TORONTO - Making one recipe several ways is a trick that cake expert Yolanda Gampp uses for her holiday baking.
Gampp, a co-host on "SugarStars" (Food Network Canada), says she enjoys Christmas baking, but with time at a premium around the holidays, she will often manipulate one recipe in several ways to achieve a variety of flavours.
"My husband is Italian and has a gigantic family, so I bake a ton and I try to bake across the board to keep everyone happy," says Gampp. She also bakes for her own family and makes up little trays of goodies for friends.
Sugar cookies are ideal for holiday baking because they can be cut in a variety of shapes, decorated in different ways and sandwiched with various flavours of jam, dipped in chocolate or coated with plain white sugar. "It's one of the most versatile things," the 35-year-old says.
Another treat she likes is Kitchen Sink Bars because they contain "a little bit of everything."
"You can adapt it by using different toppings on different batches and turn them into different types of flavour," she says.
"What I love about this recipe is you can switch it up. If you don't like almonds, use hazelnuts. If you don't like nuts period, use toffee bits and chocolate chips and coconut. If you want to add dried fruit, go ahead. You can do any combination you like and it's an easy way to not buy that many ingredients and just switch up the top."
If you want to start your baking early and freeze it, pick recipes for items that are really moist and dense such as "ooey-gooey" brownies, then wrap them really well to prevent frost.
To save time close to the holidays, Gampp makes cookie dough ahead, rolls it into balls and freezes it. "Then when I'm ready, bang, bang, bang, bake, bake, bake," she says.
Being organized with holiday baking is also key for Dana Speers, executive chef of the President's Choice test kitchens.
She suggests doing as much advance preparation as possible. When you're getting ready to bake, place ingredients in separate bowls and line them up on a tray in the fridge.
"Have the egg — not cracked — in a bowl, sugar brown and white, butter measured out in a separate bowl, maybe even in the bowl you're going to melt it in the microwave, put all the dry ingredients together in one bowl," says Speers. "Pull it out and boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and in the pan."
Speers also loves sugar cookie dough for its versatility and longevity and always has it on hand.
Roll the dough into cylinders and wrap it well in plastic and it will keep for several months. "I can just slice the cylinder and I have perfect round cookies," Speers explains.
"Or I can make a bigger cylinder and roll it out and stamp out cookies with a cookie cutter. If you have them in cylinders in the freezer they store really well together on the shelf."
Gingerbread dough also freezes beautifully, but Speers recommends no more than three weeks.
When it comes to a fancier dessert, Gampp makes a huge batch of cheesecake and divides it into four 20-centimetre (eight-inch) pans. Then she tops each one differently.
"Again it's the way to please everyone. So I'll top one with semisweet chocolate ganache, then that one is really rich," she explains. "I'll top one with homemade caramel and then I'll saute apples and put them on top of that. I'll top another with fresh berries, just to give everyone a taste of what they like.
"It's easier to make a bigger batch of one thing than to tell yourself you're going to make 10 things, especially if you don't have a kitchen full of baking equipment."
Gampp, who went to school to be a chef but discovered she preferred baking and became a self-taught cake decorator, cautions to start simply if you're not used to baking. As you gain more confidence you can move on to more complex recipes.
"Don't feel you have to make a croquembouche on your first attempt. Pick your favourite chocolate chip cookie dough and in one batch put chocolate chips and in another batch put white chocolate and cranberries and another batch put toffee bits and milk chocolate," she says.
(The French dessert croquembouche is generally presented as a cone-shaped pile of cream-filled profiteroles bound together with threads of caramel and elaborately decorated.)
There are a few principles with baking that make it different from cooking.
"The great thing about cooking is that if you make a mistake partway there's always a fix," Gampp says. "Unless you burn something black or if you add way too much salt you can pretty much fix everything. ... But with baking you can't reverse it. You need to get the chemistry right."
To ensure the ingredients for cake batter or cookie dough combine correctly, have them at the same temperature. Take butter and eggs out of the fridge hours before you're going to bake. "The only time that's not true is when it's pastry, which needs the butter and water to be cold," Gampp notes.
Preheat your oven and get used to rotating pans partway through baking so all the cookies will look the same. "Some people's ovens have hot spots especially if it's a regular conventional oven where the heat only rises from the bottom," she says.
And always watch carefully as baking times vary. "Ten minutes in the recipe might mean eight minutes or 12 minutes in your oven," Gampp says.
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