In 1923, English mountaineer George Mallory was asked, “Why climb Mt. Everest?” “Because it’s there,” he famously answered.

Now, as the holiday season moves into full swing you might well ask, “Why make your own specialty baking ingredients when you can easily buy them ready-made?”

My answer? Because you can.

Most of us bakers like a good challenge every now and then, particularly one that pits store-bought against homemade. When a craving for America’s #1 cookie (Oreos, of course) strikes, do you automatically run to the supermarket? Perish the thought — hello, Faux-Reos! Tasked with providing fresh whipped cream for a friend’s dinner party dessert, do you break down and buy whipped cream in a can? Nope, not when all you need to make your own is a cup of cream and a Mason jar. (Yeah, really!)

If you’re a baker who loves coloring outside the lines, you might be convinced to make your own ingredients simply because you can. And also because homemade ingredients are:

  • Super-fresh and packed with flavor
  • Free of added chemicals, colors, or preservatives
  • Customizable to taste
  • Easily scaled up or down for quantity
  • Often less expensive than store-bought versions
Orange peel simmering in simple syrup in a saucepan. Rossi Anastopoulo
Thinly sliced orange peel simmered in simple syrup yields tangy-sweet, chewy candied peel, perfect for a variety of holiday breads and cookies.

But what about the time spent? Surely it’s quicker and easier to buy rather than make. Well, you could say that about anything homemade, right? Chocolate chip cookies, sourdough bread, birthday cake — they’re all readily available for purchase. Yet you bake them at home over and over again because you love both the process and the results.

The same is true for the following holiday-friendly ingredients. Whether a classic Christmas Stollen is calling your name, you need the title ingredient for your Candied Cherry and Almond Biscotti, or you prefer homemade caramel sauce to bottled for your Caramel Pecan Cheesecake — we’ve got you covered.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what to give to your baking buddies who already own everything a foodie could ever want or need? Treat them to a homemade ingredient (or two, or three) to feed their passion, of course — wrapped up in a pretty package and tied with a bow!

Homemade almond paste shaped into a log and sliced on a cutting board, surrounded by unskinned almonds. Liz Neily
Fresh, homemade almond paste is a piece of cake! And its fresh, clean taste can't be beat.

1) Fresh almond paste

Ever searched the aisles of your supermarket for almond paste, finally finding it on a bottom shelf in a size that’s just shy of what you actually need? Once you make almond paste yourself, you’ll never need to resort to the store-bought tube (or can) again. Plus, with its relatively long shelf life in the fridge, you can make a big batch now and use it right up through Epiphany (January 6) — which Christians traditionally celebrate with this Almond Galette.

Enjoy it in: Cherry Almond Coffeecake, Almond Cloud Cookies, Chocolate Almond Coffeecake

Homemade boiled cider in a couple of decorative gifts jars, whole apples in the background. Anne Mientka
There's nothing like rich, thick, homemade boiled cider for taking any apple dish over the top. Drizzle it into pie filling, cake or muffin batter, vanilla frosting — or simply spoon it over your morning oats.

2) DIY boiled cider

Boiled cider adds intense apple flavor anywhere you choose to use it. Whether you simply want to enhance the taste of an apple-based dessert or surprise people with a touch of apple where they least expect it (Apple Cider Caramels), boiled cider is a genius ingredient.

Enjoy it in: Butternut Cider Sage Bread, Caramel Apple Biscuits, Cider Gingerbread Bundt Cake

Homemade candied cherries in a clear glass bowl sitting atop a cream-colored dish towel. John Sherman
Make your own candied cherries, and YOU control just how moist and soft they turn out. No more hard, stale cherries in your biscotti.

3) Candied cherries

A shortage of candied cherries on supermarket shelves a couple of years ago inspired the King Arthur test kitchen bakers to make their own. This resulting simple recipe yields moist, plump, flavorful candied cherries, quite unlike the dry, lackluster ones you might buy at the store.

Enjoy them in: Stollen Bites, Gluten-Free Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Quick Fruitcake

Small bowl of candied citrus peel Rossi Anastopoulo
Sliced, simmered in syrup, and sugared: This candied peel is ready to take your favorite cakes and cookies to the next level.

4) Candied peel

If you think you don’t like candied citrus peel, it’s probably because you’ve never had GOOD candied peel. These intensely flavored, moist-sugary strips of orange, lemon, lime, or even grapefruit are equally good as an ingredient or garnish.  

Enjoy it in: Panforte, Christmas Brandied Mince Tarts, Easy Florentines

Caramel sauce being drizzled over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Liz Neily
Does your store-bought caramel sauce look this scrumptious? Didn't think so. 

5) Caramel sauce

There’s caramel sauce in a jar; and caramel sauce you get from melting caramel candies. And then there’s homemade caramel sauce, a slow-simmered elixir of heavy cream, butter, sugar, and vanilla. When stacked up against store-bought taste-wise — well, I know which one I’d choose!

Enjoy it in (or on): Caramel-Apple Cinnamon Buns, Chef Zeb’s Hot Milk Cake, Apple Pie Bars

Hot fudge sauce being poured over a dish of vanilla ice cream. John Sherman
Hot fudge sauce from a jar never tastes (or looks) as good as homemade

6) Hot fudge sauce

Been there (the ice cream shop). Had that (hot fudge sauce dripping over your sundae bowl of vanilla bean ice cream). Don’t limit that fudge sauce to the scoop-shop; make your own and be prepared to drizzle it atop all manner of tasty treats!

Enjoy it on: Easy Mini Puffs, Mocha Madness Ice Cream Pie, Fudge Waffles with Ice Cream and Chocolate Sauce

Lemon curd in a bowl surrounded by eggs, squeezed lemon halves, and a hand-held juicer. Liz Neily
Store-bought lemon curd can be quite expensive; so what's stopping you from making your own? Try this classic recipe (above), or our Easy Microwave Lemon Curd.

7) Lemon curd

What’s lemon “curd”? Think lemon meringue pie filling — but without the typical gluey cornstarch texture. This smooth spread and filling is lemon at its most luxurious. And when you make lemon curd at home, its fresh flavor really shines.

Enjoy it in: Linzer Cookies, Panettone Bread Pudding with Lemon Filling, Braided Lemon Bread

Homemade marshmallow spread spooned into an assortment of jars and glasses. Shilpa Iyer
Spoon it into hot chocolate. Use it to fill sandwich cookies or a layer cake. Homemade Marshmallow Spread is the creme of the crop!

8) Marshmallow spread

Perhaps best known for pairing with peanut butter in an iconic sandwich (the “Fluffernutter”), marshmallow spread is also the key ingredient in old-fashioned whoopie pie filling. Who’d ever think of making your own, right? Just try DIY marshmallow spread, with its engaging hint of vanilla, and you’ll be hooked.

Enjoy it in: Kyle’s Whoopie Pies, Mississippi Mud Cake, Mile-High Meringue Pie

Logs of dark and white modeling chocolate on a cutting board, partially sliced Rick Holbrook
If you're tired of the bland flavor of fondant flowers and gum paste garnishes, try Modeling Chocolate

9) Modeling chocolate

This shapeable chocolate (aka chocolate clay) is a great stand-in for potentially one-dimensional fondant or gum paste when you’re looking for rich chocolate flavor in your cake and pastry decorations. While not pipeable, it’s beautifully “sculptable;” simply knead it a few times with your warm hands and it softens into a Play-Doh type consistency, perfect for turning into tiny animals (think chocolate teddy bears), pressing into flower molds, or more.

Enjoy it on: While we don’t yet have any recipes specifically calling for modeling chocolate, we think it would be ideal for dressing up a Yule Log (Classic Bûche de Noël), Black Sesame Cake, or when constructing your own gingerbread house. 

Decorative bottles of homemade vanilla extract, some with vanilla beans inside, plus vanilla bans on the counter beside them. Anne Mientka
Choose your variety of bean (Madagascar? Tahitian?), select your spirit, and soon you'll have the pleasure of baking with your own homemade, tweaked-to-taste vanilla extract.

10) Homemade vanilla extract

Yes, you absolutely can make your own vanilla extract. All it takes is vanilla beans, your choice of vodka, brandy, or another neutral-flavored spirit — and time. It’s actually too late to make DIY vanilla extract for your holiday baking this year, but tuck this tip in your back pocket for next year. Make it now, and by spring you’ll be using your DIY vanilla every chance you get.

Enjoy it in: Vanilla Sugar Cookies, Sourdough Cinnamon Crumb Cake, Classic Birthday Cake

Interested in turning plain granulated sugar into something more? See how to make flavor-infused sugar and toasted sugar, either perfect for a new twist on one of our favorite sugar cookies, Vanilla Dreams.

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The Author

About PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was an award-winning Maine journalist (favorite topics: sports and food) before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. Hired to write the newly launched Baker’s Catalogue, PJ became the small but growing company’s sixth employee.PJ wa...
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