The big post about baking (for Monkey)

So I asked a couple of weeks ago for suggestions on food-related topics. Monkey wanted a post about Baking 101. So, with the help of the internets and the Joy of Cooking, I am here to dispel the myths and impart the wisdom I’ve gained in baking for the last, oh, 23 years.

Cookies

There are so many different kinds of cookies (drop, rolled/shaped, bar, etc.) that it’s difficult to write something about cookies in general, but I will do my best. Cookies are usually made with shortening (butter, margarine, etc.), sugar, eggs, the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda/powder, salt), and other stuff to make them taste good (chocolate, chocolate chips, vanilla, oatmeal, raisins, dried cranberries, nuts, etc.) Cookies bake differently depending on the type (on a cookie sheet as individual items vs. cooked in a pan for bar-type), but usually take somewhere between 5-10 minutes per batch. The oven is preheated and cookies are usually baked on a greased cookie sheet (though some varieties don’t require greasing, like Mexican Wedding Cookies). When the cookies are done, it’s usually a good idea to remove them from the sheet or pan (to help prevent overcooking), unless you’re baking a bar cookie recipe that requires a second step, like the addition of melted chocolate and nuts over a plain bar cookie, or adding the lemon part to a lemon bar.

If you’re making shaped/rolled cookies, it’s usually a good idea to chill the dough before rolling/shaping to make it easier to work with. If you’re making drop cookies, there’s usually no need (unless the dough is really sticky). Bar cookies tend to have thicker dough and are pressed by hand into a pan before baking.

I’ve never really tried to make lower-fat cookies, though sometimes I use more oatmeal and less white flour if I’m making a cookie recipe with oatmeal. The few experiments I’ve done with substituting whole wheat flour for white haven’t turned out tasting especially good, so I figure if I’m going to be eating cookies they might as well be yummy. Also, I tend to use a mixture of white and brown sugar or just brown regardless of the type of sugar called for in a recipe (unless it’s a recipe where the color of the final cookie needs to be really light) – I find brown sugar makes cookies more flavorful and more chewy. I almost always use unsalted butter to make cookies and have had better luck with melted baker’s chocolate than cocoa powder when making chocolate cookies. To melt baker’s chocolate, use a double boiler or melt it in a saucepan over another saucepan that has hot water in it, and add a little bit of shortening to help it melt evenly. Heat until melted but do not overheat.

Process of cookie making: Cream together sugar and shortening/butter in a large bowl. (I always do this by hand) Add eggs and flavoring (vanilla, almond extract, etc.). Add melted chocolate if you are using it. Use a pastry blender to sift dry ingredients together in a smaller bowl, then add to wet ingredients slowly until mixed in. Add mix-ins (chocolate chips, oatmeal, dried cranberries, raisins (I never use raisins in cookies, I hate the way baked raisins taste), nuts, etc.). I also tend to add spices like cinnamon or allspice, depending on the recipe.

I think if you are not used to the process of making cookies, you should follow the recipe until you get more comfortable with the process and can make substitutions or additions. I’ve been making cookies for a really long time so I usually feel comfortable doing this.

Pies/crisps

I wrote about pie crust here, but the other awesome thing to do with fruit to turn it into a dessert is to make a crisp/crumble/buckle/brown betty etc. Fruit crisp is super easy and far more healthy than baking the same fruit inside a pastry shell. For a basic crisp, you need brown sugar, some butter (a few tablespoons), some oatmeal, some spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, ginger, whatever), and a little bit of flour. I always eyeball the proportions and mix the butter into the other ingredients with my hands so I know it’s well-mixed. Prepare fruit (chop into pieces, peel, etc., whatever you need to do to prep it) and add a little bit of sugar to the fruit unless it’s really sweet. If it’s super-sweet, you can add lemon juice to it. Put it in a pie pan or an 8×8 baking dish and sprinkle the crisp topping, then pop it in the oven (at 350 or so) until it smells done and the juices are running out of the fruit.

Muffins/quickbreads

According to Joy of Cooking, muffins and quickbreads are the same thing, just cooked in differently-shaped pans (so essentially, any quickbread recipe can be used to make muffins and vice versa). Quickbreads are so named because they are cooked with baking powder and soda rather than yeast, so they take far less time to bake. I don’t bake a lot of muffins from scratch but I have made quite a few quickbreads over the years (favorites include: a family recipe for cranberry orange bread which I have modified at times to be pomegranate orange bread, zucchini bread, corn bread, and pumpkin-chocolate chip bread).

The basic process for a muffin or quickbread is to combine the wet ingredients very well (eggs, butter/oil, honey/brown sugar, the main liquid (milk, yogurt, sour cream, fruit juice, etc.), and combine the dry ingredients very well with a pastry blender or whisk to get them kind of fluffed up (flour, salt, baking powder and/or soda), then gently fold the dry into the wet until just moistened and immediately pour into greased/papered muffin tins or loaf pan. As with pie crust, the more you mix, the tougher it will be. Use a butter knife or toothpick in the center of the loaf to check for doneness; muffins are usually done when they’ve risen a bit and the tops are starting to brown.

And now, for Monkey’s questions. She asked:

“Specifically-what’s the difference btween regular unsweetened cocoa powder and dutch processed? Do I need to use baking powder AND baking soda in a muffin recipe? What’s the difference between cake flour, regular all purpose and whole wheat? I cook my regular muffins with whole wheat and I’m happy enough with that but I’m curious as to the differences. “

Cocoa powder: According to wikipedia, cocoa powder comes in two varieties: regular or natural (the kind you usually see in a store) is more reddish than the traditional “chocolate” color, and relatively low in pH, which can cause a bitter/acidic taste; and Dutch processed, which has been treated to neutralize some of the acidity and so is milder in taste and more chocolate-colored. The cocoa powder I use at home is a Dutch processed special dark flavor made by Hersheys, though I like regular cocoa powder for some things as well.

Baking powder/soda (info from Joy of Cooking):

Baking soda is used when there is enough acid in a recipe to neutralize the alkaline in the soda, which causes the release of carbon dioxide (this process is called chemical leavening). The carbon dioxide pushes against the batter, which causes it to expand while it bakes. A recipe needs enough acid to cause the reaction to happen – soured milk of some sort (yogurt, sour cream, etc.), molasses, chocolate, honey, citrus juice. If there isnt enough acid, you have to use a combination of baking soda and baking powder. When using baking soda in a recipe, the carbon dioxide reaction starts almost immediately so you have to bake the batter asap or it won’t rise enough in the oven.

Baking powder is a combination of baking soda and a liquid- and heat-responsive acid salt like cream of tartar. You can make your own baking powder at home by combining 1/4 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp cream of tartar, and 1/4 tsp cornstarch (this makes 1 tsp single-acting baking powder). Most baking powder sold in stores is double-acting, meaning it has an acid that doesn’t react until the batter reaches a certain temperature (usually 140 F), which causes additional rise during the later stages of baking and makes a final product lighter/taller.

So the answer to your question is, it depends. Does your muffin recipe use one of the liquid acids above? If not, you probably need to use both to get a nicely-risen muffin.

Flour:

This wikipedia entry is really good, but basically, whole-wheat flour is higher in gluten and protein because it contains the whole grain, all-purpose flour is a mid-grade with a medium amount of gluten and protein, and cake flour has low gluten to produce a lighter texture. Generally, if you’re substituting whole wheat for all-purpose in a recipe it’s best not to go above a 1/3 wheat 2/3 all-purpose ratio or you usually end up with something that is much tougher and chewier, though whole wheat flour is generally healthier than all-purpose (we get the all-purpose flour that has not been bleached).

In terms of making muffins/quickbreads more healthy, I have had luck substituting part whole wheat flour for the white in a recipe (generally 1/3 wheat to 2/3 white, any more than that and you run into the texture/hockey puck issue) and sometimes have used more fruit/vegetable (applesauce, zucchini, carrot, pumpkin) in lieu of some of the oil or shortening. Monkey also writes in her comment (in reference to her healthy muffin recipe):

“I’m thinking of making my muffins, but using silken tofu in place of the eggs, and adding unsweetened cocoa powder as well. This probably means I’ll have to up the splenda-I’ll be doing a batter taste test to get a sense of whether it’s likely to be edible.”

I think the eggs in a recipe are generally used to help bind ingredients together, and I’ve never baked with tofu so I can’t tell you if it will serve the same purpose – silken tofu may make the batter more runny than you want, depending on how much you use. I’ve also never baked with splenda, so I can’t help you there. I think it will definitely require some experiementation!

Cakes

I only started baking cakes from scratch about 10 years ago (and don’t do it frequently) so I haven’t spent as much time figuring out tips/tricks. I can say that I have never used cake flour in a cake recipe and my cakes have always turned out tasty, but maybe I’m missing out. My usual MO for cake-baking is to find a likely-looking recipe or 4 on AllRecipes.com and figure out the similarities/differences between them, then decide which one I’m going to use and make substitutions if I feel like it. I’ve had good luck plugging ingredient names into their search engine and finding exactly what I’m looking for (see here, where I made a chocolate zucchini rum cake). Baking is all about chemistry and, in my opinion, it’s far easier to have something come out well if you use a recipe that you know has worked for someone.

One thing that’s different about cakes than some other baked goods is that you want all your ingredients to be as close to room temperature as possible when you mix them. That means leaving the eggs and butter out of the fridge for a little while, or nuke them for a few seconds if they are cold. Also, I have better luck using a mixer (hand or stand) to mix a cake batter than if I do it by hand (unless I’m making the cake from a mix, in which case it makes no difference). Cake recipes often call for greased and floured pans, but I usually grease/sugar or grease/sugar/cocoa powder (for chocolate cakes) them, if I’m not using parchment paper (which I need to do more of, it makes life easier!) – using the grease/sugar method works just as well, and you don’t have flour on the outside of your cake when you take it out.

Frosting cakes:

While I tend to use a cake recipe any time I’m baking one, I usually concoct my own frosting. I’ve got a basic buttercream recipe that my mom taught me as a wee youngster, and I just tend to tweak that to my own devices, depending on what kind of cake I’ve made. The difference between frosting and icing is that frosting has butter/shortening and icing does not. Icing is generally powdered sugar and a liquid, such as milk or alcohol, and if poured over a warm cake will soak in a bit, or if poured over a cool cake will harden and look cool. (You can also make chocolate icing with melted baking chocolate, powdered sugar, milk, and a bit of almond extract, but you have to heat it up). Anyway, basic buttercream frosting goes like this (all amounts are estimated, as I don’t measure anything):

1 stick unsalted butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4-1/2 cup milk (we only use nonfat milk at home)
2 tsp vanilla

To softened butter in a mixing bowl, add about a cup of powdered sugar and some milk and vanilla and beat with a hand mixer. Keep mixing, adding powdered sugar, and adding milk until it’s the consistency you want. Add a pinch of salt if it’s too sweet. You can add cocoa powder (maybe 1/4-1/3 cup) to make chocolate frosting. You can reduce some of the butter and substitute cream cheese or neufchatel cheese for cream cheese frosting. You can flavor with rum, bourbon, or other tasty spirit in place of the vanilla. The world is your oyster! This recipe frosts a 9×13 or layered 8 inch round cake (but won’t make enough for filling between the layers; I tend to use mashed strawberries or raspberries between cake layers or maybe some instant pudding) and leaves a little left over for decorating if you want to do that. Don’t frost a warm cake, and if you’re working in a warm room, refrigerate the frosting for a little while before you frost the cake, and cover it and refrigerate it after frosting so it won’t melt and separate. And also, a cake will look prettier if you frost it with a really light layer called a crumb coat, let that set in the fridge for a while, and then frost it again with a heavier layer – that way, the crumbs are all sealed in so it’s easier to keep the frosting looking nice and smooth.

My favorite cake I ever made was a butterfly-shaped cake for my old pal and roommate Bequi. I don’t actually remember what kind of cake it was, but it was frosted with basic buttercream and I used raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries (green), and a variety of edible flowers to decorate it. It was so pretty!

OK, I’ve kind of run out of steam here – and I never wrote anything about cheesecake. Perhaps next week if I have any time between running errands as my sister’s Bridal Slave (hee). If you have questions about anything I’ve written, or anything else baking-related, please leave them in the comments!

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One response to “The big post about baking (for Monkey)

  1. Woohoo! Thanks. Have a good time as a bridal slave next week.

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