Fast fixes for those all-too-common holiday cooking and baking issues
No rack for a roast? Cake sticking to your pan? This guide is here to help.
We're easing into holiday season and that means easing into the kitchen for meals and menus big and small. Canadians tables over the holidays are laden with a wide range of welcoming food, baked goods and beverages that spark nostalgia, comfort and joy. However, getting to the table isn't always as easy as we think it will be!
There's bound to be a few trying moments in the kitchen, but luckily, common holiday cooking and baking problems can be easily rectified with a few simple hacks. Read on and bookmark this guide for getting out of some common holiday kitchen conundrums.
Holiday cooking problems solved
No roasting rack?
Today, fewer and fewer of us own large roasting racks that can fit large pieces of meat, generally because they're used just a couple of times per year and take up valuable kitchen real estate. Instead of heading out to buy one, turn to vegetables. You can build your own roasting rack and add flavour by propping up your roast of choice (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb, etc.) on a bed of strategically placed halved onions and carrots. This will allow airflow under the meat and a place to capture the drippings to make an accompanying sauce.
Curry, stew or sauce too salty?
If you've been a little too heavy-handed with the salt in your liquid-based food, add a quartered potato to the pot to simmer and soak up the excess salt. Discard the potato before serving, and dish it up. If you still find your dish is coming out on the salty side, add a splash of vinegar or lemon juice to balance the salt, or stir in some heavy cream, coconut milk or pureed white beans to tone things down.
Run out of room on the stovetop and in the oven?
If your burners and oven are occupied, pull out your slow cooker or Instant Pot to get dinner cooking and keep it warm until serving. Your slow cooker is particularly useful for dishes that need to avoid drying out like macaroni and cheese, long-cooking curries and stews, mashed potatoes, perogies and can even cook your holiday turkey. The Instant Pot can make dishes start-to-finish in a flash including kugel, brisket, melt-in-your-mouth lamb rogan josh, turkey broth, vegetable and bean stews, chili, mujadara, perfect sushi rice and much more.
Mushy brussels sprouts, gluey mashed potatoes, falling-apart carrots and over-wilted kale can be saved; give those overcooked vegetables the gratin treatment by folding in heavy cream and adding it all to a casserole dish, and then topping with cubes of bread or breadcrumbs, a generous drizzle of melted butter and sprinkle of cheese. Bake until bubbling and brown. You can put your own spin on the filling by stirring in berbere spice, jerk seasoning, dukkah, garam masala, even everything bagel spice.
Vegan roast turned out dry?
Beans and legumes lack a lot of fat and moisture needed to keep a loaf juicy, making a dry, homemade vegan holiday roast a serious possibility. Take a little help from your side dishes and sauce to bring some juiciness back to the plate. Serve your vegan roast with looser pureed or mashed vegetables and a quick miso gravy (vegetable broth, miso paste, garlic, tamari, maple syrup and cornstarch) to ladle over the works. These additions can't undo a dry loaf, but they certainly help to bring moisture back to each and every bite. Try this playful vegan wellington for a foolproof option.
Rice too sticky?
While it may be too late to turn sticky rice into a fluffy pilaf, don't throw it out; it can be transformed into a world of dishes. For instance, Italian-inspired cheesy pan-fried rice cakes, Scandinavian-inspired rice pudding, American-inspired broccoli and cheese casserole or Asian-inspired congee all put sticky rice to good use.
Lumpy gravy or sauce?
Before you discard a lumpy gravy or sauce, add it to a blender and puree until smooth. That's it!
Food tasting flat?
You've added enough salt, pepper and butter, but your food is still missing that extra element. Why? You may need acid. A squeeze of lemon juice or dash of your favourite vinegar will perk up beans and lentils, soups, stews, curries, grain dishes, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, roasted brussels sprouts and more. Take note: a little bit goes a long way, so taste as you add the acid in small increments, and watch the dish transform into something next-level.
No pot lid?
If the lid you need is in use, or you don't have one, pull out a baking sheet and use that to cover your pot. Protect your hands with oven mitts when removing.
No time to cook absolutely everything?
Turn to the experts and create a spread with curated goods like good cheese, baguette, preserves, fresh fruit, preserved lemons, cured meats, prepared dips and olives. Put kettle-cooked chips in a fancy bowl next to a little dish of sour cream and caviar (cheaper varieties or luxury-grade) for a quick snack to have with a bubbly drink. And keep a round of camembert cheese on hand all season long to top with jam, bake in a small pot or skillet and serve with torn bread or crackers. Here are more appetizer ideas that require only a minimal amount of cooking or preparation.
Turkey done too soon?
If you're only on the appetizers and the turkey is done, this may actually be beneficial to the final product. The bird will stay hot while it rests, tented with foil, for up to 2 hours, which can actually help its juices to reabsorb into the meat rather than spilling out onto your cutting board when you go to carve. Some schools of thought say to rest the bird as long as you cook it, though it absolutely should not be left at room temperature for hours on end — stick to the 2 hour time window for a safe result.
Entertaining guests with different dietary preferences?
If you have guests who are vegan, who are gluten-intolerant or require dairy-free and nut-free food, focus on one main dish that everyone can enjoy, and complement it with a few simple sides. Cuisines naturally leaning toward vegan, gluten- and dairy-free, such as Indian and Ethiopian, offer delicious, celebratory mains, and endless sides to complement them. Pick your recipes and run it by your guests if you're dealing with serious allergies and intolerances like celiac disease or a peanut allergy. Better safe than sorry!
Too many leftovers?
If the thought of another holiday dinner so soon after the main event is too much to stomach, make your leftovers into something brand new. Some ideas: brie and cranberry quesadillas, Thai turkey or lamb red curry, hot and sour noodles with roasted brussels sprouts, candied yam and coconut soup, butter chicken roti enchiladas, sushi-inspired rice bowls, cheese board grilled cheese sandwiches (anything and everything from the cheese board!), curried goat shepherd's pie, holiday cast iron skillet pizzas, smoked herring eggs benny, dinner roll breakfast strata, turkey broth pho, vegan roast "meatloaf" sandwiches and green bean carbonara.
Completely out of refrigerator space for drinks?
The good news about the cold Canadian outdoors: your backyard or balcony can double as extra fridge space. Pull out those coolers and create a chill zone just outside your door to free up fridge space and chilling your wine, beer and sparkling water in the coolers.
Holiday baking problems solved
Pie dough cracking when you roll?
Both sweet and savoury fillings make an appearance in pies this time of year. Butter tarts, tourtière, green curry chicken pot pie, Jamaican beef patties, pumpkin pie and mini quiche all require a tender, flaky pastry. If your pie dough is cracking, your fat (butter, lard or shortening) is likely too cold. Bring the pastry out 30 minutes before you plan to roll which will warm things up just enough to roll without it cracking.
Cake sticking to the pan?
Jamaican black cake, Kerala plum cake, fruit cake, sticky toffee pudding and pound cake can really cling, leaving you looking at half a cake on a cooling rack and half still clinging to the bottom of your cake pan. If you didn't line the pan with parchment paper ahead of time (next time, definitely do this) and you feel the cake resisting when you're tipping it out, leave it to cool for 15 to 20 minutes; hot cakes are fragile and this resting time can help release the sticky bottom bits with a gentle buildup of humidity. If it's really stuck, turn your cake into British-style trifle with cubes or rustic pieces of the cake built in a glass dish alternating with layers of sweetened whipped cream, fresh berries and splash of booze.
Butter tarts overflowing?
Next time you make butter tarts, mix the filling by hand, as overmixing incorporates air into the eggs, which causes the filling to rise and overflow, and then collapse when removed from the oven. Overmixing also causes sugar crystals to form on the bottom of the tarts, making the eggs separate from the rest of the ingredients; if your recipe doesn't call for a teaspoon of white vinegar or lemon juice, add it in to make sure the sugar crystals dissolve completely when baking.
Holiday cookies spread too much when baking?
Looking to make your holiday baking 'free-from' friendly?
Gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan recipes are usually developed with specific, alternative ingredients, making swapping gluten-free flour in for all-purpose in every single baking recipe, a big mistake. There are brands offering cup-for-cup gluten-free all-purpose flours, which can be used to great success, but don't expect chickpea flour cookies to come out the same as wheat flour ones. Experiment before the holidays and source already gluten-free recipes, which will yield a more successful result. For an egg substitution, vegan bakers can make a 'flax egg' by combining 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed with 4 tablespoons of water, mixing until paste-like. A flax egg works best in denser cakes like fruit cake, loaves and muffins; less so in tender holiday cookies. Dairy-free baking is the easiest in terms of substitutions, as there are so many delicious, heat-friendly non-dairy products now, like almond milk, oat milk, coconut milk, vegetable shortening and coconut oil. And olive oil-based baking stays moist and tender for days longer than butter-based cakes.
No unsweetened chocolate?
You may keep a bag of unsweetened chocolate chips handy, but unsweetened chocolate? No need to run to the store — you can make your own. In many recipes where you're not intending to maintain chunks of chocolate, 1 ounce of unsweetened chocolate can be replaced with 3 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder stirred together with 1 tablespoon of neutral vegetable oil.
Allison Day is the cookbook author of Modern Lunch. Find her online at hiallisonday.com and Yummy Beet, and on Instagram @allisondaycooks.
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