Tips and Tricks Archive

Top 10 Baking Tools and Their Uses

If you want to create the very best baked goods, there are some important items you should consider purchasing that will greatly improve the outcome of your recipes. We were thinking of listing these baking tools and their uses in order of importance, but it really depends on what you are making, so consider this a randomly ordered list – except for #1. Accurate measuring tools are really important, no matter what you are baking or cooking.

measuring-cups-odd-sized-measuring-cups

1. High Quality Measuring Tools – Precisely made dry and liquid measuring cups are some of the best investments you will ever make that will positively affect your baking. We recommend dry measuring cups and spoons from Cuisipro or King Arthur Flour, as well as both Anchor Hocking and classic Pyrex liquid measuring cups. You should note that in 2011, Pyrex came out with some “read-from-above” liquid measuring cups, but in an independent test, they were not as accurate as their older models. It appears that they are again producing their classic styles. Go with those.

2. Commercial Half-Sheet Pans – Heavy-duty aluminum pans, typically 18 x 13 inches, used for cookie sheets, large-batch brownies and sponge cakes; for protecting the oven from dripping pies; as a tray to catch ingredients you are sprinkling on cakes or cookies; for carrying ingredients from here to there, etc. There are so many uses! We buy ours at a commercial kitchen supply store but you can find them online and at better kitchen and houseware stores. When we call for a baking sheet in Bakepedia recipes, this is the item we are referring to.

3. Parchment Paper – Cut parchment paper to fit cake pans, make parchment cones and, of course, to line cookie sheet pans (half-sheet pans), making for easy clean up. It is also handy to sift dry ingredients onto it; you can then pick up the paper and pour ingredients right into a bowl or measuring cup.

4. Oven Thermometer – Without an independent oven thermometer, you do not really know what temperature your oven is heating to. Poorly calibrated ovens are pretty common and can wreak havoc with your baked goods. CDN makes several reliable ones; their MOT1 Multi-Mount Oven Thermometer is very highly recommended. It can hang from or be perched on a rack and also has a magnet.

shot-glass-measuring-cup

5. Shot-glass Measuring Cup – This looks like a shot glass, but it has measurements printed on the outside ranging from 1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons, with milliliters measurements as well. It is very practical when measuring small amounts of liquid. Crate & Barrel carries a great one called the Mini Measure.

rubber-spatulas

6. Rubber or Silicone Spatula – Okay, in the old days we called these rubber spatulas (and many people still do) but nowadays most are made of silicone. Either way, these flexible spatulas scrape the last bits out of bowls and bottles, they fold delicate ingredients together and gently stir items in pots on top of the stove. The best baking tools are multi-purpose and these are some of our favorite. We like having an array of sizes from extra small (gets into small bottles), to standard size (great for everything) and extra large, too (perfect for folding egg whites and handling large quantities of food).

Icing-spatulas

7. Icing Spatulas (offset and straight) – The “other” spatula for the baking kitchen. They are inexpensive and it pays to have short, long, straight and offset versions if you do a lot of baking. We use them to apply frosting on tiny cupcakes as well as giant wedding cakes, to smooth thick batter in pans for a leveled layer that allows the dessert to bake evenly, and to loosen a cake’s sides from its pan for easier unmolding.

whisks

8. Whisks – Whisks come in several different shapes, and they all serve their own purpose, so we recommend having a variety at your disposal in the kitchen. A balloon whisk with a large, bulbous end is best for large amounts of ingredients. We like to use this shape to help start the folding process when making angel food cakes, for instance, or when folding large amounts of whipped cream into mousses, then we finish off with a silicone spatula. Whisks with a more narrow profile are great for using in pots and pans. Their slender shape makes them a more agile choice when whisking lemon curd or pastry cream on top of the stove. We use an assortment of metal whisks, as well as whisks with silicone-coated wire that scrapes the sides of a bowl like a spatula.

pastry-brush

9. Silicone Pastry Brush – Silicone transformed the pastry brush. The old-fashioned type with natural or nylon bristles not only shed but also held onto flavors and colors. If you used one for BBQ sauce or a strong curry, forget using it for a delicate apricot glaze the next day, even after thorough washing. Silicone brushes clean up perfectly in the dishwasher with no residual trace of flavors or pigment and they don’t shed! They come in various sizes, but for the pastry kitchen, look for ones with delicate “bristles” such as the one shown.

Bench-scrapers

10. Bench Scraper – Ah, we love a simple baking tool that has multiple uses and simply gets the job done! Bench scrapers scoop up ingredients to transfer to bowls, aid in cutting brownies and bars and make for easy clean up. After you have dusted your work surface with flour to roll out pastry, the bench scraper gets every last bit of flour and dough up off of the surface at the end. Especially if dough sticks to the surface, it is excellent at getting that up, too. When we chop nuts, the bench scraper scoops them and transfers them to batters and doughs and then easily scrapes up all the little powdery bits left on the table. These are one of those items where once you have one handy, you will use it again and again.

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Dusting Your Work Surface With Flour

flour-wand-1What do pie crust, rolled cookies, puff pastry and Danish dough all have in common? At some point in the recipe you will be rolling them out on a flour-dusted surface. Dough is often a bit sticky and needs help; you want to roll it out to the desired thickness or thinness without it sticking to your counter top. Some bakers use pastry cloths or roll dough between sheets of parchment paper, and sometimes we will employ these methods, but the basic technique just uses your work surface, a bit of flour and a rolling pin.

The key is to use just enough flour to keep your pastry or dough from sticking, and not any more. Extra flour will become incorporated into your dough and make it tough, so it is best to start with a light dusting. You can certainly use your fingertips to sprinkle some flour as evenly as possible over your work surface, but we love our flour wand. First of all, it just looks really cool – and no one knows what it is, so it can be a conversation piece – but we are all about function and this old-fashioned tool does its job well.

It might look like a torture device, but it is actually quite handy and simple to use. To use, squeeze the two handles inward; this action releases the tightly coiled spring head, which you then dip into a container of flour (usually all-purpose, unless stated otherwise). Then, release the pressure on the handle and the spring closes shut, capturing the flour inside. You can now hold the flour wand over your counter top and control the amount of flour that flows out by the pressure you apply on the handles.

flour-wand-2In the image above, we used a flour wand to dust our surface with flour and also to lightly dust the top of the cookie dough before and during rolling. You can see how evenly and lightly the flour is dispersed. On the top part of the dough, we used our hands to spread the flour into an even layer during subsequent passes with the rolling pin.

Do you need a flour wand? No, but once you have one you will use it whenever this technique is required, as it simply does it better than anything else, fingers included. P.S. We don’t usually wash ours, as some are prone to rusting. We simple shake it clean of flour and wipe it off with a soft cloth.

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Fresh Red Currants vs. Dried Currants

fresh red-currants vs dried currants

Recipes calling for currants are almost always calling for the small dried fruit that is similar to a tiny raisin, but occasionally we are lucky enough to find fresh currants, either red (seen above) or black, and these are as different as grapes are to raisins!

Fresh currants can be used in baking similarly to when you might use a blueberry or raspberry, such as in a muffin or coffeecake, a fancy mousse or even a simple fool. We highlighted their color and flavor in our Red Currant Curd, perfect for pairing with your morning breakfast pastry. They are very perishable, so use them soon after purchasing. Keep refrigerated and wash right before using, patting dry very gently with clean paper towels. They can be stripped off of their stalks, frozen and used at a later date as well.

dried currants vs raisings

As for dried currants (left), they can be substituted in recipes that call for dark raisins (right), or consider using half raisins and half dried currants for a nuanced contrast in textures and flavors. They are like a petite raisins, so if a recipe calls for chopping raisins, which can be a chore since they are sticky, you could certainly try using currants instead. Use them whenever you want a little pocket of dried fruit sweetness, such as in our Cream Currant Scones.

 

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Healthy Baking Swaps

healthy-baking-swaps

Baked goods get a bad rap. We live in a world of butter and sugar and white flour, so what is a health-conscious baker to do? First and foremost, we like to practice moderation around here. One slice of cheesecake at a party is fine. Two? Not so much. A warm, fresh-baked muffin in the morning is delicious and comforting and isn’t going to tip the scales when balanced with lunches and dinners filled with fresh veggies, fiber and lean proteins. Speaking of which, one of the reasons we do love to bake from scratch is because we can control the quality of our ingredients.

In general, we like to eat and cook with fresh, whole foods. When we bake a batch of cookies at home, we can name and pronounce every ingredient, and we buy fresh eggs and use high-quality chocolates – all with nary a preservative, thickener, stabilizer or who-knows-what-else. So those are the givens, but what else can we do? We hate to break it to you, but “healthy desserts” is a bit of an oxymoron. There are, however, some smart substitutes you can make to help lessen the impact of your baked goods. Here is a list of some healthy baking swaps that we recommend. You can apply these to your favorite recipes, but always remember that it is an experiment and you might have to do some adjusting, as the potential substitutes vary with each recipe. If you develop any slam-dunks, we would love to know!

  • First, take a look at your recipe. Instead of baking a pound cake, look for desserts that are rich in fruit and naturally low in fat – poached fruit, fruit compotes, meringues, Pavlova, sorbets – there any many to choose from.
  • Baking with applesauce (unsweetened) is a great substitution for part of the fat in your recipe. Start by replacing about 1/3 of the fat with an equal amount of applesauce and if it works, try replacing up to half. (So if the recipe calls for 1 cup butter, use ½ cup butter and ½ cup applesauce). There are great jarred, unsweetened applesauces available, so this makes it an easy swap, too. The applesauce also boosts the vitamin content of your recipe.
  • If you like the applesauce results, try other mashed fruit like bananas, prunes, canned 100% pumpkin purée or even mashed avocado.
  • Alternatively, you could simply try reducing the fat in a recipe by 25%.
  • Sugar can often be reduced by 25% to 50%. Again, results will vary, but give it a try if sugar in particular is what you want to reduce in your diet.
  • Swap organic cane sugar for regular sugar. It is less refined and some studies suggest that it retains antioxidants. Just substitute cup for cup and you are good to go.
  • Many healthy bakers use puréed black beans (either cooked from scratch or canned are fine) in equal measure as a substitute for all-purpose flour. This works great in chocolate brownies where the bean flavor is masked.
  • An easy substitute for white flour is King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour, which is a very subtle whole-wheat flour, both in taste and texture. You will increase your fiber and antioxidant content and you can substitute in equal measure. Start by swapping it in for half of your all-purpose white flour, assess the results, and increase as you like.
  • Smart Balance makes a 50/50 Butter Blend which is trans-fat-free, high in heart-healthy omega-3 fat and has less saturated fat than pure butter. It can be used in equal measure to the original amount called for.
  • Add chopped nuts to many recipes for their added health benefits, or try substituting 1/4 of the all-purpose flour with nut flour.
  • Many bakers have success using ground flax seeds as an egg replacement. For every large egg, substitute a blend of 1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds and 3 tablespoons of water. This is best done blended together in a powerful blender, such as a Vitamix, for larger amounts, or a clean coffee grinder for small amounts. Blend until creamy.
  • 1/4 cup of silken tofu, blended till creamy, can also stand in for a large egg. This saves calories and adds calcium.
  • Think about size. A cookie recipe might state that it yields 15 cookies, but why not try making the cookies smaller than instructed? Not only do you increase your yield, but you also have built-in portion control. Remember to reduce baking times.
  • Neufchatel cheese can usually be swapped in for regular cream cheese, saving you calories and, depending on the recipe, providing an even creamier texture.
  • For a classic chocolate chip cookies recipe, use mini chips instead of regular and reduce the volume by half. You will still feel like you are getting your chocolate fix, but will save fat and calories.
  • Better yet, reduce the chocolate chips in any recipe and sub in cacao nibs, which have all of the positive health qualities that we want from chocolate without any of the extra sugar or other additives.
  • If you are using vegetable shortening, read the labels. Avoid products that contain partially hydrogenated fats and look for ones that are derived from coconut or palm oil. We recommend the Spectrum Organics brand.
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The Best Star Tip Ever – The Wilton 1M

using the Wilton 1m Star tipPastry bags and tips are standard for any cake decorator or home cook who likes to make the occasional swirl or rosette on top of their cupcakes or tortes. There are dozens of star tips from which to choose, in both types small and large sizes but if we had to pick a desert-island (should that be dessert island?) star tip, the Wilton 1M would win, hands down. Why? After decades of decorating and using pretty much every tip out there, this is the one that not only makes the prettiest swirls and rosettes, but does so effortlessly. When you see cupcakes in a bakery window with those perfect swirly mounds of icing, many times a 1M was at the helm.

The funny thing about star tips is that they all look fairly similar, and maybe that’s why home bakers haven’t branched out once they’ve tried one or two. A good analogy might be how you think you might have two pieces of clothing that are the same red, but when you put then side by side, you can see that they are not the same color – subtly so, but still different. So it is with tips.

star tip comparison for cake decoratingIn the image you can see, left to right, an Ateco 9885, Ateco 844, Wilton 1M, Ateco 842 and Ateco 824. The variations are not so subtle (like the #9885) to very subtle, but if you look closely at the 1M, you will see that the opening is very clearly defined, with straight lines and an opening that is neither too open nor too closed. Perfect.

wilton 1m star tip

Another thing to remember is that pastry tips are cheap, less than $2 in most instances and if cared for well, they will last a lifetime.

1M-shapes

The 1M can make straight lines (top), simple kisses, small rosettes, big swirls and s-curves (left to right, middle row) and shells (bottom left). With a 1M loaded in your pastry bag, you will have some of the prettiest cakes ever coming out of your kitchen.

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How to Whip Cream

whipped-cream

Heavy cream,” sometimes labeled as “heavy whipping cream,” has the highest butterfat content, typically 36% to 40%, which is higher than “whipping cream” (30%-36%); thus, when learning how to whip cream, the first step is to read the labels and buy what is specifically labeled “heavy cream.” This is because the higher the butterfat content, the easier it will be to whip, meaning that the cream will actually expand in volume, take on a whipped consistency and then hold this texture for a period of time. “Whipping cream” with its lower butterfat content can seem to resist whipping, despite its name.

As an aside, there is a product called Manufacturing Cream, which often has a butterfat content of over 40% and is usually only available within the professional foodservice realm.

These suggestions are for whipping cream to serve alongside a dessert. If the whipped cream is incorporated into a recipe, such as being folded into a mousse, we recommend always using the specific type of cream listed in the ingredients. One exception would be if the recipe calls for “whipping cream”, and you are not getting enough stability in your dessert, it could have been an editing error and you might try “heavy cream” next time and see if it improves the outcome.

The second aspect to note is that most cream found in the supermarket is “ultra-pasteurized” and this will be harder to whip than just “pasteurized,” so again, read the labels. The process of ultra-pasteurization flash heats the cream to 280 degrees F, while regular pasteurization heats the cream to 162 degrees F. Not only do ultra-pasteurized dairy products taste “cooked”, but the process affects the proteins, which is why stabilizers such as guar gum are then often added. In other words, it’s not just fresh cream anymore. Add to that the fact that it is harder to whip and we say, why buy it? The manufacturers love it because ultra-pasteurtization means longer shelf-life.

Cream should be very cold (preferably chilled in the refrigerator overnight) and if you have room, chill your bowl and beaters (or whisk) as well.

Place cold cream in cold bowl and add sugar to taste, if using. Granulated sugar will give a clean taste; confectioners’ sugar will have a slightly powdery flavor for some palates, but the added cornstarch in commercially prepared confectioners’ sugar will help stabilize your whipped cream. The choice is yours, or use what is called for in recipe.

If using a hand mixer, use a deep bowl to minimize splattering; if using a stand mixer, attach the wire whisk. In either case, turn the mixer on only after the beaters are immersed in the cream and start on a low speed, increasing to high. If you are beating by hand with a balloon whisk, we wish you and your biceps luck. Or hopefully you have a friend you can take turns with.

Your recipe should specify whether to whip the cream to soft or firm peaks. Stop the mixer and lift the beaters out of the cream. Both peaks will keep their shape but the soft peaks will gently flop over a bit at their apex, while firm peaks will stay standing straight up. Going from soft peaks to firm happens quickly, so err on the side of caution and test the texture early. If you whip too much, you will literally make butter (but that’s a separate article to be addressed another time).

If the recipe doesn’t specify soft or firm peaks, here are some guidelines: if you are serving whipped cream alongside a dessert, then go for soft peaks as the texture will be at its silkiest. If you are folding the whipped cream into a recipe, such as for a mousse or Bavarian cream, then a firmer texture will help the finished dish, especially if it is to be unmolded.

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Marzipan or Chocolate Plastic Roses, Leaves and Tendrils

Marzipan-roses

Making chocolate plastic or marzipan roses can elevate a simple cake into an elegant showstopper. The directions are the same for both materials but we will use marzipan in the instructions for easier reading. One thing to know in either case is that some people have hot hands – literally. If your fingers and hands are on the warmer side, it can be more difficult to handcraft chocolate roses and similar details. You will know whether your hands are exuding heat if the material you are working with seems to soften quickly and lose its shape. Have a freezer pack nearby to cool off your hands from time to time, wiping them dry before resuming.

The roses on the cake above were made by a newly graduated culinary school student; the ones below by someone who has been making them for years. Yours will have their own look and quality and will be gorgeous, too! All as unique as every real flower is from every other. Check here for the Apricot Roses directions.

apricot and marzipan roses

ROSES

Before you begin to mold roses by hand, we strongly recommend that you buy a rose from your local florist and take it apart to study the petals, leaves and general shape, construction and even the colors. This will help you create more realistic flowers yourself. We like using rose petal cutters, which you can find at Beryl’s or other cake decorating stores.

  • Start with about ½ pound of marzipan. You can make the roses out of marzipan in its natural color, or you can tint before rolling out with gel coloring. You can also leave it natural and color the roses after they are done with powdered food coloring.
  • Dust your surface lightly with confectioners’ sugar. Roll out the marzipan quite thinly, approximately 1/ 8-inch. Cut out petals using your cutters. The rose petal cutters are shaped similarly to a teardrop. You will need between 3 and 7 same-sized petals for most individual roses, depending on whether you are making rosebuds or fully blown blooms. Remove the excess marzipan from around the petals. Keep any extra marzipan tightly covered in plastic wrap.
  • Loosen the petals from the board with an icing spatula. Dust with more confectioners’ sugar if necessary. Thin out the broad edges of the petals using a small rolling pin. We use a rolling pin such made specifically for gum paste and marzipan.
  • The petals should be thin and delicate to give a realistic look. Think about what a real rose looks like and try to mimic that quality. For every rose, you need to mold a center. Take a piece of marzipan and roll it into a cone with the broad end down and the point of the cone top facing up. The height of the cone should be approximately the same as the length of the petals. The broadness of the base should be half that of the height.
  • Take one of the petals and, using the point on the narrow end as a guide, fold the leaf in half lengthwise while still keeping the petal open. Pinch the bottom together. Gently flare out the top edge in a tight outward furl. Some asymmetry is permissible and even desired. Real roses are not perfect. The petals might have tiny cuts and a combination of loosely curled and tightly curled shapes, which we like.
  • Place one petal against the cone base with the pinched end down. Somewhat flatten one side against the cone, leaving the other side open and away from the cone. This will allow another petal to be tucked beneath it in an overlapping manner just like a real rose. Repeat with a second petal, starting in the middle of the first petal applied. Your third petal will be tucked under the first. These three petals create a rosebud. You may add additional petals, each beginning in the middle of the one underneath. As you add more petals as outer layers, they should be more and more open and not as tight as the initial rows.
  • The base at this point may be quite wide and clunky. Release the entire rose from your work surface using an offset spatula or thin, sharp knife by sliding it beneath the flower. Trim any excess marzipan with a sharp paring knife. Roll the bottom back and forth between your fingers to create a rounded shape. Again, you are trying to re-create what a real rose looks like. When you are done, use a small, soft brush to dust off any extra confectioners’ sugar that remains.
  • The rose is done, but you may also brush with powdered food coloring as seen in our image, if you like. Roses may be stored for up to 3 days in an airtight container. Make sure they are upright and in a single layer. They are fragile.

rose-tools

LEAVES and TENDRILS

Leaves can be used in conjunction with flowers or on their own. You can leave the marzipan its natural color or tint the leaves various shades of green, either with gel coloring before creating the leaves, or tinting after with powdered coloring brushed on top.

We like to use purchased leaf cutters. Here we are talking about rose leaves, but you can also find cutters for maple, ivy, oak and others to expand your collection. Leaf veiners also help create a realistic look. Both can be found at Beryl’s or other well-stocked cake decorating sources.

Leaf veiners are plastic or silicone tools that come in almost as many shapes, as do cutters. They have raised vein patterns that make it easy to transfer their designs to your cut leaves. You can make veins individually using the blunt edge of a knife, but it will take a long time, especially when making many leaves at once.

Marzipan leaves should be made close to the time that you need to use them. They dry out a bit during storage, which makes it difficult to bend or manipulate them into the shapes you need when applying to your cake; you’ll frequently want to make last minute adjustments to their shape and drape and the leaf may crack if dry.

  • Roll out your marzipan thinly to about 1/8-inch and cut out the number of leaves desired. Remove excess marzipan from around the leaves. Loosen the leaves from the board with an icing spatula.
  • Press each leaf against the appropriate veining mat to create the realistic veins, which will really bring the leaves to life.
  • If you want to give the leaves a realistic, organic shape, drape them over curved objects of various widths. We use various cans, bottles and jars, set on their sides. Rolling pins work, too. Wine bottles will give a nice gentle curve. Small objects, such as paper towel cardboard tubes will bend the leaves dramatically.
  • To make tendrils, simply take a bit of marzipan and roll it out on your work surface with your hands into a long pencil shape. Keep rolling until it is as long and thin as you want. Gently taper the ends.
  • Arrange roses on the cake first, then add leaves and tendrils where appropriate.
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How to Make Apricot Roses

marzipan and apricot roses

Ingredients:

  • Dried apricots – you will need about 4 apricots for each rose that you make, give or take

Halve each dried apricot if necessary (some dried apricots come whole, some already halved). You want round, solid halves for your apricot roses. Place between two pieces of parchment paper and flatten lightly with a rolling pin. Take one half and roll it tightly into a rose center. Use additional halves, wrapped around the center, each overlapping the one before, to make petals. Depending on size of apricots, you might have to trim the halves; always make sure a rounded un-cut edge is towards the top to form the rounded petal shape. Keep adding petals until rose is the size you want. You might only need 4 or 5 total per rose. Use a pointed end toothpick to hold them together if they are unfurling. You do need to press the petals together firmly to adhere. Store in airtight container up to 1 day.

See Marzipan Roses for those directions

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Sifting Nuts

Sifting Nuts Creates Better Flavor and Texture

sifting walnuts

You are probably wondering what I mean by sifting nuts. We toast them, we chop them, but sift? Yes! Check out the image. Walnuts for instance have a bitter, flaky skin. After chopping, a vigorous sift and voila – look at all those powdery bits! They are to be discarded as they will only add bitterness and an unwelcomed texture to your cookies, brownies and cakes. Sure, this is a nuance, but the image should convince! Give it a try and see if you find an improvement in your finished products. Try this technique the next time you make our Extreme Brownies.

This works for many nuts that have brittle, flaky skins such as pistachios and hazelnuts, too.

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Basic Baking Terms: Until a Ribbon Forms

Beating-until-a-ribbon-forms

The baking world has its own language. We “cream and whip,” we “reduce until thick” and we beat “until a ribbon forms.” This last term is such an odd phrase and yet it is a commonly called-for technique in baking, so it’s important that you know what it means and why it is essential.

In the photo, you can clearly see the ribbon (in this case, it is just whole eggs that have been whipped) swirling down and momentarily being suspended on the bulk of the whipped eggs. The eggs have been beaten long enough to produce desirable thickness and loft, so that as you allow them to drizzle back down upon the bulk, they do not disappear immediately becoming one with the rest. If that happened, it would mean they were too loose and thin and hadn’t been beaten enough. Thus, when you see the phrase “beat until a ribbon forms” used in recipes (ours and others), this is what you want to look for. This technique is called for when the recipe needs structure, so stopping short of seeing that ribbon will not produce an optimum result. Keep beating!

In our example, the image is showing whole eggs, whipped with a wire whip until tripled in volume and until a ribbon forms. Sometimes you will see this phrase in reference to a mixture of whole eggs and sugar, or just egg yolks and sugar, so it is not dependent on the ingredients, rather it is what you do with the ingredients.

Our Flourless Chocolate Cake with Raspberries uses this technique to great effect. The recipe has just three main ingredients – chocolate, butter and eggs (the berries are optional). The eggs must be whipped until a ribbon forms, at which point they are combined with the melted and cooled butter/chocolate mixture. They give this cake structure and richness. The technique is also used when making a classic Génoise, which uses no chemical leavener and instead relies on the whipped eggs to provide loft and structure.

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How to Use an Icing Spatula

types of icing spatula for cake decorating

The icing spatulas in the photo range from less than 5 inches to over 14 inches in length.

An icing spatula isn’t your regular old metal kitchen tool you use to flip your pancakes or the silicone spatula you use to scrape your bowls filled with batter. Icing spatulas are well named, as their primary purpose is to apply icings, frostings and buttercreams. You’ll get the most out of this handy tool when you follow these simple cake decorating tips and techniques we use in the Bakepedia Test Kitchen.

Types of Icing Spatulas

Icing spatulas are available long or short, straight or offset, but the most important aspect of flexibility is often overlooked. Every person is different and needs varying degrees of flexibility in their spatula. For example, a shorter person has a different perspective with their work surface than a taller person. Someone with stiff elbows and wrists will approach icing a cake very differently than someone with flexibility. The “right” icing spatula will help you get the job done and make it more enjoyable in the process. The “right” one is the one that works for you and the key might be in its flexibility. Try out a few different kinds to see which works best for you, and not just in the store. Frost a cake with one and see if the spatula guides you or feels difficult, then decide if you want to try other sizes, shapes or levels of flexibility. What feels the most comfortable in your palm? It should feel like an extension of your hand, fluid and easy to use, not an awkward, clunky impediment between you and your cake. In our experience, most icing spatulas are too stiff and aren’t very helpful.

Different shapes have different purposes: Use a large offset icing spatula to smooth the top of your cake, and a mid-size, straight edge spatula for the sides. A very small small offset spatulas that are triangular in shape and have a very narrow tip for touching up hard-to-reach areas.

Using Your Icing Spatulas

In general, your spatula should glide over the icing, pushing the icing this way and that. Do not allow it to touch the cake and then come back up into the icing or else you might bring crumbs with it. Avoid that at all costs. One extra step that we recommend is to remove a cup of icing from your main batch and use that one at a time. This way, if lingering crumbs on the spatula get into the icing, all will not be lost.

Never use your icing spatula for any other purpose other than cake decorating. Do not use it to pry open a lid and refrain from tapping its edge on a hard surface, which might create a dent in the blade. This will later show up as a ripple in your applied icing.

So grab some icing spatulas and get in the kitchen! Let us know any special techniques you like to use that might be helpful to our readers.

 

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Comparing Fresh Fig Varieties

different types of fresh fig varieties

Left to right: Black Mission, Kadota and Brown Turkey  fig varieties

Our local Whole Foods had three different kinds of fresh figs all at the same time the other day, so we snatched them up and hurried back to the kitchen with Black Mission, Brown Turkey and Kadota fig varieties, our minds racing with all of the things we could do with them. First, let’s talk about their flavor profiles and what each type brings to the table.

All types of figs are eaten with the skin, flesh, seeds and all – though the tiny stem can be snipped away. They should be plump and heavy for their size and blemish-free. They do not store well, so buy them ready to eat and plan on using right away – and make sure to get them when you see them in the store, because they might not be there tomorrow. We prepared them simply. See Fresh Figs, Ricotta and Honey.

  • Black Mission figs – Our favorite type of figs. They’re very sweet with notes of honey, and are rich and almost jammy in their intensity. We are also partial to their purple-black skin and their gorgeous pink flesh.
  • Brown Turkey figs – Another dark-colored fig, although these feature a dark brown skin, often with a hint of dark pink near the stem. The flesh is rose-colored just like Black Mission, but their flavor is less intense. If you are preparing something that contains a lot of sweetener, it might be better to go with these rather than Black Mission, which are so sweet unto themselves.
  • Kadota figs – These chartreuse-green figs have a lighter-pink interior; sometimes a thicker, less delicate skin; and a mild flavor. Kadota is not our favorite, but an array of various colors of figs on a cheese plate for dessert would look beautiful.
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How to Use a Pie Bird

pie-bird-in-pie

I guess the first question we should answer is “What the heck is a pie bird?” The picture probably isn’t fully explaining either…here is a bird’s eye view (pun intended):

Pie-bird-birds-eye-view

A pie bird is a tool, usually made of ceramic and shaped like a bird, that aids in venting steam from your double-crusted pie effectively preventing boil overs from juicy fillings and helping you attain a nice, crisp crust. They are also sometimes referred to as pie vents, pie chimneys, pie whistles and pie funnels. Whether bird-shaped or not, they are usually tall, narrow and always hollow (the steam flows up and out through the hollow center). Ceramic versions are classic, but they come in silicone now, too, as seen on the right in the photo below.

Now… the question of how to use a pie bird: Line the bottom of your pie plate with your bottom crust, place the pie bird in the center and scrape your filling into the crust and around the pie bird. Roll out your top crust on a lightly floured work surface, cut a small slit in the center, then carefully place the top crust on top of the filling. Use whatever technique is easiest for you: pick up the crust using fingers and palms, drape it over a rolling pin and use the pin to help transfer the crust, or roll it up with a rolling pin and unroll on top – your choice. Ease the pie bird up through the slit; it should fit snugly. (We think the ceramics are better, especially when you get to this step.) Crimp crust edges as desired and bake with the bird in place. Remove the bird after you have cut your first wedge of pie.

Do you need a pie bird? No. We have been baking pies without them forever, but we have to say that when we baked two pies side-by-side in the Test Kitchen, one with and one without, we did experience extra crispiness when the pie bird was used. And hey, they are inexpensive, make great host/hostess gifts and look darn cute hanging around on the shelf. They are all over eBay, vintage and otherwise, often for less than $10. You can read probably more than you ever thought you wanted to know about pie birds at PieBirdsUnlimited.

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Sugar Decorations

sugar-decorations

Colorful, yes? Picture any of these sprinkled over cupcakes slathered with white icing or strewn across the top of a cake and you have instant color and decoration. These sugar decorations, also sometimes called “sugar decors” on cake-decorating sites are inexpensive, have ridiculously long shelf lives and are about the quickest way to make your baked goods sparkle, sometimes literally, such as with that rose colored metallic glitter in the front of the picture. And yes, these are all considered edible… well, more on that later.

Left to right we have some pink hearts and white snowflakes; this kind of seasonal decor is very easy to find at craft stores such as Michael’s or ordered through Wilton.com. The pink “pearls” come in other colors, too, although mostly pastels. The silver glitter at the top is metallic and the red sugar decorations to the far right has a metallic sheen as well. In the center are large and small multi-colored sugar confetti. These are a small sampling of what is available. You can find footballs and teddy bears and shamrocks and pretty much a match for any theme you might have in mind.

Now as far as edibility, here is a disclaimer. See those pink pearls above and the metallic balls below, called dragées? They are all little hard balls of sugar, and while theoretically edible, they have been known to crack teeth and crowns, so proceed with caution. Many dragées, with their extremely high shine metallic coating, are actually not considered edible by the FDA, but Americans eat them all the time, as do Europeans. We suppose if you ate a cup or a gallon (we really do not know the threshold and are just guessing), then you might feel un-well. Use common sense.

dragées

However, sometimes common sense goes out the window, as it did with Dede when she turned nine years old. Her mom made her a white cake with fluffy white frosting and spelled out her name with cinnamon red hots (see below). Nine-year-olds are not known for their sense and it seemed to her that the cake would be vastly improved upon if the entire thing were mosaic-ed with red hots. Her Mom let her plaster the thing with the candies and a lasting, happy birthday memory was made. Perhaps this was a harbinger of Dede’s cake decorating future?

cinnamon-red-hots

The point is that decorating baked goods can sometimes be simple. So simple that a nine year old can have a hand in the process. We say, Have Fun!

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Comparing Types of Peanut Butter

different types of peanut butter

Look at the picture above. All types of peanut butter, yet very different peanut butters – even apparent without scratch and sniff! When you are making a peanut butter recipe, hopefully the recipe developer will specify what kind. What do we mean? Well, there was a time that peanut butters like Skippy, Peter Pan and Jiff were the only ones on the shelf, unless you were a fringe hippie (or your Mom or Dad were) and frequenting the weird little “health food” store. So when you made your cookies with one of those peanut butters, your dough acted as expected because the recipe was developed with that kind of peanut butter in mind, which has hydrogenated fats and sugar added. Decades have passed and the types of peanut butter available at the supermarket has broadened. If you use a different kind than what is recommended, your recipe might not work and that is a waste of time, money and energy.

On the left in the picture is fresh ground peanut butter. This is the kind you can grind yourself with the machine right in the store and pay for by the pound. It is typically dry and coarse, in comparison to others, and sometimes has salt, sometimes not and sometimes you won’t know! The one in the middle is commercially prepared natural peanut butter (we used Smucker’s); the only ingredients are peanuts and salt. Peanuts’ natural oils do rise to the top, but are easily stirred back in. The type on the right is Skippy Creamy, which is the “regular” Skippy and the one you might have grown up with. It’s ultra-smooth, but in addition to peanuts and salt, it contains sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils (cottonseed, soybean and rapeseed).

It is not hard to imagine that the same recipe made with each type will bring very different results, so hopefully the type used when the recipe was developed will be specified – and you will use it.

Now we don’t want to confuse you further, but just to emphasize that it is vitally important that you read a recipe carefully and use what ingredients are called for, there are now eleven types of Skippy peanut butter on the market! Eleven! Many of the commercial brands have branched out and now also offer a reduced fat option, a reduced-sugar and sodium and probably the most controversial of all is what is called “natural creamy”. This is a hybrid where manufacturers promise a classic creamy texture but without the hydrogenated fat. The ingredients will be listed as peanuts, sugar, palm oil and salt and the label will often boast that it is “no stir”, meaning that the oil doesn’t separate – something that some consumers find annoying. The problem is that palm oil is very high in saturated fat.

As we always say, use the specific ingredient called for in any given recipe to ensure best results. Read the labels. If what you have is a recipe that just says “1 cup peanut butter,” you need to think critically. If it is an older recipe from a conventional cookbook, the classic Skippy Creamy style is probably what is needed. If the recipe is from a magazine, ditto. If you make peanut butter cookies with the “wrong” product, they will still be edible; it is mostly the texture that will suffer. So don’t worry too much, just get in the kitchen and bake and take notes for next time.

 

Bakepedia Notes

  • When using peanut butter in recipes we use dry measuring cups. Spritz them first with nonstick spray so that the sticky peanut butter releases more easily.

 

 

 

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The Different Types of Cocoa

different types of cocoa
Left to Right: Natural cocoa, Dutch-processed cocoa, black cocoa. Front: Cacao nibs

Any Bakepedia recipe that calls for cocoa will specify which kind, usually natural or Dutch-processed.  There is also black cocoa that we purchase from King Arthur Flour – which is the color and flavor of Oreo cookies. All of these types of cocoa have their own qualities and it is important to know the difference. Here is a quick look at cocoas compared.

First of all, if a recipe just says “1/2-cup cocoa” then you have some sleuthing to do. What is the context? If you are reading an older cookbook, say an American cookbook from the 1950s, then chances are they want you to use natural cocoa, as that is what was available and widely used at that time. Devil’s food cakes were often made with natural cocoa. The classic Hershey’s tin of cocoa in the supermarket is natural cocoa.

Hershey's- cocoa-in-tin

Natural cocoa labels might also say “cocoa powder” or “unsweetened cocoa.” Typically if a cocoa has been Dutch-processed, the manufacturer does take the time to point that out.

When a recipe calls for Dutch-processed cocoa, it has taken into consideration the fact that this cocoa has been treated to reduce its natural acidity. Substituting natural cocoa for Dutch-processed can wreak havoc with a recipe and is not recommended. Or rather, you are on your own with the results. Truth be told, we have at times had as much success with one as with the other. It all depends on the specific recipe, however, always use what is recommended and is hopefully specified.

Black cocoa, as mentioned above, gives your baked goods the really deep, dark, rich flavor of the cookie portion of Oreos that you can probably imagine in your mind’s palate. It’s one of those childhood flavor memories that many of us have! We typically use black cocoa to make up half of the amount of cocoa called for in a recipe. You can see it put to good use in our Blackout Cake.

As an aside, it appears that antique cocoa tins are collectibles. Tins like this come up on eBay from time to time and can add color to your pantry.

Droste-tin

Droste-tin-2

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Dessert Storage Tips

dessert storage

Proper baked good and dessert storage is critical for maximum enjoyment. This might sound like an overstatement, but trust us, it’s not. Our aim is to get you to consider storage as carefully as your preparation. It should not be an after-thought. A tart filled with pastry cream and covered with fresh fruit left out at room temperature will become soggy and potential dangerous to eat. A simple pound cake left out and exposed to the air will stale very quickly. Very specific instructions are given in individual recipes and, if followed, your desserts will be the best they can be and last as long as possible.

In regards to cookies, at the very least, crisp should be stored with crisp and soft with soft, or they will all end up soft! The soft cookies lend moisture to crisp cookies if stored together. That said, we think the optimum situation is to store individual types of cookies by themselves following individual instructions. This way, chocolate cookies will remain tasting like chocolate, pure butter cookies will retain that purity, spiced cookies will not lend their flavor and aroma to others, etc. Also, believe us when we say that some must be stored in single layers separated by parchment; it is because we learned the hard way that this extra step is helpful. The Florentine bar cookies in the picture are a thing of beauty, but only if handled with care.

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All About the All-Important Crumb Coat

crumb coat application

If you are swirling on some simple frosting with the back of your spoon for a true homespun look to your layer cake, then this technique will seem a bit trivial to you. But if you want to create a bakery-worthy, stunning dessert with smooth sides and pretty piping all around, then knowing how to apply a crumb coat will help you achieve your goal.

We wish there were a better term for the “crumb coat.” It sounds strange, but actually does describe what it is and does. Once your cake is filled, you might think you’re ready to frost your cake, and you are, but not for the final coat. First you apply a crumb coat (or base coat) of buttercream or frosting to the outside of the cake, completely covering the top and sides.  This seals in any crumbs that might be on the surface and readies the cake for a smooth, final coat of buttercream. The crumb coat makes a huge difference in how the final coat goes on and, in turn, how professional it looks, setting the stage for the overall appearance of your final cake. Do not skimp on this step. It is easy, but it takes time because you have to chill your cake between applying the crumb coat and the final coat.

First, make sure that your buttercream is the right temperature. It should be very smooth and easy to spread. To apply the crumb coat, place your filled cake on a cardboard of the same size and then place on your turntable. Using an icing spatula (we like to use a straight edge at this point) place a small amount of buttercream on the top of the cake. Spread it around thinly; you want to create a smooth but thin layer of buttercream all over the top and then also on the sides. It does not have to look pretty; you will see the cake beneath the thin veil of buttercream. Just make sure to cover the tier completely, but lightly.

This is also a step where you should rectify any unevenness in the cake. Spin the tier around on your turntable and if one section dips down a bit, then add more buttercream to that area to build it up and create a level surface. Place the cake in the refrigerator and chill until the buttercream is very firm to the touch, about 2 hours.

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