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.
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.
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.