Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Technique Tuesday: Some Thoughts on Baking

During the holidays I find myself baking all the time. Whether it's just for my husband or to take over to a friend's house, there always seems to be something baking in my oven. I typically make 4-6 different types of cookie or bar for Christmas Eve and sometimes make homemade truffles for gifts. Whatever your holiday tradition, I know you'll agree that there's just something so special about home baked treats for your family and friends. I thought I would use this week's Technique Tuesday post to talk a little bit about some of the 'tricks' to turning out great baked goods.

1. Ingredient temperature is important
When you bake, you should make sure that your butter is room temperature (unless you're making a pie crust, then you will need very cold butter). Leave your eggs and liquids out of the fridge for 10 or so minutes to take the chill off of them. This will ensure that your ingredients mix well and your dough doesn't seize up on you.

2. Choose the right vanilla
It is well worth it to spend a little bit more money on some great quality vanilla (and some vanilla beans, if you're feeling adventurous!). Don't buy imitation vanilla; it does not impart that delicious vanilla flavor that pure vanilla does. My favorite type of vanilla to use is Mexican vanilla (you should be able to find this at your local Mexican grocery, if you have one), but pure vanilla (McCormick's is the easiest to find) is wonderful too.

3. Pay attention to the type of chocolate
Be aware of the differences in the type of chocolate you are using. There are so many different varieties out there now, so just read the package before you end up accidentally using dark chocolate in a recipe that calls for semi-sweet (I've done this with brownies before~ I accidentally bought special dark cocoa powder. I don't happen to be a fan of dark chocolate, so I was pretty disappointed). I typically buy semi-sweet chips to use in everything from brownies to bars to chocolate chip cookies and pancakes.

4. Baking requires measurement
Sometimes I have a difficult time writing down my recipes to post on this blog because I tend to be a 'grab a handful and toss it in' kind of girl. I rarely, if ever, measure (unless I'm trying to figure out how to get a recipe from my table to my blog!) when I cook. Baking, however, is a totally different thing. I definitely use measuring cups and spoons when I bake. It is a far more precise endeavor than making an omelette or pasta sauce. Just make sure you don't get too hung up on the measurements. Once you get the hang of basic recipes (like brownies), you'l be able to eyeball some ingredients and make adjustments based on creativity.

5. Convection versus standard oven
A few years ago I received a blessing in disguise when lightening hit my neighbor's house and subsequently fried my stove. I ended up buying a Jenn-Air duel fuel (gas range, electric oven) double convection oven/range. I LOVE IT! Typical me did not read the manual before baking and absolutely overcooked my first dessert. Convection ovens require a different heat setting than traditional ovens, so make sure that you read your oven manual if you buy convection. On my oven, I've found that I have to lower the heat by about 20-25 degrees so that I don't scorch my food.

6. Tools of the trade
Make sure you pay attention to the types of tools you use when baking. For example, if you're making any kind of dough with yeast, you will want to use a dough hook. There is also a paddle attachment that comes with the Cuisinart for making different kinds of dough. Also, make sure you have a full set of measuring spoons and cups; spray them with nonstick spray before measuring sticky ingredients like honey or peanut butter. I like to keep a hand mixer handy for smaller jobs like making frosting, so that I don't have to use my big Cuisinart. A final tip is to invest in a silicone liner. This will come in so handy if you're making delicate cookies or candies and don't want them to stick to your pan.

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