Monday, December 31, 2007

As God Is My Witness

I'll never make pralines the old-fashioned way again.

Because in the three years I've dedicated myself to finding the perfect praline recipe, not only have I ingested enough sugar to keep all the dentists in the known universe in Mercedes and strippers, I have also reached levels of frustration that no one with my sensibility should ever have to reach. Yes, I like a challenge. What I do not like, is beating my head against a wall. It hurts.

To be sure, candy-making is fussy, fussy business. First, there are the vagaries of temperature – soft ball, hard ball, crackle stage. Then the chemistry involved in sugar crystal formation. Or, in the case of pralines, inhibited sugar crystal formation. Because nothing is worse than a grainy praline. Or one that's rock hard. The perfect praline is, instead, the absolute perfect melding of sugar, cream, butter, vanilla, and pecans into a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth confection that is firm but never crisp. And never, ever rock hard. That's brittle, Party People, not pralines.

Anyway. Over the past three years, I'd say I've reached success about 67.23 percent of the time. The other 32 some odd times, I ended up with either puddle or brittle. And a bit of a cry.

But no more. Our first night in Louisiana, my mother-in-law naturally laid out a bounteous spread for Christmas Eve noshing. 'Course, my focus was all on the sweet stuff – the chocolate pudding cake, the lemon ice box pie, the divinity, the fudge, and, oooo, what's this? A plate of perfect-looking pralines? So, I inquired, you've obviously mastered the trick of it. No, my mother-in-law replied. There is no trick. It's all done in the microwave.



Of course, I was blessed with the recipe, courtesy MIL's friend Nell Rogers. And I finally felt sufficiently de-stuffed last night to give these a go.

They're pretty much near perfect. The only difference I notice is perhaps a tad less depth of flavor that I believe is probably best achieved with the long-ass slow-cook time necessitated by the traditional method, which allows the caramel flavors to bloom more fully. Still. I think these are delicious enough to warrant the slight loss.

So, without further hesitation, here is Ms Rogers' recipe, with only one addition by Moi:

Perfect Pralines:

16 ounces (one pound or two cups) firmly packed light brown sugar
8 ounces (one cup) cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup (Moi's addition)
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
2 teaspoons vanilla
1-1/2 cup pecan halves (toasted if you wish*)


Lay out two sheets of newspaper at least four pages thick along kitchen counter and cover with wax paper.

Into a large, deep microwave-proof bowl, stir together the brown sugar, cream, and corn syrup. Microwave on high for about 10 minutes, or until a candy thermometer reaches 235º F or the soft ball stage (check your mixture at 8 minutes).

Remove bowl from microwave (Carefully. The bowl will be super duper hot, so use your mittens and be careful not to drop. Likewise, resist all temptation to stick your finger into the mixture.) Immediately add the butter, vanilla, and pecan halves. Stir, stir, stir with a sturdy, long-handled wooden spoon until mixture starts to lose its sheen, cloud up, and thicken slightly, about a minute to two minutes. At that point, immediately spoon out onto your sheets of wax paper. The consistency we're looking for here is a mixture that will immediately hold its shape when dropped without spreading into a puddle, but not so thick you can't get it off the spoon. I've heard that if the mixture sets up too hard too quickly, you can add a tablespoon or so of water and re-microwave until you reach the proper consistency. But I think you've then blown the sugar crystal inhibition thing. Although, the product will probably taste just as good.

*To toast pecans, place pecan halves on a baking sheet and roast in pre-heated 350º F oven for 10-15 minutes, turning once. Be careful not to burn.

Enjoy. But one at a time. Otherwise, you may as well apply directly to your thighs and skip the mouth thing entirely.

Friday, December 14, 2007

When Life Hands Moi Tequila

This comes courtesy of the Pirate, that fabulously swashbuckling funster who, when not dragging her mother on a 5K run in the middle of a snowstorm or leaping 10,000 foot high mountains in her rockin' running skort, is cruising around looking for as many bits of high hilarity as she can stuff into one day.

Which comes in awfully handy at times like this when life's tapping its foot at Moi and I can't get in the kitchen (I had biscochitos and pralines and brickle oh my in mind for y'all this weekend, sniff!).

This is for fun. I think. Right?

Christmas Tequila Cookies

1 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup (two sticks) butter
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups dried fruit (dried cranberries or raisins)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
2 cups all purpose flour
1 liter bottle Don Julio or Patron Tequila

First, sample the Tequila to check quality.
Take a large bowl. Check the Tequila to be sure it is of the highest quality.
Pour another 4 ounces in a measuring cup and drink.
Turn on the electric mixer.
Beat one cup of the butter in a large fluffy bowl.
Add one teaspoon sugar. Beat again.
At this point, it is best to make sure the Tequila is still OK.
Try another 4 ounces, just in case.
Turn off the mixerer thingy.
Break two leggs and add to the bowl and chuck in the cup of dried fruit, picking the frigging fruit off the floor.
Mix on the turner.
If the fried druit gets stuck in the beaterers, just pry it loose with a screwdriver.
Sample the Tequila to check for tonsisticity.
Next, sift 2 cups of salt or shomething.
Check the Tequila.
Now shift the lemon juice and strain your nuts.
Add one table.
Add a spoon of sugar, or somefink. Whatever you can find.
Greash the oven.
Turn the cake tin 360 degrees and try not to fall over.
Don't forget to beat off the turner.
Finally, throw the bowl through the window, finish the Tequila and make sure to put the stove in the dishwasher.

Cherry Mistmas

Sunday, December 9, 2007

S.B's Favorite Cookies

Very few things make S.B. grumpy. Not having a batch of these cookies readily available at all times is one of them.

A simple oatmeal-raisin, you ask? When there are so many other fabulous, much more interesting cookies out there?

Don't fool yourself. These may be made with raisins and oats, but they're a delightfully decadent surprise – chock full of plump raisins, redolent of vanilla, and melt-in-your-mouth chewy/soft.

Now, go turn on that oven and whip yourself up a batch. If not for yourself, then for someone you love. Or even someone you don't. Nothing aides in diplomacy like baked goods.

1-1/2 cups dark raisins
2 cups all-purpose white flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons dark corn syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla
1-1/2 cups Quaker Oats (or similar quality brand, but not instant or quick)

Place raisins in a small bowl and cover with hot water. Let sit for 15 minutes. Drain in a metal colander and set back over bowl to continue draining.

In the meantime:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare two cookie sheets by either spraying with non-stick baking spray or lining with Silpat.

Measure out all dry ingredients into a bowl and stir to combine. In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, place the butter and both sugars and whip together with the paddle attachment on medium speed until smooth and light, about a minute. Add the eggs, corn syrup, and vanilla and continue beating another two minutes, scraping down bowl after first minute. On low speed, slowly beat in dry ingredients just until incorporated. With a sturdy wooden spoon, fold in raisins and then oats.

Form heaping tablespoons of dough into balls and place on cookie sheets about 2" apart. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until edges turn light brown. If your oven bakes unevenly, reverse the sheet from front to back halfway through.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Makes 48 cookies.

Will keep up to two weeks in an airtight container at room temperature, for about four months in the freezer (but they never last that long in Moi's house).

Friday, December 7, 2007

Other People's Cookies

I'll be baking again this weekend. But in the meantime, I encourage you to click on this link to the Mighty She's post on her attempts at sugar cookie baking and decorating.

Hilarious. And just a tad, well, sad.

RIP chicken cookies . . .

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Party Menu

This weekend, Anonymous Boxer is hosting a holiday blog party and she's asked Moi to cater. Fabulous!

If there's anything I love more than an opportunity to actually bake, it's an opportunity to virtually bake. You know, to mull over in my mind all those terrific things I would set about to creating if only I had five bazillion hours in a lifetime and an unending supply of lottery winnings.

So, without further ado, I present:

Anonymous Boxer's Big Phat Holiday Blog Party Menu

The Hot Stuff Savory:
• Guacamole with red, white, and blue corn chips
• Chorizo and Monterey Jack cheese-stuffed jalapeño poppers
• Smoked turkey-stuffed wontons with chocolate/red chile/peanut dipping sauce
• Roasted green chile and onion tart

El Gringos Savory:
• Puff pastry cheddar cheese straws
• Bubbling artichoke dip with three cheeses and French bread rounds
• Baked lemon and garlic marinated shrimp skewers with vodka/tomato sauce dip
• Roasted pepper and balsamic vinegar salsa with baked tortilla triangles
• Tuna tartar with golden rye crisps
• Cool Ranch Doritos with sour cream and onion dip

The Sweets - One-Bite Cookies
• Scottish short bread cookies with lime glaze
• Mini bizcochitos
• Brownie cups

The Sweets - Sorta Guilt-Free
• Pineapple, strawberry, and kiwi chunks with chocolate/sour cream dipping sauce
• Tarte tatin
• Meringue drops

The Sweets - Fuggedabout it. Get on the treadmill in the morning.
• Pistachio divinity squares
• Pecan-bourbon pralines
• Cranberry-almond caramel tart
• Chocolate mousse balls with Kirsch-flavored whipped cream
• Chocolate cake

Friday, November 30, 2007

Woo With Pie

In the early days of Moi's and SB's courtship, when I was trying to decide whether or not date him long term, I went over to his place one afternoon to find him working away in the kitchen. Making this pie - Lemon Icebox Pie as his people call it.

Lemon Icebox Pie was the deciding factor for Moi. There's nothing sexier than a man who cooks. Doesn't matter that once they got you, the only time they ever enter a kitchen ever, ever again is to pop a beer or stare forlornly at the contents of the refrigerator, whining that they can't find the milk when it's right there in front of them!


This pie is sooooooo good, it will be your go-to sweet for just about everything you need to accomplish with another human being: seduction, contrition, bribery, and utter happiness making.

What:• 1 box 'Nilla Wafers
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (the Pirate tells Moi to go to Trader Joe's and buy Irish butter NOW), softened but not melted

• 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

• 4 large eggs, separated and at room temperature

• Finely grated peel of two large lemons*

• Juice of three large lemons, about 2/3 to 3/4 cup

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Set aside 16 'Nilla wafers (and 5-6 more if, like Moi, you like to snack while baking). Place the rest of the cookies, along with the 2 tablespoons of softened butter, in the bowl of a food processor or blender and pulse until finely crushed. Pour into an 8" round pie pan and pat firmly and evenly along the bottom and up the sides. Ring the pan with the 16 'Nilla wafters, spacing evenly, like so:

Make filling by whisking together in a large bowl with a balloon whip the can of sweetened, condensed milk, the 4 egg yolks, lemon juice, and the grated lemon peel (* use the finest setting of a cheese grater for this, or a special tool called a microplane, and make sure you don't grate the bitter, white pith of the peel – just the bright yellow stuff). When finished whisking, mixture should have a pudding-like consistency.

Pour into pie shell:

Now, make the meringue topping like I told you.

Top pie.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until nicely (as opposed to meanly) browned:

Cool on wire rack about 1.5 hours. Refrigerate and chill, 3-4 hours before serving.

Hint: the cookies are a guide to how large a slice you should cut. You been good and done your exercises for the day? Cut a three-cookie slice. Vegged out all day? You may want to bump that down to one or two cookies there, ace.

Either way, pour a big ol' glass of milk to go with it and enjoy!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Perfect Meringue

For on top of a pie, that is. (Meringue for other things – cookies, icings, etc. – I'll cover later.)

I have spent, oh God, about a bazillion hours over the course of my lifetime trying to perfect just the right mile-high, melt-in-your-mouth meringue with which to top all manner of pies and cakes.

It's an obsession that led to much wailing and extra time on the treadmill, but, alas, no perfect meringue. Until my stepfather gave me for my birthday about five years back a set of Williams-Sonoma cookbooks. Inside one of them, Pie and Tart, is the Holy Grail of all pie topping meringues (insert parting the heavens theme music here).

In my opinion, it's what makes the Lemon Ice Box Pie, recipe to follow tomorrow, worth living for.

What:1 scant tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 cup water
4 large egg whites, separated and at room temperature (but separate them right after coming out of the fridge – it's easier)
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar

In a small saucepan, whisk together cornstarch and water. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture thickens into an almost paste-like consistency. This happens pretty quickly (within about a minute), so watch carefully. As soon as it begins to thicken remove from heat and whisk until smooth. Cool completely.

This is how it will probably look:

Place room temperature egg whites and cream of tartar into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the balloon whip attachment. On high speed, whip until foamy.

Then, reduce speed to medium and whip while slowly sprinkling in the 1/2 cup of sugar. Return to high speed and whip until whites form a ribbon that folds back on itself when beater is raised, about 1-2 minutes:

Stir in cornstarch mixture and beat on high speed until shiny, soft peaks form, about 2-3 minutes:

Resist all impulses to shovel spoonful after spoonful into mouth while vegging out in front of the television (making meringue is haaaard!)

Instead, top pie, forming fun spikes or curlicues (or, if you're emmak, naughty bits) and bake in 375 degree oven until the peaks brown, about 15 minutes.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love Cake

(Before getting started, you may want to review the posts on tools and ingredients. Or, go ahead and live dangerously and jump right in.)

In honor of the fact that in just a few days, I am going to be visiting the home of one of my all-time idols, Mr. Elvis Aaron Presley, I thought that now would be an appropriate time to share with you one of my all-time favorite cakes – the Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love Cake.

I call it that because:

A. It combines all of Elvis's favorite flavors - banana, chocolate, and peanut butter
B. If you eat too much of it, you'll end up looking a lot like Elvis when he crossed over from hubba-hubba to hunka-hunka, if you get what I mean.

(Remember, Party People, bake with abandon. But eat with discretion.)


I have spent years experimenting with this cake. I started with the banana sheet cake recipe highlighted by Flo Braker in her Simple Art of Perfect Baking, but didn't find it quite banana-y enough. Then I reverted to the banana bread recipe from Cook, My Darling Daughter, which has served me well in loaf form for years. Alas, too dense.

What I was seeking was a very banana-y flavor with an almost chiffon cake-like structure. So I went back to Braker's recipe but doubled the number of bananas, omitted the baking powder, and substituted the sour cream with more than twice as much plain, non-fat yogurt. Another secret to the cake's airy texture is the initial beating of the sugar and bananas together, similar to how you'd make a genoise (which we'll get to later, but if you want some homework:

The frosting is a simple ganache, with peanut butter substituting for some of the cream. The result tastes a whole lot like melted Reeces pieces only more sophisticated because, well, it's ganache (for those of you from the South, you'll want to pronounce that gah-nash. The rest of us, guh-nosh.)

But however you pronounce it, unless bananas, chocolate, and peanut butter are, like, totally not your thing (in which case, what planet are YOU from?), this cake is going to knock your socks off.

Pre-heat your oven to 350º F. Butter and flour two 8" round cake pans or spray with nonstick baking spray.

4 medium (3 if really large) bananas, overripe
1/4 cup non-fat plain yogurt
2 cups cake flour (or double sifted regular, unbleached)
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
One recipe Basic Chocolate Ganache made with 1-1/2 cups cream
3 tablespoons creamy peanut butter

Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt into large bowl. Set aside.

Roughly mash two of the bananas together with the yogurt and set aside.

Place remaining two bananas and sugar into another mixing bowl. If using a stand mixer, fit with the wire whisk attachment. Mix on high until mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add melted butter, eggs, and vanilla, mixing well well for 2 minutes, scraping down the bowl after first minute. Mix in dry ingredients just until incorporated – no need to over beat. Fold in the mashed banana/yogurt mixture.

Pour batter into prepared pans.

Bake for approximately 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into middle of the cake comes out clean. Don't worry if top of cakes crack.

Cool cakes on wire rack for 10 minutes before un-molding onto rack to let cool completely, about 2 hours.


To make the peanut butter ganache:
Follow recipe for Basic Chocolate Ganache, only reduce amount of cream to 1-1/2 cups and add 3 tablespoons of creamy peanut butter to the chocolate pieces. Cool to frosting consistency and frost cake. Serve at room temperature.

Cake will keep for three days at room temperature. Or refrigerate for up to 7 days, but both frosting and cake will be more dense.

You can also frost the cake with plain ol' unflavored chocolate ganache or do something entirely different and add the zest and juice of one whole lemon to the original banana/yogurt mixture and frost with a lemon butter cream, but you'll have to wait until I get around to giving you the recipe for that one.

Basic Chocolate Ganache

This is the basic, mother recipe out of which all other ganache recipes will spring. It makes enough to frost a two-layer 8" cake (with leftovers for sauce) or a two-layer 9" cake. Unless you like to sneak little "tastes" along the way. Then you'll come up short and will have no one but yourself to blame.

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I use Ghirardelli chips)
1-2/3 cups cream

If not using chips, chop the chocolate into pea-sized pieces. Or, process in a food processor until finely chopped. (The first method is time consuming and difficult; the second is messy. Buy chips.)

Place chopped or chipped chocolate into a heat-resistant glass or metal bowl.

Measure cream into a Pyrex measuring cup. Microwave on high until boiling, about one minute. Pour cream over chocolate and let sit for one minute. Stir with small metal whisk until all chocolate is melted.

For a glaze: Let cool to a pourable consistency, about 15-30 minutes, depending on your room's temperature. Place cake on a wire rack set on top of a rimmed baking sheet. Pour ganache over cake and allow to drip down, catching excess in the sheet. If necessary, scoop up excess and keep pouring until entire cake is covered.

It will look something like this:

For a fluffy frosting: Let mixture continue to sit at room temperature, stirring gently every half hour or so, until it reaches frosting consistency – about two hours.

It will look something like this (apologies for the hairy dude arms):

Any left overs can be used as a spread over toast (really!), or used as a sauce by microwaving on low power until it reaches a sauce-like consistency. What you pour it over at this point is your business.

Ganache will keep at room temperature for three days, two weeks in the fridge, and six months in the freezer.

Into the Mix

Before we start, a quick word or two on ingredients.

1. Butter – Unfortunately, American butter sucks ass. Believe me. Go to France and you'll see what I mean. So, we'll have to make do with what we've got. Just make sure it's always, always unsalted. Land O' Lakes is what I use.

2. Milk – 100 percent whole milk is, of course, best. But most of us don't want to subject our arteries to that kind of abuse, no matter how yummy, and so therefore don't keep the stuff in the house. If you do – or want to purchase 'specially for your baking projects – hurrah. If you don't, no worries. I've been baking with 1 percent for years, no problem. Just add a tablespoon or two of cream and things will come out just fine.

3. Cream – Speaking of which . . . Unfortunately, American cream is über, über Pasturized, which sucks for us bakers. So again, use what you can get. Just make sure it's real cream (no half 'n' half) and is unsweetened (save sweetened cream for when you make whipped cream topping).

4. Eggs – Should be Grade A large. Brown or white, doesn't matter. But fresh does. Check the carton.

5. Sugar – If you don't keep regular granulated table sugar in the house as a matter of course, then go buy super refined baking sugar. But I've never really noticed the difference. We'll use powdered sugar a lot, too. Brand doesn't matter. The stuff's all the same, but you can't go wrong with Cane.

6. Flour – I prefer to use cake flour in almost all my cake recipes, including muffins and brownies. But the problem is, it's only sold in small boxes, which makes it a pain in the ass to measure out. So if you don't want to bother, regular ol' unbleached (and for goodness sake, not self-rising unless I tell you), white flour will do. Just makes sure you measure, sift, then measure again.

7. Baking Powder/Soda – Who really knows the difference between these two? All I know is, they're very, very important leavening agents – sometimes used together, sometimes not. They do lose their super-duper powers within a couple years though, so check expiration dates and replace as necessary.

8. Flavorings – Sure, real vanilla is expensive. Tough. Imitation is for pussies. Splurge, already. Also good to have on hand: liquid lemon, orange, and peppermint flavorings.

9. Lickker – I keep Kirsch, Kahlua, Amaretto, rum, and bourbon on hand at all times. Buy a small bottle of each as you need it and it will last for years. Unless, of course, in addition to being a baker, you're also a drunk.

10. Chocolate - Oh Lord, a subject in and of itself. Which I'll get to later, but for now, just know that there's a difference between unsweetened, bittersweet, and semi-sweetened and I won't leave you hanging as to which you'll need to use.

11. Cocoa – Some bakers insist on Dutch-processed only, but Hershey's baking has done Moi for years with no worries.

12. Nuts – Buy 'em chopped. Time is always of the essence, Party People.

13. Other Stuff – Polenta, oats, whole wheat flour, raisins, cranberries – we'll be using all this stuff and more but I'll cover any necessary info as we go along.

Unless otherwise noted, all ingredients, including butter, should be at room temperature before you start baking. That can be anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour, so plan accordingly.

Soon, we bake. I promise!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Baker's Bling

Aw, come on! you're probably thinking. I logged on here anticipating a post that actually teaches me how to bake something and all I get is a photo of this intimidating piece of equipment.

Well, hang on. We can't run until we walk. Or at the very least crawl.

Every crafts person has their tools. Their workshop. Their library of source materials.

It's no different for bakers. If you plan to join me in this adventure, you're gonna need some basic tools. So bear with me for just one post.

THE WORKSHOP: As a baker, your workshop, obviously, is your kitchen. Sometimes it's also a sunny spot on a window ledge or out on the patio. But it's not your ass on the sofa (Unless of course you're Wicked and you plan to continue to ignore the fact that there is a bona fide oven in your kitchen as you plant your ass on the sofa, Cab Sav in hand, and just mouth the words.)

So. Those of you who aren't Wicked, get up and go into your kitchen. You should have the following; stove top, oven, microwave, counter space. Make sure all are in working order. That means, you can switch on the gas or electricity to your stove top without burning your domicile to the ground; your oven is calibrated to the correct temperature (a simple oven thermometer will do) and you adjust accordingly when baking; your microwave has at least a low, medium, and high setting; and you've got a good 3-5 feet of counter space cleared of all bills, cat hair, and last night's beer bottles. Simple, huh?

THE TOOLS: Uh, unfortunately, NOT so simple. Car mechanics, wood workers – hell, home tinkerers – have nothing on bakers when it comes to tools. Google any baking ware Web site and you'll quickly come away thinking, like Moi, that it is indeed a yellow short bus ride to the long, slippery slope of bankruptcy when it comes to one's materials. Then again, I've been baking for years and the Shoe Fund is no worse off because of it. (Hint: eBay, Party People)

Most of you probably already have half this stuff anyway. It may be lying dormant and neglected in your cabinets, covered in dust, the final resting spots for dozens of long dead and dessicated insects, but you most likely got it. So go on, fill a sink with some hot, soapy water, go snooping, and bring your materials back out into the light.

At the bare minimum you'll need:

1. Baking pans
2 8" rounds
2 9" rounds
12 hole muffin
1 Bundt
1 8" square
1 9x13 square
2 9x3 loaf pans
1 10" scalloped-edged tart pan, with removable bottom
1 10" pie pan

For the rounds, muffin, and loaf, I prefer plain ol' aluminum of the kind you can purchase at any hobby shop (Wilton is a good, inexpensive, long-lasting brand). For the Bundt and tart, I prefer non-stick. And for the 8" square, 9x13, and 10" pie, I prefer glass (nothing beats Pyrex).

2. Baking Sheets
At least two, rimmed, non-stick, 12x17

3. Bowls
One set of nesting glass and one set of nesting metal should do ya. Keep Aunt Ida's Depression-era ceramics on display, where they belong. I'd hate to be responsible for the loss of a lovely heirloom.

4. Mixer
Unless you're Amish or have freakishly powerful upper body strength, don't even try to fool yourself into thinking you can bake without at least a hand held electric mixer. These can be purchased from any discount appliance store on the cheap, but should include at least two different beater styles and six varying speeds.

5. Measuring Tools:
Set of measuring spoons, aluminum, which range from 1/8" teaspoon to 1 tablespoon.
Set of dry measuring cups, aluminum, which range from 1/4 cup to 1 cup.
Two-cup Pyrex measuring cup for liquids
Four-cup Pyrex measuring cup for liquids
3-cup sized sifter. Or do as I do and use metal mesh strainers (I have several sizes) – they're easier to use.

6. Utensils
2 large rubber spatulas
2 small rubber spatulas
2 long-handled, sturdy wooden spoons
1 large balloon whisk
1 medium whisk
1 small whisk
1 offset metal spatula for icing cakes.

7. Pots
For making candy, melting chocolate, clarifying butter, etc.:
1 1-1/2 or 2-quart
1 2-3/4 or 3-quart

8. Wire racks
2 12x17

9. Other
Scale for measuring chocolate chips, raisins, etc.
Candy thermometer, preferably instant-read

If it's in your budget, I also highly recommend you substitute your hand held mixer with a Kitchen Aide stand mixer (Mine was a gift from my mother twelve years ago and it just opened up my baking world.) AND, you purchase two Silpat non-stick silicone baking sheets. These are almost imperative if you're going to make meringue cookies and they make clean up of other sheet pan goodies a breeze.

Of course, how you outfit your workshop from here is simply limited by your budget, your desire, and your imagination.

THE SOURCE MATERIALS: Why, Moi, of course. So, hang in there and stay tuned. Next time, we bake!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

I Bake, Therefore I Am

Helllloooooo, Party People! Welcome to Moi's Baking Blog!

Blame my brother. If he hadn't been such a problem child and if, in being such a problem child, hadn't decided to use the back end of our parent's 1964 Volkswagen Beetle as a makeshift slide, and if the license plate attached to said makeshift slide had never had a sliver of razor sharp metal jutting out from one corner, and if that piece of metal hadn't sliced into the outside of my brother's leg like a Wüsthof knife slicing into a fat piece of Grade A Prime beef, and if said cut hadn't required five bazillion stitches and a trip to the toy store to appease the screeching little brat, then there's a good chance I wouldn't be typing these words.

But it was during that trip to the toy store, in which my harried parents urged us uncharacteristically to buy whatever we wanted, that I found this, the object that jump-started my obsession. While my brother brooded indecisively over whether to bring home yet another G.I. Joe with which to torture my Pam Am Stewardess Barbie or a Mr. Potato Head with which to no doubt torture the dog, I knew instantly what I wanted.

This little red stool. Because it was just high enough to boost my five year old body up to counter height to help my mother bake.

In those early days as a stay-at-home-mom, my mother was either off on some long and lonesome walk through the sage brushed prairie that surrounded our home or she was in the kitchen, expertly crafting the myriad goodies required to appease my father's prodigious appetite for sweets. And for many, many years, I was right there beside her: watching, taking notes, licking the pans . . .

As a result, by the time I was ten years old, I had mastered my grandmother's secret pound cake. At twelve, I spent an entire day making puff pastry by hand, a Herculean effort that resulted in enough Napoleons to feed the neighborhood. In my teens, I was in charge of all the family birthday cakes. By the time I graduated high school, there was little in the way of sweet stuffs that I hadn't given at least one go. I was nothing short of a baking slut.

Twenty some odd years later, I'm still at it.

And most people I know ask me: Why? Isn't it so much easier to skip on over to the local bakery or Trader Joe's and just purchase your dessert?

Sure it is, but it's not as much fun.

Yes, I said it. Baking is fun. Chemistry, schmemistry. Look, I la la la la la-ed my way through four years of high school science and my baked goods are none the worse for wear. If I can do it, so can you.

So come on, grab an apron. Fire up the electric mixer. Dust off those muffin pans. Put on your favorite boogie shoes and let's go cook us something sweet to eat . . .