What is the best way to decompress during the busy holiday season?
Dawn Zaft, owner of the Undercover Baking Agency in Santa Rosa, shops for food gifts made by others or concocts her own delectable treats for family and friends.
"This time of year is so high-stress," she said. "Make some food gifts and just spend time together."
During the holidays, Zaft also stays busy at the bakery, where she and her staff turn out tasty pies and tarts, cookies and desserts for a raft of customers looking for sweet treats baked with love and handcrafted care.
"We do home-style baking, from scratch, using local ingredients," said the 37-year-old baker, who started her business in her own kitchen. "We are known for our pies and quick breads and scones."
To help with her kitchen experiments, Zaft opened her own cafe, The Noshery, last year at the bakery. Zaft's baked goods can be purchased at The Noshery and at a dozen cafes around the county. The bakery also sells its breads and baked goods at the West End Market in Santa Rosa on Sundays.
"I love interacting with the local farmers," Zaft said. "We use organic bananas and local apples, in season, and our pumpkins come from Laguna Farm."
During the holidays, Zaft expects the quick breads to fly out the door, because they provide a no-muss, no-fuss "morning-after" breakfast.
Using her mother's secret recipe, Zaft bakes up a delicious pumpkin bread as well as a vegan banana bread, one of her biggest sellers at local cafes.
The demand for the bakery's pumpkin and apple crumb pies is also expected to be high, so she is asking customers to drop off their own glass pie plates.
The glass pie pan is not only reusable, it's also bigger and stronger.
"The larger, 9.5-inch pies cook up better in the heavy glass plates," she said. "We hand-press the crust into the bottom of the pie plate."
For both the apple and the pumpkin pies, Zaft uses a shortbread crust that's sturdy and cookie-like.
"It's made with egg yolks and butter," she said. "It's shelf-stable, and you don't have to worry about overworking the dough."
When baking the apple crumb pie, she bakes the crust and the apples separately, then puts it all together with the crumb top and bakes it again.
"If you're making a lot of pies, you can prep the crust one day and prep the apples the next day," she said, "then put it together on the third day."
For cookie parties, Zaft recommends the bakery's popular peanut butter with chocolate chip, and chocolate chunk with sea salt cookies. The key to making these simple recipes is high-quality ingredients.
"Choose good butter, good-quality chocolate" — she uses Callebaut — "sea salt and all-natural peanut butter," Zaft said. "Sometimes I use liqueurs like amaretto instead of extracts, just to play around with flavors."
Home bakers hungry for a perennial supply of fresh cookies can freeze the cookie dough ahead of time. Put scoops of soft cookie dough on parchment paper and store them, layered, in a container in the freezer. Then just pull out and bake when the urge hits — say on Christmas Eve, when you suddenly have a mountain of gifts to wrap.