Baking for the holidays reminds me of my childhood. My mother always began her Christmas baking with fruitcakes in early November. I have never enjoyed eating fruitcake but the smell of them baking in the oven is Christmas for me. It seemed that every week from then on, some new delectable was in the oven, filling the house with smells that I now associate with the season. Is there anything better than the smell of cinnamon and vanilla wafting through the house?
Everyone seems to have a favourite treat that puts them in the holiday mood. Recreating that best loved gingerbread cookie or pumpkin pie might make you feel overwhelmed but it doesn't have to. Recipes exist for everything from light as a feather shortbread cookies to melt in your mouth cherry pound cake. There are a few tips and techniques that can help you be successful.
Tips for Success
Reading the recipe all the way through will help you decide if you have the skill to complete the task. Most recipes will provide tips and techniques for success, so don't skip over this section. Starting with the best ingredients you can afford is really important. There are some items that make a bigger difference in the final result than others. The two most important ingredients for me are real butter and vanilla. The flavours that these two ingredients give to baked goods cannot be replaced by margarine, shortening or artificial vanilla.
Gathering everything you need before you start, lets you make sure you have everything you need. As a rule of thumb ingredients should be at room temperature, unless stated otherwise in the recipe. The most common exception is when making pie dough, the ingredients should be as cold as possible.
The Truth about Common Ingredients
Can all purpose flour be used in every recipe? Why do most recipes call for unsalted butter? And what is it with all those types of sugar?
All Purpose Unbleached Flour
If you can only have one flour in your kitchen, it should be unbleached all purpose. It is the work horse for baking and cooking. Why make sure you have unbleached flour? Because bleaching flour is accomplished by adding chlorine or benzoyl peroxide, not what I want in my food! And the price is the same regardless of whether it is bleached or unbleached. Be sure to sift whichever flour you choose to use. All purpose flour is used for cakes, cookies, bread, pastry and gravies.
Used when making delicate cakes and pastries. You can usually substitute all purpose flour. One big disadvantage I have found is it can be hard to find unbleached cake flour at the grocery store. The most common time I use cake flour is when baking pound cakes. Because cake flour has a low gluten content it’s not a good idea to use for baking bread.
Does it matter if you use salted or unsalted butter? Well, they are both butter so you can use either one. Salted butter has the salt already in it, usually to prolong its shelf life. Typically recipes call for unsalted butter, if you are using the salted version, the recipe will need to be adjusted. If you only have salted butter, try reducing the salt in the recipe by 1/4 tsp for every 1/2 cup butter. The price for unsalted butter tends to be slightly more but it is one of the ingredients that is worth the few extra pennies, as it allows you to control the amount of salt you are using.
I am partial to butter because of the improved flavour it lends to cakes, cookies and muffins. It’s true, everything is better with butter! Although butter and shortening can be substituted for each other, you do need to keep in mind that they don't have the same liquid content, so the recipe will need adjusting. Shortening does have its place in baking. Pie pastry is the one time I use shortening. I choose a combination of both. The butter provides structure and flavour while the shortening results in a wonderfully tender and flaky pie crust.
The darker the sugar the more intense the flavour and the richer the final product. You can substitute one brown sugar for another but the flavour will be different. If substituting brown sugar for white you may need to adjust the amount of the dry or liquid ingredients. For best results, I find it’s safer to use the type of sugar called for in the recipe. If the type of sugar isn't specified use granulated sugar.
This is the sugar readily available at the grocery store and is what we all have in our cupboards. Most common sugar used in baking.
Granulated sugar with a bit of cornstarch added to it and has been ground to a superfine grain. It can easily clump together so sift before using. Used for icings, frostings and added to whip cream.
Granulated sugar that has been ground into finer crystals, readily available at the grocery store, but is easy to make at home by placing regular white sugar in a food processor and pulsing to the desired consistency. Use when you want a finer crumb that is fairly delicate such as angel food cakes and meringues.
Light brown (golden) has less molasses and is lighter than dark brown which is a bit heavier and has a more intense flavour. Frequently called for in cookies, pastries cakes.
Turbinado or Raw
A fairly dark sugar that is course and has a crunchy texture. Often used as a finishing touch, such as on top of a pie or puff pastries.
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