Category Archives: Baking Tips

5 Secrets of Wedding Cake Success

wedding cake

The weddding cake!!! It’s the ULTIMATE cake- the cake that symbolizes a huge life choice, and look gorgeous in all the wedding photos. Yes, making the wedding cake is quite an important job.  Not only must it look beautiful (and satisfy all the bride’s ideas and color schemes) but it must taste good, and most importantly, not fall down!!!! If you are an accomplished cake maker and feel you are up to the next cake making challenge, please take note of 5 secrets to making a wedding cake.

1. Practice cutting cakes evenly and icing cakes smoothly.

This may seem like common sense but common sense is not always common knowledge. If you cut your cakes lopsided your wedding cake will be lopsided.  If your icing is not smooth and clean and crisp at the edges than your wedding cake will reflect that.  Basically, any small errors you make when icing or cutting a smaller cake, get magnified in a wedding cake so keep it clean!

2. Choose a stable cake base and filling

Should your cake taste delicious? Of course! But is it more important that the cake taste delicious or that it look beautiful?  Usually, I would say both components are important but for a wedding cake it is slightly more important that the cake be beautiful.  Test out cake bases and fillings ahead of time and make sure you choose cake that will hold up well and a filling that isn’t too moist.

3. Practice using dowel rods for stability.

Wedding cakes are edible architecture.  It is very important that you choose sturdy, hardware dowel rods that can support each layer.  Practice cutting the dowel rods so that they are level with the top of each tier.  Make sure you use just enough dowel rods to support the cake tiers without compromising the integrity or structure of the cake.  And ALWAYS save a long dowel rod to place down the center of the cake to prevent listing.

4. Talk to your bride about wedding cake expectations.

Brides have a million wedding details on their mind and are usually nervous about their big day.  Make sure you have plenty of conversations ahead of time about the look and taste of the cake.  Ensure that you are on the same page in regards to color scheme, flowers, ribbons, cake toppers, etc.  The bride usually provides the cake topper and the florist usually provides the flowers.  Make sure that the bride is aware of what things you are and aren’t responsible for.  If the bride is an unknown person, write a contract that stipulates what time you are to arrive and set up the cake.  And ALWAYS add a clause that once the cake is down it is the bride’s responsibility.  I have seen cakes get dropped later in the night and it is not the baker’s responsibility anymore!

5. Make a list and check it twice

Days before the wedding cake is due you will need to make a list about everything you need to bring onsite.  This includes things like dowel rods, tools, scissors, straws, spatulas, extra buttercream, piping tips, etc.  Ensure that you have reliable transport for your wedding cakes.  By the way, wedding cakes should always be transported un-stacked to the wedding site.  Put your dowel rods in ahead of time and stack the cake on site.  Once you get on site you have one chance to get the cake down perfectly without it falling. Make sure you are prepared so you set yourself up for success.

Finally, have fun!!! The wedding cake is one of the baker’s  happiest forms of self expression.  It is remembered for years to come by the bride, groom and wedding guests.  Plan ahead, make smart cake choices, and practice, practice, practice. You too can make a wedding cake!

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How to Make Homemade Cinnamon Rolls

cinnamon rollsI love Homemade Cinnamon Rolls

Have you ever woken up in the morning and just craved a cinnamon roll? Most people have at one point or another.  Even Lemony Snicket was once quoted as saying ‘Anyone who gives you a cinnamon roll fresh out of the oven is a friend for life.’  And, well, if Lemony Snicket says it, then it must be true.  I remember when I was in high school and it was a really big deal for me to get the Pillsbury cinnamon rolls and bake them off before driving to school.  I would eat it, still hot, while turning into the school parking lot and savor that gooey sweetness. Then five minutes later, I would have a sugar crash in homeroom.  As I got older, I yearned to make my own cinnamon rolls and once I graduated from culinary school I had really learned how.  The process we used in culinary school had a few more steps so I have developed a quicker version for those who are impatient to begin eating immediately!!!  But before we get to the recipe, let’s talk about why so few of us take the trouble to make cinnamon rolls.  More commonly than not it is because people are scared of yeast

How does yeast work and why is it so scary?

For those of you who do not already know, yeast is a microorganism of the class, Saccharomyces cerevisiae.  Yeast is also very hungry which means it needs to be fed.  It consumes sugar and then gives off carbon dioxide and alcohol.  Yeast loves temperatures right around 90 degrees F and, in fact, it thrives at this temperature.  By combining yeast with a warm liquid and a bit of sugar it will grow and be happy and make your yeast products rise and become fluffy and tasty.  But if you should happen to kill your yeast by exposing it to temperatures over 120 degrees F then the yeast will be quite grumpy and sad and your cinnamon rolls will be hard lumpy hockey pucks. Grumpy yeast is what people are more scared of than anything.   But not to fear! I will teach you some easy simple methods for ensuring that your yeast is always happy and stays happy throughout the baking process.

Dough Ingredients

  • 3 ½ cups all purpose flour, have more on hand if needed
  • 1 ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 package rapid rise yeast (7 g)
  • 2 egg yolks, room temperature
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste
  • 4 tablespoons softened butter
  1. Combine all dry ingredients in a stand mixer bowl (flour, salt, sugar, yeast). Using the dough hook attachment, mix for 15 seconds until combined.  Heat milk to about 90 degrees in the microwave. You should be able to comfortable slide your pinky finger into the liquid and it feels warm and pleasant (like a bath) and not scalding hot.  If you burn your finger the milk is definitely too hot!
  2. Add milk, eggs and vanilla paste to mixture. Combine slowly for about 1 minute and then crank the mixer up to medium speed and mix for about 4 minutes.  Add the softened butter and mix until the butter gets absorbed into the dough (about 1 minute).  Add more flour if the dough is too sticky.  The dough should be sticky but it should not be mush in the bowl.  If it is not forming a nice round ball then you should keep mixing.
  3. Scrape the bowl down (dough included) and sprinkle flour on top of and underneath the dough to prevent it from sticking.
  4. Now you need to cover the dough and put it in a warm place to rise. (An unlighted oven, near a warm sunny window, etc. Treat the dough like it is a living thing because it is!!! If the environment where you are placing your dough feels too hot for you than it is probably too hot for the dough. Again, ideal temperatures need to be around 90 and should stay around 90 throughout this process. That’s not to say that it can’t get a bit cooler (it will just slow the yeast growth).  But it definitely should not ever get hotter than 120 degrees F.  This will keep your yeast happy.  And remember, happy yeast = fluffy cinnamon rolls.
  5. Allow the yeast to double in volume for 1 to 2 hours. This is rest time for you but activity time for your yeast because it is going to grow and grow and consume sugar and turn it into fluffy dough.  What should you do for those 2 hours?

Activites to Do While Yeast is Rising

  1. Constantly and nervously check on the yeast every 15 minutes to make sure it is rising. (I am guilty of this myself)
  2. Go for a long run so you can neutralize the calories you will shortly ingest from your homemade cinnamon roll.
  3. Do one and a half loads of laundry.
  4. Clean your home.
  5. Get on Facebook and tell everyone how you are making cinnamon rolls for the first time. Yay!

You can also make your Cinnamon Filling!!!!

  • ½ cup packed brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons softened butter
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon.

Combine all ingredients together in a mixer and whip with the paddle attachment until soft and fluffy.

Finishing Your Cinnamon Rolls

  1. Remove dough from its warm resting place and punch it down with your fist. Roll the dough out into a long rectangle until it is about ¼ inch thick.
  2. Spread the cinnamon filling you just made all over your dough.
  3. Roll the dough long-ways into a log and pinch the seam tightly together. Use a sharp knife to cut the cinnamon rolls as big or as small as you like.
  4. Grease a 9 by 9 metal tin with butter or Canola spray and lay the cinnamon rolls cut side down into the pan. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise until poofy. About 30 to 40 minutes.
  5. Bake at 375 for about 20 minutes until brown sugar is bubbling and cinnamon roll is golden brown.

Make Icing While Cinnamon Rolls are Baking

  • 1/2 cup icing sugar
  • 4 tablespoons water (or more) if icing is not fluid.
  1. Combine sugar and water in a bowl and stir rapidly with a spoon to form an icing. You can add more sugar to make it thicker or more water to make it thinner.

Finish the Cinnamon Rolls

While the cinnamon rolls are still hot from the oven, drizzle the icing all over them with a spoon.  And you now have a homemade cinnamon roll. Congratulations! If your yeast is being naughty or you have any questions about how to make yeast products please let me know!

cinnamon roll

cinnnamon roll

Better Banana Bread

banana breadAh banana bread, the ubiquitous go-to dessert of all home bakers- right after chocolate chip cookies.  Banana bread is great because it easy, beloved by all, and requires virtually no baking utensils.  The other great thing about banana bread is that it is easy to “play” with the recipe.

When people find out that I am a baker I almost always get this question, “So, uh, baking is really precise right?” After which said person usually explains to me that they love cooking because there is no precision and that baking requires too much technique.  Well, my friends, I beg to differ! Baking does require precision in its elements. (e.g. amount of liquid to protein to fat to sugar). But, if you understand how these ingredients interact with each other you can play with them all you like. I don’t want to make this post into a lengthy tutorial but I would like to briefly review the role each ingredient plays in banana bread.

SUGAR

Sugar is integral to a baked product in many ways such as adding flavor or aiding to build structure.  But the key thing to remember about sugar is that it is hygroscopic. This means that sugar attracts water.  Adding more sugar can think out a batter since the sugar pulls water away from other ingredients (like flours and proteins).   So you can remove sugar from a product for dietary reasons but remember that it will change the consistency of the product.

FAT

Fat helps to emulsify ingredients together and add flavor.  Butter, of course, is one of my favorite fats but fat can come from other places too like oils or nuts.  Butter also softens dough and develops the crumb or structure of the product.

FLOUR

Flour adds strength and bulk to a product. It absorbs liquids and adds flavor. Flour also adds gluten which can toughen a baked product.  Gluten is desirable in breads and less desirable in cookies and cakes where one would like a tender, soft crumb.

LEAVENING

Banana bread calls for baking soda so that is the only leavening ingredient I will discuss here.  Baking soda reacts with an acid when moisture is present and is a mild leavening agent.  In the case of banana bread, the baking soda is reacting with the mild acidity in the bananas.  (Bananas have a pH of about 5).  Be careful when playing around with baking soda- add too much and you coulld give your product a chemical taste.  If you want to create a super soft banana bread you can add 1/8 cup of buttermilk or two tbsp of sour cream.  These acids will react with the baking soda in the recipe resulting in a tender crumb.

Now that you know the basics, play around! And if you are looking for even more detail on baking terminology check out this site.  Below is my banana bread, created after some careful tweaking.  I would love to hear back from you about your experiments and adventures with banana bread. Message me and let me know what you have learned!

CHRISSY’S EASY MIX BANANA BREAD

  • 3 ripe bananas
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste
  • 1/2 cup nuts toasted (optional)
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips (optional)
  • 2 tbsp sour cream (optional)

Mash bananas and mix with melted butter, egg, vanilla paste, and granulated sugar. In a separate bowl combine flour, baking soda, salt. Gently stir dry ingredients into the wet (do not overmix).  Add your optional ingredients if you like at this time.  Spray or grease a small metal loaf pan.  Pour in banana bread batter and bake at 350 F for 40-50 minutes until golden brown.

5 Tools Every Baker Should Own

Whether you are new to baking or a seasoned professional there are several key tools you should own.  For a novice baker especially it can be daunting to assume that you must purchase a mixer, pastry blender, seasoned pot, or any number of specific tools.  I am going to allay your fears today by showing you that there only a few tools you must posses to make almost anything.  Save for a mixer that is needed to whip buttercream, meringue, mousse, etc. most items can be made completely by hand.  Even cream can be whipped by hand which I know because I once held a cream whipping contest with a friend wherein we each took a bowl of liquid cream and whipped it vigorously with a fork to see who could fluff it the fastest.  I did it in eight minutes. And have some nice biceps to prove it.  But I digress.  Below are what I consider to be the pivotal tools for any baker’s success.

1) THE RUBBER SPATULA

Use it to scrape down a bowl or spread a buttercream.  A good spatula made out of heavy, pliable plastic is a baker’s best friend.  Pliable is a key word here.  You want the spatula to bend liberally without breaking to really get into the crevices of a bowl.

2) THE OFFSET SPATULA

Use it to ice cakes, finish a cake, or adhere icing.  Use it to apply glaze and smooth it quickly.  Heat it up and spread it over cream to create that perfect flat finish.  Once you start icing cakes the offset will be your best friend.  My favorite one is about eight inches long and has a wooden grip.  It was given to me by a favorite French chef I idolized in culinary school.  I use it for everything from birthday cakes to wedding cakes.

3) THE WHISK

For whipping eggs or beating together a filling.  The whisk is how a baker combines ingredients and aerates liquids.  The whisk is used to get the lumps out of buttercream and stir through a simple sauce.  Buy one with a good strong handle and durable metal prongs.

4) THE WOODEN ROLLING PIN

No self respecting baker would be caught without a wooden rolling pin.  It is heavy and has the weight of the wood so it can be used to pound out butter for puff pastry or slap down some shortbread.  If you are a baker of bread you will come to rely on your rolling pin heavily.  For pies, tarts, or cookies the wooden rolling pin is ideal.  Wipe it down gently with a damp paper towel only.

5) THE PROBE THERMOMETER

This bad boy is your timer and thermometer all rolled into one.  All probe thermometers can be toggled between Celsius and Fahrenheit so you can use it for any manner of recipe testing.  Probe thermometers are necessary for candy making but also useful when making mousses or buttercream.  And every one needs a timer. Who hasn’t had five things they are watching in the oven and on the stove at the same time?

Of course this list is really pared down to the bare essentials.  If you would like a more detailed list of baker’s tools check out this site.

Back to Basics- Making Flaky, Tender Bites

Many people spend time debating the nuances of baked products- what makes one cookie better than another, one pie tastier?  In general, people can describe small things about what makes a crust or cookie delicious although, decidedly, they cannot always put a finger on what makes it the BEST.  However adjectives such as “flaky”, “tender”, “light”, and “buttery” often come to mind.  Yet, although many agree that these are desirable characteristics, how can a novice baker achieve such results without extensive practice? The answer lies, as it most frequently does in baking, in chemistry.

If you understand the chemistry behind gluten, protein, and flour you can rest assured you will almost always make a flaky product.  Gluten (and the evils of gluten) are abounding in the foodie world today.  But what exactly is it?  Gluten is nothing more than a protein found in wheat products.  It is what gives flour its texture, chewiness, and elasticity. And flours are milled differently depending on their purpose.

High protein or “bread flours” are milled for bread because this dough requires large quantities of gluten for the proper flavor and structure.  The flour with the least amount of gluten is cake flour and its low gluten properties are why it is primarily flavored for cookies.  All-purpose flour which is most commonly consumed by American households is half bread flour/half pastry flour so it has a fairly balanced amount of protein.  This makes it perfect for all manner of general baking from pies to tarts to breads.

So let’s get back to the science behind the mysterious gluten component which lurks within wheat. Gluten is composed of the proteins, glutenin and gliadin, which when worked by kneading, rolling, or manipulating flour, strengthen and add elasticity to a dough. The stretching and strengthening of flour is quite desirable in bread dough which needs that elasticity to expand. However, a “strong” dough is not encouraged in pies or cookies as it creates tough texture here.  When a baker desires to decrease a tough texture there a few tactics to take- one is to use a low protein flour.  The second way to inhibit gluten from strengthening a dough is to shorten the protein strands by adding a lubricating fat such as eggs or butter.  Finally, dough can be “relaxed” in a cool environment such as the fridge or freezer.  Placing gluten in this cool environment prevents the proteins in gluten from getting tighter and stronger.

So why so much science before I tell you the hidden secret behind a flaky dough?  Because the SCIENCE is the SECRET.  The next time you make your favorite pie dough or shortbread cookies remember, butter is your friend for a flaky dough.  Additionally, EVERY time the dough is handled or rolled or cut it must be refrigerated for at least 30 minutes to relax the gluten.  These simple rules will change your average, ho hum pie crusts and cookies into smashing crowd-pleasers. Your pies and cookies will never be the same again!