Saturday, December 4, 2010

Experienced cooks and bakers, especially those who are professionally trained (which we aren't), often use the mise en place* method of organizing their ingredients. Mise en place means, simply, "put in place." It involves measuring all your ingredients out ahead of time and putting them in individual bowls, dishes or piles so that they are ready to add to your mixer, mixing bowl or pot when you need them. If you've ever watched a cooking show on TV, you've seen the cook using this method; you usually don't see them doing the measuring. They just pick up the bowl of chopped onion, green pepper, or pre-measured spices, which has probably been prepared by a crew member, and toss it gaily into the mix.

The advantage of doing the prep work ahead of time (let's remember that "prep" is short for "preparation," not "preparatory," as in "preppy") is that you are far less likely to forget an ingredient in the heat of the moment -- and who among us has not, at one time or another, forgotten to add some small amount of an essential ingredient? Salt, herbs, lemon zest -- or, worse, baking soda or powder -- if they are sitting there in a row with the other ingredients, you will remember them. It is also much faster, in the final analysis, to do all the measuring at once, and then be able to add things in quickly as you mix. If you are working with a hot mixture on the stove, and time is of the essence, mise en place for at least a few ingredients might be required.

Small custard cups (like the ubiquitous Pyrex ones) are good for mise en place. I recently bought small multi-colored silicone cups that will be useful, as well as a set of stainless-steel Indian cups specifically designed for Indian cooking, which uses many different spices, often added at different times. You can use cupcake papers or silicone cupcake cups, which also come in many different colors (useful if you have ingredients, like baking powder and baking soda, that look identical but get added at different points). Of course, for larger amounts, use larger bowls or measuring cups. Don't use a cupcake pan; how will you get one ingredient out while leaving the others in their respective cups?

I've been resistant, myself, to mise en place, but Betty has shown me the True Way, and I've come around to it. You may end up with a few extra little bowls to wash -- but that's better than ending up with a ruined cake, or racing around the kitchen looking for the vanilla while your cake over-mixes. Be Prepared!

* pronounced "MEESE ehn plahs."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Eggs, emphasis on successful baking with them

Eggs are such scary things in their natural state: fragile in the shell, slimy and slippery out of it. If your hand slips while cracking one into a bowl of batter, you may end up trying unsuccessfully to fish out hard, sharp little shards of shell which would give an eater an unpleasant surprise if they are left in (no, it can't masquerade as a nut!). If you need to separate eggs and beat the egg whites separately, the tiniest bit of yolk or oil in the whites can deflate the whole thing -- or so we've been taught. And, of course, there's that salmonella scare. This blog post will be a primer on safe and successful egg handling and use.

First, wash the eggs. (I'm assuming you started the whole baking session by washing your hands, but if you didn't -- do that, too.) Don't assume that "cage free" or "organic" or "vegetarian" means "clean." Even free-range, organic, vegetarian hens don't have what we would consider good personal hygiene (I'm trying to be subtle here). And who else has touched those eggs? An egg packer who never washes his/her hands after using the bathroom? Another shopper who sneezed onto them while inspecting them for cracks (and then rejected them because she's sneezed on them? Don't think it doesn't happen.) Maybe just the careful cashier at the check-out who conscientiously opened the box to make sure they were all whole (but who has been handling cash all day). So -- wash the eggs. Warm water, soap -- just like you wash your hands.

If you are making a cake or other dish where volume matters, warm up your eggs. Easiest way is to take them out an hour or more in advance (but not more than two hours); fastest is to put them in a bowl of hot (but not boiling) water and let them sit while you get out the rest of your ingredients. (If you boil the water, or microwave it so that it is really hot, you will partially cook your eggs. Don't ask how I know that. The Big Pink Cupcake got where she is today by making LOTS of mistakes.)

Now comes the bowl-using part of the process. (I consider it a successful baking session if I have used every available item in the kitchen, but not everyone strives for my high standards of mess.) If you are adding whole eggs to a cake or other dough, get a small bowl (like a Pyrex custard cup) and a bigger one, which might be the mixer bowl in which you've already beaten your butter and sugar. Crack the eggs one at a time on the countertop (a flat surface makes it less likely that you'll get bits of shell into the egg because it doesn't make such little bits); put each one into the small bowl; inspect it for bits of shell (it's much easier to get shell bits out of one egg than out of four, or out of a bowl that already has other ingredients in it). Use a large piece of shell to reach into the egg and scoop out tiny fragments; chasing them around the slimy white with your fingertips might keep you entertained for hours, but didn't you come to cook? If you are keeping kosher, this is where you look for red spots and throw out the egg if it has them; if not, and you've gotten all the egg-shell bits out, toss the approved egg into your big bowl. That was easy.

Now let's talk about separating your eggs, and beating the egg whites. More bowls (hooray for over-achievers!) are needed; two little clean ones, two bigger ones. Make sure that the bowl in which you are going to be whipping the egg whites is spotlessly clean; if it's been sitting around and is a bit dusty, wash and dry it with a fresh dishtowel. Do the same to the beater or whisk you'll be using. You can thank me later. Now: to separate the eggs.

You can use a commercially-available egg separator -- it looks like a spoon with a semi-circular slot in it, which holds the yolk in the middle and lets the white drip out the hole. You can slip the yolk carefully back and forth from one half of the egg shell to the other, being very careful not to break the yolk, letting the white ooze into its clean little bowl (takes practice, but impresses your audience). Or you can use the egg separator at the end of each arm; crack the eggs into the palm of your (CLEAN) hand and let the white drip slimily through your loosely-cupped fingers while you cradle the yolk. Yes, it feels gross, but why dirty EVERY kitchen utensil? And won't you feel like you had a Close Encounter with your baking if you do it that way?

Crack them carefully (remember, on the countertop, not the edge of the bowl); and separate the first egg. Make sure that there is no yolk in the white; now put the yolk in the bigger bowl which is its destiny, and the white into your sparkling clean egg-white-whipping bowl. Repeat the process. Having the small bowls insures that a later broken yolk doesn't contaminate the whole batch of eggs; don't think it doesn't happen that you've successfully separated 5 eggs and then #6 ruins the bowlful and you have to make scrambled eggs for dinner and start all over again with the separating. See, you should have listened to me.

I have, on occasion, managed to scoop/spoon/wipe out a tiny bit of egg yolk that had sneaked into my otherwise pristine whites, and still managed to whip up the whites successfully, but I think the percentage of yolk to white that can give you that sort of result is a proportion best expressed by homeopaths. In other words, don't count on it. And don't say I didn't tell you so when you try it and it fails. Baking is a science, and you may be able to fudge the results occasionally -- but you won't get a Nobel Prize that way. (I'm lobbying for the creation of a Nobel Prize in Confectionery, but the odds are long.)

When you are adding eggs to a cake mixture, add one egg, beat well, stop the mixer and scrape it well, and then beat a bit more before adding the next egg and beating/scraping/beating again. This will give you the best incorporation of eggs into your butter/sugar mixture. You really can't over-beat at this point. After you add the flour, though, beat just until all the ingredients are incorporated. Then stop, scrape the bowl, beat BRIEFLY, and you are done.
We like the new beaters (available for most Kitchenaid mixers) with a flexible rubber edge; they do an amazing job of scraping the bowl while beating, and reduce the amount of time needed for successful beating.

Questions? Please e-mail or call us and we'll be happy to help!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bakers' Tools: Essentials and Favorites

There are certain tools without which one shouldn't even think about baking, let alone opening a bakery: whisks, rolling pins, a good stand mixer, rubber spatulas. But the more time you spend baking, the more tempting certain supposed time-saving tools become. For me, cookware stores hold the same promise that hardware stores, art supply stores, and fabric stores offer; "So many projects, so little time, but here are some things that will make you more efficient!" But how many of those things are really useful?

Unsurprisingly, you can purchase many or few items, and, depending on how ambitious you are, how deft you are with your hands, and how patient you are, you might find that you can get by with very few items -- or that you need a lot, and make use of each one.

For example, if you want to cut the fat into flour when you make a pie crust, you can do it with two table knives from your silverware drawer (cost: $0), used in opposition to each other (think of cutting in different directions); or a pastry blender, which has 5 or 6 curved wires attached to a handle and makes short work of the process (cost: $7-$10); or you can use a food processor (cost: $200 and up, depending on size). Of course, you already have the table knives, and they get used for other things (we hope!) and the food processor may already be in your kitchen, and it is also handy for other things. But if you are a beginning baker, and want to get a few good items for your batterie de cuisine, we'd recommend the pastry blender -- it is more efficient than the knives, cheaper than the processor, and will give you more of a feel for the dough and the process than the processor would.

The processor has become essential for other things, at least in our kitchen. It is indispensable for chopping nuts, making crumbs out of graham crackers, grating carrots for carrot cake, and grinding chocolate into a powder for babka. A blender doesn't do any of these things well, since solids fall to the bottom and clog the blades. Of course, you could chop the nuts by hand, smash the graham crackers in a plastic bag with a rolling pin, grate the carrots (and your knuckles, no doubt) by hand, and -- well, maybe grate the chocolate, or chop it. But you'd have a mess (the chocolate held in your hand will melt, and about a third of it will fly all over the counter), and the food processor will do each of these tasks in mere seconds.

A recent development (at least, since we were young) has been heat-proof (usually silicone) spatulas. These come in a lot of fun colors (which is useful if you want to remember which one you are using for what) and can stand high heat, typically up to 450˚ or 500˚F. When you are melting butter, chocolate, or cooking anything on the stove, you can stir and scrape the pot with one of these, and you'll possibly prevent your mixture from burning. (For omelette lovers: I don't know how anyone ever managed to make an omelette without a silicone spatula and a non-stick pan. The combination is unbeatable.)

I've already written in a previous post about the usefulness of both digital scales and instant-read thermometers; you can go back and read what I have to say about them. I consider both of them essential to accurate baking.

My mom had one set of measuring spoons and one set of measuring cups (clear Pyrex ones, intended for liquids). Somehow, she managed to be a top-notch cook, but I'm not sure how! I've lost count of how many measuring spoons I have; it seems a great luxury to be able to snatch up a clean spoon to measure, say, baking powder, when I've already used one of the same size to measure vanilla. Instead of having to wash and dry the spoon in between, I just keep working. And measuring dry ingredients in a liquid measuring cup (assuming you're trying to work with volume instead of weight) is a headache; using the dip-sweep-pour method is so much faster and more accurate. And do beware of clever, cunning, beautiful, yet inaccurate measuring spoons and cups; there seem to be many out there in gift shops, and I wouldn't tell you not to buy them, but they are often best used for decoration, not measuring. Check them against utilitarian utensils of known accuracy (or proven utility). I would think that two sets of measuring spoons, one for wet ingredients and one for dry, would be a minimum. Get different sets, so you can tell them apart at a glance; if you are buying plastic, get two different colors, or get one set of plastic and one of metal. And please get a set of dry measuring cups (these are the ones that look like little saucepans) that measure up to the very top; a few indicate that to measure one cup, or one-half cup, one fills to within a fraction of an inch of the top lip. These are worse than useless; you will end up with failed cakes and cookies, if you use them, or will end up throwing them away in frustration. Any of the major brands of oven-safe glass is fine for liquid measuring cups; Pyrex, Anchor-Hocking, and Fire King are some of the best-known ones. They can go in the microwave and the oven (but not on the stove-top) so you can melt butter or heat liquids in them. In the past decade or so, Pyrex has started making cups with handles that are hooks instead of loops, so the cups nest, and some have a lot of head-room at the top (above the measuring markings) so that you can, say, measure a half-cup of milk and a quarter-cup of oil, and then beat into those a couple of eggs. Now you've mixed up all the wet ingredients needed for scones, pancakes, or other quick breads, and only dirtied one cup. Aren't you smart?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Last Call for holiday Challah!

If you need a challah for tonight, call me NOW -- if I don't answer, leave a message. I'll be delivering to Squirrel Hill this afternoon and have a couple of extras!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Food Safety, emphasis on eggs

Eggs and salmonella have been in the news again, alas. Back in the 1980's, when I was starting a family, we were told to never, ever let our children eat undercooked eggs. The idea of a childhood lacking in raw cookie dough and licking the cake batter off the beaters was anathema to me, so I decided to take a calculated risk. We wore our seat-belts even when we were just backing the car out of the garage, the children wore bike helmets starting when they rode tricycles, I would drench the kitchen in straight bleach whenever I had to handle raw chicken -- but we ate raw cookie dough. Luckily, we never got sick. (I don't promote eating raw eggs for anyone else, needless to say!) The only time any of us felt ill was from over-indulgence -- oh, and the time my daughter, hooked on cookie dough, bought a container of it from a school fund-raiser and kept it in her locker, unrefrigerated, for a week. Even then, I think she was sick from eating too much rotting food, not from salmonella, as the dough was pasteurized.

Now there is another salmonella outbreak, and we're hearing more and more about the inhumane conditions under which eggs are produced. The New York Times ran an article on August 15 which gave graphic evidence of the tiny, crowded cages and the misery in which hens live. This factory model has contributed directly to the spread of salmonella; once the bacteria get introduced into the factory, it spreads like wildfire and is impossible to eradicate. If we were lackadaisical about our chances of getting this unpleasant disease before, we are less so now.

In the bakery, of course, we're not lackadaisical about any aspect of food safety. We're certified food safety managers (no tiaras are involved, but we do have certificates!) and we do everything we can to make sure the foods we make are safe as well as delicious. The first step is obsessive hand-washing; we have a double-hand-wash system. This means that when an employee walks into the kitchen, she has to wash her hands -- even if she's just come from scrubbing her hands in the laundry or bathroom. We wash our hands when we touch our heads, faces, or hair; we wash our hands when we touch a door handle, the garbage can, the sink, a broom or mop handle, or other cleaning supplies. Before we touch finished, baked food, we put on a new pair of plastic gloves, or we use tongs -- your food hasn't been touched by anyone since it came out of the oven. This isn't (or shouldn't be) unusual in the restaurant business; it is required by food safety ordinances and standards. If you see a server touch your food before you eat it and after it's been cooked, ask for a replacement portion -- and speak to the manager. If you saw it happen, it most likely isn't the first or only time. (It goes without saying, or should, that your health-care providers should adhere to even higher standards. Tell them to wash their hands in front of you, or they don't get to touch you!)

Eggs are a special challenge in the bakery. There is no other single ingredient that is as necessary for good baking, yet carries such possible risks. We take extra care with our eggs.

First, we buy from reputable, certified sources. I'd love to support family farmers and buy truly free-range, organic eggs, but for the sake of our customers' health, we need our eggs to be certified.

Secondly, we wash our eggs before using them. No matter how clean and state-of-the-art their production facility might have been, we don't know who has touched the eggs before we get them -- an egg factory handler, another customer, whoever.

We store our eggs in the lowest part of the refrigerator. This accomplishes two goals; the eggs are stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator (cold sinks, heat rises) and, if an egg breaks in the box and drips out, it won't contaminate other foods. Experts say that those cunning egg holders often provided on the doors of refrigerators are exactly the wrong place to store eggs. The door is the warmest part of the refrigerator, the frequent jiggling of the eggs does them no good, and the box provides extra protection. Leave them in the box!

Since the bacteria are in the eggs when they are laid, washing the eggs (while a good basic hygiene step) doesn't get rid of it. Cooking eggs and egg-containing products to a safe temperature is the best way to protect against illness. At the end of this post, you will find the Centers For Disease Control's information on cooking temperature safety for eggs and other foods. In the bakery, all of our brownies, cakes, cookies, and other egg-containing treats are cooked to at least 195˚F -- far above the 160˚ recommended to kill salmonella.

There are pasteurized eggs available, but the whites don't beat up as readily as unpasteurized eggs. Still, they are a useful option in some dishes (meringues, for example) where the dish temperature might not reach 160˚F.

At the end of the day, we wash our pots, pans, bowls, and other cooking utensils in very hot water and sanitizing detergents, so any errant germs are killed or washed down the drain. We don't dry items with dish towels -- the food-safety police frown on that. Let them air-dry. Isn't it nice to know you aren't being lazy -- you're being safe!

If an egg is contaminated with salmonella, it is still usable -- which is lucky, since, outside of a laboratory test, there's no way to know if any particular egg has the germs. So we all may be using eggs with germs (you, too!) but we don't have to -- and shouldn't -- get sick from them.

COOK: Cook to Safe Temperatures
Use a clean food thermometer when measuring the internal temperature of meat, poultry, casseroles, and other foods to make sure they have reached a safe minimum internal temperature:
Beef, veal, and lamb steaks, roasts, and chops to 145 °F.
All cuts of pork to 160 °F.
Ground beef, veal and lamb to 160 °F.
Egg dishes, casseroles to 160 °F.
All poultry should reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F.
Stuffed poultry is not recommended. Cook stuffing separately to 165 °F.
Leftovers to 165 °F.
Fish should reach 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
Bring sauces, soups, and gravy to a boil when reheating.
Reheat other leftovers thoroughly to at least 165 °F.

CHILL: Refrigerate Promptly
Keep food safe at home, refrigerate promptly and properly. Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared foods, and leftovers within 2 hours (1 hour if temperatures are above 90 °F).
Freezers should register 0 °F or below and refrigerators 40 °F or below.
Thaw food in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Foods should not be thawed at room temperature. Foods thawed in the microwave or in cold water must be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature before refrigerating.
Marinate foods in the refrigerator.
Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator.
Don't pack the refrigerator. Cool air must circulate to keep food safe.

CDC's Web site :

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A week until Rosh Hashana

Please place your orders as soon as possible -- we won't be able to honor most last-minute requests (but give us a call, you never know!)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Testing for doneness; Betty's turn!

Is it done?

The scariest part of baking for me is knowing when cookies or cakes need to come out of the oven.

Cakes are done at 195 to 205 degrees F. Cheese cake is done at 160 to 165 degrees.

Soft breads like challah are generally done at 180 to 190 degrees. Other breads should bake to 200 to 210 degrees.

I have read that brownies are done anywhere from 165 to 225 degrees--not too helpful. Here I try to follow the recipe to the letter regarding pan size and baking temperature. For a fudgy brownie, a wooden skewer inserted into the middle of the pan can have some wet batter on it as long as it has a few dry crumbs.

Cookies can be difficult especially if they're dark in color. We weigh out the dough for each cookie (usually an ounce). The dough has usually been chilled and comes out of the refrigerator about a half hour before baking. This consistency helps standardize cookie baking time. Look for "wetness" to disappear. Cookies that are more done looking can come off the tray early. Watch for edges just starting to brown on pale cookies. For dark cookies, just get to know the recipe and be consistent. If you handle the dough the same each time, the baking time should be the same each time.

Recipes and cookbooks often suggest various ways to check for doneness. Tapping on the bottom of a loaf of bread and listening for a hollow sound is a common one; "springing back quickly" when touched by a fingertip is a test for cakes. The color of cookies or cakes is another suggestion. But what does "hollow" sound like? How quickly is "quickly"? How brown is "golden brown" -- closer to gold, or to brown? Subjective measures aren't very helpful.

We have several different instant-read thermometers in our kitchen. Our favorite one is digital; there's no guessing as to what the temperature is, and it registers quickly. Best of all, it turns off automatically after a few minutes; we've had others that had to be turned off by the user, and we invariably would forget to do so -- and in 24 hours, the expensive battery was dead.Make sure your thermometer is accurate; an inaccurate thermometer is useless. You can calibrate your thermometer in ice water; the thermometer should read 32˚F. Instructions for calibrating are usually included with the thermometer.

Get a thermometer you trust, and have fun baking!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How to Weigh Ingredients

My previous post could have been titled, "Why to Weigh Ingredients," so read that first if you aren't convinced you need to read this one. I'll discuss how to make the most of your kitchen scale.

I have two scales in my home kitchen; an analog scale and a digital one. The analog one has a shiny red metal casing, a big dial that goes up to about 2-1/4 lb., and a little metal pan that rests on a bracket on top. I use it often -- I toss letters and packages on top of the pan to see if they need more postage, fill the pan with tomatoes or mangos when I have recipes that require me to know how much I have to work with, and, very occasionally, use it to estimate how much of an ingredient I have for baking -- just to make sure I have enough before I start a recipe.

But when I want to measure ingredients for baking, I pull out the boring, scientific-looking digital scale, with its useless flat pan and its technical numbers. Why? Because baking is, in many ways, chemistry. You need accurate measurements to get successful results, and consistent results. If you have two ounces too much or too little flour in a cake, your leavening (baking powder or baking soda, often) won't be in the right proportion, and the result will be a cake disaster.

The digital scale has another advantage -- the tare feature. If you think you don't know what this is, think about the prepared-foods counter in your supermarket. You ask the server to give you a tall container of cole slaw. So that you don't pay $6/lb for the plastic container as well as for the salad it contains, the server has a tare amount or button that subtracts the weight of the container from the total. It's that simple. In your kitchen, what this means is that you can put the empty bowl -- any bowl -- on the scale. Press "tare" or "zero," the scale reads "0", and then you start putting the ingredient you want to measure into the bowl until you have enough. Want to add a different ingredient? Press "tare" again, the scale goes back to zero, and you add the next ingredient. My favorite way to measure flour or sugar involves sifting it as I go; I put the bowl AND THE SIEVE (set in the bowl) on the scale, tare the scale, and then start putting flour into the sieve. I stop to shake or stir the flour through the sieve as needed, until the scale shows that I have the desired amount of what is now sifted, weighed flour. (Don't stop sifting when there's still unsifted flour in the sieve -- that's part of the total measurement, too.) No piles of flour on a piece of waxed paper, no careful piling of flour into the cup, trying not to compact it again. You don't dirty an extra measuring cup, either.

What to measure? Just about anything. Just think of how easy it will be to measure your dry ingredients; no sifting (unless you are trying to get out lumps, you don't have to sift if you don't need to aerate) , no bit-by-bit adding of shortening (6.7 ounces per cup) to a measuring cup, wondering if it's too much or too little or if there's an air bubble. Weigh peanut butter (9.1 oz. per cup) right into the mixing bowl instead of trying to pack it into a cup, and you've saved time and mess. I've found that I can put a recipe together much faster when I weigh instead of scoop. It is hardly worth it to pull out the scale for tiny amounts, like a teaspoon of salt (.02 ounces or 6 grams); your scale probably isn't that accurate, anyway. Even the digital scales may only measure in increments of 5 grams, so it will jump from 5 to 10 and you don't know if you have the right amount of salt. In this case, measuring spoons are the better choice. But for larger amounts, use the scale.

You can cover a digital scale with plastic wrap to cut down on clean-up, or just put a bowl on it, tare it, and measure your ingredients.

So, to conclude: if you weigh instead of measure, you gain accuracy and speed, and avoid mess and frustration. What's not to like?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Weighty Subject

When I was learning to bake, I measured everything in my mother's glass measuring cups. They were intended for liquid, and she didn't have dry ingredient measuring cups. Sugar wasn't too difficult to measure this way -- you could pour it into the cup, give the cup a little shake, and it would settle into place so you could read how much was in there and adjust the amount. Flour, however, was a pain in the neck to measure. You'd have to spoon it into the cup, level it carefully with the tip of the spoon while bending over so that your eye was at the level of the line you were aiming for, and keep shifting bits of it around, hoping you were getting the right amount. Brown sugar has to be packed into the cup for an accurate measure; sometimes you'd pack it down so hard that it would hold the shape of the cup when you were done, and sometimes you just didn't want to put all that energy into it and you'd pack it less firmly.

And then there was shortening. What a mess! My mother's method was probably more accurate than most; she employed the Archimedes Principle. If you needed a quarter of a cup of shortening, you'd take a one-cup measure, put three-quarters of a cup of water into it, and add shortening until the level of the water reached the one cup measure. You'd tip the water out into the sink (holding the shortening in with a spatula or spoon and hoping it wouldn't fall into the sink) and there was your 1/4 c. of shortening -- wet, but accurate. The cup, your hands, the spoon and counter-top were probably all smeared with the stuff. (This method also works for peanut butter.)

For years, I read that weighing was the most accurate way to measure ingredients. It makes sense. If you pack that brown sugar in tightly, you've got more in there than if you don't pack it at all. If your flour is compacted, you've got more in there than if it's sifted and fluffy, and the difference can mean a heavy cake or a light cake. If you like the way a recipe turns out and you want to be able to repeat that success, you need to measure the same way every time -- but if you are using volume (cup) measurements, it's hard to do.

How much does a cup of flour weigh? How about sugar? Is white sugar the same as brown? How tightly packed should the grated carrots for a carrot cake be? How about coconut? Finally, with the publication of Shirley O. Corriher's books "Cookwise" and "Bakewise," I got the information at my fingertips. The books have ingredients and their weights in a chart in the back. The information is also available at several places on-line, including the King Arthur Flour website, and there's a calculator at this site that has more information than you will need in a lifetime.

Just to get you started: a cup of all-purpose flour weighs 4.4 ounces. A cup of white sugar weighs 7 ounces, and a cup of brown about 8 (I say "about" because dark brown sugar weighs more than light brown, but 8 oz. seems to work with either). A cup of butter is 8 oz. Please don't use shortening, but if you must, a cup weighs 6.7 oz. Those carrots? 3.9 oz per cup. Walnuts and pecans are 3.5 oz. per cup. Cocoa (remember to sift it!) is 2.9 oz. per cup, and chocolate chips are 6 oz. per cup. You can keep using those glass measuring cups for liquid -- a cup of milk is a cup of milk, and you can't pack it any tighter! E-mail me if you want a weight measurement that isn't here and that you can't find on-line.

My next post will be on how to weigh ingredients!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sifting: busy work for idle hands, or necessary?

If you are like me, the idea of having to sift an ingredient is anathema, and possibly cause for skipping a recipe entirely. My mother taught me that flour comes pre-sifted, and therefore sifting is a waste of time. To a certain extent, she was right -- supermarket flour is usually marked "Pre-sifted" and you can skip this step. But that applies only to flour, it turns out, and only to that from the supermarket. The 50-lb. bags of flour that we buy for the bakery are not pre-sifted, so sifting is essential to smooth out lumps. The one time I tried to skip the sifting, I regretted it -- I had to put the whole batch of batter through a sieve, and that was a whole lot messier than just sifting the flour would have been.

But you probably aren't buying flour in huge amounts, so do you need to sift? It depends. If your flour has been packed down and compressed, it is a good idea. If you are making a recipe that insists you should sift -- do it. Place the dry measuring cup on a piece of waxed paper or flexible cutting mat, sift the flour into it until it is piled up over the edge, and gently level with a straight knife. Repeat until you have the right amount of flour for your recipe. Otherwise, you can just fluff up the flour with a spoon, and use the dip/level/pour method of measuring. (Later posts will discuss weighing ingredients, and why we prefer that to volume measurements.)

Cocoa, on the other hand, almost always needs to be sifted. The tiny amount of cocoa butter left in cocoa seems to make it clump up, and you will have unpleasant lumps in your batter if you don't sift. The same is true for confectioner's (powdered) sugar, though I admit that confectioner's sugar seems to get lumpy again as soon as it is through the sieve. Even so, sift!

My baking results took a giant step forward when I started sifting leavenings, such as baking powder, baking soda, and cream of tartar. I have tea strainers -- tiny sieves -- that I keep just for sifting teaspoons or tablespoons of ingredients. Sift them right into the other dry ingredients, and mix in. You'll get better distribution of your leavening and a better product.

Betty reminded me about brown sugar and the need to sift it. You may not have this problem if you buy it in one-pound amounts in the supermarket; Trader Joe's organic brown sugar, besides being a very nice product, seems to be completely lump-free. This isn't the case when we buy big bags -- either the 7-lb bags at the warehouse club, or the 25-lb bags at the food wholesaler. The lumps in these products, though they are the same brand as the supermarket kind, range from lentil-sized to walnut-sized -- and they don't dissolve in batters or doughs. So you can either push the sugar through a sieve or sift through it with your fingers and try to pinch out the lumps. The sieve, obviously, is more thorough, but the pinching is adequate for cookies. If you realize, too late, that you've forgotten to sift and there are lumps in your batter, you can try to sieve or pinch then -- but it's going to be quite messy. It's easier to do it ahead of time.

If you use a multi-screen flour sifter (as opposed to a simple sieve, which is like a bowl made of mesh), don't ever wash it -- first, you will end up with clumps of pasty flour in between the screens, which you will never get out until they dry and flake into your next mixture. And the screens, which are probably not stainless steel, will rust. Simply knock the sifter gently against the side of the sink so that the flour, cocoa or sugar comes out, and seal the sifter in a zippered plastic bag to keep out bugs. Sieves can usually go in the dishwasher, but make sure they are completely dry before you use them again, or you'll have that pasty flour mess.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Butter is better!

When I was a kid, my mom, with five kids, often tried to find ways to cut costs without cutting quality. One thing she tried was making chocolate chip cookies with shortening and margarine, which are both cheaper than butter. They were passable, and, because she had always used those ingredients, we didn't know what we were missing. I do, however, remember seeing puddles of oil that came out of the dough the few times she tried using corn oil margarine. it was very unappetizing!

When I started baking for myself, I was interested in experimenting. I tried all kinds of different things. I used shortening, all the different varieties of margarine (including the one that claims to mimic butter's taste), and even butter-flavored shortening (I don't recommend it). But when I used butter, I knew that I would keep using it. The taste was so far above all the rest that there was no contest. It didn't leave a greasy slick on my palate, the way shortening did. The aroma that filled my house was better than any incense or air-freshener. I stopped trying to save money on it, and bought better and better quality butter. I found that unsalted butter was the best kind to use -- I could control the amount of salt in the recipe better, and, since salt is hygroscopic (absorbs water), the moisture level as well.

When you bake, you are investing your time and effort as well as money in the product. Why not make the most of it? If you calculate the true cost of baking, including the cost of your time (and isn't your time precious?), you'll see that the cost of ingredients is often the smallest part of the total. Use the best ingredients you can afford; in terms of butter vs. substitutes, that will almost always be butter.

Butter freezes beautifully; we recommend storing it in the freezer, as there is less likelihood of strong odors (such as onions, garlic or spices) infiltrating your butter there. Rotate your stock. If you don't bake often, buy it fresh and store it briefly in the refrigerator. When you are planning on baking a cake, we recommend taking the butter out at least an hour ahead of time to soften to room temperature (two hours might be necessary in the winter). Some bakers advise a temperature of 65˚-68˚ for your butter; you don't have to make a Spielbergian production of it -- just make sure the butter is soft to the touch, but not liquid. You can use the microwave to soften the butter, but do this very carefully -- use the lowest power setting, and go for 30 seconds at a time so that you don't melt it. If you do melt it, and you've been foresighted enough to put it in a dish so it isn't all over the microwave tray, put it in the refrigerator and use it for something that calls for melted butter.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What we're doing here

We love baking and want to share our enjoyment of it with you. We're happy to bake for you, but even happier to teach you how to bake yourself. Our goal is to raise the quality of your baking, with the thought that appreciation for delicious food benefits all of us -- and with the hope that, if you don't have the time to do it yourself, you'll call on us to do it for you. We'll try to put up a new tip at least every week, if not more often, so please check back frequently to find out what we have to share with you.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


We'll be using this blog to post baking tips, news, and answers to your questions.