Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fundamental Baking Techniques and Tips

There's no two ways about it, during the holidays I step up the baking in a big way. Pies, cakes, tarts, cookies—baking just about anything feels festive—and is my favorite thing about the holiday season. There's just something special about a pie baked in November or a cookie baked in December that surpasses the pleasure of a pie in July or a cookie in September. I guess it's all that holiday magic.

Thing is, that holiday magic will won't make our goodies turn out as if we had a magic wand, and we don't want to dampen our spirits with fallen cakes or soggy pies. Thankfully, I've learned that baking blunders are easy to avoid with just a few techniques and tips that can be applied to pretty much all my favorite holiday recipes—and yours too. So here's a quick rundown of a few fundamental baking techniques and handy tips just in time for your holiday baking bonanza.

Rolling dough

The first thing to know about rolling is that your dough, and the room in which you're going to roll it, should be cold. So chill the dough in your fridge, turn off your heater and open a window. Then roll when the room feels chilly. You can also chill your work surface by loading ice into a jelly-roll pan and leaving it on your surface.

Now you just need to dust your work surface with flour. I love my little flour shaker for this task because it produces a fine, even layer of flour with no clumps. A fine-mesh shaker is also perfect for dusting finished desserts with confectioners sugar or cocoa powder.

So you're dusted, chilled, and ready to roll, now work fast and keep your dough moving. As you roll, roll from the center outward, and keep turning your dough clockwise to ensure it isn't sticking to your surface. A wonderful aid is a large metal spatula, it slides easily under your disk of dough to release it when it does stick. If it's sticking a lot, flip the dough over, redust the work surface, and continue rapidly rolling and rotating.

Now it's time to transfer your dough. You don't want to stretch or accidentally rip it in transit, so roll the dough up onto your rolling pin, then unroll it onto your baking tray or dish. It's also good to give the dough one last chill in the fridge before filling and baking, as butter-laden doughs should go into the oven cold.

Folding batters

The first time I ever folded two parts of a batter together for a soufflé, it didn't go too well. Then I learned a trick that's never failed me since: lightening the heavy batter by stirring in a small portion of the egg whites before folding the two batters together. Stirring some of the egg whites into the heavy batter lightens it up a lot, which means your two batters are now closer in consistency and much easier combine without over-folding. Over-folding can result in a batter that won't rise enough, or will collapse during cooling.

The whole idea behind folding is to combine batters in a delicate way that adds air instead of releasing it. So you want to fold using a large rubber spatula, cutting in around the edge and center of your bowl, and reaching down to scrape the bottom. When you lift your spatula, you want to fold the batter up and over the top, which allows more air into the batter by trapping it between folds. Just be sure you're really getting underneath your batter and lifting everything up from the bottom, and keep folding—without pause—until you've got one homogenous batter. When your batter goes into your prepared cake pan, spread it rather than banging the pan to even out the batter, literally knocking the air out of it. An off-set metal spatula is perfect for this.

Preparing baking pans

Regardless of what any recipe tells me, I always butter and flour my cake pans. It's a quick extra step that'll ensure your cakes always come out with ease. I just put a pat of butter in my pan first thing, then get to doing my mise-en-place. By the time I've weighed all my ingredients, the butter is soft enough to spread. Then I just put some flour in the pan and, holding it over the sink, I tap and tilt the pan to distribute the flour evenly on the bottom and sides, then I turn it upside-down and tap it a few times to remove the excess flour. When making a chocolate cake, always use cocoa powder instead of flour!

Even when butter-flouring a pan, a circle (or square) of parchment in the bottom is an extra layer of security—with it, you know nothing can stick. Butter your pan first, and then lay the parchment so it sticks in place. Then either just flip the parchment over so there's butter on both sides, or spread a bit more butter on top of the parchment, and then flour the pan.

Although these techniques don't cover every handy thing to know, they're holiday-centric stand-bys that virtually guarantee your festive treats will be consistently good if you follow them. These tips and techniques can ensure your rolled doughs don't rip or go soggy, your cakes and tarts won't stick to the pan, and your Chiffons always stand tall and proud for having so much air in them. So when your guests are oohing and aahing over your holiday desserts, you can stand tall and proud too, and not just because you're full of hot air.

Baking on Foodista

Friday, November 14, 2008

Basic Baking Ingredients: Tips on Temperature and Treatment

Recently a friend insisted that she couldn't bake a cookie to save her life—or to have fun with her kids. Every time her children asked, "Mommy, can we bake cookies?" she reached for the mix and watched the excitement in her children's eyes fade. Her kids want to bake cookies for the baking, not just the eating, and no mix will ever satisfy that craving.

So she told me all about it, and it turned out she'd been leaving the butter on her counter for way too long and over-mixing her dough. The result? A dough so warm and soft that it spread all over the sheet as it baked, turning into one giant cookie-ish crispy thing not suitable for eating—even by children.

Truth be told, I never bake from a mix, and over years of baking from scratch solo and with pros, I've learned a lot about ingredients. More to the point, I've learned how what you do with your ingredients will affect your goodies—for better or worse. So I'll share with you some of the basics I share with my friends when they call me with their baking blunders.


When it comes to Butter, temperature matters. While lots of recipes call for room temperature butter, the temperature of your kitchen varies and butter can often get too soft. When a recipe says "room temp," it's calling for a softened butter that you can press your finger on—feeling some resistance—and make a slight impression without leaving your finger too greasy. Dough for puff pastry or biscuits needs cold butter, very cold. So it's best to cut your butter into the desired size cubes, then stick it back in the fridge until the second you'll use it. When I make a dough that requires very cold butter, I take the extra precaution of chilling everything—flour and bowl included—ensuring my butter won't soften or melt during mixing, kneading or folding, and rolling, thus destroying those flaky layers I'm trying to attain.

Eggs are another temperature-sensitive ingredient. If your using them in cookies, it's actually not that important they be room temperature. But, if you're doing a Chiffon, Angel Food cake or Meringues, they simply can't be cold. You'll never get cold egg-whites to reach a peak (I even know one pro who leaves his egg-whites out for 24 hours before making the perfect Macarons with them). If you're baking a cake, you also need room temperature eggs, a cold egg inhibits the chemical reaction of rising agents, and you could end up with a fallen cake.


Granulated Sugar isn't usually something you need to sift, Confectioners' Sugar is. But this isn't a rule to blindly follow. Since moving to the East Coast, I've used Domino sugar. Unlike the C&H sugar I used on the West Coast, Domino has lots of lumps—likely from the humidity—so I always sift it. With Confectioners' sugar, also known as Powdered sugar, sifting is almost an imperative, especially if you're making frosting. Sifting not only removes clumps, it aerates the ingredient being sifted, resulting in a lighter and fluffier end product.

Flour follows almost the same logic as sugar. With cookies or biscuits using All-Purpose Flour, you rarely need to sift. With cakes using Cake Flour, sifting is standard and you shouldn't skip it. But there's one thing you can do with either flour when your recipe doesn't call for sifting, and that's whisking. Whether making cookies, pie dough or coffee cake, you measure all dry ingredients into one bowl (using a scale makes this a cinch)—but they need to be homogenized before combining them with the wet. Just stirring your bowl of dry ingredients with a whisk will ensure even distribution. It's also important to never over-combine your flour. Most recipes incorporate the flour last, and you should only mix until you can't see any pockets of flour—then stop, finishing up by hand instead of in a stand mixer. Over-working flour into your dough causes cakes to fall, cookies to spread, and biscuits to be tough.

Salt is important in baking, never nix it because it enhances the flavors of the other ingredients. But, if you don't want bursts of salt in your mouth when eating dessert, use Fine Salt and be sure it dissolves, something it just can't do in a bowl of dry ingredients. For this reason, many professionals have taken to adding the salt to wet ingredients like vanilla extract, stirring with a tiny whisk to ensure the salt dissolves. If you do want a salt burst in your mouth—say you're making Michael Recchiuti's Fleur de Sel Caramels—then don't dissolve it, and use Coarse Salt instead of fine (Fleur de Sel, Sel Gris, Trapani, Jurassic, and Kosher are some examples).

While this article is by no means exhaustive, it should get you on your way towards understanding ingredients, paying attention to the consequences of their temperature and treatment, and trouble-shooting when things go wrong. Thanks to this knowledge, I was able to tell my friend to just leave her butter cold and not over-work the flour into her dough, and now she can bake cookies with her kids. Kids are natural enthusiasts after all, they want to bake cookies from scratch because it's fun. Every baking enthusiast can learn a lesson from kids, and stop shorting our pleasure of the pursuit by reaching for the mix.

Baking on Foodista

Kitchen Scales: The Tool Every Baking Enthusiast Needs, And Every Pastry Pro Has

Why is it that in the United States we home cooks are forced to bake inaccurately, using cups and spoons even when we've been baking for years? As any professional (or genuine enthusiast) will tell you (and I'm telling you now), you just can't bake well without a kitchen scale. For while artistic in presentation, baking is a science, and you need precision in preparation. So when that "one cup" of flour in your recipe can weigh anywhere from 100-140 grams depending on how you fill the cup, it doesn't take a genius to recognize that's no way to be precise.

Lucky for me, long before I moved in with my Parisian Pastry Chef boyfriend I started using a kitchen scale—had I not, he would have mocked me into it. He just doesn't get how anyone can bake with confidence not knowing precisely how much flour, sugar, butter, etc., they're actually using. He scoffs at the idea, waves his hands in a dismissive gesture, and says, "zees littel cups and spoons, you never find zem in a professional kitchen becauze zey are uzeless."

The trouble for him—and for you and me—is that almost all recipes in America give measurements in cups and spoons, despite the fact that when developing those recipes the pros rely on scales. Then they translated their weight measurements to volume for us low-brow home cooks . Noted exceptions are Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible, and Jacques Torres' Dessert Circus.

How much does everything weigh?

If you're not baking from Beranbaum or Torres, how do you know how to translate those cups and spoons into weight? Well, it's rather simple actually.

Every ingredient you could possibly use has it's weight by volume on the package. If you look at the Nutritional Facts on your bag of flour, sugar, walnuts, whatever, it will tell you in Serving Size just how much it weighs. On a bag of King Arthur all-purpose flour it says "1/4 cup = 30g" (and 30g x 4 = 120g = 1 cup). I'll admit that in the beginning it can seem a bit of a pain to do this, but if you bake as much as I do (a lot, a lot), then you'll have these things memorized in no time.

Weigh your way to better baking!

The end result of anything you bake is largely dependant on the precision with which you measure your ingredients. Too much flour and your cake will be heavy, not enough sugar and it won't be sweet enough, too much baking soda and it can fall flat, and nobody wants that.

Or maybe this has happened to you: you want to bake, say, cupcakes, but you don't want the two dozen cupcakes your recipe will produce, you want to halve the recipe so you only get twelve. So what do you do if the recipe calls for 1/3 cup of packed dark brown sugar? I don't have a 1/6 cup measure, do you? Can you eyeball a sixth of a cup accurately? When you know that one cup of packed dark brown sugar weighs 240g, it's easy to calculate how much brown sugar you'll need for 1/6 cup.

I'm totally in the habit of penciling in weight measurements every time I translate a new recipe (or if I halve or double a recipe). This way the next time I make that recipe I already have the weight marked on the page. This habit will save you time for sure.

Is weighing worth the effort?

This may all sound like more trouble than its worth. It's not—even for a math dummy like me. Measuring in grams and fluid ounces is the difference between the seemingly perfect cakes and pastries you find at a good bakery vs. the ones that never seem to come out just right at home. It's the difference between knowing how to scale down, halve, or triple any recipe without worrying if you got the measurements right. And it will save you time in washing dishes too, because now you can measure all those dry ingredients into a single bowl atop your scale.

There's a reason why all of my friends always ask me to "bring the dessert"—even when my boyfriend isn't making it—it's because time after time my desserts come out consistently good. And the reason why they always come out the same is because I always use my scale. As your knowledge of weight grows, and you can rattle off the grams of ingredients as easily as you can the days of the week, it won't take a genius to recognize you're truly a baking enthusiast (and you'll get props from the pros too).

Kitchen Scale on Foodista

Home-Made Stock: Three Simple Steps from Bones to Broth

I love roasting a whole chicken. I love the way it smells, I love the crispy skin, but most of all, I love roasting a chicken because I get to make a savory stock from the left-overs.

If there's one ingredient that sets the enthusiast apart from the casual cook, it's home-made stock. Nothing at the supermarket will ever match the richness, depth of flavor, purity and TLC of home-made stock. Thing is, while stock is super easy to make, it does take time. A poultry stock can simmer away on your stove for 2-3 hours. Beef or veal stock may take up to six hours, while a vegetable stock takes about 1 & ½. But the time your stock spends simmering is not all active time. After keeping a close watch in the beginning, you can just leave it on a low simmer and let it work its magic on its own, concentrating its flavor as it reduces to your desired strength.

Step One: Just Add Water

When making any stock, all you need are raw or roasted bones (or veges—whichever ones you like) and water. When I roast a chicken (or turkey, poussin, etc), I save the entire carcass. Within two days, I pull the carcass out of the fridge, break it down, and put the pieces straight into my heavy stock pot. If you're working with raw parts, roast poultry at 425, beef and veal bones at 435, and veges at 400, until they are golden brown. Roasting produces a "brown" stock, using raw ingredients produces a "white" stock.

When you've got your parts in the pot, add enough water to cover the contents completely. I use filtered or distilled water— it will be my stock—so I refrain from using tap water like I would when boiling pasta.

Never add salt when making stock! As your liquid reduces, the salt will become concentrated, and your stock will be much saltier than intended. With home-made stock, you just add salt to taste when you're using it.

Next, put the stock pot on the stove over medium-high heat, uncovered. You don't want your stock to come to a rolling boil, that's part of why you have to babysit it. The other reason is that as the liquid gets hotter, you have to skim the top.

Step Two: Skim the Brim

For a beautifully clear stock, you've got to skim the brim to remove all the foam that develops as the liquid heats. This foam is nothing more than fat and sinew released from the bones, which is why you have more skimming with a white stock than a brown one, much of the fat and sinew melts during the roasting process for a brown stock.

Just before your stock reaches a boil (you'll see a couple of large bubbles perk up, and a lot of steam), turn the heat down to medium and don't let it boil. No matter how much you've skimmed your stock, if you let it boil, the end result will be a murky liquid. That's no big deal if you plan to use it in a risotto, braise or Bolognese, but if you want to use it as broth for, say, chicken soup, then you'll want a crystal clear liquid—called a consommé.

Now that your stock has reached an almost-boil and you've turned the heat down to medium, stay put, and step up the skimming. At maximum heat level, the bones give off a continuous amount of muck. But you'll soon see there's nothing more to skim, and you can stop baby-sitting. Just turn the heat down to med-low, leave it uncovered, and let it simmer away on its own.

Step Three: Drain and Strain

When your stock is finished simmering, it's time to drain and strain. I drain the liquid first by pouring all the contents through a large sieve (like you would use to drain pasta). Then I take the just-drained liquid and strain it through a fine sieve lined with a paper towel. This straining will remove all the tiny bits that slipped through the large sieve, leaving you with a consommé.

I like some fat in my stock—fat is flavor after all. If you prefer none, you just need to refrigerate it overnight with a sheet of plastic wrap touching the liquid. When the stock cools, the fat solidifies and sticks to the plastic wrap. When the stock is cooled (and you've removed the fat if desired), pour it into ice cube trays or freezer-safe containers and freeze it.

Now you've got a stash of stock for use at a moment's notice. Risottos, á la minute pan sauces, soups, rice, braises, and stuffing are just a few things that need good stock and consommé. With the summer behind us, there's no better time to make your own stock. After all, so much of what we want to eat when it's cold—all that comfort food—will benefit beyond measure. Plus, making stock not only warms your home and fills it with wonderful scents, it warms your heart and fills it with a love of cooking.

Chicken Stock on Foodista