactly,” she said. Other elements of your Christmas meal may benefit from your creative flourishes, but pastries require attention and precision, she said.
Willis, who recently judged the pie contest at the Apple Harvest Festival in North Garden (see page 15), said it’s important with apple pies to make sure the filling is not raw or chewy, a failing she often sees in pies made by novice bakers. As for the pie pastry, she makes sure the ingredients as well as the instruments are icy cold, and returns everything to the refrigerator for a quick chill if they need it during the process.
Willis has a good idea for those wanting fresh cookies throughout the season. “Here’s what I do,” she said. “I make a lot of batter and freeze it. It’s easy to thaw and make a dozen or so fresh cookies whenever needed.”
Should you want to take advantage of her years of experience rather than try this on your own, Willis has an assortment of festive bars, cookies and shortbread, as well as her signature cupcakes, pies and cakes. It’s a small shop, doing mostly custom baking, so go to mycakebyrachel.com, or call for orders, 434-960-5872.
Go west on Jarmans Gap any Saturday and you’ll find a sign identifying Cutie Pies, a home pie-making operation specializing in small gluten-free sweet and savory pies. Baker Marissa Minnerly recommended that fledgling pie makers be finicky about what goes into their pies, using fresh and organic ingredients whenever possible. “Don’t overwork the dough,” Minnerly added. “That makes it flat and tough.” She uses a special gluten-free flour mix that rolls and flakes like traditional pastry.
If this seems overwhelming, you can still order sweet desserts for the holidays, with festive flavors like apple caramel, cherry walnut or bourbon pecan; or savory little pies like black bean and salsa, spinach feta or broccoli cheddar. Each week’s specials and current offerings are posted on the Cutie Pies Facebook page. Or go to taste and see in person at the Rockfish Valley Community Center Dec. 16; or on other Saturdays at the home bakery, 6095 Jarmans Gap Road; or text an order to 434-305-2078.
Minnerly is an artist with paints as well as pastry, and you can pick up holiday cards and even a children’s book while she’s boxing your order.
Everyone has a role in Bite Baking Company, a family business that sells at the Crozet Farmers’ Market in season and by order at other times. Ken Malinowski, who has a day job with DuPont Mortgages in the Valley, is the baker, and his wife Marcie is a professional designer who also uses her talents to manage the web site and decorate cakes, as well as cleaning up the spotless Wayland’s Grant kitchen. There’s a willing trio of daughters: Lauren, Jordan and Meredith, who manage the details of packaging, selling and labeling the cheesecakes, muffins, scones and custom cake orders. Extras––whether from the market or from Ken’s everyday baking––go to lucky neighbors.
Because Ken Malinowski has always operated from his home kitchen, he’s very familiar with the dilemmas of the home cook. When choosing a recipe, “the simplest is always the best,” he said. “A new baker can make a great cheesecake from just cream cheese, eggs and sugar.” He’s moved on from that and loves to embellish, surrounding a chocolate cheesecake with a butter cookie crust, or adding an Italian flair with a jigger of Frangelico.
Malinowki’s hobby evolved from cooking for his family: “I’m up at six every morning making something,” he said, whether scones or muffins. Likely or not, his youngest daughter Meredith is working alongside him. He’s a big believer in the right equipment, and recommends that the serious home baker invest in a food processor for cutting pastry. “I can get a pan of scones in the oven in minutes,” he said. If you’re not quite that speedy, you can always get in touch with the Malinowskis via the Bite Baking Company Facebook page and place your holiday order.