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!)