I’m reminded all of the time how important the little things are in life. Last week at a funeral, I observed the loving touch of the family who lost their mother and grandmother, husbands gently rubbing their wives’ shoulders and wives rubbing their childrens’ shoulders in turn. It was like watching the sign-language of love.
Perhaps my affinity for baking has to do with all of the little things that count to make a delicious outcome. In culinary school I came to appreciate how important each small step can be. My m.o. before then was to bake in haste, trying to get to the finish line as quickly as possible. I’m still learning to slow it down so I can give the details their due. Once that happens you can actually speed back up again because certain techniques are simply ingrained. On New Year’s Eve, I left simple syrup on the stove while I went off to do something else, and did it burn baby burn. My sister brought the Bible over and made me swear I would not do that ever again (she’s witnessed such behavior before, I’m afraid), reminding me that this is precisely how Aunt Louise’s house burned down.
Here are a few baking basics to keep in mind—not only do they remind us that the little things count in all facets of life, but also they’ll make the cookies we’re baking this week (chocolate chip, if you must know, for reasons to be discussed next time…) that much more delicious.
1. Read the recipe entirely before you begin. It’s like having a general road map in your mind of where you’re headed before pulling out of the driveway. There’s no recipe GPS, so it’s best to take a look before you cook.
2. Gather ingredients on the counter. This is mise en place, ‘everything in its place,’ and a great way to ensure an ingredient is not missed. I recall a custard pie one Thanksgiving that turned out like quiche because Maureenie forgot the sugar. Having your ingredients at hand also allows you to stay with your process, like making simple syrup or mixing the batter, without running off to find what’s added next.
3. Measure ingredients away from the bowl. Measuring salt or vanilla can incur spills and over-pour…if they’re measured over your bowl of batter, the excess goes in and can ruin the mix.
4. Bring certain ingredients to room temperature. Baking often requires butter to be soft and eggs room temperature, so that they can beat up fluffy or incorporate properly. Butter is soft when pliable, bendable (not melty). If you haven’t thought ahead to place the butter on the counter (or if your room temperature is too cold to soften the butter, as it is here in Harbor Springs), you can soften the butter swiftly by cutting it into 1” pieces and setting it near a warm stove/oven. Or microwave the cut-up butter on lowest power for 10 second intervals. Bring eggs to room temp quickly by immersing them in a bowl of very warm water for about 5 minutes.
5. For baking, when possible, weigh ingredients like flour. Various measuring techniques can alter the amount, which can in turn very much change the outcome of, for example, the texture of a cookie or cake. I love my little Salter scale and use it frequently. If flour is not weighed, the best measurement technique is to scoop the flour into the measuring cup with a large spoon, then level off the top with the spoon handle or a butter knife. Never pack flour, as you might brown sugar, into the measure.
6. This will sound like a sacrilege, but it’s best not to eat too much of a hot baked good right from the oven (exception: baklawa). It’s still baking, in effect, as it cools down. Chef Frances often told us that hot bread eaten too soon from the oven can be a bad thing on the tummy. Also, baked goods are actually much more flavorful when they are cooler. Better to cool the cookie, then warm it back up a bit if you want some chocolate gooey goodness.
Chocolate gooey goodness, here we come.