November 28, 2009

Baking Essentials 101

Just in time for the holidays, a list of equipment and tools that any baking enthusiast would love.

I'm not being paid to endorse any of these items; these are just things I've found I can't live without in my 25+ years of baking so be assured these have all been thoroughly tested.  I've included links to amazon to help you get started.  Unless I've mentioned a particular brand, buy whichever one you can afford.   Most of this stuff can be bought at Bed, Bath & Beyond..don't forget to use their 20% off coupons..even on the Kitchen-Aid mixer!

Baking arsenal in my pantry at home

  • Kitchen-Aid Stand Mixer: If you're even somewhat serious about baking, this is an absolute must and a real kitchen workhorse.  It's definitely an investment, but it will last forever.  I remember the day my parents brought home a Kitchen-Aid in the early 80s and to this day it still works like a charm.   As for which model to buy, get the one that fits your needs.  If you're only an occasional baker don't go for the Professional series, get the Classic instead. 
  • Food Processor:  A processor is a great tool for making pastry dough for pies and tarts and also for chopping nuts.  I sometimes use the food processor to make cake frostings.  They normally come with different blades for slicing and grating as well.

  • Taylor Oven ThermometerUnless your oven is properly calibrated (most aren't) get this to ensure correct temperature.
  • Polder Kitchen Timer:  Easy peasy to use and has a string so you can wear it around your neck if you need to leave the kitchen.
  • Half Sheet Baking Pans:  Used primarily for cookies, but many other uses as well.  Don't bother buying the nonstick ones; just use parchment paper.  Any standard half sheet pan (should measure 13" x 18") will do so don't buy the fancy schmancy ones.  I have a bunch that I got from Costco that were cheap as chips and they work great.  You should have at least two of these pans, especially if you're making cookies.
  • Parchment Paper: A must, must have for any type of baking.  Most people rave about the silicone baking mats like Silpat, but I prefer parchment.  I always line half sheet pans with parchment paper so that things don't stick.  If I'm making a lot of cookies I don't need to dirty a lot of pans because I just use a new sheet of parchment with each batch.  Makes clean up a breeze as well.  They sell parchment in rolls at the supermarket but because I bake so much I buy pre-cut half-sheet pan size ones in a box of 1,000. 
  • Mixing Bowls:  I like the nesting ones that come in stainless steel and glass.  Does double-duty as a bain marie. 
  • Silicone Rubber Spatula:  The utensil I use most often in baking for scraping, folding, mixing.  Buy several of these because they are indispensible.
  • Measuring Cups and Spoons
  • Pyrex Liquid Measuring Cup: To be used specifically for liquid ingredients.  
  • Wire Whisk
  • Metal Cake Pans
    • 9 x 13 Rectangle: For bar cookies (brownies, lemon bars) and cake
    • 9" or 8" Round: Either size will do, but you need at least 2
    • Loaf: For quick breads like pumpkin or banana bread
    • Muffin:  For cupcakes and muffins
  • Metal Ice Cream Scoops: I have these in different sizes and use them to portion out cookie dough so they are uniform in size.    Also great for cupcakes and muffins.
  • French Tapered Wood Rolling Pin:  This style is more agile than the traditional rolling pin. 
  • Wire Cooling Rack: I like the kind that fit perfectly in a half sheet pan.
  • Mesh Strainer:  For sifting dry ingredients and straining cooked creams
  • Microplane Grater:  Zesting citrus fruits, grating chocolate, cheese
  • Cookie Cutters


November 27, 2009

Holy Cannoli! The Daring Bakers Go Italiano....

I must admit that when I found out that this month's challenge was cannoli I didn't get the warm and fuzzies. If you couldn't already tell from reading past posts I'm a big fan of all things fried, but for some reason I've never been attracted to the cannoli. Even in my travels throughout Italy it's never been top of mind as a must-have treat. I always steered towards the simply delicioso gelato. But I guess that's the whole point of this baking group; make things we wouldn't necessarily do on our own. So despite my reservations I persevered and ventured onward...

The recipe and overall preparation of the dough was very straight forward. Trouble started brewing when I had to bust out the jug of vegetable oil to fry the cannoli. I stupidly decided to let it get to temperature unattended on the stove while I was in my office surfing the net. Mamma mia..big mistake! When I ran back to the kitchen to check on the oil temperature the marker on the candy thermometer was all the way to the top where there were no numbers. Not good! I threw a piece of dough into the oil to test how hot it really was and as soon as I did the glass bulb on the bottom of the thermometer shattered.

Long story short, my cannoli shells came out a bit more tan than I would have liked. Who am I kidding? Those suckers were burnt to a crisp! But I wanted to complete the challenge so I ended up filling them with some vanilla bean pastry cream and chopped pistachios.  Will I make cannolis again? Never say never, but based on this last experience it's definitely going to be a long time coming.

The November 2009 Daring Bakers Challenge was chosen and hosted by Lisa Michele of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. She chose the Italian Pastry, Cannolo (Cannoli is plural), using the cookbooks Lidia's Italian-American Ktichen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Allen Rucker; recipes by Michele Scicolone, as ingredient/direction guides. She added her own modifications/changes, so the recipe is not 100% verbatim from either book.

November 24, 2009

Pain au me souviens..

Many, many years ago (far more than I care to admit) I spent the spring semester of my junior year of university abroad in Dijon France. Yes, Dijon, the city made famous for that spicy yellow condiment.  "Officially" I was there to attend a French business school and immerse myself in the language and culture.  Unofficially it was really just an excuse to eat, drink, party, travel and meet fellow students from all over the world.  Without a doubt it was probably the best six months of my life and the memories and friendships created back then continue to stay with me.

Even on our paltry students' budget my friends and I managed to eat very well.   This is France after all, the country that claims over 50 types of cheeses, all protected and regulated under French law.  One of my absolute favorite afternoon snacks after a day of classes was a pain au chocolat from Boulangerie Garcia, just around the corner from my dormitory.  

Madame Garcia, the baker's wife, looked after the shop front, while Monsieur Garcia was happily tucked away in the basement concocting his delicious patisseries.  Madame Garcia was not what you'd expect a baker's wife to look like.  I always imagined someone petite and plump. Mais non! In fact, she was quite the opposite: tall and slender with big hair and a wardrobe that reminded you of a Journey groupie back in 1985.  But she ran that bakery like clockwork and my friends and I went there religiously to indulge in all the fantastic breads and pastries.  Those were the days... 

I often reminisce about the great times my friends and I had  that semester in France, when life seemed  so simple and carefree.   When the nostalgia hits me I normally tend to crave a pain au chocolat.  My version will never taste as good as the ones from Boulangerie Garcia, but until I  return to Dijon they'll have to suffice.

NOTE: Recipe can be found in the "Baking Illustrated" cookbook. 

November 14, 2009

Cashew Toffee - It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Thanksgiving is still a little over two weeks away and I'm already looking ahead to Christmas.  Christmas is one of my favorite holidays, and why wouldn't it be - it's the holiday renowned for  baking.  I'm one of those people who thinks that it's never too early to start the holiday spirit.  I've already got a mini Christmas tree decorated in my office at work and have my  favorite Andy Williams Christmas CD playing on continuous loop.   Call me crazy, it wouldn't be the first time!, but after all, it's the most wonderful time of the year!!!

To celebrate the upcoming festivities I've already started churning out my famous cashew toffee.  I began making this candy a few years ago and the response from family and friends was so overwhelming that it's turned in to a delicious tradition.

The toffee ingredients are simple enough, basically butter, sugar and cashews cooked to a bubbling mass, cooled and then coated with chocolate, but the result is pure heaven.  Just the right amount of sweet and salty juxtaposed with the slight bitterness of the dark chocolate coating.  A good toffee has to taste rich, but also have a crunchy bite.  Cook the mixture too long and you've got burnt sugar, not long enough and you end up with a taffy so chewy that it could yank out your fillings.   Even my longtime dentist Dr. Luke loves this toffee; if that's not the ultimate seal of approval I don't know what is.

This is just the beginning of the many treats I'll be making over the next few weeks..stay tuned!

November 7, 2009

Triumph and the Chocolate Macaron

I know, I know..macarons again?  Aren't I sick of them yet?  I emphatically say, "mais non, pas du tout!"   It's been about four months since I started getting serious about making macarons and I can honestly say I never tire of them.  Their unpredictability keeps me coming back for more abuse..and triumph!

My sister asked me to make some macarons for a party she's going to and I was more than willing to oblige.  The flavors above are raspberry, chocolate & salted peanut butter and finally chocolate & bittersweet chocolate.  I can happily report that I've made some strides in my quest for the ultimate chocolate macaron.  I'd say I'm about 90% there - got the feet and the flavor, but the tops are still a work in progress.  For some reason they are still coming out thin and sometimes wrinkly unlike the regular macs that have thicker shells. It's the chemical reaction of adding chocolate to the equation that's causing me such troubles and unfortunately I'm not Mr. Wizard so I don't know how to compensate.  The research continues...

Here are the recipes I used:  

Raspberry: Used Tartelette's basic macaron recipe and flavored swiss meringue buttercream with raspberry puree
Chocolate and Salted Peanut Butter: Tartelette's chocolate macarons with Cannelle et Vanille's filling
Chocolate and Bittersweet Chocolate Ganache: Cannelle et Vanille's chocolate macaron with ganache filling

November 6, 2009

Fried chicken so good it would make the Colonel weep...

This blog is primarily dedicated to all things baking, because that's my passion, but every now and then I must digress.  And this is one of those times.  I'm talking chicken....fried chicken....the ne plus ultra fried chicken....I'm talking Ad Hoc fried chicken.  I've eaten enough fried chicken in my lifetime (can we say KFC's 2-piece & a biscuit or Chicken N' Corn Tuesdays?) to know that Ad Hoc's rendition is the stuff of legends. Served every other Monday  at the restaurant in Yountville.  Quite possibly the best fried chicken in the universe, well, this planet at least.  I've only had it once thus far because driving an hour each way from SF is a bit of a trek for a weekday, but it was unforgettable and keeps me yearning for more.  Moist and juicy, seasoned perfectly and with the most delicious crunchy crust.  Absolute bliss! 
So why am I waxing poetic about this quintessential American comfort food?  Because I just bought Thomas Keller's latest cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home.  I'll be honest, I bought the book because I wanted to know the secret to this damn good chicken.  The recipe is there, plus a ton of other great looking ones that I can't wait to try.  So what's the secret to the chicken you might ask?  They soak the bird in a lemon and herb infused brine for 12 hours (yikes!) before dredging it in seasoned flour, buttermilk and more seasoned flour.  If you've tasted the end product you know it's all worth it.  I'm planning on attempting the recipe in the next few weeks.  If it doesn't turn out so great that's ok....I know I can always find it every other Monday at 6476 Washington St. off Hwy 29.

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