Holiday baking can feel like an ordeal (albeit one with great payoff), which is why for the past 20 years, bakers of all levels have turned to King Arthur Flour’s Baking School. With two locations in Vermont and Washington, as well as a slew of online classes, the long-standing flour and baking supply company has taught newbies and experienced bakers alike how to make everything from basic sandwich bread to croissants and eclairs. And around the holidays, things get busy. A quick look at the school’s virtual calendar shows classes for holiday favorites like ginger spice cookies, Parker House rolls, and various pies.
According to Amber Eisler, the director of the baking school, classes can be a way to take the pressure off of holiday baking, and remind bakers that this is supposed to be about having fun. We spoke with her about what her students look for in the holidays, and how with a little patience, you too can master a holiday project like a buche de noel.
You’ve been with King Arthur for a long time. How have you seen the classes in the school change since you’ve been there?
There are many classes that are relatively unchanged, actually, in that period of time. Some of our perennial favorites we’ve been running for a very long time, including baguettes and croissants and our basic bread class. But we also do see either emerging trends or products that come a little bit more into people’s consciousness. Kouign amann is something that we didn’t do 20 years ago, but we offer that now because people know what it is. So yeah, we have a lot of tried-and-true classes, but we also are shifting.
Right now, we’re making a big effort to shift to really represent a broader spectrum of baking. We have these New England roots and we have historically offered baked goods that are either typical of New England or based in the European tradition. Now we’re looking at this as an opportunity to say, “You know what? There are really awesome bakers in France and Germany and all over Europe, but the whole world, everywhere grain is grown or eaten, has some sort of baking tradition. And how can we bring that into the classroom? How can we shine a light on all of these other amazing products?”
What sort of things are you incorporating?
We have many flatbread classes. And I love flatbreads because when you’re talking about breads in general, usually there’s a fair amount of waiting time. The recipes take a while as the yeast works and ferments, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But flatbreads generally have a little bit of a quicker turnaround. So you can make the dough and shape it and either bake it or cook it on a griddle and have them within a couple of hours. A lot of cultures use flatbread as a utensil, or to complement the other components of the meal. So I feel like you can travel around the world by eating different types of flatbreads. And they’re really forgiving, too; you don’t have to have a super, super high skill level to make amazing-tasting flatbreads.
Do you think there is an average kind of student at the baking school, whether online or in person?
We do have quite a range of students. But if I were to describe the average student, I would say somebody who’s very enthusiastic about baking, or at least enthusiastic about eating. One or the other. And they might have had some success in the past, but they realize that there are some complexities with baking, and they want somebody to help demystify the process a little bit. And they’re just looking to have fun.
Do you find there are certain classes or baked goods that are more in demand around the end-of-year holiday time?
Absolutely. I would say those categories are pies, cookies, and then festive desserts like buche de noel. We offer many, many sessions of buche de noel class leading up to Christmastime. You wouldn’t make it at any other time of year, but it’s a showstopper-type dessert. And pies are hitting Thanksgiving and then [the] December holidays. And cookies are just so ubiquitous, but not all cookies are the same, right? People really want to up their cookie game at this time of year.
I feel like right around Christmas I always think, “Oh God, right. I should try that.” But then I only remember it the week before Christmas. I need to set myself a reminder to learn how to make a buche de noel in April or something like that.
It certainly doesn’t hurt to do a practice run of that one.
Very broadly, why do you think baked goods are such a big part of holiday hospitality, especially across cultures?
I think sharing food is just a genuine expression of love for one another. Everybody has to eat. And it’s just a way that we can spend some quality time together; it really makes you feel connected when you share food. And especially during the holiday season, it’s on people’s minds to give thanks and to be exchanging gifts. We live now in the digital age where a lot of things aren’t tangible, but food is so tangible. If you make something homemade, it smells good, it looks good, it tastes good. There’s something so special about that.
Do you have a favorite item to bake around this time of year? Or something that you’re sick of making or never want to make this time of year?
I always bake pies, and I bake lots of different flavors of pies. I bake ginger spice cookies because they have a good shelf life. And I always want to bake something that’s savory because some people just get overloaded with all of the sweets that happen during the holiday season. I try to think about things that are going to either have a pretty good shelf life or going to travel well. If I want to ship a box of cookies to a relative who lives far away, or even just take a dessert on the train to the other side of town, I’m thinking a little bit more about portability and shareability.
King Arthur just came out with this cookbook that’s based on these recipes that are used in your classes. What kind of information might be available in a class that’s maybe not available in the book, but also vice versa? What does a book allow you to do that a class doesn’t allow you to do?
In class, students are taking notes, but the book basically has those notes written for you. The recipes are annotated with additional information, but there are also sections that give you information on the ingredient choice and equipment and different flavor variations, or just general FAQs about a particular baking topic. So you don’t have to stress about taking all of the notes and remembering everything. They’re there for your reference and you can absorb it at your own pace. So I think that’s really the benefit of the book.
The benefit of coming to an in-person class is that you can ask those really specific questions to an instructor, and you have them standing alongside you. And in the case of an in-person class, we do your dishes for you. I think they’re different experiences, but they both have great advantages. So I think they kind of go hand in hand.
I love the idea of attempting a buche de noel. And that makes so much sense that you would maybe want to go to a class for it, because I feel like I would need a lot of hand-holding. Do you have a No. 1 tip for how to not mess up a buche de noel?
Well, there are a lot of components to it, so I would just say, if at all possible, plan it out so that you’re not making all of the components at the same time. If you’re making those cute little meringue mushrooms, maybe you make those a day in advance and get them stored in an airtight container so you’re not worried about that part while you’re making your sponge cake and buttercream. So it’s just to give yourself ample time. And this really applies to any recipe: If you can, break it down into smaller components so it doesn’t feel quite so overwhelming. It’s not that they’re so difficult, it’s just putting it all together at the same time.
So give yourself a break, do one project at a time, and just don’t stress if one little thing goes awry, because baking is very forgiving. I think a lot of people get super stressed about having this perfect dessert at the holidays. I say, “When you’re baking, you should be having fun.” And recognize that your audience is going to be so thankful for the effort that you put into it that they don’t realize that that mushroom wasn’t supposed to look that way. Don’t worry about it. It’s going to be okay.