July 11, 2009

I make pretty strong coffee* and think it kind to offer some sort of baked good to go with even though, as previously stated, I don’t love baking very much. And, as a part of the commercial food chain, it is impossible to NEVER bake. So every once in a while I give in, make something nice and hope that it will become more natural to me as time goes by. When it comes to recipes, I am an off-roader. I change and tweak and substitute and cross reference and experiment all the time. The problem: it is hard to do this when it’s essential to follow the rules (as a novice baker). So instead of being rebellious and left with something inedible, I pay attention and keep in mind some of the tips I have picked up to increase the baking-success-rate and fend off frustration:

  • read the recipe all the way through before starting
  • have the ingredients measured and ready
  • grease and line and re-grease every cake pan
  • non-stick spray is your best friend
  • add wet ingredients to dry
  • if you are multiplying a recipe, do all the math first
  • which is it!!? baking soda or powder. always double check
  • proof your yeast
  • when in doubt, the answer is usually 350F
  • use an oven thermometer
  • don’t boil gelatin
  • a small scale is very useful
  • Even Cook’s Illustrated likes Pillsbury Rolled Pie Crust and you will bake alot more blasphemous pies as a result of discovering them. (Of course they are not as good as homemade, but they can do…)
  • Speaking of Cook’s Illustrated, it is an excellent resource for baking complicated stuff because they walk you through every single detail.
  • I set a timer to go off halfway through the cooking process to check the oven in case the items need to be rotated or moved for even cooking, then I set a timer for a few minutes before recommended time is up to make sure nothing is getting too dark.
  • Avoid opening the oven during the first ten minutes of anything that is intended to rise.
  • It is true that practice makes… improvement, at least.

As a natural born rule-breaker, I find myself cheating in small ways; changing spices, adding handfuls of nuts, dried fruit and secret sprinkles of salt, black or cayenne pepper to my batters, etc. Safe substitutions also include playing with the types of flour (i.e. using some whole wheat or rice flour) or sweetener (honey or maple for sugar), or oil for butter. It works sometimes… Another trick I like is adding a crisp topping to quickbreads, muffins, cakes or fruit before baking. Putting the streusel together takes no more than pretending you are in a sand box, scrunching the ingredients with your fingers. Sprinkle it on and proceed as directed by the original recipe. You can even put a layer of streusel on a baking sheet and bake it by itself until crisp (about 30 minutes @ 350F). Embellish ice cream, oatmeal or fresh fruit. This is a great secret weapon which bakes up beautifully, giving even the ‘healthy-twist’ recipes an extra layer of deliciousness because what good is a whole grain flax zucchini yogurt muffin if no one is going to eat it…


Snazzy Streusel
3 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts or hazelnuts)
3 tablespoons butter, cold, cut into pieces
2 teaspoons cinnamon (optional)

Combine ingredients well with your fingers. Should resemble coarse crumbs.


Make your favorite banana bread recipe extra-dreamy: sprinkle on before baking and proceed. If the streusel looks like it is getting too dark before the batter is baked, cover the top with loose foil.


Sprinkle a layer of this stuff on top of chopped fruit (apples, peaches, pears or berries) and bake 45-50 minutes until crisp and fruit is bubbly. Perfect for summer!


Make your own music, it’s rather foolproof!

* This ‘back to basics’ coffee I have become addicted to brews in the cup. Add two tablespoons of freshly ground coffee to your 8 ounce mug. Pour some boiled water on top and stir. Wait patiently for the grinds to settle and drink until the grinds are visible…um, don’t drink the grinds. Make great coffee anywhere, even in a Vegas hotel room where the nearest good coffee is San Francisco. Just please do not bring your coffee grinder on an Everest expedition whatever you do. Thx!

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