Friday, December 21, 2012

Holiday baking: some advice from me to you

I spent all day yesterday baking and will be baking again after I get the kids to school. I don't have much to finish up and thankfully it's all just baking and not actual preparation. But I learned--well, learned and remembered--a few lessons yesterday. I will write them down here and hopefully won't make the same mistakes next time I do a huge baking project like this.

First: Mise en place is more than just having all your ingredients out. It is to me, at least. I don't know if it is to the French or not. Usually I see mise en place represented as gathering all your ingredients in one place, perhaps even measuring them out into cute little individual bowls before beginning. To me, it also encompasses setting up your work area. Today that meant having a cup to crack eggs into before dumping them into the mixer bowl, having a place to put a spoon or rubber spatula needed for stirring or scraping down the mixer bowl, and having a bowl and whisk to sift dry ingredients. I don't do a garbage bowl because my trash can is right next to where I cook, so it's not necessary. I don't have enough counter space for it anyway.

Second, be careful where you get your recipes. Ideally I like to get my recipes from a recipe site like I also use Chow. Basically I want a site where other people have reviewed the recipe and have been honest and thorough in their reviews. Blogs are good sites for recipes, but there can be a few problems with them. First is that a recipe that works for the blogger might not work for you. The almond sugar cookie recipe I used was supposed to make a nice, puffy cookie. It didn't, and I'm pretty sure that has to do with the fact that I measure my flour by the ounce and not by the measuring cup. Since a cup of flour weighs four ounces and how much a cup you scoop can vary quite significantly from that--a cup of flour that I scoop can weigh almost six ounces--measuring by weight is considered the most accurate. However, when I measured by weight I got a very soft dough that spread like crazy. Even adding extra flour didn't really help. So I went with it and made small cookies that I baked a bit longer. They flattened a bit more and lean toward crunchy, but they still taste great.

Also, if you get your recipe from a blog, you need to be aware that people may have made it and had it fail, but didn't come back to review it. Putting a negative comment on a blog is sometimes seen as more mean and as more of a personal attack than posting a negative review on a recipe site, even when the recipes are user-generated. I spent a ton of time on the chocolate gingerbread cake I posted yesterday. It went together fine, but I had to make three batches. (I don't like to do more than double a recipe; sometimes when you multiply things up too much they act weird.) When all the batches were baked, I had some that I didn't need, so I tasted it. I hated it. The taste of molasses was overwhelming, and B and I both thought it shouldn't be sent. I'm going to taste it again before school today and decide then if it should be sent or not. The piece I tasted was cool but just barely, and I know sometimes flavors mellow as dishes rest and cool completely; I'm really hoping that's the case here.

That brings me to my third point. Test things ahead of time if possible, and even if you can't, do a test batch to make sure the baking instructions are right for your oven. Bake a few cookies, one mini loaf, etc. before you make up and possibly waste an entire sheet/pan/batch/whatever. Example from today: the chocolate gingerbread cake called for baking at a temperature of 325. I know from experience that 350 works better with my oven (and that my oven bakes unevenly). If I had tested one cake at 325, or even learned from the first batch instead of stubbornly insisting that I stick to the written directions, I would have had a much better experience with those. Also, I baked them in mini loaf pans instead of in a bundt pan, so if I had learned from my mistakes I would have been able to change things to get a better result. Instead I didn't make any adjustments and I forgot to rotate the first time around, so the first set of cakes took forever to bake and rose unevenly. Rotating them more would have helped with the second part (and did, for the second batch), but I think that a higher baking temperature would have helped with both.

Finally, have a backup. By the time I got around to making the apple cookies, I had been baking for nine hours and nothing sounded worse than peeling, coring and chopping a bunch of apples. Luckily I picked up several bags of chocolate chips last week and I had just enough eggs to make a double batch of chocolate chip cookie dough. I mixed that up while the pumpkin whoopie pie batter was chilling; it took about ten minutes to go together. B is happy because he likes the "good" (a.k.a. non-Red Delicious) apples, so now he has a lot of them to eat. I can also make an apple pie or apple crisp for the Christmas dinner we're going to at my parents' house on Sunday.

So there you have it. All the baking advice I can think of right now, learned the hard way. I'm sure I'll make all these mistakes again, too. Someday I'll learn.


  1. I agree! I followed the link on your blog last week for egg nog bread. I made it and followed the directions...which were not clear about the glaze on top. I put the glaze on the bread when it was still in the pan, which made the bread much too soggy so it fell apart when I took it out of the pan (it tastes delicious though!). So for her almond joy bread recipe I was sure to take them out of the pans before glazing them and they turned out perfectly!

  2. I didn't have that problem, but admittedly I have only tried half a slice of the eggnogg bread and I only doubled the glaze recipe for a triple batch of bread. It's entirely possible I'll have that issue when I get further into the loaf because I glazed mine in the pans, too. I did notice that the glaze kind of shattered when I cut into the bread so I'm wondering if I cooked it too long. I thought it would be thick and a little shiny, kind of like donut glaze. Now I want glazed donut bread. I hope that's a real thing.