Holiday Baking Tips and Traditions with Ina Garten

What happens when Ina Garten invites six top food bloggers to her home in the Hamptons for a holiday cookie swap? Treats get devoured, sparkling wine flows, and a lot of great recipes (and iPhone photos) are shared by all.
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The Barefoot Contessa's First Cookie Swap

Once the bloggers got over the awe factor of being in Ina Garten's house, they relaxed and started asking questions. Garten, who has a new cookbook, Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust, jumped into the conversation with enthusiasm, chatting about everything from baking tips to entertaining tricks to her all-time favorite ingredients. LHJ was there to listen in.

Julie Ruble: Ina, I've got an easy question: Have you ever been part of a holiday cookie swap before?

Ina Garten: This is my first and only so far and I'm very excited. We're spending the afternoon tasting each and every cookie. What tough jobs we have.

Clara Artschwager: We all know roast chicken is one of your go-to dishes. Do you have a cookie or dessert that's always a crowd-pleaser?

Ina Garten: The two things I make a lot of are a thin French apple tart and shortbread with raspberries in any form. One of my cookies today is a raspberry crumble bar.

Clara Artschwager: I'd like to eat all of them! Do you make your own raspberry jam or use a store-bought one?

Ina Garten: I use Hero, which is a Swiss jam you can find in most gourmet markets.

Deb Perelman: Do you have any advice for organizing your baking for the holidays?

Ina Garten: With cookies I usually make the dough in advance and freeze it. Then when I have a party I put them in the oven so they're freshly baked. I'm a big believer in doing things in advance so that on the day of the party, you're only doing things you absolutely have to do.

Zo? Fran?ois: I have all these recipes from my grandmother but I'm afraid to play with them. Do you think I'm breaking tradition by making my grandmother's recipe my own?

Ina Garten: I have a friend who collected all of his grandmother's recipes and he gave me a huge box of them. They were recipes cut out from magazines from the '40s and '50s and they were quirky, like a cake made with Coca-Cola. I thought this would make an amazing book: Take old recipes and do them in a fresh, modern way. So I don't think you should feel guilty at all.

Zo? Fran?ois: Really?

Ina Garten: No. I bet your grandmother would be delighted that you remembered her recipes so fondly.

Lisa Fain: I write about Texans and food. I've always found that a dish tastes better if you know the story behind it. Do you ever feel that way?

Ina Garten: I think a memory can make something taste better. For the Jewish holidays I used to make kasha varnishkes, which are buckwheat and pasta cooked together. I think it's divine but my friends would say, "It tastes like cardboard!" I'm like, "No, it doesn't!" But for me it was a remembered flavor from my childhood.

Joy Wilson: I love making cookies, but I feel what's really important is the way you present them, especially for a cookie swap. Is there something in particular you like to do?

Ina Garten: I use decorative boxes or glassine bags, which are clear bags with cardboard-insert bottoms that actually stand up. You put gorgeous ribbons around them and it looks really festive. Joy, maybe you could even get a ribbon with "Joy the Baker" printed on it.

Joy Wilson: That would be fun.

Ina Garten: And it would be a great way to market your blog!

Julie Ruble: I'm a huge baker, so having a dessert party is no problem. But when it comes to pulling together a dinner party, something always goes wrong. Do you have any advice on how to do it better?

Ina Garten: I do a minute-by-minute schedule when I'm throwing a dinner party. That way I know exactly what time everything needs to happen. And I always try to serve something that's hot, something that's room temperature, and something that's cold or just needs to be reheated. That way you're really only making one thing. One thing I can handle. Three things? My brain starts going "Aarrrgghhh."

Julie Ruble: But you're Ina!

Ina Garten: Here's the dirty little secret: I'm not that good a cook. I think I'm a good taster. I know when a recipe tastes right and when it doesn't. But I'm really not a comfortable, relaxed cook. Cooking is stressful. Bobby Flay can just go into a kitchen, saute something and it comes out perfect. I'm not that person. But that's what connects me to readers: I know how challenging cooking can be. I just try to make it a little easier.


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