As the executive pastry chef at Brooklyn’s Gage & Tollner, Caroline Schiff makes even the most laborious desserts look like, well, a piece of cake: With zingy lime curd and cashew pink peppercorn brittle, her 11-layer coconut cake is a well-loved offering on the storied restaurant’s menu. And guests consistently make room for her signature, the Baked Alaska, a glorious mountain of torched meringue that encases three flavors of ice cream and takes three days to make.
When December rolls around, the James Beard–nominated chef loves throwing together treats for the holiday party circuit—and they’re equally memorable. (Last year’s lineup included Valencia orange marmalade thumbprint cookies and fig brown butter rugelach.) “I’ll have a ton of cookie dough ready to go in my freezer, ready to bake off,” Schiff says. “And any holiday party that I show up to, I’m coming with a whole bunch of cookies.” Here, she shares three holiday desserts that are sure to delight (and, lucky for us, are deceptively easy to make). Plus: a few tips to help ensure your holiday baking is blessedly stress-free.
Perhaps the best part of these dairy-free truffles, aside from their chocolaty richness, is how simple they are. “They can be really, really approachable to make, and the chocolate stands alone and speaks for itself,” Schiff says. “You don’t have to add any sugar, you don’t have to add anything to stabilize it, you don’t have to turn on the oven.” All you need is four ingredients and a bit of patience.
Keep these spiced vegan cookies portioned in the freezer, ready to be baked at a moment’s notice. You can take them to a last-minute potluck or gift them in a cute container—Schiff says they’ll maintain their chewy texture even if they sit for a few days. “These cookies, for me, have an incredible amount of nostalgia, which I think makes them really wonderful and special, especially for the holidays,” she says.
This ultramoist cake is super versatile—it’s impressive at a dinner party, sure, but it also makes a stunning companion to your morning coffee. “It’s a really light, bright, uplifting cake, which is really nice for the colder months,” she adds. Not feeling citrus? It’s equally excellent with figs, apples, berries, or cherries, depending on what’s in season.
Tips for Stress-Free Holiday Baking
Schiff, whose team at Gage & Tollner cranks out hundreds of their famous rolls and dozens of Baked Alaskas each day, shares a few ways to minimize hiccups in the kitchen.
- Start simple. If you find baking to be intimidating, dip your toes in with an easy recipe (like shortbread, for instance). “It’s low-risk if it doesn’t work out, and at least you’ll learn something,” Schiff says. “And you’ll probably have some fun in the process.”
- Don’t underestimate the value of mise en place. It’s the age-old technique of having all your ingredients gathered, measured, and prepped before you begin, and Schiff says she sees many home bakers leaving out this important step. “It just makes it so much less chaotic,” she says, “and you just are dumping things in the bowl because you have them all set up for yourself.”
- Don’t forget the scale, either. All the pros use them to measure out their ingredients, and Schiff encourages home bakers to do the same whenever a recipe lists the ingredients by weight. “That makes your recipe really precise,” she says. It also means you’ll have fewer dishes to wash afterward because you’ll weigh all your ingredients in a mixing bowl instead of dirtying multiple measuring utensils.