Holiday Baking Brawl: Winner Bakes All414
with Michael Kimball
Test Kitchen Chef
Mary Johnston bows her head, attempting to clear her mind before stepping into the packed arena. Above the roar of the crowd, she can hear the contagious rhythm of her intro song, Macarena Christmas by Los del Rio. It’s time. She throws on the hood of her silk, candy-cane-striped robe, taps her oven mitts together, and steps out into the multi-colored lights, one arm raised. As she makes her way to the ring, Santa-hat-wearing fans shout, “Fruitcake Queen!” in syncopated unison.
Meanwhile, in her own boxing arena (aka a kitchen), Shannon “The Beater” Tchida materializes in a cloud of green smoke, cued by 12 Days of Christmas by John Denver and the Muppets. Approaching the ring, she beats on her chest with her oven mitts, dispelling an intimidating cloud of flour into the air.
Both fighters (bakers) have been preparing for this day for months. Before most kids have taken off their Halloween costumes, Mary (mother of Savory Spice Co-Founder Mike Johnston) is buying nearly 20 lbs. of unsalted butter. For the past 20 years, these post-Halloween butter sales have marked the beginning of Mary’s holiday baking preparations, leading up to Christmas Day (The Big Show).
Around this same time, the holiday decorations come out. Lights. Tree. A tiny, nervous-looking reindeer holding a sign that says, “oh deer.” All of it. Only in this tinsel-tastic environment can Mary really get into the baking zone. As the big day approaches, she’s planning, gathering ingredients, and making dough and freezing it. Then she recruits her husband, Charlie, and friend, Bonnie, to help her with a final, 48-hour baking marathon. Year after year, Mary keeps this tradition alive because, for her, it’s about sharing a part of herself with those she loves. As Mary vaults herself over the ropes and into the ring, she repeats this sentiment to her chocolate-covered challengers: “You want a piece of me?”
Before Shannon goes toe-to-toe with her own frosted foes, she reflects on years of memories of holiday baking with her mom and sister and pulls out a spreadsheet. (Checks out. Shannon daylights as an accountant for Savory Spice.) This is where she plans all of her bakes, what she needs for them, and when she’ll complete each stage of preparation. This tool, along with thorough testing and experimentation, has allowed her to curate the perfect spread, taking into account every shape, color, flavor, and texture. Like Mary, Shannon lives the #bakerslife in order to share thoughtful gifts with friends and family.
Mary faces-off first against her signature fruitcake. Not the dreaded loaf with the density and texture of a dish sponge filled with raisins, but instead a buttery pound cake, glittering with colorful candied fruit. Mary knows her way around a fruitcake (hence the moniker, Fruitcake Queen) and makes short work of the fan-favorite. A few breads (pumpkin, coconut, and eggnog), cookies (sugar, oatmeal, and chocolate), and bars (lemon, pecan, and Napoleons) later, Mary has conquered every confection and slammed every sweet that has dared to enter her kitchen.
Shannon squares up to a swarm of spritz cookies. From the depths of her apron’s Mary Poppins pockets, she pulls out her grandma’s cookie press and the spritzes sprint into the oven. Living up to her epithet, “The Beater,” Shannon takes a jab at shortbread thumbprint jam cookies, throws a left hook at some homemade fudge, and uppercuts through plates of peanut butter blossoms. She tracks her victories on her spreadsheet while the crowd goes wild.
We all know a Mary or a Shannon, i.e someone who ushers in the season of giving with the greatest gift of all (treats). Maybe you are a Mary or a Shannon, and it just doesn’t feel like the holidays without hours of arduous effort baking and decorating for the ones you love. Or perhaps you want to be a little more like Mary and Shannon by beginning a meaningful tradition that brings people together through baking and sharing. Here are a few lessons we’ve learned from the pros:
Be like Mary
- Get your friends and family to help! Not only does sharing the work makes it easier for you, you’re making memories as you decorate sugar cookies while reminiscing about that one time you all did that one thing.
- Keep an eye out for sales in October and early November on shelf-stable baking staples (butter, flour, sugar, etc.) to buy in bulk. You’ll save money and have less shopping to do as the season gets busier.
- You're going to want to freshen up your spice cabinet. (Yes, that ground ginger from 3 years ago needs to be replaced.) Mary also recommends 2X Pure Madagascar Vanilla Extract for double strength vanilla action.
- Get in the mood to bake by bumping those holiday jams and throwing up a string of lights.
- Make this fruitcake recipe.
Be like Shannon
- Plan ahead. Whether you create a full-on spreadsheet or draw a couple cookies on a sticky note, you’ll benefit from thinking ahead about what you want to make, what supplies you’ll need, and what things can potentially be prepared ahead of time.
- Many things can be made ahead and frozen, like cookie dough or unbaked fruit pies. They’ll be ready to bake up fresh whenever you need them.
- Learn some new spice moves like Shannon's Supreme Saigon Cinnamon Sneak Attack. Upgrading her cinnamon to freshly ground converted boyfriend Bryan to the spicy side.
- Do it for the right reasons and don’t let holiday baking stress you out! Make inspirational posters to hang up in your kitchen that say things like, “You enjoy baking!” and “Do it for the gram!”
- Make these buttery spritz cookies.
So here’s to all the Marys and Shannons out there. All of the Kens and the Julies. The Barbs and the Steves. To all those fighting the good fight: you are not alone. Your fellow bakers around the globe salute you. The lucky ones that get to eat your scrumptious sweets applaud you. So bake on, bakers. And remember, fruitcake doesn’t have to be gross.