Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holidays: Baking tips from yours truly

I just finished making Gingerbread Men.  At the present moment they are decorated and drying.  I thought I would share a few baking tips I have learned over the past year or two that I have been baking from scratch.  It's a constant trial and error but I have learned some good stuff along the way.

The Red Velvet Cupcakes of November 2009 were the very first item I have ever made from scratch and they came out pretty darn good if you ask me.  However, one of my friends happens to be allergic to red food coloring so I went the organic route and tried using beet juice as a substitute.  Apparently this works for other people but it gave the cupcakes absolutely no coloring.  That's right Red Velvet is just food coloring in dutch chocolate.  This piece of information completely ruined Red Velvet for me, but I still make Red Velvet cookies.  Lesson:  There is no organic substitute for food coloring.

The fall of 2010 I decided to make Red Velvet mini cupcakes.  This time using red food coloring only I was using a combination of two recipes and one called for two bottles and the other only one.  I had a bottle and a half so that's what I used.  Bad idea.  When I poured them out the batter looked like watery play-dough, sort of a constancy between cake batter and cookie dough.  Very strange.  After cooking, they tasted fine, but as they cooled they became tough and hard to chew.  I was bringing these cupcakes as a surprise for static class and I threw them out and in frustration bought the boxed mix.  Lesson: use only one recipe at a time.

Do not buy generic flour or sugar.  They are not the same as the real deal.  Every since I switched to only Domino Sugar and brand name flours I have had better baking results.  I can't justify the flour too much but the sugar I most definitely can.  I enjoy Kool-Aid from time to time.  It's easy to keep around the house and a quick make for a tasty sugary treat.  I was using generic sugar for awhile and the Kool-Aid didn't taste as good as I remembered.  I also get night sweats at night from time to time.  This can be associated with hypoglycemia (turns out I am not hypoglycemic, I have a B12 deficiency), when blood sugar drops during sleep in hypoglycemic people their body temperature goes up.  One of the ways to bring the sugar back up and the temp back down is by eating...

Get this...

Seriously... I am not kidding...

A spoon full of sugar!  Mary Poppins knows her stuff.  Anyway, upon doing this one night I found out my generic sugar tasted off and since then I only buy Domino.  I also will not use sugar substitute (ie: Equal, Sweet 'n' Low, Splenda, etc) and if I ever do it's because I am making something for a diabetic.  However, the loophole is that some generic products are actually private labels meaning Archer Farms sugar may actually be Domino, so make sure to check the labels.  Lesson: buy the real thing if you want your product to taste like the real thing.

My other pet peeve about ingredients is Vanilla Flavoring.  Granted at work I have to buy imitation.  Sorry if I just ruined the magic for anyone.  At home I only buy the real thing.  I can't even really say there is a difference but I tend to shy away from anything chemically produced or substitutes (except food coloring).  I was baking chocolate chip cookies with a friend over a year ago and noticed she was using imitation.  I don't really mind if other people do, but what got me is that this person is a vegan, anti-chemicals, and even using carb chips (awesome by the way) and almond milk, but imitation vanilla?  I don't get that at all.

Always pay attention to where the rack is in the oven.  A lot of recipes don't mention where the rack should be.  I am going to go ahead and say cupcakes in the middle and cookies middle or just below the middle (that's where mine is), but sometimes it depends on the stove.  Upon moving into my new apartment, my cookies started baking really funny.  It was driving me nuts.  I couldn't figure out why my snicker doodles were not flattening out while baking and getting toasty even.  They were still tasty but I thought somehow I had managed to botch my own recipe.  That's right MY RECIPE.  Turns out I was so used to baking at my old apartment and having the rack always in the right spot that I never looked to check where the rack should be in the oven here.  Ho hum.

LABEL YOUR SPICES!  Last night I made my gingerbread dough and right after I dropped 1/4 tsp of CLOVE into the flour I realized it was clove and not nutmeg.  In my defense the cabinet I keep the spices in is not in a well lit area and my sense of smell could be a touch off.  I can tell the two apart easily on a normal day.  Turns out I don't have any nutmeg so I went through with my dough hoping it just works out and thankful nutmeg was not a major ingredient.  They actually turned out tasting excellent, so I got lucky.

Now I made holiday cookies last year and it was the first time I had made gingerbread since I made them with my Granny as a kid.  Rolling pins are evil.  They are hard to clean and dough really likes to stick to them.  It's highly aggravating.  Last year I kept using the flour method.  I kept layering the rolling pin with flour every other roll.  This year I used wax paper.  Put a bit of the dough on a sheet of wax paper (shiny side up) and then place another piece of wax paper on top (shiny side down) and roll away on top of the wax paper.  The rolling pin stays clean, you won't need any extra flour, the cut out cookies should peel off nice and easy, and when they start to stick to the bottom sheet just refresh the sheet.  Lesson: get wax paper.

Dead Beater... :(
DOUGH HOOKS.  This is the best purchase ever.  Last year I broke my hand mixer because of all the cookies I made.  Regular beaters are not meant to cut through dough and the dough is likely to just get stuck inside, possibly around them causing the unit to break.  Dough hooks on the other hand cut through dough like nobody's business.  I tend to make the dough and as I am adding flour I switch the beaters to the hooks since the hooks won't mix liquid.  Learn from my lesson: dough hooks.

Me fighting with the squeeze bottle.
The chocolate mess on the bottom tray is
from the squeeze bottle bursting open.
If you decide to make some cute chocolate lollipops with melting chocolate, do not I repeat do NOT use Wilton's chocolate squeeze bottles.  I had a pair of these.  Basically, you put the chocolate chips in the bottle and place the bottle in a boiling pot of water to melt the chips and then it's supposed to be easy as squeeze tube icing decorating.  It's not.  The caps to the bottles don't screw on well enough to accomplish this.  Usually when a cap is screwed on to a bottle it has a track it follows around the opening and that track repeats itself two to three times.  On these Wilton bottles the track goes around the opening once.  The second you squeeze the bottle it causes that lip to bend and the cap pops off causing hot melted chocolate to get everywhere.  I am very lucky I didn't get burned.  Also, you don't need chocolate melts.  Just get some good chocolate bars and melt them and if you want colors pick up white chocolate and add food coloring.

The gels and the eyes are amazing.
Cookie icing.  I have found quite a few products from Wilton that I do not like both decorator tube icing and white cookie icing.  The tube icing is very hard to work with.  I used it last year for my holiday cookies and I had to fight to get the icing out.  I can't even imaging what it would be like having a child decorating if I can't even do it easily.  The white cookie icing is better but it is awkward to work with since it's in a rectangular bottle and not a tube.  It's okay though.

This year I picked up Wilton Candy Eyeballs and Wilton Sparkle Gel in red and green.  I love both of these products.  The eyes are adorable and the gels are so easy to work with.  I only wish I had picked up more colors.

Cutout Cookie tip:  never use plastic cookie cutters.  Maybe it's just me but I find that every time I use one of these they do not cut all the way through the dough and leave a ragged edge on the side of the cookie.  Metal cutters slice right through and leave clean edges.

Drop cookie tip:  I learned this one from a random web site.  Vegetable oil is your friend.  I have a little cookie scoop that dished out a tablespoon size and has a rubber back that you push to pop the cookie out.  Remember my earlier comments on how sticky dough can be, well dough tends to not want to be dished out either.  It wants to stick every where it's not supposed to.  When I make drop cookies I now keep a small cup of vegetable oil out.  Before I even try picking up any dough with my cookie scoop or spoon I dip it in the vegetable oil to coat the spoon.  Doing this helps prevent the dough from sticking.  The cookie balls pop right out, no fight needed.

Oh and for those of us that are lactose impaired, like me, don't be afraid to use soy milk.  In my old apartment my roommate drank milk so I would use real milk knowing it wouldn't be wasted, but since living on my own I now use soy milk (usually vanilla) over actual milk.  Unless someone has a soy allergy they will not know the difference.  I kid you not.  Soy scares a lot of people and if you tell them it's there they will automatically think it tastes funny.  I tell people after they have had them.  Only one of my cookie recipes has soy milk so I am not always pulling this switch on people.

 2010 Holiday Cookies... I wasn't too creative with my gingerbread men.  Also made Peanut Butter Cookies, Sugar Cookies (store bought mix), and Snickerdoodles.

2011 Holiday Gingerbread Men... I am planning on making more for NYE, just because they are so tasty and fun (and EASY) to make.  So much more fun using the gels for decorating.
Below are close ups... can you find Ed?  Hint: he is lacking color coordination.

I would like to point out that I do not make chocolate chip cookies.  I made them the one time with my friend because she was making them.  I find that many of the functions I make cookies for always have chocolate chip cookies because they are easy crowd pleasers.  I enjoy eating them, but I chose to not make them.  I also don't like the recipes I have for them.  They just don't taste like my grandmas.  One of these days I will get my Aunt to find her recipes.  I do make pudding cookies and they can taste like chocolate chip sometimes. 

Anyway, happy baking friends!  Writing this really made me want some Kool-Aid...

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