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Life and Religion

Baking basics are a recipe for holiday success
Expert tips to help you succeed in the kitchen
Published Monday, December 16, 2013
by Brandpoint

Whether your end-of-year festivities involve mistletoe and ho-ho-ho, a menorah and dreidel or a kinara and seven colorful candles, holidays of all cultures seem to have one thing in common: food. It is an integral part of most celebrations – whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or some other occasion for a family get-together.

If you’re thinking of trying your hand at baking, renowned baker Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Cake Bible” offers the following tips on the basics of to help ensure success in the kitchen this holiday season:

Prep the kitchen

Put away unnecessary items, clean off the counter or table top and make sure that all of the tools and ingredients are available to make for a smoother baking process.

Before you dive into a new recipe, sit down at the kitchen table and read it - beginning to end - twice. Make two lists of ingredients; one for items you already have in your pantry and a second for items you'll need to buy. Also, double check that you have the necessary bake ware. Nothing's worse than having all your ingredients assembled only to realize you loaned your Dutch oven to your sister last year and never got it back.

Next, prep bake ware per recipe directions, such as greasing cake pans or covering cookie sheets with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to the required temperature. Since this can take 10 minutes or more, depending on the age of your oven, it's a good idea to start the oven before you begin mixing ingredients. Never attempt to bake in an oven that hasn't been preheated.

Measurement is key

Unlike cooking, baking requires exact measurement. One important technique is the spoon-and-sweep method for measuring flour, which can settle. Scoop the flour into the measuring cup, ensure it is full and sweep off the excess with a knife.

Pre-measuring helps ensure a smooth, uninterrupted process when it's time to begin mixing ingredients together. Measure dry ingredients first and set them aside, then measure any "wet" ingredients such as oil, shortening, eggs or vanilla extract. Be sure to add ingredients according to the recipe, rather than dumping everything into the bowl at once.

Be patient

One of the most common - and worst - baking mistakes is impatience. Most baked goods require a cooling period before they can be safely removed from the baking pan, tray or sheet. Some recipes may specify the time needed to allow your cookies or cake to cool, while others might simply advise you to wait until the item is cool to the touch.

Rushing removal can result in breaking, crumbling, splitting and sticking - the kind of disasters no amount of icing can cover. After removing your holiday goodies from the oven, set them on a rack to cool and go do something else. You'll be happy you were patient when that fully cooled item slides easily out of the pan.

Stock the staples

Your baking efforts will run much more smoothly if you start out with a well-stocked pantry. While some holiday recipes might call for unusual ingredients, most ingredients are ubiquitous. It's a good idea to keep your pantry stocked with these at all times. They include:   

Flour - Some type of flour is the foundation of most baking. Your pantry should always have a supply of all-purpose white baking flour, but don't forget to add some other common, useful varieties like whole wheat, unbleached or semolina.

Sweeteners - Refined white sugar, of course, is a reliable stand-by for sweetening any recipe. But many holiday recipes may call for alternative sweeteners like confectioner's sugar, maple syrup, brown sugar or honey.

Extracts - You can find an extract for virtually every flavor under the sun, but keeping an ample supply of the staples will ensure you have the perfect flavoring on hand for a variety of dishes.

Spices - Keep your pantry stocked with holiday-appropriate spices like cinnamon, allspice, ground ginger, nutmeg and cloves. 

Fruits and nuts - While some recipes may call for fresh fruits and nuts, others will require dried varieties. Walnuts, almonds, pecans, raisins, candied ginger and even dried apricots and cranberries are all good starting points.

Grains - Holiday recipes often call for grains and cereals, including oatmeal, cornmeal and bran.

Leavening - Many cookies don't require a leavening agent or stabilizer, but cakes and breads may, so include yeast, baking soda and baking powder in your pantry.

Shortening - Vegetable oil, shortening and lard are staples of baking. To lighten a recipe without sacrificing taste, try naturally lighter oils like canola.

Milk - You may not use it at any other time of year, but holiday baking often calls for evaporated milk. Sweetened condensed milk is also incorporated in many recipes. A can or two of each, purchased ahead of the holidays, will ensure you don't have to make a special trip to the grocery store for this less-used ingredient.



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