Stirring up a stress-free holiday

December 18, 2007|By SUSAN REIMER

This time of year, there is plenty of advice for reducing holiday stress.

Take deep breaths or find a private place to scream out loud.

Exercise, or reduce your exercise schedule so you don't stress about keeping up your exercise schedule.

Focus on the small joys of the holidays, like Christmas lights or fresh snow, and not the list of things that you have to get done.

Don't spend too much. Don't eat too much. Don't drink too much.

Be thankful for what you have. Do something nice for someone else.

Stress isn't all bad, psychologists say. It can add a little bit of a buzz to your day. But too much stress and you start snapping at store clerks, cutting off people in parking lots and telling your relatives what you really think. Then you start crying, making everything much worse.

I can add one sure-fire way to reduce the stress of the holidays.

Don't bake.

Hey. It works for me.

I have never felt particularly stressed during the holiday seasons and I think it is because I don't bake.

I used to bake.

When the kids were little, I would make six or eight different kinds of muffins and pack up a few of each for my neighbors and friends. Coffee-flavored muffins, chocolate-chip muffins, cranberry-orange muffins. Muffin flavors that were considered unusual before Starbucks.

I'd like to bake, because the ingredients and equipment available to the home cook are better than anything I might have found back in the days when I did bake.

Madagascar, Tahitian and Mexican vanillas, vanilla beans and paste can easily be found to replace the ubiquitous alcohol version. Just a whiff and you can't believe the difference.

Bars of chocolate so refined that they are labeled with the cacaopercentage - 33 percent for milk chocolate, 99 percent for unsweetened and everything in between. Even the exquisite French Valrhona chocolate can be found in specialty grocery stores.

"You don't have to buy a bag of chocolate chips and melt them the way our mothers did," says my friend Cindy Selby, a pastry chef with a passion for chocolate.

Selby says you can now buy European butter, which has less water than American butter, as well as Irish and Danish butters. There are superfine sugars that are like fairy dust, creaming and dissolving magically. You can buy Demerara sugar, an earthy brown sugar, too. Fresh brewed espresso is no longer an impossible ingredient to obtain.

Baking flours that are not bromated and not bleached, such as the King Arthur brand, are in grocery stores, and they make a marked difference. "We used to call all-purpose flour `no-purpose flour,'" said Selby of her days in culinary school.

The equipment is light years ahead of what our mothers used, too. Scales for measuring in ounces and grams, a precision essential for good results. Selby says that alone has carried home-baking into a new age.

There are French rolling pins, water baths, culinary torches and Silpats. And nonstick bakeware of a substantial heft.

"People have more of an appreciation for quality," Selby says. "Ingredients, sure, but they are also investing in good equipment instead of just buying some bakeware in the grocery store."

The Internet is a new resource, of course, but the information there is uneven, Selby warned me. Stick with the Food Network or the Epicurious Web sites. "People are throwing untested recipes on the Web and they don't work. It can be just junk."

Another big advantage? Pastry chefs are writing their own cookbooks, giving us variety and sharing their techniques. We no longer have to rely on test-kitchen compendiums.

The evolution of baking is a natural extension of our more sophisticated food tastes. Americans eat out more often, and the variety reflected in all those menus makes us want to take those flavors home. The Food Network lets us believe we can.

But baking requires a Zen-like patience and a commitment to precision that escapes me. I think my daughter's first full sentence was something like "My mommy doesn't bake."

That's why it helps to have friends like Selby. Especially around Christmas.


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