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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.

One of the favorite treats among the Undercover Baking Agency staff is the fudge nut bar, a decadent indulgence that Zaft used to serve when she worked at the North Light Cafe in Cotati.

"They are definitely a dessert bar," she said. "They have an oatmeal cookie on the outside and fudge in the middle. It's our take on the old-fashioned fudge that everybody loves."

To make the bars, Zaft spreads a thin layer of oatmeal dough in a baking dish and pours a layer of chocolate fudge in the middle. Then she places a patchwork of oatmeal dough over the top.

In 2014, Zaft hopes to expand her cafe and bakery by adding a local food store and apothecary featuring products made by local folks. She also hopes to elevate the humble fruit pie into the extravagant realm of high-end parties.

"We are looking into doing wedding pies," she said. "Our task is going to be to indulge the pie lovers."

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The following recipes are from Dawn Zaft of the Undercover Baking Agency in Santa Rosa.

<strong>Chocolate Chip Cookies</strong>

<em> Makes 18 to 24 large cookies</em>

1 cup softened butter

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons liqueur (such as Amaretto)

2 teaspoons baking powder

3 to 3 and 1/2 cups flour

1 and 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips

1 teaspoon cardamom

1 cup nuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter & sugar together. Add eggs and combine until light and fluffy. Add all salt, baking soda, liqueur, and spices. Add flour and blend just until combined. Fold in chocolate chips, cardamom and nuts. Bake at 350 for about 10-12 minutes. Let cool.

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<strong>Peanut Butter Cookies</strong>

<em> Makes 18 to 24 large cookies</em>

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

2 teaspoons salt

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 eggs

2 and 1/2 to 3 cups flour

2 cups peanut butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine butter and sugars until fluffy. Add in eggs and peanut butter, mixing until well combined. Add in salt, baking soda, vanilla, and flour. Use ice cream scoop to scoop out rounded balls. Pat down on cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.

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Zaft likes to use the pumpkin pie spice blend from the Savory Spice Shop in Santa Rosa for the crumb topping on this pie.

<strong>Apple Crumb Pie</strong>

<em> Makes 2 large, 9-inch pies</em>

<strong> For Shortbread Pie Crust:</strong>

4 egg yolks

1/2 pound softened butter

3/4 cups sugar

2 teaspoons sea salt

4 cups flour

<strong> For apple filling:</strong>

15 large apples

—Fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon cardamom

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

<strong> For crumb top:</strong>

2 cups flour

1 cup brown sugar

2 teaspoons sea salt

3 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

1 cup butter

<strong>For pie crust:</strong> In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, blend butter, egg yolks, sea salt, and sugar together until creamy. Add flour and blend on low until mixed well (it should be a moist, workable dough.) Add a little water if necessary. Either roll on a floured surface or press into glass dish. Pre-bake approximately 12 to 15 minutes at 350 degrees.

<strong>For Apple Pie Filling:</strong> Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Core and peel about 15 large apples. Toss with fresh lemon juice, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, and spices. Place on baking sheet and pre-bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool and put in the pre-baked pie shell.

<strong>For Crumb Top:</strong> Mix 2 cups flour, 1 cup brown sugar, and 2 teaspoons sea salt. Add the pumpkin pie spice blend. Melt 1 cup butter. Add and work into flour mixture with fingers until crumb is formed.

<strong>To finish pie:</strong> Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Top your pies with the crumb top and bake for 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees.

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Zaft suggests using organic, sweetened condensed milk for this recipe, available at most grocery stores.

<strong>Fudge Oat Bars</strong>

<em> Makes 12 bars</em>

<strong> For dough:</strong>

1 cup softened butter

1 cup brown sugar

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 and 1/2 cups flour

1 and 1/2 cups oats

<strong> For filling:</strong>

1 and 1/2 pounds semi-sweet chocolate (good quality)

2 cans sweetened, condensed milk

1/4 cup butter

<strong>For dough:</strong> In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream softened butter with brown sugar. Add 1 large egg and mix on medium until creamy. Add almond extract and sea salt. Pulse in flour then oats. Press half of the mix into a quarter-sheet pan, completely covering the bottom.

<strong>For filling:</strong> Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a sauce pan, melt chocolate into 2 cans of sweetened condensed milk. Add butter. Pour mixture on top of the bottom layer of dough.

Press small balls of remaining dough between your hands and make a patchwork-like top. Bake at 350 for approximately 20 minutes or until golden.

Once cool, cut into squares.

<em></em>

<em> You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.</em>