Sometimes the whole baking process can be very intimidating. It is a science! Precise measurements are almost always a must, which makes recipe creation and experimenting a frustrating process at times. You can't just add a dash of this and a dash of that like with cooking and have a perfect product. It's that fine balance of ingredients and technique which will give you the perfect rise on your cake, just the right amount of crisp on your cookies, the comforting tender bite from your cinnamon rolls, and the incredibly smooth texture of a decadent chocolate mousse.
To be frank, the main reasoning behind my decision to go to culinary school specifically for Patisserie and Baking was for the science-y piece. I wanted a deeper understanding of what difference that extra 1/8 of a teaspoon of baking powder in my cake recipe would actually make, or why I was even bothering to level out my measuring scoop at all. I am really good at eyeballing a cup of flour, but quickly found out its not a good tactic to guess how much you are using when you are messing around with making your own recipes. I figured learning all of the basics of baking would take some of the frustration out of recipe creation, and to a certain extent it did. Don't get me wrong, it is still a guessing game to a certain extent, but I understand the process a lot better.
Now for all of my home-baker-homies, looking to replicate delicious-sounding recipes, I thought it would be helpful to provide my top 7 tips for easy baking success. Some of these might sound obvious, but you would be surprised how often we forget to do the whole process and cut corners to get to the end... and then wonder why the recipe was a flop!
Ok, here we go!
Not an actual tip, Tips Prequel: Pick recipes that excite you and that you actually want to eat!
Tip 1: Read the whole recipe before you even begin.
I will actually skim through once, see if it sounds like something that I have the time and patience for, then read through it again more thoroughly to make sure I understand the steps completely. Every chef/author has their own way of writing a recipe and sometimes its not so clear what each step entails. If you can map out the process in your mind ahead of time, the whole process will seem more logical and achievable. Plus, you will avoid starting a recipe 15 minutes before your guests arrive that actually requires a couple hours of rise time for bread or marinating time for meats and such. It also makes it easier to replicate time and time again if you know the actual order of steps.
Tip 2: Mise en Place
C'mon, Katie, you know I don't speak French! Neither do I, but let me translate. Mise en Place means, "Everything In Its Place." That sounds like a Good Housekeeping tip, I know, but for baking and cooking it just means to have all your ingredients out and measured before you even begin the recipe....If the recipe says room temp butter, take the butter out ahead of time and let it come up to room temp. Measure out the rest of your ingredients and put them in bowls or cups within reach to move through the steps with ease. It might seem like a time consuming step, but if you find out three steps into the recipe you only have a 1/4 cup of brown sugar when the recipe calls for 1/2 cup you will have wished you measured everything out before you started. Plus, there is no stop-start once you get going. Tip 2a: Level off your measuring cups or spoons with the back of a knife when measuring dry ingredients. Or weigh them if those measurements are provided.
Tip 3: A well written recipe should have the ingredients listed in the order of use.
So, when in doubt prepare and add ingredients in the order in which they appear in the recipe. You will notice the dry ingredients often appear at the top of the ingredients list. This is because you are expected to sift or stir together and set aside. They often are not added to the wet ingredients until the end. The hierarchy of ingredients should help with the planning portion of the mise en place.
Tip 4: Preheat the oven... and maybe invest in an in-oven thermometer.
Make sure the oven comes completely up to temperature before you put the pan(s) in the oven. The monitoring thermometer is a great way to make sure your oven temp is precise. Even a five degree difference can make or break your cake. I am learning a whole new oven in this new apartment so the in-oven thermometer is really helpful!
Tip 5: Prepare your pans and baking sheets properly.
Speaking of breaking your cake, grease those pans! There is nothing more heartbreaking in the kitchen than when your cake will not come out of the pan... or worse when half of it comes out of the pan. So grease those babies up! Use cooking spray or butter, and remember a light coating goes a long way. We are not trying to add more fat to a recipe so use a light hand. If the recipe says to flour the pan, as well, DO IT! Silpats (silicone baking mats) are also a cookies best friend, sooo worth the investment!
Tip 6: Use a timer.
Always. I forget all the time that I have stuff in the oven. Even if you are just toasting some bread under the broiler, use that timer! Do you have a cell phone? You do? Then you don't have an excuse for overcooking your food. For my cakes and cookies, I also like to rotate the pan half way through the suggested baking time to get an even bake. Most ovens have hot and cold spots so this just ensures you are giving the whole cookie sheet equal love.
Tip 7: Relax.
Baking should be fun. It's not always perfect, and that's ok. Its still fun! And even if your cake is lopsided, it's still delicious. A little burnt bottom on your cookies? No problem, just take a microplaner to the bottom of those suckers. The kitchen is a happy place and dessert is a happy food. So pour yourself a glass of wine, relax, and enjoy the process. Seriously.
Happy Baking! Happy Eating!
Recipe: Pumpkin Spice Snickerdoodles
yields ~ 2 dozen cookies
The Bits and Bobs:
2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
4 tbsp unsalted butter, room temp
3 tbsp 2% fat greek yogurt
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup + 2 tbsp plain pumpkin (I use the canned stuff!)
1 whole + 1 yolk egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cloves
*** If you aren't a big fan of the Pumpkin Spice craze, make a normal snickerdoodle by taking out the pumpkin, increasing the butter to 1/2 cup, and increasing the yogurt to 1/3 cup... remove all the spices in the topping except for the cinnamon. Everything else is the same!***
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Mix together the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and set aside.
Beat together the butter, yogurt, and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the pumpkin and continue to beat until combined. Its ok if it looks a little curdled at this point. The flour will bring it back together. Beat in the egg and yolk and the vanilla extract. Scrape down the sides and beat for 1 minute more. Add the flour gradually and beat until just combined.
In a small bowl, stir together all the ingredients for the spice topping. Scoop small balls of the cookie dough and roll in the topping. Place each ball on a cookie sheet (I lined mine with my silicon baking mat) and press down slightly. Bake the cookies for 9-10 minutes. Allow to cool for a few minutes on the pan before putting on a cooling rack.