My dessert glossary covers baking tools, ingredients and techniques that every baker should know.
Learn the pro's tricks of the trade in the dessert category.
DESSERT GLOSSARY OF Ingredients, tools and techniques
BAKING MATS These are sheets of silicone (with some fiberglass) sized to fit into rimmed baking sheets or to cover flat cookie sheets and capable of withstanding temperatures up to 500 degrees. The mats are completely - and almost miraculously - nonstick and can be considered just about permanent, since they can be used more than 2,000 times.
They wash easily and are a blessing when baking anything sticky, sugary or buttery; which accounts for all we bake. At first, the mats seem a little pricey - the cost is about $20 per sheet - but I think I’ve more than made up the price in savings on parchment paper and foil. I have one for each of my baking sheets and store the mat right in the baking sheet, ever ready for the next cookie session.
Baking powder is a double-acting leavener: it gives it’s first push when it comes in contact with liquids, releasing carbon dioxide (that’s when you see bubbles in your batter), and its second blast when the oven’s heat goes to work. Baking powder provides the “puff power” for quick breads (like muffins, biscuits and scones), and for many butter cakes. If you are not a constant baker, buy the smallest tin of baking powder on the shelf. Keep the tin tightly sealed in a cool, dry place and replace it every six months or so.
Baking sheets can be rimmed or not. The rimmed sheets, referred to as sheet pans by the pros, are sometimes called jelly-roll pans. The unrimmed sheets, which might be raised on the two short sides, are usually called cookie sheets. I own both, but these days I find that I use the rimmed sheets more frequently. Silicone baking mats fit perfectly into them. It is good to have at least two baking sheets.
LINING BAKING SHEETS
As you bake through these pages, you will notice that I often instruct you to put your baking pan on a lined baking sheet. For this job, I might suggest a rimmed baking sheet and for lining parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Lined sheets are great levelers and transporter - they even out the heat that hits the bottom of your baking pan, and give you a convenient and safe way to slide your filled pan in and out of the oven. They will also catch anything that might bubble up or over the baking pan.
Bicarbonate of soda, what we know as baking soda, is one of the ingredients in baking powder and a leavening agent on its own. Unlike baking powder, baking soda’s rising powers are best released in the company of acidic ingredients, such as sour cream, buttermilk and yogurt. While you will see recipes that call for baking powder and baking soda in tandem, you cannot substitute one for another. Baking soda should be kept in a cool, dry place. Even a tiny bit of water will cake it. If your box has been open and sitting in the cupboard for at least 6 months, I’d suggest a new box, just to be on the safe side.
One of the most difficult things to give with perfect precision is the baking time, because everyone’s oven is just a little different. Even if the oven thermometer you have dutifully put in your oven registers 350 degrees when you set your oven to that temperature - your oven cycles on and off - it will go up to a certain temperature then dip again to keep the oven at an average of 350 degrees. This is why I give you a range of baking times.
For instance, I may say, “Bake for 35 to 40 minutes,” in which you should check at the earliest time (35 minutes), or even 5 minutes before. Do not be concerned if the baking time takes a few minutes longer than I suggest. Be on the lookout for the visual clues and other doneness test I give you - like puffiness, dryness, a cake pulling away from the sides of the pan, or the most telling, a toothpick (or knife) inserted in the center comes out clean. The more you bake, the better your feel for the time, temperature and doneness will be.
The (unbaked) mixture you put together for cakes is usually referred to as batter, while the mixture for cookies, bread and pastry crusts are usually called dough. The difference has to do with how substantial the mixture is. A batter is usually liquid or semi-liquid, while a dough is thick and heavy.
Because biscuit dough is rolled or patted out to a thickness of 1/2 inch, a regular cookie cutter is too low to cut the dough effectively. What you need is a tall cutter, and while your at it, one that cuts sharply so you don’t torture the dough and “glue” its cut sides down - do that, and you won’t get a great rise. Cutter made specifically for biscuits are tall rings or squares, often topped by handles. I have used a drinking glass with success also.
In all cases in which a blender is called for, you can also use a food processor (although the reverse is not true). However, when it comes to beating certain preparations, like Lemon Cream, into extreme smoothness, the blender has a edge over the processor. In any case, if one machine is preferred over another, the recipe will tell you so.
Blind-baking means baking a crust either partially or completely before adding the filling. To blind-bake a tart crust, make sure it is very cold - I always freeze it before baking - then place a piece of buttered foil (buttered side down), over the crust and press it so that it fits snugly against the base and sides. If the tart crust is truly frozen, you can bake it as is, checking it after 15 minutes and pressing down any puffy portions with the back of a spoon. If the crust is cold (but not frozen), fill it with dried beans or rice, and bake as directed, carefully removing the foil and weights. At this point, the crust is partially baked. If you want to fully bake the crust before filling it, return the crust to the oven and bake until golden brown. While you can go weightless when you are blind-baking a frozen tart crust, but a pie crust usually needs weights.
After the unbaked crust has chilled thoroughly, or better yet, frozen - butter a piece of foil and fit the foil (buttered side down), snugly against the crust, covering the base and sides; lightly covering the rim. Fill the foil with weights and bake as directed, then carefully remove the foil and weights. At this point, the crust is partially baked. If you want to fully bake the crust before filling it, return the crust to the oven and bake until golden brown.
You don’t absolutely need a blowtorch, but it’s fun to have on hand when you are making the sugar topping on a crème brulee or when you have a meringue you want to color. You can pick up a blowtorch at Home Depot, a more elegant tool that is available - called the Chef’s Torch - is kitchen-size, reliable, easy to use and pinpoint precise.
Nowadays, you can get pans that turn out cakes shaped like roses, sunflowers, towers and even Hansel and Gretel’s cottage. I use traditional Bundt pans that hold between 10 to 12 cups. If your pan has a different capacity, just scale down (or up) and adjust the baking time accordingly.
Mini Bundt Pans
Individual serving size Bundts come six to a pan, like muffin and popover pans. Any recipe for a regular size Bundt pan can be made in a mini Bundt pan, but you will need to adjust the baking time.
Butter is one of the great basics of baking, a prime mover in the taste and texture departments and the backbone of the majority of cakes, cookies and pastries. Please - when a recipe calls for butter - DO NOT USE ANYTHING ELSE. There is no substitute for butter folks. You cannot use margarine or any other kind of “spread” in a recipe that calls for butter and expect to get perfect results. In America, (unlike Europe), salted butter is often more widely available than unsalted butter. Try to find unsalted butter or baking. Using unsalted butter not only gives you more control over the amount of salt in the recipe, it gives you a slight difference in taste and texture too - since salted butter has a lower percentage of butterfat and therefore, a higher percentage of water.
All butters are churned from cream, but some select premium American and European butters are churned from cream that has been cultured - that is, ripened with natural cultures (like yogurt) over a period of 18 hours. Once cultured, the cream tastes more like crème fraiche than sweet cream, and it is this cream that is turned into butter.
When a recipe calls for a buttered pan, the butter used to grease the pan is separate from the amount of butter in the recipe’s ingredient list. The easiest way to butter a pan is to use softened butter and apply with a piece of paper towel, the butter paper, or a pastry brush (which is great for getting into corners and curves).
Butter is measured in tablespoons, sticks or ounces. Tablespoons and ounces are usually marked on the sticks. One stick of butter is 4 ounces or 8 tablespoons.
Melt butter by warming it gently over heat or in the microwave. You don’t want it heated too hot, it may burn or separate.
Room Temperature Butter
In order for butter to mix properly with other ingredients and for it to aerate properly when beaten, it must be malleable (a condition it reaches when it is at room temperature). Sadly for butter, the temperature of most houses is so high that the butter often ends up oily and mushy rather than malleable. You are looking for butter that gives easily, but not completely, when pressed; it should hold it’s shape.
Butter is a magnet for strong odors, so it should always be well wrapped. If I know that I will be keeping butter in the refrigerator for a while, I wrap unopened sticks in plastic wrap then foil. It’s good to know that butter freezes perfectly and if well wrapped, will keep in the freezer for months.
Buttermilk is cultured milk, usually low-fat milk, and it has an acidic tang. Buttermilk makes biscuits, muffins, breads and cakes tender. If you don’t find buttermilk in the diary section of the grocery store, you can substitute 2/3 cup plain yogurt (non-fat or low-fat), and 1/3 cup milk for each cup of buttermilk called for in the recipe. You can also use powdered buttermilk, usually available in the baking section of the supermarket. In a pinch? Place 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice in the bottom of a measuring cup and fill to the 1 cup mark. Let sit for 15 minutes, stir and it’s ready to use.
Each recipe will tell you the size and shape of the cake pan you will need. Sometimes I mention that I like to use Pyrex, but in general, cake pans are assumed to be metal. My preference for layer cakes or round cakes is for high-sided pans ( I buy professional quality cake pans with 2 inch high sides and made of aluminum), or another light metal. While dark pans are nice for breads, where a dark crust is often what you are after, I don’t like them for cakes because I don’t want my cakes to develop a well-done, deeply colored crust. For the same reason, I don’t have any dark nonstick cake pans. The sole exception is the Bundt pan - it’s interior is dark and I love the way cakes bake in it.
Here are the basic pans a baker should have on hand:
three 8 inch round cake pans (1-1/2 to 2 inches tall)
three 9 inch round cake pans (1-1/2 to 2 inches tall)
spring form pans: if possible, one 8 inch, one 9 inch and one 10 inch; these can be nonstick. If you only buy one spring form, buy a 9 inch pan.
one 8 inch square cake pan (1-1/2 to 2 inches tall)
one 9 inch square cake pan (1-1/2 to 2 inches tall)
one Bundt pan - with capacity of at least 10 cups
two 8-1/2 x 4-1/2 x 2-3/4 inch loaf pans
two 9 x 5 x 2-3/4 inch loaf pans
7x11 inch pan
9x13 inch pan
one or two 12 cup muffin tins
one 9 inch pie plate (can be Pyrex)
one 9 inch deep-dish pie plate (can be Pyrex)
one 9 inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom
one 10 inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom
Unless you are an avid candy maker, you probably won’t get a lot of use out of a candy thermometer (often labeled a candy/deep-fry thermometer). But for making syrups and caramels, it’s the only tool for the job.
To caramelize sugar means to cook it until it melts and browns and tastes bittersweet. How dark a caramel you make and whether you leave it liquid or cool it until you have brittle, will depend on what you have in store for it. One general caveat: be careful. Caramel gets very hot - it may go above 500 degrees! It’s sticky and if you get some on you it won’t slide off. If you get hot sugar on your fingers (or anywhere else), don’t stick them in your mouth, instead, quickly run your fingers under very cold water. Caramel is fun to make and adds beautiful flavor to desserts, but you have to approach it with respect.
CARDBOARD CAKE ROUNDS
These circles of corrugated cardboard are available in specialty baking shops and are convenient to have on hand, particularly when you are making cakes that will be filled and frosted. Slip a round under the bottom layer of cake, and you will be able to hold the cake in one hand while you frost it with the other. Rounds also make carrying and transporting cakes easier. Cake rounds come in many sizes, but the 9 inch is the most useful for home bakers.
While I adore freshly roasted chestnuts, I save them for eating on their own. When I need chestnuts for a dessert, I buy peeled and cooked whole chestnuts in a jar that are unseasoned, unsweetened and ready to use. From time to time I find vacuum-packed chestnut pieces in the market and they are less expensive than jarred whole chestnuts and good for any recipe in which you are going to bread, chop or puree the nuts.
The base of all chocolate (whether dark or light), bitter or sweet is chocolate liquor; which oddly is not liquid and made from cocoa nibs (cacao beans without the shell). Chocolate liquor is half cocoa and half coca butter, and it is the sole ingredient in unsweetened chocolate; which is why it is so bitter. To make bittersweet and semisweet chocolate, sugar and usually more cocoa butter are added to the liquor. Milk chocolate includes even more sugar and milk solids. The more liquor in a chocolate, the deep its flavor.
Types of Chocolate
My favorite type of chocolate is milk chocolate, but you might prefer semisweet or bittersweet with less sugar. You may use bittersweet and semisweet interchangeably, but there are NO substitutes for unsweetened milk or white chocolate.
Chocolate should be melted slowly, gently and dryly - don’t get it near water. If a recipe calls for melting chocolate with a liquid, then you are fine, it’s the drops of liquid that cause problems. The safest way to melt chocolate is to use an improvised double boiler - an uncovered metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. As long as the bowl fits snugly into the pan, you won’t have a lot of steam rising up around the sides and depositing droplets of water on the chocolate.
You may also melt chocolate in the microwave. I find it’s safest to put the chocolate in a microwave safe container (uncovered) and on medium heat or low power in short intervals. Here’s an important point to remember about melting chocolate in the microwave: the chocolate may hold its shape even though it is melted, so to avoid overheating and possible scorching the chocolate, stir it frequently. No matter how you melt your chocolate, it’s best to start with chopped chocolate; it will melt easier.
Cocoa powder is cocoa liquor that has been pressed to remove the cocoa butter and then ground. Always use unsweetened cocoa for baking, not sweetened, and sift it before adding it to the bowl. The two kinds of cocoa powder available are Dutched, which means it has been treated with alkali, and natural. While Dutched cocoa is often used in recipes with baking powder and natural cocoa is used in recipes with baking soda - you will not see appreciable differences if you use the cocoas interchangeably in these recipes.
When coconut is called for, I usually use sweetened shredded coconut, the kind found in the baking section of the grocery store. I like this better because of its chewy texture. You may use unsweetened shredded coconut from the health store. Usually sold in bulk, this coconut is drier than sweetened and won’t give you the same chewiness, but it will give you a deeper flavor.
Coconut milk is available in cans, usually in the Asian products section of the supermarket. Be sure to choose the unsweetened kind - save the sweet stuff (usually referred to as coconut cream) for the pina coladas.
All of my recipes were made in a regular oven, not a convection oven. You can use one, but you will need to made whatever adjustments to time and temperature your oven manufacturer suggests.
Cooling should be considered a part of baking, the finishing touch, since when it comes out of the oven, its internal heat continues to rise. Allowing it to cool allows it to finish baking and set the texture.
Cooking racks are not just convenient for unmolding desserts, they are essential for lifting them up off the counter (you don’t want condensation forming under them), and for keeping the air circulating around them. Choose racks that are closely spaced wire bands or mesh, so your desserts don’t fall through the wires; and most important with feet that are at least 1/2 inch high. If you have ample storage, it’s good to have three round cooling racks (they’ll made unmolding two cake layers easy) and at least one large rectangular rack for cooling cookies.
“Coulis” (“koo-lee”) is the French word for a sauce made from pureed fruit.
Heavy and whipping cream can be used interchangeably in my recipes. It used to be true that heavy cream had a high percentage of butterfat than whipping cream did, but these days it’s hard to know which cream has what, since many supermarkets offer something called “heavy whipping cream.” Whatever cream you buy, make certain it is fresh (check the sell by date), and smell it before you use it.
To Whip Cream
Cream whips best when it is cold. Don’t rush the process - start whipping the cream slowly and increase the speed only when the cram starts to hold its shape.
Crème fraiche is cultured heavy cream with a taste and texture like sour cream. However, it has more tricks up its sleeve than American sour cream, it can be heated without curdling or separating and it can be whipped. It is a common supermarket product in France, and therefore expensive - but it can be made here easily at home using regular heavy cream and buttermilk.
In baking, this term refers to the inside of the bread or cake.
Also known as sanding, sparkle or dazzle sugar, it looks more like flakes than granules and comes in more colors than the rainbow. It keeps its color, shape and texture when baked. The color I reach more the most is white. I sprinkle it over the tops of pie crusts, over butter cookies, and onto the sides of slice and bake cookie logs. Decorating sugar is available in some supermarkets and in specialty stores such as Williams-Sonoma.
Essentially a lazy Susan, a decorator’s turntable is a flat revolving plate on a pedestal. Being able to turn a cake easily make the job of smoothing the frosting across the sides and top a cinch. It isn’t a necessity, but one you’ll enjoy if you are a regular cake maker.
A thick, heavy mixture used to make bread, cookies or pastry crusts. Unlike a batter, a dough is usually rolled or molded.
A square of metal attached to a grip, the dough scraper is a great tool for lifting and turning dough, and scraping if off a work surface. It’s also good for cutting a dough into sections.
Dried fruits - such as raisins, currants, prunes, apricots, cherries and so on - add both flavor and texture to baked goods, but they are an asset to a dessert only if they are moist and plump. Hard fruit won’t get any softer, moister or plumper in the oven. Simmer the dried fruit for one or two minutes in boiling water and pat dry between paper towels.
DUSTING AND DUSTERS
Sometimes all it takes to give a plain cake a little panache is a dusting of powdered sugar or cocoa powder. A dusting should be just that - a light, snowy cover. You can achieve this by putting the sugar or cocoa in a fine mesh sieve and shaking it over the dessert. First give the sieve the first tap over a piece of wax paper - sometimes that first tap produces a blizzard rather than a shower. For a more reliable dusting, put the sugar or cocoa powder in a shaker designed just for that purpose.
All of my recipes were developed using large eggs.
Buying, Storing and Using Eggs
There are certain basic rules you should follow when buying, storing and using eggs: Buy your eggs from a market that keeps them refrigerated. When you get the eggs home, store them in the refrigerator. If a recipe calls for room temperature eggs, take them out 30 minutes ahead of time. Do not use eggs with broken shells. Wash your hands after working with eggs, and clean any work surfaces well after they have been in contact with raw eggs.
When a recipe calls for egg whites to be separated from yolks, it is usually because the whites will be whipped. Eggs separate most easily when they are cold, but whites whip to their fullest volume when they are warm. So after separating, you should leave them at room temperature for a while before you beat them. Before you do this, make sure that both the whisk and the mixing bowl are dry and impeccably clean. Even a little speck of fat will impede the white’s progress to its highest potential.
Egg Yolks and Sugar
Beating yolks and sugar together is common in baking, but it is not without a pitfall: As soon as sugar comes in contact with yolks, it begins to “burn” the yolks. Burn is the term bakers use to describe the way sugar causes the yolks to develop small lumps. To keep it from burning the yolks, make sure to whisk the two ingredients together as soon as they are put in the same bowl - do not allow them to sit.
EXTRACTS AND OILS
I use only pure extracts and you should too. Extracts made from artificial flavors will mask the true goodness of all your other ingredients. These days, in addition to pure extracts, many pure oils are available. I really like lemon and citrus oils. If you choose to flavor your desserts with oils, do so with a light hand - they can be pretty powerful. They always should be kept tightly sealed in a cool, dry cupboard.
With a few exceptions, my recipes call for all-purpose flour, which is bleached and enriched flour found in the supermarket. The exceptions are cakes made with cake flour; a fine textured flour that is lower in protein than all-purpose flour.
Substituting All-Purpose Flour to Cake Flour
If you do not have cake flour on hand, you can substitute all-purpose flour using this formula: 1 cup all-purpose flour minus 2 tablespoons = 1 cup cake flour.
SCOOP AND SWEEP MEASURING
I measure flour using the scoop and sweep method. First aerate the flour by tossing it with a fork, then dip your measuring cup into the flour bin and scoop up enough flour to have it mound over the top. Finally, take the back of a knife and sweep it across the top of the measuring cup to level it. When you do this do not press on the flour and pack it down.
Sifting Flour - Or Not
Unless instructed to do so, you do not need to sift all-purpose flour - however, you should always sift cake flour, since it is often lumpy. In recipes in which sifting is required, the flour is always measured before sifting.
All flour (regardless of the type), should be stored in tightly sealed containers in a cool, dry cupboard. I store my flour in canisters that are wide enough to allow me to dip a measuring cup into them.
When you have a light, airy mixture (like meringue), and you need to blend it into a heavy mixture (let’s say cake batter), the technique you use is called folding. You need three things for successful folding: a sturdy rubber spatula, a large bowl that will give you ample room to move the ingredients around, and the good sense to know when to call it quits.
In most cakes, the heavier mixture will be in the big bowl and the lighter one will be folded into it. If a batter is particularly heavy, you might be told to stir in (not fold) about 1/4 of the lighter mixture in first. This lightens up the heavyweight batter to that when you mix in the remainder of the light ingredients, you don’t have to work hard and risk deflating them. For the first step, just scoop up some of the airy stuff, plunk it on top of the batter and stir the two mixtures together; gently.
To fold, spoon the lighter mixture over the heavy one and cut through the two mixtures with the edge of a spatula.
When the edge reaches to bottom of the bowl, twist your wrist so that you bring the flat of the spatula against the bottom of the bowl and up the side.
As you are bringing the spatula up the side of the bowl, use your other hand to give the bowl a quarter turn - so that the ingredients the spatula brings up from the bottom are on top of the mixture and folded over on themselves.
As you keep cutting into the mixtures, lifting them up and turning the bowl, you will fold the two mixtures into each other. This sounds more complicated than it is.
In fact, once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it so easy - that you might overdo it and knock the air out of your lighter mixture. It’s better to have a few clouds of unfolded-in meringue or a few streaks of chocolate than to have an overworked batter.
As you probably already know, many baked goods like cookies, cakes and crusts are freezable. The key to having what you pull out of the freezer taste as good as when you put it in is - to pack it airtight; air is what causes freezer burn and off tastes.
If you are freezing a cake, it should be wrapped in at least two layers of plastic wrap. If the cake is glazed, the easiest thing to do is to freeze the cake unwrapped (just to set the glaze), and then wrap it.
For cookies, or odd-shaped treats like shortcakes or muffins, I use plastic bags of the old-fashioned kind; non-zipper-lock variety. I find it harder to remove all the air from the zipper type and do not get a tight seal.
I pack the bag about 3/4 full, gather it at the top and then (here’s the important part), I suck the air out of the bag. You can do this with your mouth, or if you prefer, by poking a straw into the opening and pulling the air out through the straw.
ither way, keep the bag, which should now conform to the shape of its contents, closed, while you grab the twist tie and seal it. For safe measure, tuck this bag into another, and draw the air out of that bag too.
If you have the time, the best way to defrost desserts is to allow them to remain in their wrappings overnight in the refrigerator. Thawed slowly and still wrapped, the contents will retain their moisture. If you are in a rush - just put the wrapped treat on the counter and poke it gently from time to time to see how it is coming along.
An odd thing to have in the kitchen, but nothing beats a hairdryer for unmolding anything creamy or frozen. Any unmolding job that you used to do by dipping the pan into a sink full of hot water can now be accomplished on dry land with a hairdryer.
Just shoot some hot air around the pan to unmold a cheesecake or an ice cream confection; it’s quick and there is no mess.
A hairdryer is also great for putting the shine back on glazes that have gone a little dull in the refrigerator, or for softening up frosting if you decide at the last minute to dress up a sweet with sprinkles or chocolate curls or anything else that needs a slightly sticky surface to cling to.
ICE CREAM MAKER
Homemade ice cream isn’t a necessity, but it is fun to make and delicious too. If you think you are going to be making ice cream often and in quantity, and if you have room for it on the counter, then you might want to spring for a pro-type ice cream maker with a built-in compressor.
This means that you just flip a switch and start churning - there is nothing to pre-chill, so you can make it at a whim. However, speed and power come at a price - these ice cream makers start at $300 and go to above $1,000. They are great, but certainly not the only game in town.
With $50 (and the willingness to plan ahead), you can have an ice cream maker that uses an insulated canister that must be well frozen before you churn (no problem if you have freezer room), and in the freezer at all times, always ready.
Insulated-canister machines come in two varieties: hand-crank, or which you just turn the crank every few minutes (Donvier makes a good one), and a automatic, for which you fit the canister into a base with a motor - set the timer and allow the machine to churn away merrily. (Cuisinart is also a good one in this variety).
Also called a hand or stick blender, this is a neat tool because it accomplishes its task directly in the pot or bowl you’re using. While an immersion blender has more uses in the savory than in the sweet kitchen, you’ll love having it for sauces, coulis and for smoothing out any mixing jobs that didn’t go precisely as planned.
INSTANT READ THERMOMETER
Very few recipes on my website require a thermometer - but for ease and, even more important, for accuracy, it’s great to have a thermometer on hand. To make it easier to measure the temperature you are stirring on the stove, consider purchasing a clamp that holds your thermometer to the saucepan.
INSULATED BAKING PANS
These pans are constructed with double metal bottoms separated by an air pocket. The air cushion means that the heat hitting whatever you are baking is gentler. I am not a fan of these pans - they don’t produce cakes, cookies or crusts that are golden enough for my taste.
Run a test for yourself and see if you like them, but keep in mind that if you decide to use them, you might have to make slight adjustments in baking times.
Insulated baking sheets do serve one purpose very well - they are great under-sheets for pound cakes and other loaf cakes that must spend a long time in the oven.
In this instance, the insulated sheet tones down the heat that hits the bottom of the loaf and allows the loaf to bake more evenly.. If you don’t have an insulated sheet to use as an under-sheet, you can stack two regular sheets one on top of the other.
Forgive me while I state what may be obvious: the first step to success in baking is to measure accurately. In part the need for accuracy comes from the chemistry of baking, but it also comes from the reality of baking - once a sweet is in the oven, there’s not much you can adjust, change or fix.
Liquid ingredients should be measured in transparent measuring cups, preferably glass (not plastic), with spouts and measurements that are clearly marked in 1/4 cup intervals.
Pour the liquid into the cup and bend down so the cup is at eye level to check. Or, if you want to save your back and still get an accurate measurement, purchase the ingenious measuring cups from Oxo - each has an angled band of clearly marked measurements inside the cup, so that you can see how much you’ve got by simply looking down.
I like to keep four sizes of liquid measuring cups on hand: 1 cup measure (good when you are measuring in 1/4 cups), 2 cup (probably the size I use most often), 1 quart (a handy size), and 2 quart (I often use it as a mixing bowl).
Measuring Dry Ingredients
Dry ingredients should be measured in metal measuring cups. (Plastic cups crack and sometimes lose their shape - and their accuracy.) The key to properly measuring dry ingredients is to get a level measure - so you must measure dry ingredients in the proper size cup. For example, if you want 1/4 cup sugar, use a 1/4 cup measure - never put dry ingredients in a measure that’s larger than the amount you need.
If you are measuring flour, cocoa, sugar or the like, use the scoop-and-sweep method. This means you toss the flour with a fork and dip your measuring cup into the bin, and come up with enough of the flour to mound over the cup. Then take the back side of a knife and gently sweep level with the edge of the cup.
The exception to this is brown sugar, which is always packed. For brown sugar, fill the measuring cup with sugar and press it down with your fingers. As with all other dry measurements, the brown sugar should be level with the top of the measuring cup. You’ll know you packed brown sugar properly when you turn it out and the sugar keeps the cup’s shape.
A basic set of dry measuring cups includes 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup and 1 cup measurements. I also like to have 1/8 cup (2 tablespoons) and 2 cup measures. Having a full set of measuring cups is a necessity for a home baker; a double set (glass for liquid and metal for dry) is not an indulgence and often a time saver.
Measuring spoons, in 1/4 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon sizes are used for both liquid and dry ingredients. When measuring in spoons, the ingredients should be level with the rim of the spoon. It’s good to have a double set of spoons.
All of my recipes were developed with whole milk.
With very few exceptions, you can prepare all of my recipes using a hand mixer with variable speeds (except brioche bread and marshmallows).
However, if you really love to bake, I’d suggest you save your money and get a heavy-duty stand mixer. They are expensive ($300 and up), but good ones are almost indestructible.
If you are buying a stand mixer, I’d suggest you get one with a 5 quart mixing bowl. A 4-1/2 quart can feel small when making bread, and a 6 quart bowl can feel big even when you are making a one layer cake. Look for one that comes with a paddle (or leaf) attachment, a whisk and a dough hook.
Some women collect dolls, I collect mixing bowls. I prefer metal bowls because they can be put over heat or in the oven, and they clean up easily - and can go in the dishwasher if necessary.
You should have two small bowls that is just big enough to beat a pair of eggs, and a bowl you can use to make a dozen biscuits and at least one bowl that gives you the room you need to fold ingredients together.
You will need a heatproof mixing bowl that can be set over a medium saucepan of water to serve as a double boiler for melting chocolate. For easy storage, look for nesting bowls. If you are an avid baker and cook, consider investing in two sets of bowls. Having duplicate bowls makes prep easier and faster.
Because of their taste and texture, nuts are used frequently in baking. But what makes nuts so delicious (their oils), can also be a problem - nut oil can go rancid, quickly.
To guard against this, try to buy your nuts from a local health food store or from a store that does a great business and stocks food continuously. If you can taste before you buy, so much the better.
When you get the nuts home, wrap them well and store in the freezer - they will keep longer. Please taste a nut from your batch before baking - it’s advice from better-safe-than-sorry handbook.
Toasting bring out a nut’s nuttiness. To taste nuts, spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat and bake in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes; or until they are nicely browned and smell great. Stir them once or twice during baking.
Ground Nuts and Grinding Nuts
Ground nuts provide flavor and texture to cakes and cookies. In fact, in many European cakes and tortes, ground nuts are used in place of flour, and are referred to as nut flour or nut meal.
Finding nuts used to be a problem for home bakers - thanks to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and bakerscatalog.com that’s no longer the case.
If you want to make nut meal at home, you can successfully use a food processor - just add a little sugar or flour to the nuts; about 1 teaspoon per cup - and pulse only until the nuts are ground and fluffy. Once ground, the meal can be packed airtight and kept in the freezer for up to 2 months.
The recipes were tested with old-fashioned rolled oats. It’s fine to use quick-cooking oatmeal instead, but it is not the best to use instant. Never use steel-cut oats, they will remain pebble hard no matter how long you bake your cookies.
A few of the recipes call for vegetable or, olive oil. Before using any oil, smell it and if it smells a little off, taste it. Oils should be stored in a cool, dry place and can go off with age and mishandling.
A truly indispensable piece of kitchen equipment. You probably think your oven is accurate, and when you set it to 350 degrees, that’s the temperature it will be. You may be right - or you might not be.
Some ovens lose their calibration, and some ovens are not properly calibrated from the start. So that you never have to wonder and (more important), never have to end up with a cake that’s ruined because it wasn’t baked properly - invest in a oven thermometer and check it often.
If your oven is not accurate, at least you will know what direction and by how much and make the needed adjustments.
Parchment paper is good for lining baking sheets and cake pans. I always keep a roll of parchment paper in the house. You can also purchase parchment rounds at specialty shops and online. They are precut circles and come in all sizes, and you can quickly slip one into a buttered pan. How convenient.
Also called piping bags, and are used to shape batters and dough - or to decorate cakes. They are cone-shaped bags made of nylon, plasticized canvas or plastic and come in many sizes in which you can fit plain or decorative tips.
Professional pastry chefs use piping bags for everything from making éclairs to filling a cake pan with batter. If you want to pipe something simple or write “Happy Birthday” but don’t have a pastry bag, you can use a plastic bag; it’s easiest to use a zipper lock bag.
Fill the bag with whatever you want to pipe, press the air out of the bag, seal it and then push the contents into one of the bottom corners. Snip off the corner on the diagonal and hold the bag at an angle; squeeze and pipe to your heart’s content.
A pastry blender is a set of curved parallel wires attached to the handle and cuts butter into flour. The blender will give you a crumbly mixture with pieces of butter in various sizes, which is great for biscuits and scones. Most jobs that can be done with a pastry blender can be done with your fingers too.
Available in sizes from narrow to wide enough to paint a barn, they are useful for brushing dough with egg wash, tarts with glaze or the inside of pans with softened butter.
You can buy them in housewares stores or use the paintbrushes from the hardware department. To get started, I’d suggest a 1/2 inch wide brush for delicate jobs and a 1 to 2 inch wide brush for buttering pans or dusting excess flour off cookie or pie dough.
PIE AND TART PANS
People swear by Pyrex pans, but if you prefer metal or pottery pans, please go right ahead and use them. When it comes to tart pans, I suggest you use metal pans with fluted sides and removable bottoms - all of the tart recipes were created and tested in these pans.
When you are baking a crust blind, which means when you are partially or fully baking it without the filling, you need something to keep the crust from puffy up: weights.
While you can buy metal or clay stones to weight the crust, I think they press down so hard that they keep the crust from developing its best texture. I use dried beans or rice.
Keep a supply that you only use for baking, and after they have been used once for blind baking, they are no longer fit for dinner, but great for lots more baking.
Polenta is the name for both a coarsely ground cornmeal and the dish you get when you boil the meal into a mush. In any of my recipes specifying polenta, you may substitute ordinary cornmeal. The texture will be less pronounced, but you will still get the corn’s sweet flavor.
POTS and PANS
In all likelihood, you already have all the pots and pans you’ll need to bake your way through my website - most kitchens do. But if you need to fill in your stock, look for at least one heavy-bottomed 2 to 3 quart saucepan for puddings, syrups and using as the bottom of a double boiler. A skillet, preferably cast-iron and a nonstick skillet.
RECIPES AND HOW TO FOLLOW THEM
Lots of people say that recipes are chemical formulas, and to some point they are, but I prefer to think of them as road maps to get you to your delicious destination.
Before you do anything, read through the recipe in its entirety and then do it again. By knowing what you will be doing as you proceed with the recipe, you will know what equipment and ingredients you will need. It is always a good idea to check if the butter or eggs need to be at room temperature too.
After you have made the recipe once, then you can play round with it - within reason. It is never a good idea to change measurements, certainly not the flour, butter, leavening or eggs.
But there is room for putting your personal stamp on a dessert; you can add or subtract flavorings (like extracts, oils and spices), and you can change the form of a dessert - making a tart in a square pan or cutting brownies in triangles. You can mix and match frosting, fillings and decorations. Have fun, but don’t stray too far.
The important word when rolling out dough is COLD. No matter what kind it is, dough should be kept cold and refrigerated once it is rolled out. Whatever material you choose to roll on or between, the technique for rolling is the same.
Put the dough (which should be cold, but not so hard that it cracks or breaks as soon as you start to roll it), on the work surface and position your rolling pin across the center of the dough.
Roll the pin over the dough until it’s almost to the edge, then roll it back to the center. Do not roll over the edges, because they will get too thin - you can roll them to whatever thinness you want at the end. Give the dough an eighth turn, and repeat.
Stop rolling periodically to lift the dough off the surface and to make sure it’s not sticking, to dust the rolling surface with a little more flour, and to turn the dough over so that both sides get an even workout. If at any time the dough gets soft and sticky, chill it in the refrigerator, then carry on.
I have a favorite rolling pin made out of wood that is at least 50 years old. Recently the silicone rolling pin came along. It has well built handles on ball bearings and great maneuverability, and the silicone barrel rolls easily and doesn’t stick. It also comes in great colors, including bright red. It’s irresistible.
A pair of clear flexible plastic circles held together by a zipper, it looks like a slipcover for a throw pillow. When unzipped, the circles open out completely and lay flat on the counter.
To use the slipcover to roll a crust of uniform thickness and perfect roundness, you dust the inside with flour, place a disk of chilled dough in the center of one plastic circle and zip up the slipcover.
When the dough is rolled out, you open the bag and flip the crust over and into your waiting pie plate or tart pan, using the plastic circle to help you settle the dough in place. Lift off the slipcover, and you are ready to go.
I have two slipcovers, one that is 14” in diameter (great for making 10 to 14 inch pies and tarts), and one that is 11” in diameter and great for standard 9 to 9-1/2 inch pies and tarts.
When you have two baking sheets or three cake pans in the oven and positioned on two racks, you should rotate the pans halfway through the baking time to compensate for any hot spots in your oven.
Rotate the pans from top to bottom and then move the pans on the bottom rack to the top and vice versa - from front to back, so the side of each pan that was facing the front of the oven now faces the back.
However, when your batch of cookies will be in the oven for only 10 minutes, whether or not to rotate is a judgment call.
If you know your oven is really uneven (because the same patch always comes out browner than everywhere else), then you may want to rotate, but usually when the baking time is so short I opt to leave the pans in place.
You won’t go through a lot of salt in your pastry kitchen, but every grain you use is important. As much as salt bring out the flavors in savory foods, it boosts flavors even more in desserts.
This is true in part because its taste is somewhat unexpected, but salt is so important with butter, chocolate, caramel and nuts - all bakers’ musts.
If you like, you can reduce the amount of salt in my recipes, but please do not eliminate entirely - without salt, even favorite flavors can be flat. For baking, I always use fine-grain sea salt.
SIFTERS AND SIEVES
For the most part you won’t have to sift flour before using it in some of my recipes. But cocoa, cornstarch, cake flour and powdered sugar DO need to be sifted. You can sift with a sifter or a fine-mesh sieve, which is what I use.
Because silicone is nonstick to the max, flexible and heat resistant up to 500 degrees, it is the ideal material for baking mats, spatulas, mixing spoons, hot pads and baking mitts - and really good for rolling pins, muffin pans and whisks too. If you need to replace any of these small kitchen necessities, I’d suggest you take a look at the silicone versions.
SPATULAS, FLEXIBLE AND FIRM
You’ll notice I say “spatulas” in the plural - that is because the baking life is easier if you have a few on hand.
Flexible spatulas made of either rubber or silicone (my new preference) are kitchen workhorses and are the tools you will grab when mixing, folding, scraping or stirring over moderate heat.
Look for spatulas with sturdy but flexible heads, and with handles that feel good to your grip - and stock up. It’s good to have a small slender spatula or two for scraping out the remains of peanut butter and jam jars.
Two medium-size spatulas for working in small to medium saucepans or blending small batches of batter and dough. A few spatulas with broad heads and long handles for just about every other job.
You will need two kinds of metal spatulas. The first is the kind you use to flip food in a skillet, and these broad-faced spatulas are handy for transferring cookies form baking sheets to cooling racks.
The other kind of spatula is narrow and is used for icing cakes and cookies. I prefer this type to be offset, meaning that the blade is angled just slightly below the handle - like a trough.
When you need to nudge glaze smoothly over the top of a cake or even out frosting, you get more control with an offset spatula. You should have a small metal icing spatula for cookies and a nice long (8 to 10 inch) spatula for working on cakes.
Spices are the pick-me-ups of pastry, the little something that can change a sweet’s character. To get the flavor, fragrance and color that you expect from dried spices, you have to use spices that are fresh.
You can tell if a spice still has its oomph by checking that its color is still vibrant and its fragrance still potent - if they are both there, chances are the flavor will be too.
If kept away from light, heat and humidity, spices should remain in peak condition for at least 6 months, just make sure to check them.
SPRING FORM PAN
This two-piece pan just about guarantees a beautifully straight-sided cake or perfect cheesecake. What makes a springform so useful is its removable sides - a spring latch opens the sides of the pan enough to allow you to lift it off the base without touching the cake.
Spring form pans are excellent for fragile cakes because after you remove the sides, you can leave the cake on the base of the pan for serving and cutting. It is useful to have both 9 and 10 inch spring form pans.
Sugar adds sweetness to desserts, of course, but it contributes to a dessert’s texture and color as well.
Whenever you see “sugar” listed in an ingredient list, I mean for you to use regular granulated sugar (not superfine). I use can sugar, the sugar most commonly available in supermarkets.
Powdered Sugar (Confectioners’ Sugar)
A very white, powdery sugar that contains a little cornstarch, sometimes called 10X sugar - it can be measured straight out of the bin, but because it is lumpy, it must be sifted or strained before it is measured into a batter. Use the scoop-and-sweep method for measuring.
Brown sugar is white sugar to which molasses has been added. It is soft and moist - but unfortunately, prone to lumps of the rock-hard variety. Put brown sugar through a sieve before you mix it into a batter because the lumps won’t break up by themselves. I use light brown sugar almost exclusively, but you can use either light or dark in any recipe without a problem.
TESTING FOR DONENESS
I have tried to give you as many test for doneness as possible for each dessert. Sometimes you will feel a cake to see it it’s springy, touch a cookie to see if it’s firm, look at a crust to determine if it’s golden, or tap a pudding to discover if it’s jiggly in the center.
For cakes and muffins, the most usual test is to insert a knife deep into the center of the cakes and if it comes out clean, the cake is ready to be pulled from the oven.
For so many years, the standard instruction was to stick a toothpick into the cake. I’ve traded in my toothpicks for a paring knife, which is what the pros use.
A knife goes in deeper and has more surface area than a toothpick, so you can really get to the center of the cake and better judge if it is done. The drawback to testing with a knife is the slash that it creates. For me, the slash is not a problem with most cakes, but it can be unattractive in a pumpkin pie or a custard.
For desserts such as these, I’ve also given you visual cues to note so you need resort to the knife test only if you really can’t decide if it is done. If you slash a custard, remember - that’s why there is whipped cream in the world.
Vanilla, from the seed pods of orchids grown in tropical climates, is the most basic flavoring in the baker’s repertory and the most important. Vanilla softens any harshness in a recipe, rounds out the flavor of eggs and perfumes everything to which it is added. The two most common types of vanilla are beans and extract.
Vanilla beans should be wildly aromatic, plump and pliable. For most recipes, you need just the pulp of the bean.
To get to the pulp, slice the bean lengthwise in half with a sharp knife, then use the back of the knife to scrape the pulp out of the pod. When you are infusing milk or cream with vanilla, you’ll add both the pod and the pulp to the liquid.
When you remove the pod, hold on to it. Wash the pod, dry it at room temperature or in a 250 degree oven- then put it in a food processor with granulated sugar and pulverize the bean to make vanilla sugar.
You can also plunge the pod into a bin of sugar to flavor it or save the pod to steep in another liquid. Keep vanilla beans, tightly wrapped in several thicknesses of plastic wrap, in the refrigerator. Well wrapped, it can keep for one year.
I have tested my recipes using vanilla extract. ALWAYS Pure Vanilla Extract. I can’t emphasize enough the need for the extract to be pure, since imitation extracts can leave a bitter aftertaste that can ruin your dessert.
While both pure and imitation extracts contain vanillin, the imitation extracts contain a synthetic vanillin often derived from lignin - a by-product of wood pulp. Yuck. Synthetic vanillin mimics the basic flavor of pure vanilla, but it does not deliver the complexity of the real thing.
Vanilla extract is made by steeping cured vanilla beans in alcohol and by law, must be 35 percent alcohol by volume. Although the proof is pretty high, you won’t use very much vanilla and what you do use will be in portions. However, if you don’t want to use the alcohol-based extract, substitute the pulp of a vanilla bean.
Substituting Vanilla Extract For Vanilla Beans
In general, figure 1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract for 1 vanilla bean.
VEGETABLE COOKING SPRAY
You can use vegetable oil spray, such as Pam, any time you are instructed to butter a baking pan. I often use it for muffin pans and sometimes for Bundt pans, which are fussy to coat evenly.
The safest way to avoid overcooking custards or puddings, and some cheesecakes, is to bake them in a water bath. Line a roasting pan with a couple layers of paper towels, put the baking pan or custard cups in the pan (the toweling will keep them from bobbing about) and fill the roaster with enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the baking pan for cups.
Tucked into a water bath, your dessert will bake evenly and be protected from direct heat. It’s often easiest and safest to put the baking pan in the roaster, place in the oven, and then pour in the boiling water.
Whisks are the tools to reach for when you want to combine dry ingredients, such as flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Or when you want to give eggs a beating - or blend cake batters, stir custards and creams. Long, narrow whisks are ideal for stirring; fat whisks (called balloon whisks), are for beating air into ingredients.
I use traditional, regular-rise dry granulated yeast for my recipes because it is effective and available in supermarkets. Before you buy packets of yeast, make certain that the sell-by date has not passed.
Traditional yeast needs to be proofed by soaking it for a few minutes in a little tepid water. Do not use water that feels hot to the touch - it will kill the yeast. Stir the yeast until it dissolves, then follow the recipe. If you like the fun of having your yeast bubble, mix in a pinch of sugar so the spores have a little something to munch on.
Rapid-rise, or instant, yeast needs no proofing or dissolving. It can be mixed into a dough directly, just follow the directions on the packet.
Zest, the brightly colored rind of citrus fruits, is both flavorful and fragrant. Directly under the thin layer of zest is the white cottony pith, which is terribly bitter.
So the trick to using zest is to get just the zest. I grate it using a very fine-holed grater, and if the recipe calls for sugar, I grate the zest directly onto the sugar.
to get the most flavor and aroma from the zest, I use my fingers to rub
the zest and sugar together until the sugar is moist and fragrant. This
is an excellent way of getting the zest oils into the recipe.