Monday, December 16, 2013

Holiday Baking Tips

What with this being baking season and all, there is always room for a few tips to make the goodies come out better.

1.  Know your pans.  You know which of your cake pans and cookie sheets cook more evenly than others.  Which ones are non-stick?  Which ones benefit from parchment or a silpat?  Which is the one that warps when it hits 325º, making it a bad choice for gingerbread house pieces, but perfectly fine for smaller cookies?  It seems counter-intuitive, but now is not the time to buy a new baking sheet.  You don't know how it is going to react with your favorite cookie recipe.

2.  Know your oven.  Does it run hot or cold?  Does it have a convection function, and if so, do you need to alter the temperature from the given one in the recipe?  Where should you place the racks to achieve the desired browning and cooking time?  I've lived in this house for almost three years, and I'm still experimenting with the oven.  Getting closer to understanding it.

3.  Remember carryover baking when deciding if something is done.  You know how you have to let a turkey or roast sit for a half hour after cooking to finish?  The same applies to baked goods.  Always pull cookies and smaller baked goods before they are done.  A car doesn't come to a halt when you take your foot off the gas, and a cookie doesn't magically stop baking when you take it out of the oven.  Even when removed to a cooling rack, enough heat remains in the product to continue the cooking process for several minutes.

4.  How to do the toothpick test.  No one will complain about an underdone cookie, but cakes are different.  To do the toothpick test, insert a wooden toothpick about an inch from the center of a cake.  You don't test the dead center because of carryover baking (see above).  If it is done almost to the center, the center itself will be cooked by the time the whole cake has cooled.  If you have chocolate chips or anything else in your cake that should be gooey when warmed, remember that it will come up on the toothpick.  That doesn't mean the cake itself is underdone.  Cheesecakes are really hard to guess, because they will fail the toothpick test until they are overbaked.  For those, the jiggle test is a bit more reliable.

5.  Storage of baked goods.  Unless they have a lot of alcohol in them, the best way to store baked goods is at room temperature for short-term (one or two days) or in the freezer.  A properly frozen and defrosted baked good will taste exactly the same as freshly baked.  To freeze, make sure the item is completely cooled.  Seal it in plastic, getting out as much air as possible.  Then wrap in foil.  Then place in a ziplock bag and squeeze out the air.  It should survive the freezer for up to three months.  Try to avoid refrigerating baked goods for more than a couple of days, as that will cause them to absorb moisture and get stale.  As for the rum balls and fruitcakes, those have enough hard stuff in them to sit out for a week.  Just cover them with plastic wrap or seal them in a tin and you're good.

6.  Unloading goodies when you realize you went too far.  Use cute tins and bags.  Honestly, it's all about being festive.  Take a tin to a neighbor, work, or school.  You won't have to worry about how badly you underestimated the yield when you made four different batches of Christmas cookies.  Even people who proclaim themselves super-healthy "juicers" will break down for a couple of holiday treats.

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