Baking season is here, and it just-so-happens to be my favorite time of the whole year. Coincidence? No, absolutely not. You see, my mother is a fantastic baker and also fantastically generous, and the holiday season is her time to seriously shine. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, my mom spends the vast majority of her free time in the kitchen whipping up incredible baked goods to gift to family, friends, neighbors, and nearly anyone else who might cross her path. True story: She actually got out of a speeding ticket one time by offering the policer officer a fresh loaf of banana bread. (Did I mention she's my hero?)
I grew up cooking and baking alongside my mom, but it was during the holidays when she especially solicited my help. (I'm from a small-ish town in Georgia and all of those cops and neighbors to feed adds up to a lot of baked goods.) I will never forget the things I learned in 'Anne's Country Kitchen'--as my dad affectionally dubbed my mother's favorite room--during the countless hours we spent together kneading bread, forming pies, stacking layer cakes, and icing sugar cookies.
One of the most valuable baking skills I saw in my mom was the seemingly inherent ability to keep our pantry stocked with the essential ingredients to whip up delicious baked goods in no time, with no special trips to the grocery store--a talent especially important in a home that constantly welcomed unexpected visitors. I like to believe that same think-ahead wisdom was passed down to me, and it's for that reason that I regularly take inventory of my pantry and refrigerator to make sure I have staple, versatile ingredients on hand at all times.
Cleaning out and re-stocking kitchen ingredients is necessary to do at least once a season, but if you're anything like me, it's never a bad idea to take quick inventory before every grocery trip. By keeping your kitchen stocked with these key ingredients this season, you'll be well on your way to dominating the holiday baking game.
Butter is an essential mainstay of baking--and I'm not talking about the fake spread. To get the right consistency in your baked goods, you need to stock the real thing, and always go with unsalted. Don't be afraid to purchase more than you think you'll need immediately--you can keep extra sticks in the freezer for months.
2. All-Purpose Flour
There’s nothing worse than realizing you’re out of flour after you’ve already creamed your butter, sugar, and eggs together. Take my advice and go ahead and buy the big bag for all your holiday baking. Trust me, you'll use it. It's not a bad idea to purchase a smaller bag of a gluten-free variety if any of your family or friends have gluten allergies or sensitivities. If you have room, store some or all of your flour in a tightly sealed container or zip-top bag in the freezer. This will extend its shelf life.
3. Granulated and Brown Sugars
You're going to need the sweet stuff this year, so go ahead and check your pantry now to see if you have a good supply. If not, it doesn't hurt to grab an extra pound. Has your brown sugar hardened into a lumpy brick of sadness? Been there, done that, and here's how to remedy it. If you want to be extra on top of things, grab a jar of molasses and some maple syrup as well.
4. Vanilla Extract
You don't need a library of every flavored extract available, but a large bottle of pure vanilla extract (seriously, ditch the imitation stuff... it makes a difference) is a must for baking season. If you're a fan of it, doesn't hurt to have a small bottle of almond extract around too.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a cookie, cake, or bread recipe without eggs as a necessary ingredient. You'll need eggs this season, and lots of 'em. The good news is, they're inexpensive and have a relatively long refrigerator life--typically 4-5 weeks--so don't be afraid to purchase several cartons to last through the month.
6. Baking Powder, Baking Soda, and Salt
I know you think you use so little of these three ingredients--just a teaspoon or so each time--that you're not going to run out, but do yourself a favor and peak under the lids to see if you're low. They do run out eventually, and if you've been housing the same container of baking powder or soda for a couple years now, it's probably best to swap it for a fresh supply anyhow.
You are never going to regret keeping at least one bag of semi-sweet chips and a couple bars of baking chocolate (dark and white) on hand for a last-minute batch of chocolate chip cookies or chocolate-peppermint bark.