A well-stocked pantry will help keep your holiday baking on track. Martha and her mother, Martha Kostyra, review a checklist of baking staples, all of which you will need to make icebox cookies.
Make sure to replenish certain items periodically, even if you haven't run out of them, since dry goods such as spices and baking soda have a limited shelf life before they grow stale or rancid or lose their flavor.
- All-purpose flour: Unbleached, all-purpose flour consists of a combination of high-gluten hard wheat and low-gluten soft wheat. It contains no germ or bran. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place for up to six months. Martha likes to keep her flour in a glass jar that's deep enough to dip a cup measure into. A bay leaf in your flour may help keep the weevils away.
- Cake flour: Cake flour makes delicate and tender cakes and pastries. It is milled from soft wheat and has a high starch content. Martha chooses cake flour with no self-rising agents or additives. Store in a plastic bag that has been tightly sealed, in a dark place.
- Cornstarch: Cornstarch is most commonly used as a thickening agent for puddings, sauces, and soups.
- Baking powder: Baking powder is a kitchen chemical that gives off carbon-dioxide gas, which provides a leavening action for batters and doughs. Baking powder loses its potency over time. Buy it in small quantities and store tightly covered. You can test its efficacy by mixing 1 teaspoon baking powder with 1/3 cup warm water. If it fizzes, the powder is still good. If you find that it is stale, you can make your own: For the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of baking powder, combine 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar with 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. But be aware that this mixture is single-acting, which means it starts reacting as soon as it comes into contact with moisture, so you must work quickly. Double-acting baking powder reacts first when it comes in contact with moisture, and then again during baking.
- Baking soda: Baking soda reacts with acidic foods, such as lemon juice, vinegar, and molasses, to create a leavening action.
- Granulated sugar: Granulated sugar is the most commonly used form of sugar; it is made from either highly refined cane or beet sugar. Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane to the newly discovered Caribbean islands. By the 18th century, the West Indies had become the major supplier of world sugar. Store sugar in an airtight container. It keeps for a long time and does not grow bacteria, which is why it is used for canning and preserving.
- Superfine sugar: Superfine sugar, which is finely ground granulated sugar, dissolves quickly in liquid and is often used in baking.
- Confectioners' sugar: Confectioners' sugar is granulated sugar that has been crushed into a fine powder -- 10x or 3x refers to the number of times the sugar has been sifted. It is usually used in uncooked foods and is often an ingredient in icings and candy.
- Light-brown and dark-brown sugar: Brown sugar is white sugar combined with molasses. The lighter the color, the more delicate the flavor. Light brown sugar consists of about 8 percent molasses and about 92 percent granulated white sugar. The higher sugar content allows it to caramelize more quickly than dark-brown sugar, at lower temperatures. Dark-brown sugar has a higher molasses content and burns faster during cooking. If necessary, you can substitute 1 cup granulated sugar for 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar. Try resoftening brown sugar by placing it in a plastic bag with an apple wedge. Storing it in the freezer can also help keep it soft.
- Dutch-process cocoa: Richer and darker than plain cocoa, Dutch-process cocoa is treated with alkali, which helps neutralize cocoa's natural acidity. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to one year.
- Chocolate: Make sure you have blocks of the best semisweet, bittersweet, and white chocolate on hand. Valrhona makes excellent-quality baking chocolate.
- Walnuts: Choose walnuts whose shells are free of cracks or holes. Walnuts in the shell should be stored in a cool, dry place and should last for about three months. Unshelled walnuts should be refrigerated and tightly covered for up to six months. They can be frozen for up to a year.
- Pecans: Unshelled pecans will keep for about three months at room temperature. Shelled pecans absorb odors and turn rancid quickly. They should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, where they will keep for six months, or in the freezer for one year.
- Almonds: Almonds should be stored in a well-sealed container away from sunlight and humidity. Shelled or unshelled, they can be frozen for up to one year. Shelled almonds should be refrigerated and should be kept only for about six months.
- Hazelnuts: Fresh hazelnuts are extremely perishable, especially if they have been shelled. They tend to dry out very quickly. Unshelled hazelnuts can be stored at room temperature in a cool, dry place for up to one month. Shelled nuts should be refrigerated and will last for three to four months. They can also be frozen for up to a year.
- Dried cranberries: Dried cranberries are great for baked goods. They can be added like raisins. Tightly wrapped and refrigerated, they will keep for two months, and frozen, for up to one year.
- Vanilla beans: Vanilla beans are the fruit of the celadon-colored orchid Vanilla planifolia -- the only one of 20,000 orchid varieties that bears anything edible. Mature pods are green; after they've been handpicked, they go through a curing process that lasts three to six months and involves a 20-second boiling-water bath followed by sun heating. Once the beans are hot, they are wrapped in blankets and allowed to sweat. The most common types are Bourbon-Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian. Tahitian vanilla beans are the most aromatic.
- Vanilla extract: The beans are macerated with a mixture of water and alcohol to extract their flavor. The mixture is then left to age for several months. Vanilla extract will last about three years, and actually gets better with age if stored properly. Keep tightly capped, in a cool, dry, dark place.
- Poppy seeds: Poppy seeds are the tiny seeds of the poppy plant. One pound contains 900,000 seeds. Because they have a high oil content, they go rancid fairly quickly. Stored in the fridge or the freezer, they will last about six months.
- Cinnamon: Cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. The bark is harvested during the rainy season and then dried. Used in both sweet and savory cooking, cinnamon is sold as sticks or in powder form.
- Other spices: Store spices in clearly marked tins. Replace at least once a year.
- Parchment: Parchment is inexpensive, and a crucial tool when making icebox cookies.
- Silpat: A Silpat is a reusable, rubberized-silicone mat that makes any baking sheet nonstick and wipes clean easily after each use. It's the best surface for baking cookies.