Dec 10, 2011

Getting your kitchen in order

Before we get onto the experimentation (and wrecking havoc) of baking we need to first get our kitchens in order.  It doesn't matter if you buy the finest bake ware or splurge on Scharffen Berger baking bars, if you don't have somewhat of an understanding of the basics of baking preparation you could have an imminent flop coming out of that lovely oven of yours.   

 I will briefly cover the following topics to get us up and running:
·         Oven Temperature and control
·         Importance of ingredient measurement and accuracy
·         Baking supplies and pans

Oven Temperature and control:

 When I first moved to Dubai and started baking, damn it I kept burning my cakes.  This was really unusual for me as cake recipes are typically pretty straight forward.  When a recipe says 'bake @350 for 45-50 minutes' you can bake it for the whole 50 minutes and it still won't burn, but over here, for some reason it was just not the case.  The tops of the cakes were dark brown and the sides were thick and chewy.  I was really struggling for those first few months. I thought maybe the humidity or altitude had something to do with, but really I was clueless.  I had the oven temp set correctly (although ovens here are all in Celsius…for months I never understood what the outside temperature was…40 degrees, hmm sounds cold to me…WRONG!  And don't even get me started on kilograms…I still don't convert to see how much I weigh.  Measuring in kilos is great, it sounds so much less than pounds, living in denial is wonderful, esp when writing a food blog…but anyway getting off subject here).  So a dear friend of mine suggested I try an oven thermometer to see if my oven was calibrated correctly.  Oh.  Never thought of that.  So after I picked one up at the store and brought it home I was shocked to see my oven was off by 50 degrees!  That is really quite a lot, esp when dealing with cakes.  Roasting vegetables at a higher temp is really not a huge risk, but when you bake cakes at the wrong temperature (higher or much lower than what is stated in your recipe) for extended periods of time, all hell breaks loose.

Click here for a nice little cheat sheet to refer to if you have an 'oh f*** what happened' cake.

To sum up, always allow your oven to be pre-heated before placing anything inside.  Double check your oven thermometer states the desired temperature prior to baking.  I leave my thermometer hanging on the middle rack at all times so I can gauge at any point where the temperature is.  Always keep your oven rack/s in the middle of the oven to guarantee uniform heat around your baked item (unless otherwise stated in the recipe).  Oh, and quit pulling the oven door open to peek inside to check on your delicate little beauty baking away peacefully.  You are screwing with its integrity (and your wallet, butter is $$$) when you do this.  Unless your recipe says 'rotate once while baking' LEAVE IT ALONE!  If you must check for doneness, at least wait until two-thirds of the baking time has passed before you open the oven door.  Opening too soon can allow cold air to enter the oven, possibly making the cake sink.  Then you'll have to fill that big hole with frosting.  Then you won't have enough frosting for the sides of the cake and then panic sets in.  You'll be covering the entire thing with sprinkles, and yes sprinkles are great, but not a mouthful…get my drift?

Measuring ingredients properly and with accuracy:
To sift, or not to sift?   

So, as I started to think whether I was capable to write such a blog I thought, well just how long have I been baking?  I guess it's somewhere now around 20 years.  Okay I'm 30 so that I means I started at 10 years old.  And sorry, no 10 year old knows a damn thing about anything, but at least I have been exposed to baking for that long.  And with that said, you can understand my surprise that once I started researching this topic I was shocked to see that for the last 20 years I have been measuring flour ALL WRONG. 

For example, If you've ever watched Ina Garten (aka Barefoot Contessa) measure flour from that ginormous glass container she has sitting on her kitchen counter she kind of mixes it around first, getting air into the flour.  I think it may have already been pre-sifted as well.  She then goes on to dump it into her mixing bowl and it's ready to go.  This is all fine and good but only if you're measuring from flour that has already been pre-sifted.  My mistake that I've been doing almost my whole life is the following (and maybe you do this too)  I empty the flour from the paper sack you buy it from at the store into an air tight container.  When I'm ready to bake I take a metal strainer and place it on top of my mixing bowl,  like this:

Thanks a lot Mrs. Fields you bimbo, I got this trick from you.     

 Anyway, what I'm doing technically is yes sifting the flour through this sieve, which is fine.  But I'm measuring from the flour container that has been sitting for a while and all the flour has settled allowing it to become dense over time.  So let's say you measure out 1 cup of the dense flour which has been sitting in your pantry since God knows when.  Because you are taking 1 cup of compacted dense flour and THEN sifting, you are adding air in between the flour molecules, thus expanding the 1 cup entirely so you end up with something more like 1.10 cups of sifted flour, maybe even more, depending on how long it's sat there.  So if you recipe calls for 2 1/4 cups flour, you can ultimately be adding an additional 1/3 cup of flour without even realizing it.  Adding too much flour to a delicate recipe can really hinder its quality thus becoming dense and thick. 

So, prior to scooping out any flour, stir it around in your container (carefully, otherwise you'll end up looking like Casper) to get some air into it, esp if it's been sitting for a long time.  Ideally you can pre-sift a large amount of flour (as I'm showing above), then measuring out what you need into a different bowl.  However, once you are done measuring the flour, leave that metal sieve in your mixing bowl.  You'll find that lumps can easily occur in other dry ingredients such as baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.  I always sift all of my dry ingredients to avoid adding these little lumps into the mix.  The same goes for powdered sugar.  3x sugar clumps super easily and if you are making any kind of frosting, pre-sifting is beyond important.  Those little clumps can really make your frosting look, well ugly.  I don't know how many times those lumps snuck into my icing and I had to add nuts just to hide them, ugh.  

Just a side note, this is why professional pastry chef's always measure their ingredients by weight and not by volumetric measurements.  You'll always get a better, more accurate reading with a scale than by measuring cups/scoops.  1 pound of flour is just that, 1 pound of flour, regardless of whether it was sifted or not!

Necessary baking supplies and pans:

I LOVE kitchen gadgets.  Don't we all have that drawer in our kitchen that is jammed full of spiky weird contraptions that rust after the first wash in the dishwasher?  I acquired this obsession from my mother.  She and I would trek around stores like Marshalls and TJ Max spending time in the messy kitchen isle…ooh I miss it, it was like digging for gold.  'Oh look, just what I always needed and wanted, a cherry/olive pitter, oh look an avocado slicer, finally my kitchen is complete!'  Seriously I have both of those items sitting ten feet from me in my magic drawer.  But alas, not to fear, baking equipment is pretty straight forward.  Say you want to bake a simple chocolate cake or chocolate chip cookies, you really won't need more than this:
  • A set of heavy mixing bowls.  I say 'heavy' because if you plan to use a hand-held mixer instead of a free-standing one it's better to have a heavier bowl so the mixer won't make it dance all over the counter.  I have a cheapie plastic bowl that I use when I'm desperate and all my other bowls are caked with batter.  When I do use the hand-held mixer and this bowl together it’s a mess, the bowl is too light and the mixer is too strong so the bowl shoots all over the place.  If you find yourself in this situation, just put a lightly damp folded kitchen towel under the bowl, this should help.  These bowls below are really nice since they have a handle to help give you a better grip.  

  click here for the link
  • Measuring cups and measuring spoons: If you are lucky you'll be able to find a set of measuring cups that include a 2/3 and 3/4 cup.  I got mine at Sur la table and I love them, but if you don't want to spend the extra $, a simple set that includes a 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, and 1 cup works just fine.

click here for the Sur la table link  
  • Liquid measuring cup: essential when measuring water, oil, milk etc.  The cup allows for easier measurement and less mess.  Be sure to place the cup on a flat surface (the counter) and measure at eye level.  Don't ever hold the cup in your hand and try to pour the liquid in with your other hand.  This is silly.  You're moving around and most probably holding the cup slightly angled so your measurement will be off.  Put it down.
  • Heavy-duty (heat safe) silicone spatula: this is one item I would say you can splurge on a little.  If you do, you'll have it in your kitchen forever.  The great thing about silicon is you can use it on the stove top when you're melting chocolate and you don't have to worry about burning it.  I picked mine up at Williams Sonoma and they are even dish washer safe (Well I wouldn't have bought them if they weren't.  I'm not a washin-dishes-by-hand kind of girl)

 click here for the Williams Sonoma link
  • Wire wisk: another item to splurge on because the cheapy ones can have a tendency to bend.  I have one metal and one silicon.  Wisks are essential when combining dry ingredients.  They allow the mixture to move evenly through the wires, ensuring it to become thoroughly combined.  Last thing you want is to have a little cluster of salt/baking powder/etc in your batter.
click here for the link
  • Metal sieve: as I mentioned before this is a MUST for your kitchen.  You need to sift all your dry ingredients to avoid lumps and bumps.  It only takes a second so don't complain.
  • click here for the link 
  • Mixer: If you can afford it and you really really really enjoy cooking, go buy yourself a Kitchen Aid Mixer.  There is nothing like it.  Even the sound of the motor is pretty.  My husband bought me mine for my birthday last year and I adore it.  But if you're just starting out and would rather save the $, buy yourself a good quality hand mixer.  You need speed so don't buy a Wal-Mart special for $10.  You need something with a decent motor, also make sure that your mixer comes with a whip attachment so you can beat egg whites and make frosting.
click here for the link to Kitchen Aid
  • Cooling racks: These are also essential and usually pretty darn cheap.  It's important that when your cookies/cakes/bars cool they are lifted off the counter so air can get underneath the pan as well.  You don't want the pan to stay too hot because otherwise your goodies will just keep cooking.
  •  click here for the link
  • Shiny non-stick aluminum baking pans are the best for consistent cooking and even color. Get yourself minimum two cookie sheets, one 9x9 (for bars and brownies), one 9x13 (for cakes) and two 9 inch round cake pans.  That is more than enough to get you started.  You don't need to splurge in the beginning and buy top of the line pans, but so long as whatever you do get is non-stick.  Even though all my pans are non-stick I always spray them with baking spray (like Pam) to guarantee lift-out.  
  • this is a nice set from Crate & Barrel, click here
    ...Coming up next I've got a super easy and 'oh my god that's good' recipe for a blueberry croissant bread pudding to tide you over until our next entry.  Take care y'all!

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