Watch it! Baking time is to be used as a guide. The dessert is done when it is done. I rarely use the time listed in a recipe. Check often and before it is supposed to be done. Nothing is worse than an overcooked dessert (well many things are worse in life, but in baking this is probably it!)
Always peek at the recipe the day before you plan to bake it. Double check that you have all the ingredients in your pantry or refrigerator because for some reason it is extra annoying to rush out right before you bake. (At least I feel that way.)
Before you bake (on the same day) – read the recipe again and set up ingredients. This is called mise en placeand in French it means everything in position. That way you won’t forget to add ingredients because they will be weighed and measured and on the counter – in front of you. This will also help you to remember to pull eggs or other ingredients to room temperature.
If possible, the day before I plan to bake I prepare what I can in advance. I might measure the flour and other dry ingredients, chop the chocolate (as directed) or weigh and place in a bowl, ground the chocolate covered espresso beans, etc. All the little things you can do will make baking that much easier.
Pre-heat oven and let it reach baking temperature for best results. Try to bake using the upper and lower thirds of the oven racks. And remember it is best to rotate baked goods halfway through cooking.
Taste batters. Just a little. You may have forgotten the sugar – or something else and when you taste it – it can help you remember. This happened to me once at the hotel. I forgot the sugar and the chocolate batter tasted awful. Luckily I was able to add the sugar (albeit out of order) but was able to salvage the dessert and the cost of the chocolate. Also taste for spices and salt. You can add more or less depending on your taste. Try to develop the desserts as you like them.
Wash fruits before you bake with them. Especially when you are using the fruit’s zest. Try to use only the colored part of the zest – do not dig down with your microplane or grater because the white part – under the skin is very bitter.
Try to bring eggs to room temperature when possible. Place on counter 30-60 minutes before you bake. If you forgot then place eggs in a bowl of warm water for 5-10 minutes. Use large eggs in most recipes – or what is specified. When you add sugar to eggs or especially egg yolks, you need to mix the two ingredients because the sugar can “burn” the yolk when just sitting on it for a while. When you crack an egg – crack it on the counter and not the side of the bowl to better avoid (little pieces of) shell breakage and shells in your dessert.
Use salt! I prefer kosher salt – Diamond Crystal. It is easy on your palate. I like salt in most desserts – even just a pinch! If you are sensitive to salt, then pull it from the recipe. And if using table salt (but try not to!) use a bit less than the recipe calls for. If you are looking for a fine sea salt, try Malden – it is great with caramels and a lovely flake.
Tough cookies and cakes can be caused by badly measured flour. Don’t pack flour or shake measuring cup. First aerate the flour with a spoon or whisk. Then lightly spoon flour into measuring cup – just filling it. A cup of flour should weigh about 5 ounces. Too much mixing after the flour has been added to the moist ingredients in the batter can also result in a tough cookie or a heavy crumb in a cake – as well as a cake with a high rise – domed top. Just mix in flour – really try not to over mix.
I’ve read a lot about bleached vs. unbleached flour. Bleached adds some chemicals but also makes for a more delicate crumb. Unbleached has less additives, but can make your cookies less delicate. It is a toss up. Try both…see what you think. Different pastry chefs believe different things and the jury is still out for me.
HOW TO SOFTEN HARD BROWN SUGAR (from tipnut.com):
- Quick Tip #1: Need the sugar soft now? Put the brown sugar in a container and place in the microwave with a small bowl full of water beside it. Microwave for about 1 minute–check. If it’s still hard, try for another 30 seconds. You can keep doing this until the sugar is soft, but watch that you don’t melt the sugar.
- Quick Tip #2: Place the hardened sugar in a baking pan and set in oven (temperature at about 250° F). Check after 5 minutes. If still not soft, continue checking every few minutes until it’s soft and ready to use.
- Quick Tip #3: Place the brown sugar chunk in a microwave safe plastic bag. Take a square of paper towel and moisten with water (not dripping wet–wring out excess). Place the wet paper towel in the bag with the sugar and seal. Place in the microwave for approximately 20 seconds. If still not soft, microwave for a few seconds more, repeating until the sugar is ready to use. Be careful not to melt the sugar.
- Quick Tip #4: Stick chunks of the brown sugar in a food processor or blender and chop/pulse until useable.
Go crazy with mix ins – chips, nuts, dried fruits etc, but measure the dry ingredients accurately (baking soda and powder, and flour as above.) Also make sure your baking powder and soda are not past the expiration date.
Use liquid measuring cups for liquids, honey, molasses, yogurt, sour cream, etc. Use dry measuring cups for all dry ingredients such as flour, sugar and brown sugars. They are different – so use the right measuring tool for your purpose.
Use the best quality chocolate that you can afford. I like to use bittersweet chocolate in all recipes that call for dark chocolate as it has more flavor than semi-sweet. I like Callebaut, Guittard, Scharffen Berger and Valrohna – but fiddle around and see what you like! Use a good quality milk chocolate – it is important as well. I like the same makers from above with the addition of El Ray. Same goes for white chocolate. I like Callebaut the best – but again, see what you like. World Wide Chocolates and Chocosphere sell many chocolates. And the Baker’s Catologue does too – especially in smaller quantities.
Use bar chocolate for melting and use your chocolate chips for chocolate chips. Sounds obvious I know. Melt chocolate gently. As gently as you can. Melt it, do not cook it. This is true with all chocolates, but especially important with milk and white chocolates because these chocolates burn more easily than dark. Store chocolate in a cool, dry place. Wrap it in foil once you have opened it. You can freeze chocolate if you buy in bulk. Bake chocolate cookies on parchment (versus the baking sheet) to prevent the edges from scorching before the centers are cooked.
Use good quality unsalted butter. That way you can control the amount of salt in your recipes. If a recipe calls for softened butter – it means softened, not melted. Butter should be malleable – not so soft it looks greasy. Leave out for 20-30 minutes before you bake for best results. If you leave out too long, your cookies will spread and flatten. If you must, microwave on defrost on lowest setting for very short spurts until just soft. Don’t rush the “creaming the butter” stage in cookies and cakes. It is vital in making a light and fluffy batter or dough.
Use good quality – and not artificial vanilla. I love the double strength vanilla extract from Penzey’s spices. You can order it on-line from penzeys.com. (As well as many other spices and salts). It is probably better to skip the vanilla if you don’t have the real thing.
To scrape and seed a vanilla bean, place the long bean on a cutting board. With your paring knife, slice the bean lengthwise – from top to bottom all the way down and through. Open it up and you will see soft brown inside. With the back of your knife, scrape the seed gently (while holding the end of the pod) collecting all the goodness from inside. These are the seeds and they should be on your knife. The pod contains more flavor and seeds and is often added to marinating liquids or ice creams – and pulled out later. You can purchase at the grocery or get a bunch from penzeys.com – store them in an airtight container or they dry out.
When making caramel, use caution. It is incredibly hot and can be dangerous-use very long spoon when you have to incorporate cream into it. To clean the caramel coated pot, just boil fresh water in it and the caramel will melt.
It is really important to grease and flour your bundt pans. For a bundt pan with many crevices, I soften the butter and almost melt it – then with a pastry brush I get in to all the nooks and crannies. I love the Anniversary bundt pan from Williams-Sonoma and it rarely sticks. And I also love the pans from Nordicware - there are so many beautiful pans and cakes come out evenly browned.
For loaf pans and sheet pans, I like to use a soft butter – not melted – and hold a chunk of butter with a paper towel and rub all around. Then lightly coat with flour – tapping out excess. Your cakes should then pop out easily. You can also use a cooking spray, but I like butter best. When using round or square baking pans, or loaf pans - your best bet is to take the extra step and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper. Butter the bottom first, line with parchment, then butter and flour as instructed above. If you have too much batter for your bundt pan, just make a small test cake on the side with the extra batter. Do not try to stuff all the cake into a too small pan.
If you want, instead of lining a square pan with butter and parchment on the bottom, you can line it with parchment or foil so that it comes all the way up the sides of the baking pan. (To line the pan with foil, simply turn the pan upside down and form the shape with the foil. Then turn pan over and place the already shaped foil inside the pan.) If you are making brownies, blondies or a sticky something, you can then simple pull the baked good from the pan, using the parchment/foil to aid you – as shown below…
Use parchment paper over and over and over again. I like to get half sheets of parchment that fit nicely over my half sheet pans. Makes it verrry easy. You can buy parchment like this at The Bakers Catalogue.
If a dessert is dry or over baked – serve it with ice cream or whipped cream. If a cake you can save it with a simple syrup – a flavored one that goes with the dessert – lemon, rum, coffee — and brush on the cake before you frost. This is good even if not over baked! If a dessert falls apart or is dry as above – turn it into a trifle! Layer with whip cream or ice cream, chocolate sauce or puddings, fruit or fruit sauces.
I like to make extra cookie dough whenever I make cookies. In many cases, I can roll the extra dough into a log and wrap in parchment or plastic wrap and freeze until the next time I need fresh baked cookies. Look at the bottom of the oatmeal cookie recipe for more instruction.
It’s great if you have a stand mixer for cakes and cookies. It is easier and more efficient than a hand mixer and more sturdy. Although hand mixers are great for meringues and lighter batters.
Good quality baking sheets can be really helpful. I like these heavy half sheet pans – and use them ALL the time.
Offset spatulas are one of my favorite tools. They are great for spreading brownies and bars in pans or for frosting cakes.
Bowl scrapers are great too because they help you get every last bit of batter out of a bowl. Which is important – no waste and easier clean up and of course more sweets to eat.
An extra big spatula is one of my favorites for folding batters. I use mine all the time.
A kitchen scale is also important for measuring ingredients. Purchase a simple scale that has a “tare” button – which is a simple way to reset the scale to zero when you’ve placed a mixing bowl or a cup on top of it.
Quality baking sheets. I like to use restaurant quality half sheet pans. And parchment paper sheets – sized to the half sheet pan. Saves time, and waste.
A grater – the microplane grater is great for zesting fruits, grating fresh nutmeg or for garlic and ginger in savory cooking. It is a great tool!
Food processor – to ground nuts, doughs and cookies
Ice cream machine – they are so easy to use and affordable these days. In addition to ice cream, you can make sorbets, sherbets, frozen yogurts and slush drinks. I happen to like Cuisinart’s 2 quart model – it is on sale for 50.00 bucks. The 1.5 quart model is also good. And if you have a kitchen aid mixer – there is an ice cream attachment that you can purchase and your done!
Plastic wrap – Stretch-tite plastic wrap is the best one around – and I just read about Freeze-tite which is even better protects your baked goods in the freezer. I leaned that there are little microscopic holes plastic wrap that allow air to circulate – to help your produce from spoiling. But these little airholes are not great for the freezer. So Freeze-tite was born. I just ordered it online.
Cake boxes and cake boards found at sugarcraft.com
Obviously many other tools, but these are stand outs to me.
Great things to stock in your pantry and refrigerator so you are almost ready to bake at a moments notice. Your shopping list might not seem as overwhelming if you generally stock some of these items. Just pay attention to how much you bake. Many items in pantry and refrigerator expire (some sooner than later) so if you are not baking often, wait and shop as you need. But if you are an avid baker, go for it.
Pantry: flour, sugar, brown sugar (more light than dark) baking soda, baking powder, salt, cocoa (natural and unsweetened, black cocoa), chocolate chips – I love Nestles for semi-sweet (a variety), bar chocolate (unsweetened, semi, bitter, milk and white) – or morsels (see above in chocolate section), cornstarch, whole wheat flour, cake flour, oatmeal (quick cooking and old-fashioned), canola or vegetable oil, dried fruits, a variety of nuts, molasses, graham cracker crumbs, marshmallows, spices (cinnamon, ground ginger, allspice, ground cloves, cardamon, ground nutmeg), vanilla extract (see above), and vanilla beans, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk…
Refrigerator: large eggs, unsalted butter, plain yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream, bar cream cheese, jam, whole milk, heavy cream, fruit.
BAKE WHAT YOU LOVE!
More to come…