Saturday, December 20, 2014

Survival Tips for Marathon Kitchen Days

I did it again -- I conquered a ridiculously long Christmas cookie and candy baking list in one day.  Typically, I do this every year the weekend before Christmas, and this year was true to tradition.  I love to bake, I love to share the variety of treats I make with friends and coworkers, I love the opportunity to try out new recipes, and I love tackling the challenge of a big baking day.

To some, a big baking day, (or any marathon kitchen day, for that matter,) seems daunting and sort of crazy -- like, why would anybody want to spend 10+ hours in the kitchen covered in flour and sugar? It is intense, but totally worth it, in my opinion.  Why, you ask?

For starters, when I'm giving treats as gifts, I like them to be freshly-baked.  It would be nearly impossible for me to deliver cookies still warm from the oven to all of the important people in my life, but one- or two-day old cookies?  That is definitely doable.  Then, my people can take their time savoring their treats -- no worries that things will get stale or spoil on them!  (Why go to all of that trouble if the finished product isn't enjoyable?)

Second, you only have to break out the big guns once.  Dig out and clean up those rarely used kitchen items like the 9-inch silicone pan, electric mixer, large storage containers and platters, rolling pins, cookie cutters, sprinkles, food coloring, batter bowls, and removable-bottom bar pans.  Get them out, use them, clean them, then stash them away again until next time.  Done!  One day of digging in the back cupboards and climbing around on the step stool, and then you can say good-bye to those items for a while.

Third, you only have to clean up once.  Now, don't get me wrong -- my kitchen is the size of a postage-stamp and I don't have five sets of mixing bowls, so I probably did four (five? six?) sinks of dishes during the course of the day yesterday.  However, the state of my kitchen floor today?  EEEEEEEEEEEWWW!  Sticky, crunchy, grimy, and who knows what else.  That just happens, you know, when you make that many treats in one day.  And that's okay, because today tomorrow (ahem, cough, cough,) I will sweep, mop, and wash the rug, and all will be right with the universe.  :)  However, if I had stretched my baking out over a week or more, I would have had to live with that disgusting floor for days on end, or I would have had to mop multiple times.  Neither option sounds good if you ask me!

Last, I really enjoy the challenge.  My brain loves to plan, organize, multitask, and tackle large projects as efficiently as possible.  And after several years of pre-Christmas baking marathons, I've discovered a few tips, tricks, and hacks that have been game-changers -- changing the marathon from something dreaded, disorganized, and stress-inducing to something exciting, challenging, and fun!

Clean dishes, and my iPad mount hack.  Bless you, 3M, and your Command Adhesive.
Survival Tips for Marathon Kitchen Days

Be Prepared: Several days, or even a week before your marathon kitchen day, pull together all of your recipes, make a shopping list, and check your cabinets to see what you have on hand.  When I do my big baking days, I don't simply write "butter," "flour," or "eggs" on my shopping list ... I do the math and write "5 lb butter," "12 c flour," "9 eggs" etc. on my shopping list.  I also recommend double-checking your stock the day before baking day, just to make sure.  (Because, you know, I didn't buy enough cream cheese last weekend, and would have ran out yesterday had I not double-checked!)  Running out or missing an ingredient when you are in the midst of a marathon kitchen day is the WORST.  Check on things like spices, vanilla, food coloring, sprinkles, even salt ... things you always assume you have on hand, but may actually run out of from time to time!

Prep as Much in Advance as You Can: Take a look through your recipes and figure out what you can do ahead of time that will save you time and help you be more efficient during marathon day.  This year, I made both candies last weekend, (because candy keeps infinitely longer than cookies do,) and prepped and froze three of my cookie doughs.  Thursday night, I pulled the doughs out of the freezer and was ready to roll (literally ... ha ...) first-thing Friday morning.

Wear Shoes: This may sound silly, but seriously ... your knees, hips, and back will thank you for wearing comfortable, supportive shoes at the end of a long day on your feet.  My tendency is to wear socks or slippers around the house, but NOT on marathon kitchen days!

Get Dressed: This may also sound silly, but getting dressed, even if in just jeans and a t-shirt, can be a game-changer for me, mentally.  It would be easy to stay in PJs or sweats for marathon kitchen days, especially since I don't typically leave the house on these days.  However, getting dressed tells my brain it's time to wake up and get down to business.  Getting dressed helps me feel sharper and more focused.  Since I am tackling so many projects all at once, I need to feel as sharp and focused as humanly possible!

Drink Water and Eat Meals: Here's another "duh" piece of advice, but it is easy to get busy with what you are doing and forget to stay hydrated.  I also always make sure I eat a good breakfast and stop for lunch.  I try to make sure I have something on hand that is nutritious, quick, and simple (leftovers, soup, etc.) for marathon kitchen days.  You need to eat, but you don't really want to stop and prepare anything, either!  (And I confess ... I had Jimmy John's for dinner last night.  That's totally acceptable, of course!  Desperate hunger calls for desperate measures.)

First Things First: Before I even made my coffee yesterday morning, I took ALL of the butter, eggs, and cream cheese I needed for the day out of the fridge, allowing them to come to room temperature.  Nothing "bad" happened to those things while sitting out at room temperature for the day.  Think about little tasks you can do RIGHT AWAY that will make your life easier in a couple of hours.  Then, after I had my coffee and my breakfast, I preheated the oven and took the first cookie dough I needed out of the fridge, so they could both warm up while I got dressed.  So basically, think ahead a little bit!

Clean Before You Start, and Clean as You Go: Make sure you wash up any breakfast dishes and do a quick wipe-down of the counters before you get started.  (Nobody wants cat hair or toast crumbs in their sugar cookies.  Just saying.)  Remove any and all clutter from the kitchen you can -- give yourself as much workspace as possible, 'cause you'll use every square millimeter.  Also, run a sink full of hot, soapy dish water immediately, so you can drop in sticky, dirty dishes as you go.  (And as your dishwater cools and becomes greasy?  Dump it and immediately run a new sink full!)  When you find yourself with a few idle minutes, wash a few dishes.  When you find yourself with a few more idle minutes, dry and put away a few dishes.  Notice that the counter is cleaned off?  Give it a quick spray and wipe, even if you're not done working for the day.  (15-minute old spilled molasses is a LOT easier to clean than 15-hour old spilled molasses.  You know.)  Keep this up throughout the day.  Run the dishwasher (if you are lucky enough to have one) when you sit down for lunch, then empty it before you dive back in.  The clean-up becomes much less overwhelming if you can tackle it in fits and spurts throughout the day.

Make Sure You Have Enough Equipment: I use my holiday baking extravaganza as an excuse to buy myself one new item off my baking "wish list" each year -- last year I invested in three Chicago Metallic half-sheet pans, this year, in silicone liners for said sheet pans.  (Next year, I'm pretty sure it's going to be a Thermapen.  Because all serious candy makers need a $100 thermometer.  Merry Christmas to me!)  If you don't have enough equipment, (baking sheets, mixing bowls, bar pans, etc.) consider finding a friend to borrow pieces from for the day.  Most people will happily loan kitchen items for a few days, especially rarely-used items such as specialty bakeware (tube or Bundt pans, mini-muffin tins, etc.)  You don't want to find yourself stuck waiting for one pan of bars to cool before you can make another batch!  And, if you are a cookie-baker, invest in (or borrow) three sheets (so you can have one in the oven, one you are prepping, and one cooling.)

Do the Complicated, Fussy Stuff First: Pick the trickiest, fussiest, most complicated projects on the list and tackle those first, while you are fresh.  Do the projects that require the most brain power when you have it.  :)  9 am yesterday?  Tons of brain power.  7 pm yesterday?  Mush.

Post Your Recipes: Either print out your recipes in advance and tape them to the wall or your kitchen cupboards, or have a tablet or other device handy.  Did you see my iPad hack in the picture?  Did you?  You did?  I'm SO excited I figured this out.  Wee!  Serious game changer in my kitchen.  Who wants their tablet on their kitchen counter anyway?  Not me!  Too many spills and splashes and gunk on the counter for expensive electronic devices.  No one wants to be rifling through stacks of paper with sticky fingers, or rummaging around underneath mountains of dirty dishes to figure out what temperature the oven needs to be at for THIS recipe.  I highly recommend the app "Recipe Box," if you have a tablet you use in the kitchen.  It's relatively simple to use, not too buggy/crashy, affordable, and probably my favorite part is that it DOESN'T GO TO SLEEP in recipe mode.  Ever.  You can walk away for two hours, come back, and there's your recipe! (Battery drain, I realize, but SO nice to be able to glance up and see your ingredient list without having to wake the tablet back up.  Again, sticky fingers and all.)

Have Fun: Yes, yes ... that should probably go first on this list, but it can be easy to forget, especially if things don't go according to plan -- big spills, recipe flops, major errors, and the like can make me feel flustered and grumpy.  I will always remember the year I had to clean molasses off the ceiling.  (It was Oliver's fault, I swear.  I can laugh now.)  (Getting to the laughing part took a couple of years.)  Marathon kitchen days are a lot of work, but they should also be fun!  Take it easy on yourself, and enjoy your time.  Play some music, enjoy a favorite beverage or snack while you are working (I picked up a case of LaCroix for myself as a treat Thursday evening,) and be proud of your accomplishments!  Look at what you did!  Even if you have a recipe flop, make a big mess, or some other tragedy happens, no one will ever know.  :)  (Unless you blog about it.  Right.  Molasses on the ceiling?  Never happened.  Right!)

So, what survival tips would you add to this list?

1 comment:

Eileen said...

These are some great tips! I think a combination of "be prepared" and "take care of yourself" mostly overs my marathon baking mindset. :) Clean-as-you-go should be standard in all kitchens! There's nothing like it for maintaining your sanity.