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Karen DeMasco

Chef Karen DeMasco
© Locanda Verde

F&W Star Chef

As pastry chef at Locanda Verde in New York City, Karen DeMasco creates amazing desserts like the restaurant’s popular maple budino. Here, she shares tips for making holiday sweets and more.

What are your favorite holiday food gifts?
I love to make jam in the summer, like apricot or summer berry, then save it for holiday gifts for close friends and family. Then closer to the day, I make gingerbread or pound cake to give with it. It requires a little planning, but it’s actually easy if you do plan. I’ll buy a couple of cases of 4-, 6- or 8-ounce Ball jars. But you’re not stuck if you want to do some preserving now—you can do winter jams like quince butter or cranberry-orange marmalade. And if you don’t want to can, period, there are simpler things like caramel popcorn, or spiced nuts, or different kinds of brittle that hold well that people appreciate. If you do a couple of them, they look beautiful in one package together.

What’s your favorite holiday cocktail?
I’m usually a wine person. I love something festive like a glass of Champagne with some blood orange puree. I’m a rosé person all summer, and then I veer more toward whites in winter, whites that are a little heavier, a little more warming, like Marisa Cuomo’s Furore Bianco Fiorduva. We tasted one in our managers’ meeting yesterday; we were all saying it would be perfect to drink in colder weather; more viscous, really warming, with a beautiful golden color, it would hold up to something like a veal chop, where you’d tend to go toward a lighter red.

Can you share a great entertaining tip?
It’s the one thing I always try to hold myself to and never do: Don’t try a new recipe when you’re having people over! Stick to the tried and true; it’s less stressful, and a stressed-out hostess is no fun for anyone. One winter I was having people over and I wanted to make this huge chocolate soufflé. I’d never tried it before in my home oven, and it never cooked, it was a complete disaster. It would have been so much better to do brownies!

What are 5 top don’t-miss places on a holiday trip to New York City?

  1. Ice-skating in Bryant Park is an annual tradition, it makes me feel like it’s the holidays. You pay to rent skates, but the skating is free.
  2. I love to go to one of my favorite restaurants, Gramercy Tavern, where I worked so many years ago. It’s always so beautifully decorated during the holidays (though it’s beautifully decorated year-round.)
  3. After lunch or dinner at Gramercy Tavern, I love to go to the Union Square Holiday Market, which is a cool marketplace to wander through for gifts.
  4. I love to check out the beautiful decorations at ABC Carpet & Home. I could spend so much time in there looking around at all the tiny details. It’s expensive, but we usually will get one or two Christmas ornaments as a special treat.
  5. Breakfast at Balthazar is such a New York thing to do, and around the holidays there’s such great shopping around SoHo.

What’s your most requested recipe, the one dish you’re most known for?
Our maple budino got a lot of press when I first put it on the menu, and now people ask for it all year. Budino is the Italian word for “pudding,” so it’s a maple pudding. People come into the restaurant in July looking for this dessert, though it’s definitely for fall and winter. Its comfort food: You eat it and it makes you feel all warm inside.

What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
I’m a huge cookbook collector, so this is an impossible question. At the moment I’m loving Pure Dessert, by Alice Medrich. It’s so ingredient-focused, and every recipe I’ve tried from the book is perfect. She’s given me a lot of inspiration, a lot of good ideas, like she infused milk with cocoa nibs to make a gelato, so I now do it, too, for that milky chocolate flavor. She has a great lemon tart here that I’ve actually based my lemon tart recipe on.

I also love Jim Lahey’s book My Pizza: The Easy No-Knead Way to Make Spectacular Pizza at Home. My kids love making pizza, and he’s got a great recipe that you start the day before.

My other two favorites right now would be Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson and Eric Wolfinger, and Rachel Saunders’s Blue Chair Jam Cookbook. Tartine Bread has a great method for croissants, which I’ve been working on, and I love its whole bread philosophy. In fact we have a starter now in our pastry department, thanks to them. I’ve built up a lot of preserving recipes over the years, but I’ve added some to my repertoire from the Blue Chair book. She’s also a great educator. I love that she doesn’t use any pectin, but thickens them all with natural fruit and lemon juice.

Among my standbys, one of my all-time favorites is Classic Home Desserts, by Richard Sax. Ever since I started out I’ve loved it, and every once in a while I go back to it. His style is comforting and simple, and he’s got great stories—he always tells you where the desserts are coming from, little facts about each one.

And I always have loved Baking with Julia (by Dorie Greenspan and Julia Child). My copy at home is tattered and flour-stained. It’s got such well-written recipes, ones I used a lot when I was first learning, a lot of basics in there you can build upon to do fancier things.

What’s one technique everyone should know?
How to make a biscuit. If you make biscuits, you can make scones, cobblers, potpie and other casserole-types of things, and biscuits are very similar in technique to pie dough, so you’re halfway to pie. Biscuits and pie dough are two things that I find people are intimidated by, that really aren’t that hard.

For both, just keep your butter really cold, cut it into small pieces, and pulse it in a food processor with the dry ingredients until there are still visible chunks of butter, almost a pebble texture.

It’s also important to mix the dough enough. I find people under-mix both biscuits and pie dough, because they’re too worried about overworking it. But when it’s under-mixed, it’s difficult to work with. So once you’ve reached that pebble consistency, add all the liquid ingredients and pulse them in until the dough actually does start to come together. Then dump it into a bowl and press it together with your hands. And really press it, until it holds together with ease.

There are also lots of ways to shape biscuits: You can roll them out and cut them out, or take an ice cream scooper and scoop them onto a baking sheet or cobbler filling. Then just flatten each one at the top a little bit so that it bakes evenly.

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4 recipes by Chef Karen DeMasco
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