It’s never too early to get a head start on your holiday cookie planning. Gifting the most memorable morsel is truly the reason for the season, right? Well, not so much, but it will surely make you the most talked-about employee at the annual office party. And who can put a price on workplace popularity?

Whether you’re a newb to the oven or hoping to perfect your baking skills, you’ll want to grab chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh’s SWEET cookbook. Chockfull of tips, tricks, and drool-worthy recipes, the dynamic duo will have anyone feeling like a pastry pro in a matter of minutes.

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We caught up with Chef Ottolenghi to ask him about his favorite food secrets, trends, and advice for the holidays. Scroll down to check them out, as well as three delicious recipes you can add to your upcoming dessert exchanges.

What’s an easy way to jazz up traditional holiday cookie flavors like sugar or gingerbread?

Add some pieces of finely chopped crystallized ginger to gingerbread cookie dough before baking. In terms of ground spices, play around with things like allspice and ground cardamom. Ground star anise is also a lovely addition to all sorts of cakes and cookies.

What is the most under-appreciated fall ingredient used in baking? 

Lemon zest, always lemon zest. Or any other citrus, as well…orange or lime. It just makes everything taste of fall.

Can you explain your approach to pairing different fruits with different chocolates and spices? How much of it is experimenting vs. tried and true flavor combos? 

I love fruits in all sorts of combination and with all sorts of chocolate. It’s often a really useful way to cut through the richness of chocolate—raspberries or blackberries, for example—or else it can be there to add a bit of welcome color. Against dark chocolate, pink raspberries or something orange like gooseberries look fantastic. To a certain extent you can’t really go wrong, though, within limits, in terms of experimenting with the fruit and spices you want to pair with chocolate. So long as the quantities stay in line with those given in a recipe, then home cooks should be led by what they like. There is no reason that a pinch of black pepper or chili flakes or some flaked sea salt can’t work in a chocolate cake, for example. These sorts of substitutes are not going to alter the consistency of the bake in a way that substituting one wet ingredient with another would.

What’s your favorite go-to dessert recipe that’s impressive enough to share with guests, but easy enough to throw together last minute?

I know it doesn’t seem like it, but a rolled pavlova is perfect for this. You can make the meringue well ahead of time and then just whip up the cream, dot it with fruit, and roll up before your guests arrive. Lots of puddings can be made well in advance, though, and just sit in the fridge until ready to serve…a little lime leaf posset, for example, panna cotta or crème caramel. Or something like a knickerbocker glory is great as you can get all the various elements ready in advance: the fruit and the cream and the semifreddo and the nuts, and then just assemble it when you’re ready to serve.

What is the most overrated dessert trend?

I was not at all convinced by cheesecake, to be honest, until Helen showed me the way in the making of SWEET. I’m now a convert. A heavy chocolate cheesecake is still a bit too epic for me, though.

Do you notice differences in British and American dessert palates? If so, what?

My hunch is that Americans have a sweeter palate, but I’m not actually sure how true this is. I think I’m just going by the chocolate, which can be a lot sweeter. Brits always say “I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t (have dessert),” but then invariably do. Is this just a British thing?

Chocolate, Banana, and Pecan Cookies

Peden + Munk

Chocolate, banana, and pecan are a tried-and-true trio. Enjoying them in cookie form is our new favorite holiday pastime. Get the recipe.

Middle Eastern Millionaire’s Shortbread

Peden + Munk

You don’t have to be a millionaire to make a shortbread that tastes like a million bucks. Give these halva and tahini caramel delights a shot and you’ll be one step closer to high roller status. Get the recipe.

Belinda’s Flourless Coconut and Chocolate Cake

Peden + Munk

These gluten-free loaves may lack flour, but not flavor. In fact, they are jam-packed with coconut and topped with a decadent chocolate syrup. Sounds like a good enough excuse to indulge. Get the recipe.

Header image courtesy of Peden + Munk.

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