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.

A Healthy Snack! – Fruit and Nut Granola

I started working out recently which is very new for me.  My entire life I have virtually depended on my extremely fast metabolism to shed extra fat.  As I age I realize that this is a temporary fix.  So now, I go to the gym four to five times a wee, run, do the elliptical machine and lift weights.  I feel great but am constantly looking for a great source of protein to pump me up after a hard workout.  I don’t always feel like downing a piece of meat in the morning and sometimes I just need a little bite.  I find myself continuously turning to store bought granola or handfuls of crunchy walnuts to get my protein fix.  However, store bought granola is not only expensive but laden with excessive amounts of chemicals, fats, and sugars that are unnecessary-not to mention the chemicals that are added as preservatives.  I thought, “Hey, im a baker! I will just make my own!”  The recipe that follows is a result of me trying to incorporate proteins and grains into my diet in a healthy, natural way.  I’m not going to claim that this is fat or sugar free because no granola truly is.  But I will tell you that it it is much healthier than most products you will find on the market today.  And as with all my recipes, it contains, just a bit of butter. 🙂

Fruit and Nut Granola

2 cups oatmeal

1 cup almonds

1/2 cup wheat germ

2 tblsp butter

2/3 cup organic honey

1/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1 1/2 tsp vanilla paste

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup chopped dates

1/2 cup chopped dried apricots

Bake the oatmeal and almonds on a foil lined cookie sheet at 350 F for about 10 minutes until golden brown.  Stir the nuts and almonds halfway through toasting.

granola

Combine sugar, honey, salt, vanilla paste in pot and bring to a simmer.  Pour the butter mixture over oatmeal and almond mixture.  Stir to combine and add chopped fruit.  Spread the mixture into a sprayed or parchment lined baking pan and spread the mixture flat with the back side of a spoon.

Bake the mixture for about 20 minutes until lightly browned.  Break the granola into pieces when cool and store in plastic bags or an airtight container.

granola

granola

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!

Flaky Goodness – Povidla Kolace (Plum Jam Cakes)

I can’t think of a cookie recipe more simple and more delicious than the recipe for Czech plum cakes.  These cookies only contain three ingredients and no added sugar and yet their flaky, light deliciousness knows no bounds.  These cookies almost remind me of a quick and rough way to make puff pastry.  The trick with these cookies is to handle the dough minimally and use the Czech plum jam if you can find it. The cookies are traditionally made with Powidl jam which is a rich, thick dark purple jam made in the Czech Republic from late harvest Italian plums.  It can be hard to find but if you can locate this real jewel of a jam then utilize it in this recipe.  Not only is it traditional to the cookies but it imparts a rich flavor and beautiful color.  And now sit back and enjoy the recipe for these Czech cookies which are notorious crowd-pleasers.

plum jamplum cake

Povidla Kolace (Plum Jam Cakes)

Ingredients

8 oz unsalted butter

8 oz ricotta cheese

8 oz all purpose flour

Plum jam (preferably Czech Powidl jam if you can find it)

Combine ingredients together on counter.  Cut in butter and cheese until the butter is in pea-sized pieces.  Use your hangs to form the ingredients into a dough, folding the dough over as you press it together.  When the dough is formed refrigerate for at least 30 minutes so the dough can chill and the gluten can relax.

Once the dough has cooled roll it out to about 1/4 inch thickness. Cut the dough into 2 X 2 in. squares.  Place a dollop of jam in each dough square.  Press the opposite corners of each square together and pinch very tightly to form a dough purse.  Space with room on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet. Bake at 375 F for 10-15 minutes until golden brown. Dust lightly with confectionary sugar and serve.

plum cake on cookie tray

baked plum cake

plum cake with sugar

Walnut Meringue Cookies : Czech Cookies at Their Finest

Remember when you wanted to be just like mom? Do your hair like mom and dress like mom and bake like mom?  Well, I definitely do.  My mother used to bake European delicacies professionally so as kids we usually had to step aside and let her do her thing.  When we got to actually participate in making these delicate cookies it was such a treat. I remember the first time I watched my mom pipe the pillowy meringue on top of the Czech walnut cookies and thinking, I wish I could bake just like her!!!! Now, I’m a little older and hey, I still want to bake just like mom! Because Czech cookies are light and delicate and airy and you can eat them by the handfuls.  And believe me when I say you will be able to put away quite a few of these cookies before you even blink! These cookies are also naturally gluten free so if you are keeping to a strict diet they will be your new best friend.  They are beautiful but simple as the recipe below indicates. Enjoy!!!!

Walnut Cookie Base

210 g walnuts, hand ground

210 g confectionary sugar

1 egg

1 tsp lemon rind

Preheat oven to 225 F. Grease cookie sheet. Grind walnuts by hand using hand grinder.

ground walnutswalnuts with hand grinder

Combine on the counter with the confectionary sugar, egg, and lemon.  Use a bench scraper or knife to combine ingredients and then form the ingredients into a dough with your hands.  Chill the dough about 10-15 minutes.  Dust counter with confectionary sugar and roll dough out to about 1/8 inch thickness.  Use a round cookie cutter to cut rounds out of the dough and place rounds on cookie sheet.

Meringue

4 oz egg white

8 oz sugar (superfine if you can find it)

Once cookie base has been prepared whip the meringue.  Place egg whites in a kitchen aid mixer and mix for 20-30 seconds on high before gradually adding the sugar to the whites.  It should take about 5-10 minutes to incorporate the sugar and the whites should be glossy and have a stiff peak.  Use a piping bag to pipe the meringue on top of the cookie rounds.  Bake cookies about 1 hour to 1.5 hours in a very slow oven.  Cookies are done when the base is cooked and the meringue is crisp but not brown.

walnut circles walnut rounds with piped meringue

 

 

Kouign Amann: A Yeast Pastry Fit for Queens!

I first sighted the Kouign Amann when I was working in Apple Pie Bakery at the Culinary Institute of America.  When I was a baking and pastry student at school we were required to work 3 weeks front of house and 3 weeks back of house at the resident bakery, Apple Pie.  I loved working back of house because I was in charge of stocking pastries with one of my good friends.  We had a blast making up silly names for the pastries and racing around to beat each other filling orders. We had to initiate what are know as “call-backs”.  When you work in a kitchen and you have 5 or less of a product remaining it is customary to shout out “5 insert-name-of-pastry left!”  Your partner has to call back that pastry name and amount.  This process ensures that your counterpart heard you in what is frequently, a busy and loud, kitchen.  The first time my friend saw the Kouign Amann’s stocked in the pastry case she shouted out “5 Quiggins!!!!” I busted out laughing.  We had no idea how to pronounce the name of the dessert.  To this day it is hard for me to look at a Kouign Amann and not call it a Quiggin, which frankly sounds like a dessert out of a Harry Potter novel.

This lovely sweet laminated pastry is actually pronounced Queen a-Mahn and is buttery and beautiful. The name for this fluffy pastry comes from the Breton words for cake “kouign” and butter “amann  The dessert originated in Brittany, France and tastes a bit like a danish but lighter.  It has a delightful layer of caramelized sugar that crusts over on the top and bottom of the pastry when it is baked.  If you have ever made puff pastry, you will take to this recipe very easily. And even if you haven’t you can still make this dessert following the recipe below.

INGREDIENTS

1 cup warm water
1 package active dry yest
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces cold, salted butter
1 cup of sugar

 

MAKING THE KOUIGN AMANN

1. In Kitchen Aid stand mixer combine the flour and salt and mix for 15 seconds on low.  Combine 1 cup of water with active dry yeast and allow to set for 5 minutes.  If the yeast bubbles up then add yeast/water mixture to flour.  If not, the yeast is inactive and you will need a fresh packet.  Combine ingredients on low until the dough comes together in a round ball and then mix on medium speed for 5-6 minutes using a dough hook.  The dough should come together and be tacky but not too sticky.  If the dough is too sticky add flour slowly until it gets to the right consistency.

2. Let the dough rise for about 45 minutes at room temperature. Then allow it to continue to rise another 30 minutes in refrigeration.   Prepare cupcake/muffin tin (that makes 12) by melting butter and brushing butter in the tin.

3. While the dough is in the fridge pound the butter on a flat counter top.  Dust the counter with flour and coat the butter on all sides with flour.  Pound it gently but firmly using a wooden rolling pin until it is soft and malleable.

4. Remove dough from fridge and roll it out until it is the width of the rolling pin and the length of two rolling pins (in other words small rectangle).  Pound the butter until it is slightly smaller than half the size of the dough.  Cut it so that it just fits in the dough with the edges showing.  Place the pounded butter on top of the dough and fold the other half of the dough over the butter like a sandwich.  The butter should fit in the dough tightly but you should still have ample room to fold up the dough on all sides so that it is sealed in.

5. Flour the counter again and place the dough on the counter so that the folded edge is facing to the left like a book. Roll out the dough until it is again the length of two rolling pins.  Fold the dough like a letter in thirds.  Turn the dough 90 degrees, so that the spine (or folded edge) is again to the left and roll the dough out again to the same size and then fold it again like a letter.

6. Refrigerate the dough for 30-40 minutes.

7. Remove dough from fridge and again complete two “turns” as explained in step 5 except sprinkle half a cup of sugar on the dough each time before the dough is folded in thirds.

8. Refrigerate the dough for 30-40 minutes.

9. Dust the counter with sugar and roll out the dough until it is 8 in by 24 in.  Cut the dough in half so that each strip is 4 inches in length and then cut both strips into 4 inch squares.  Dust the dough liberally with more sugar.

10. Optionally fill each dough pocket with about a tablespoon of jam.  I highly recommend this! Although you can feel the dough with anything you like.

Kouign Amann
Kouign Amann waiting to be filled with jam

11. Fold the corners in for each square piece of dough so that it forms a dough pocket.  Gently stuff each square piece into the muffin tin.  The edges of each kouign amann may come out of over the edges or get crumpled. This is ok!

Kouign Amann
Kouign Amann waiting to rise

 

12. Cover the tins with a towel and allow to rise about 40 minutes.

13. Bake the kouign amman about 40 minutes at 350 F convection or until they are a rich golden brown.  Turn the kouign amann out immediately when baked so they easily unmold from the muffin pan.

14. Eat and enjoy!!! And don’t hesitate to ask questions if you need any assistance.  Laminated doughs can be tricky the first time around!

DSC_0069 DSC_0064

Pecan Sticky Buns

Wow, the first entry of my blog! This blog is dedicated to my exploration of food and pastry and most importantly, butter.  You see, I just love butter.  Real, unadulterated butter.  I put butter on everything and I bake butter in everything.  Yes, I am a butter fiend.

So I feel there is no better way to start off a pastry blog devoted to my favorite fatty substance than to think of the most buttery dessert I can – pecan sticky buns.  I make my sticky buns with brioche dough that is loaded with butter and topped with, you guessed it, a brown sugar topping made with more butter.  These ooey-gooey treats will leave your mouth watering for more. And they are so perfect for breakfast!

As we begin dear readers, tell me your favorite buttery dessert.  I would love to hear from you.  Stay tuned for my secret brioche recipe in a later post. Until next time, eat more butter!