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Denver Pastry Chefs Dish on the Holidays

Elizabeth Mackey
Elizabeth Mackey
Photo: Adam Larkey

During the holidays, the city's sweet tooth is working overtime. In the midst of all the gingerbread, buche de noel, and persimmon pudding, it's near impossible to say no to dessert this time of year. Between extra shifts at work and ugly sweater parties, Eater asked some Sugar Files alumni— Denver's pastry pros— to share their thoughts on favorite holiday pastries and memories.

Name your favorite Christmas cookie to eat.
Jen Bush of Lucky's Bakehouse: I love thumbprints; they are so versatile. I love the beauty, simplicity and old-fashioned comfort they provide. You can make them a bit fancier by rolling them in pistachios and putting a dollop of orange marmalade in the center. Or dress them down, with centers filled with a colorful array of poured royal icing. Either way, they are just a nice addition to any cookie plate.

Christopher Jordan of The Four Seasons (formerly of Denver, now in Qatar): The Danish sugar cookies that came in a round blue tin that were always in my grandmother's house around the holidays.

Eric Dale of Rioja: I have two favorites. At Thanksgiving my grandma would make miniature pecan pies about the size of a silver dollar. She would bake 12 dozen of them and freeze half to bring out at Christmas. They were so good we would often sneak into the freezer and snitch some. The other is Greek kourambiedes, a delicate butter cookie that melts in your mouth.

Elizabeth Mackey of Devil's Food: Kolacky are my favorite. Polish cookies made with melt-in-your-mouth pastry folded over a fruit filling and dusted with powdered sugar. Then those peanut butter blossoms with the Hershey's Kiss in the middle. I could eat dozens of either in one sitting.

Justin Hoffman of Fuel Café: Gingersnaps. They're delicious.

Noah French of Sugarmill: Moravian spice cookies. I love the molasses and spice flavor. They're usually super thin, so you can eat a bunch and not feel guilty.

What is your favorite holiday dessert to make?
Giulia De Meo of Fior Di Latte: Pandoro with Mascarpone cheese cream.

Jen Bush: Paris-Brest -the traditional French pastry. It was created in 1891 to commemorate the bicycle race between Paris and Brest. The circular shape represents a wheel. It is pate a choux, piped in a circular shape then baked until puffed like a cream puff. It is topped with rock sugar and filled with a rich hazelnut praline pastry cream and topped with spun sugar.

Christopher Jordan: Stollen.

Eric Dale: I love any excuse to make a cheesecake so at Christmas I bring out the eggnog and coffee to create an eggnog latte cheesecake.

Elizabeth Mackey: I don't go in for elaborate desserts for Christmas. I stick with my nostalgic platter of cookies and chocolates. If someone wants to make me a buche de Noel or stollen, I'll take it.

Noah French: I truly enjoy making bouche de Noel cakes. I love decorating the outside to be as festive as possible, which might include little snowmen, Santas, holly leaves, meringue, and mushrooms. When I complete one of these traditional holiday cakes, they are quite fun and unique.

What has been your biggest holiday kitchen disaster?
Jen Bush: One year I made candy coal. You add black gel paste, baking soda, and mint extract to boiling sugar. The black sugar foamed up and over the saucepan, while the strong mint smell permeated my nose. The problem is, I am allergic to mint, and the sneezing-fit made me spill the molten black candy all over the counter. Chisseling the hard black candy off the counter while in the throws of a terrible sneezing fit was no fun.

Christopher Jordan: Taking hours to assemble a four-foot croquembouche in my shop and then having someone dump a huge pot of boiling water in the sink next to where I was working. The humidity made the caramel melt and the entire thing collapsed 35 minutes before I needed to have it finished. I reassembled it in 28 minutes. It looked really bad!

Eric Dale: One year at a church potluck, we had 40 people coming for Christmas dinner and one of my friends assured us he would take care of the turkey. He started roasting a 20-pound turkey at noon when we were going to eat at five p.m. At five he pulled out the turkey and low and behold it was still raw, he carved off the "cooked" meat and plated it without telling anyone. By the time I got to the buffet table all of the turkey was gone. I was so mad that I didn't get any…until the next day when everyone who ate turkey was sick.

Noah French: A couple of years ago when I was working in Barbados, we had a tropical storm blow over the island a few days before Christmas. The hotel was at 100% occupancy. The strong winds knocked out the power at 7 a.m., which meant we had no lights, no ovens, and no refrigeration. I was preparing desserts by candlelight for the breakfast and lunch buffets. Many of the staff were stranded and couldn't even get to work. It was one pastry cook and myself to feed 500 people. The power did come back on around 4 p.m. Just in time for dinner service. So, in the end we pulled it off, barely.

What is your favorite childhood memory from the holidays?
Jen Bush: Putting out the cookies for Santa. We would give him such a nice selection of cookies, all homemade by my mother. Then carrots for the reindeer and little pieces of cheese for Santa's mouse. The cute little mouse that travels along side Santa.

Giulia De Meo: Making the Christmas tree with my dad in Venice, Italy, while listening to Christmas music.

Christopher Jordan: Getting together before the holidays with the whole family and making tamales in my grandmother's kitchen. Being a California Mexican-Irish family, this was always a great Saturday for me growing up. I hated having to stand there all day making dozens and dozens, but always loved eating them.

Eric Dale: My first grade Christmas production of The Candy Man where I played, what else, the candy man. I had a four-foot tall lollipop that I wouldn't let go of for a week.

Elizabeth Mackey: My entire extended family on my mom's side, which is predominantly Polish, would celebrate on Christmas Eve at my grandparent's house. Every year we'd eat mushroom soup, fried fish and shrimp, pierogies, Polish sausage, sauerkraut, and more. My favorite part were the heaps of my grandma's homemade Eastern European-style cookies that I'd eat all night long, as well as dishes of chocolates and candies all over the place. Every year my grandpa would sneak off while we were otherwise distracted and come back from outside fully dressed up as Santa Claus with a bag of gifts for everyone. I seriously didn't have a clue it was my grandpa until I was in fifth grade.

Justin Hofmann: Every year we would go to my grandma's house for Christmas Eve and play Uno. Then we could open one present before bed. My Grandma would wake all of us up at 6 a.m. with loud Christmas music. We would open stockings, eat breakfast, and just hang out.

Noah French: My father was an MIT graduate with a degree in geology. He is probably the last person you would think would know how to bake, but every holiday season, it was a tradition for him to make a cinnamon cake. The cake was very similar to a monkey bread. He would also make amazing carrot bread. This is probably why I have an affinity for cinnamon, it reminds me of coming down the stairs on Christmas morning.

Justin Hofmann of Fuel Cafe on Goofy Dancing, Making Pop Tarts, and Loving Fruit Desserts [EDen]
Hooked on Gelato and Sorbet: Fior di Latte Brings the Italian Frozen Treat to Boulder [EDen]
Rioja's Pastry Chef Eric Dale on Working for Jennifer Jasinski, Ghosts at Rioja and More [EDen]
Elizabeth Mackey of Devil's Food on Pastry Pet Peeves, What She Craves When She's Not at Work [EDen]

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