12 tips to take your holiday baking game to the next level

Pinterest board got you down? Visions of sugar-plums twerking 24/7 in your head? We know you wanna slay that potluck. Demolish that cookie swap. Destroy your mother-in-law's famous Bûche de Nöel — OK, OK, breathe. You got this! We're hooking you up with some pro tips to get that kitchen turnt for the holidays!

Meet your new BFF: expert baker Crystal Slonecker from LA's mega-popular Huckleberry Cafe in beautiful, sunny California. While she's super handy at slinging donuts by the dozens and biscuits by the box, she's also chock full of ideas and inspiration to turn any home-baker into a wiz with a whisk. So strap on that apron, preheat the oven, pour yourself a glass of something bubbly, and cozy up while we turn a potential epic fail, into an epic f-yeah!

Accept no substitute ingredients

In the immortal words of 90s girl group TLC, "I don't want no [subs]." OK, now that you've got that stuck in your head, step away from the chocolate chips. Maybe you're reading an ingredient list that's got something like "fine-quality bittersweet chocolate" on it, and you're thinking you'll keep it simple and pick up a bag of gnarly off-brand chocolate chips. Bad idea. Here's why. "Chocolate chips have a lot of additives like cocoa butter and emulsifiers," Slonecker says, "Which help keep their shape, [but] they don't melt properly." This sad-sack melt can result in all kinds of things like lumpiness, seizing, and gritty texture. Yuck!

You can bet this tip goes for other ingredients as well. Stay true to the original items, and you'll end up with the results you were hoping for.

Utilize a good shortcut

All greased out? There's a spray for that! Save time prepping your pans and cookie sheets, with a nonstick spray and flour in one. And avoid a hot mess by just misting this spritz. Slonecker swears by this trick, and when we asked if this was in fact cheating (— OMG, what would Martha think?), she replied, "Yes, Martha would say it was cheating, but I just love this product. It's my trashy secret!".

We're totally into a solid gold guilty pleasure — especially if it means less cleaning up, and more eating up! Pick up a can yourself, and get spraying. We promise, we won't tell!

If it's your first time, follow that recipe

We know you want to add your own sparkle and flair, but if it's your first attempt at a recipe, it's best to follow it exactly as written. Even though she's a seasoned baker, when Slonecker first tackles a new recipe, she says, "I don't know how it's supposed to turn out." That's also exactly why you'll want to aim to work off of a recipe that has been well-tested by its author, which in turn, should earn you amazing results. (Pinterest, bye!) After all, baking is really a very delicious science.

Still thinking about maybe not waiting for the butter to soften? Slonecker dishes up some realness, "You wanna understand the fundamentals first, before you just go off on your own. If you look at Picasso's early drawings, they're all [realistic]. It wasn't until he learned how to draw properly that he was able to go off and do the crazy people. You have to have the foundation before you can start going crazy over here." Ok, if Picasso can do it, so can we! Baby steps, future five-star artisans!

Mix just well enough

Yes, you've been adding in some weights at the gym. Yes, your arms are looking fine. No, do not Hulk-out on your bowl of ingredients, or you will stir it into smithereens. There happen to be two levels of mixing you need to know about: wet ingredient, and dry ingredient. Slonecker describes, "When mixing a cake, first you would mix the butter and sugar together. Make sure that's very well mixed, so there are no lumps of butter left. And then you usually add the eggs and make sure those are completely mixed in. But when it comes to adding the flour at the end, just mix it until all the ingredients come together." And then stop mixing! She continues, "You don't want to over-mix [the flour], because that's when it becomes tough and then the goods aren't as tender."

Ok, let's review: Wet ingredients? Mix them well. Dry ingredients? Mix them just until they're incorporated. (Psst! Wanna mix like the pros? Get yourself one of these babies. Baller on a budget? Definitely grab yourself a good whisk, or a hand mixer.)

Know your (actual) oven temperature

Maybe you were born into a professional chef's kitchen, equipped with a sprawling stainless professional range and convection-capable performance. Or, maybe you heat up frozen pizza in a rusty, lop-sided apartment oven that may or may not be 400 degrees off the mark (no judging!). Either way, knowing exactly what temperature your oven is running at is going to make things turn out a lot better, Slonecker says. "Buy an oven thermometer. See what your oven temperature is actually [reading]. Let's say you put your oven at 350 [degrees Fahrenheit], you wanna see if your oven actually heats at 350. Most ovens go a little higher." (Gasp!) Now those blackened macarons are starting to make sense!

She says, "A lot of people burn bottoms of things because they don't know their oven is running hotter than it should be." Putting in a little effort to find out how hot your oven really works means your baking will literally be golden.

Get some good prep bowls

The simplest tip to executing any recipe is in having the right supplies on hand. And you don't need to break the bank to do it. Slonecker recommends having a stack of medium-sized prep bowls at the ready, as they are multipurpose workhorses that can handle a multitude of tasks. "I really am a fan of pretty things. I really am." She is. "I love aesthetics! But I have found when it comes to cooking in the kitchen, it really is best for me if I have a stack of stainless steel bowls. They're all the same size, they stack easily, you don't have to worry about them getting chipped or broken. The cheapest ones you can find will last you for years."

Rotate your goodies

Spin it to win it! You already know you should be baking everything in the middle of your oven (— right?). But maybe you haven't heard you should be rearranging the goods, as you go. "I usually turn my baked goods half-way through baking. Or, if you're doing two sheets of cookies, take the one from the bottom and put it on the top," Slonecker tells us. "Turn 'em around, rotate up and down." While this requires a little more attention (and a little peeking, which we're totally down to do), it's worth it. Your perfectly uniform cupcakes will come out tasting as delicious as they look. Sayonara, uneven baking!

Measure everything before you begin

Take a note from every professional kitchen around the world, and get your mise-en-place in order! This is the French culinary term for "putting everything in its place". The correct amount of flour, the room temperature pat of butter, your whisk, the little dish of salt, all ready to go. Not only does it make it feel like you're about to shoot an episode of your very own Food Network show, it really enables you to move through your recipe at a good pace, and stress-free. You might discover you're missing an ingredient, or you're almost out of vanilla before you start assembling the recipe, when you still have time to run to the store (Or bravely ask your neighbor for a cup of sugar!).

Slonecker broke it down, while she baked with us, "After I put the eggs and the sugar together, if I had waited 15 minutes, that would have deflated. I needed to mix the [following ingredients] in immediately. So, it could have had an outcome on the end cake, if I had just let the eggs and sugar sit there." Crisis averted, thanks to a little prep!

Use eggshells to remove eggshells

"I think people probably get eggshells in their eggs a lot," Slonecker muses (Um, hi, every time!). So she served up a stellar tip, in case you happen to crack an egg that ends up taking some of the shell into the bowl with it: Scoop out the tiny bit of eggshell with the larger portion of the same shell. [Mind. Blown.] "It just works super well. It is like a magnet — it wants to be next to the other," She says, "It's curved like the bowl, you know what I mean?" The half-shell becomes a sort of homing device for the chipped bit, seemingly able to magically pull it from the clinging, glue-like egg whites. Let's just say, it works a billion times better than trying to fish out the shell with your fingers, or a spoon!

Get inspired

Slonecker works a demanding schedule at Huckleberry, waking up at 3 a.m. every day, and even baking at home during her free time (Just check out her Insta!). But that doesn't stop her from constantly looking for inspiration everywhere she can. "Ina's obviously my first pick — always. She's really the one who inspired me and taught me to cook, from reading her cookbooks," Slonecker reveals. Also, "David Lebovitz. He used to work at Chez Panisse and now he lives in Paris. He's written several dessert books, and he is just a really great resource, and he always has a lot of creative ideas."

Claire Ptak, who also formerly worked at Chez Panisse, and now owns London bakery Violet, is another Slonecker favorite. "She has a great sensibility because she is filtering these English desserts through the California style, and she's updating these old sponges and fruitcakes and things, and putting this modern spin on them." Catch up with Ptak's weekly column in The Guardian, or pick up a copy of the Violet Bakery cookbook for some of your own inspiration. Slonecker also loves reading Dorie Greenspan's cookbooks, "The way she writes is very easy to understand. Her recipes are very technically correct — you'll always get a good recipe with her. She has more of a classical style to her baking — she has a lot of really amazing cookies. She's got a new cookbook out called Dorie's Cookies!"

Update your repertoire

Christopher Kimball, former owner of Cook's Illustrated, who recently launched Milk Street, gets an #inspo pick from Slonecker as well. "[Milk Street] kind of combines that idea that Cook's Illustrated always did, where the recipes are broken down very scientifically so they always work, but he's updating it and bringing in new, modern ideas, and spices — the way that people cook now, using Korean influences, Middle Eastern influences, and combining that with American ideas." If you've baked enough plain old banana bread for a lifetime, Slonecker suggests upgrading your loaf with Kimball's new (easy and delicious!) Brown Butter-Cardamom Banana Bread!

Those speckled bananas on your counter will thank you for so skillfully classing them up! And your friends will be too busy snatching it up to say anything at all.

Step up your style

Yes, of course you can get your bake on in a pair of sweats and a top-knot. But sometimes a little something special can really kick things up a notch. If you're feeling like a little baker-makeover, Slonecker loves LA-based Hedley & Bennett for handmade professional chef gear. Your apron might (almost) outshine your soufflé!

Confession: We may have gone ahead and done a little wishlist shopping, and maybe have our eyes on this pink "Bubblegum" apron, this striped "Dearborn Ave" apron, and OK, maybe a few polk-a-dot "Elderberry" napkins. What — they're for taking the most adorable snaps of our cakes! Slonecker is also half of the talented girlboss duo P+C Poolside, where you can snag your own Ina Garten and Club Gluten pins to spice up your look!

Road-test your skills

Now that you have a better idea of what you're doing when you're baking, it's time to put those new skills to the test.

With the fresh aromas of orange trees and almond groves, and a complex flavor profile that one taste-tester described as, "OMG this is so good", this spiced cake is a delightfully unexpected crowd-pleaser. As Slonecker has graciously shared with us, her own original recipe was inspired by Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, an enchanted palace by the sea, decorated with sumptuous gardens, fragrant with salt air and star jasmine blossoms. Slonecker jokes about discovering this recipe over the course of four evolving bakes, "On the fourth time, it came out and I was like — this is it." Famed home-chef Julia Child once said it best, "A party without cake, is just a meeting." A huge thanks to Slonecker for sharing her tips, and this gorgeous cake with us! Bon appétit!

Crystal Slonecker's San Simeon Tea Cake

Makes one 9-inch cake, serves 8 – 10

Ingredients:

6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled, plus 1 Tbsp. room temperature butter for lining pan

1/4 cup raw or demerara sugar for lining pan

1 1/4 cups sugar

6 eggs, at room temperature

4 cups almond flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

3 medium carrots, grated

Zest of 3 oranges

1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract

Directions:

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Melt 6 tablespoons butter and cool to room temperature.
  • Combine almond flour, baking powder, salt, ginger, and cinnamon and whisk until blended.
  • In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the eggs & sugar, beat on medium-high for 5 minutes until mixture has doubled in size and is a pale yellow color.
  • With a rubber spatula, fold in half the flour mixture, taking care not to over-mix.
  • Add the remaining flour mixture, folding in gently.
  • Fold in grated carrots, melted butter and almond extract.
  • Butter a 9 x 2-inch round pan liberally and coat with raw or demerara sugar, tapping out excess.
  • Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth the top.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cake rest for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack. After cooling, dust with powdered sugar. Cut into 8 – 10 slices.

Once you've successfully created this recipe (and you will, no doubt), move on to some of your other holiday favorites. Don't be afraid to give any recipe a try!