Dough Ho Ho! Holidays Are Extra Hectic for Pastry Professionals

Cookie plate at City House

Cookies! Cookies everywhere! Plus pies and cakes and fudge and panettone and gingerbread houses — and thousands of other ways to use butter and sugar and flour and eggs — are currently bursting from the shelves of local bakeries and pastry cases. While retail workers and Santa impersonators often get praise for bearing the brunt of the commercialized holiday whirlwind, we mustn’t forget the unsung heroes: the oven wizards who work through the night and early morning to fill your cookie platters and decorate your Yule log cakes.

Dough Ho Ho! Holidays Are Extra Hectic for Pastry Professionals

Knowing how grueling working in a commercial kitchen can be — I lasted only three months on an overnight shift; it is not easy — I asked a few local professional bakers and pastry chefs how they feel about the holiday season, when they’re often up to their eyeballs in butter and sugar. Toast to them every time you shove a cookie in your mouth this week — the delicious treat that you ate in 45 seconds required hours of sweating in front of a hot oven, after all.

Rebekah Turshen, pastry chef at City House

How long have you been a pastry chef, and how long have you been with City House? I’ve been baking in restaurant kitchens since 1993, in Nashville restaurants since 1997 and at City House since 2009.

Do you have any memories of baking this time of year when you were younger? I would poke around in my mother’s Better Homes and Gardens cookbook when I was on holiday break — some favorites were chocolate crinkles, peanut butter cookies and lemon squares. One year — eighth grade, maybe? — I made a candy house with a shoebox, red hots, caramels and peppermints.

What’s your favorite holiday-related treat? I wait for Sarah [Souther]’s peppermint Sparkle Bark at Bang Candy all year!

City House’s cookie plate is famous around town, and since cookies are everywhere this time of year, is there a kind of cookie you think every cookie party/cookie plate should have? I think a mix of three is nice, with contrasting textures and flavors. Choose at least one chocolate and one not-chocolate and have at least one without nuts. That pretty much covers everyone. And I’m a little biased, but my new favorite is a vanilla-mint sugar cookie we’re serving at City House and offering in to-go bags at Lazzaroli Pasta shop in Germantown.

Amy McGee, operations manager at Meridee’s Breadbasket

What’s an average holiday baking night like? It’s chaos, but if you think through it, you can organize that chaos. You just have to strategize your night — bake all your cookies off first so your ovens will be open, and then make all your dough. For Christmas we add a couple extra things [to the menu], like our cinnamon roll Christmas tree. I would say we make 50 to 80 a day towards the end of the week.

How many hours a night are you and the bakers working when it’s busiest? Easily 10 or 11 hours for Brittany [Carter], our head baker, per night. That’s minimum. People don’t realize it’s a long process — we make the dough, and it has to proof, and you have to cut it and roll it and let it proof again, and cut it and put it in pans and proof again, then you have to bake it, it has to cool, and then you ice it. I’d say it takes four to five hours to get a loaf of bread from start to finish.

With all that work, do you still enjoy holiday baking at home? No! I don’t want to think about or make cookies.

What is the most cookies you’ve made in one night? Last week was pretty damn close with about 2,000 — someone bought over 40 cookie trays. And the other night someone ordered 95 loaves of cinnamon streusel bread. I ended up coming in Sunday to bake off a majority early, ’cause otherwise there’d be literally no way — we don’t even have that many bread pans! 

You must’ve suffered crazy burns with that much oven shuffling in one night. Oh, totally, no matter how careful you are it always happens.

What was your favorite thing to bake as a kid? I always liked baking coffee cakes. I was so weird. I remember I was 10 or 11 and my mom would buy Bisquick mix and almost every other day I would make a new coffee cake, and change [the recipe] each time to come up with the perfect coffee cake. 

So do you now have the perfect coffee cake recipe? [Laughs] I haven’t made a coffee cake in 20 years.

Lisa Donovan, founder of Buttermilk Road

Holiday baking — do you love it or hate it? Oh, I love it, all right. 

Do you have memories of baking as a kid during this time of year? Totally. My mom and I used to make all kind of little treats. She would make things from scratch, but something I vividly remember was filling Ritz crackers with peanut butter, making a sandwich, and then covering them in melted chocolate bark. It was my favorite thing ever — perfectly sweet and salty, and since I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, it was the perfect combo for me.

What’s your favorite thing to make now? Right now I’m obsessed with the German holiday treats from my childhood. Stollen, pfeffernusse and most especially lebkuchen, which were and are my ultimate favorite. 

What is the largest order of pies you’ve baked in a day during the holidays for Buttermilk Road? Oh gosh. Thanksgiving 2014 I baked 64 pies one day. But I can’t recall baking any pies to order for the December holiday. I usually give myself that time off to just bake for my family. I love making a nutmeg chess pie — it tastes like eggnog. 

What’s your favorite dessert to eat this time of year? Or does being around sweet stuff all day squash that fun and you just want salty or savory snacks? This year I’m having a very nice return to enjoying sweets again — it could be my hiatus from professionally baking that is encouraging it, because I definitely never indulged in the past the way I am this year. I’m eating my weight in steamed gingerbread and lebkuchen.

Dough Ho Ho! Holidays Are Extra Hectic for Pastry Professionals

The Cherry Cream Cheese Candy Cane at Meridee’s Breadbasket

Like what you read?


Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!