Tuesday, January 31, 2012

My TOP 10 favorite ingredients to use in the kitchen!

One of my favorite culinary books is "Culinary Artistry" by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. Not only does it talk about cooking as a craft and trade, it gives hints and tips on what flavors blend well together. Plus, it gives a list of ripe foods for every season.

In the last chapter, the authors ask popular, well-known chefs about their favorite ingredients to use in the kitchen. Every chef had a variety of different answers. I can't help but to think what my most useful ingredients would be. Thus, here is my top 10 favorite ingredients:

1) Sea salt: My #1 seasoning agent for all types of foods. Plus "sea salt" (versus iodized or kosher) contains trace minerals your body needs!

2) Olive oil: Good, basic, all-natural olive oil. Not only to saute and sear with, but to make salad dressings and dips. Avoid, "light" olive oil, it lacks flavor. I like to buy olive oil in dark bottles to protect the oil from the light.

3) Sesame oil: My second favorite oil because of the nice "seed-like" flavor. Great for all my asian dishes I cook!

4) Quinoa: A great gluten-free, complete protein grain. I love it because it cooks fast and you can add a variety of flavors and veggies to it. Feeling sweet? Cook quinoa in soy milk and add cinnamon, nutmeg, nuts, and raisins for a nice, light dessert.

5) Eggs: Eggs are a healthly, high protein, inexpensive ingredient. Not only do I bake cakes and cookies with eggs, I make veggie scrambles and "toad-in-a-hole" with fresh eggs.

6) Vanilla extract: Real vanilla extract adds and improves flavor to all baked goods. Think of it as your "salt" in the sweet world. Adding 1 tsp to any sweet recipe will improve its flavor.

7) Onions: Sweet, red, white, green, etc. I love them all because they are cheap, add TONS of flavor, and can be used in any savory recipe. Do you hate 'em because they make your cry? That is 100% natural and OK, plus it means the onion will have a strong flavor. Make sure your knife is always sharp when you cut onions.

8) Garlic: Just like onions, garlic is cheap and adds flavor to almost as dish you cook. I love adding garlic to a recipe that does not even call for it. Do you hate peeling and mincing garlic? Yup, I do, too. Buying pre-peeled garlic is ok, and next time you chop garlic, chop enough for the next week, store it in a plastic container, so you will not have to busy out your cutting board on a daily basis.

9) Vinegars: It is hard to pick just one: rice wine, balsamic, red wine, etc. But I LOVE the tart and sharpness it adds to sauces, dressings, and marinades. Most people will only need 2 types of vinegars in their house hold. I recommend buying one and testing out new recipes with it! Go to an oil-vinegar store to try out new vinegars and blends. Balsamic vinegar is the most popular.

10) Agave nectar: My choice when it comes to sweetening foods. It has a suttle sweetness versus the sharpness of white, refined sugar. Also, since it is vegan, I love baking healthly treats with it, too.

There you have it: my top 10 favorite cooking ingredients to use in the kitchen. What is yours???

Happy Baking!
-SC

Sunday, January 8, 2012

How to make 'em MINI!

What is better than a wonderful cupcake, pie, brownie, or cookie? MINI cupcakes, brownies, pies, and cookies. More and more local restaurants, bakeries, and cafes are leaning towards "mini" items versus regular sized items. WHY? Well, small bites are appealing at parties and events. Plus, small-bite items can easy be arranged to looks elegant and professional.

Then, how do you "mini" size a sweet treat? I can tell you from experience, making something smaller WILL TAKE MORE TIME. Thus, that is why many catering companies charge extra for bite-size delights. But, having something bite-size makes a clean presentation for everyone to have their "own" treat!

When you do decide to make something bite size remember:
-It will take a shorter time to bake.
-Sometimes, extra small pans will be required = more money spent on tools.
-Like I said before, more labor intensive = more time in the kitchen.

Here are some helpful tips when making cupcakes, brownies, pies, and cookies into MINI SIZE:

CUPCAKES:
-You WILL have a buy mini size cupcake pans and cupcake holders.
-Also, invest in a mini scoop to scoop the batter into the pans.
-Shorter baking time versus a regular sized cupcake.
-Decorating will take longer.
-People tend to like mini cupcakes versus regular sized cupcakes, especially if there is more than one flavor being presented. Then, they can try ALL the cupcake flavors without feeling guilty.

COOKIES:
-Easy: buy a small scoop to scoop out small sized cookie dough. This is for all "drop" cookies like chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin.
-For "roll out" cookies like sugar or gingerbread cookies, buy a small cookie cutter.
-Shorter baking time versus a regular sized cookie. Watch out, I found out (the hard way) that the edges tend to brown very fast.
-Since you baking minis, you may need to buy more cookie sheets! I like baking my cookies on parchment paper-lined cookie sheets. (Easy clean-up, too!)

BROWNIE:
-The easiest to produce into a small size: just cut the brownie pieces into small sizes, after you bake it in a regular size cake or brownie pan.
-Let the brownie cool 100%, at room temp on the kitchen counter, before cutting it, or it will crumble.
-Cut the edges off to "square" the brownie. You will get nice even lines. (Yes, you can eat the brownie scraps.)
-For extra smooth lines: Use a serrated (AKA "bread") knife to cut the brownie. Dip the knife in a large container of hot water, then wipe it with a dry kitchen towel. Now, cut!

PIES/TARTS:
-You can either: a) Bake them in regular sized cupcake pans or b) Buy small pie/tart shell pans. I like choice "a" because I already have cupcake pans in my kitchen. Buying another item means spending more money and finding space for another kitchen tool.
-Lightly butter the cupcake pans with REAL butter and a paper towel. Press the pie/tart dough into pans. Fill with desired filling. Top with more pie dough or streusel.
-Like with all the other mini items, bake for a shorter amount of time!
-Use a small spatula to "lightly lift" the pies out of the cupcake pan or shell.

OVERALL ADVICE:

-Small item = shorter cookie time. What the edges on your cookies!
-More labor intensive = give yourself extra time to produce these small delights!
-Always cool your treats 100% before storing them. You don't want a sweaty cookie.
-Also, don't forget you may need to buy extra special tools to correctly produce your mini treat.
-Storage may be a pain: you will have more treats to store. If you do not have special cake/cupcake containers, you can use baking pans as containers. Just make sure you wrap them very tightly with plastic wrap.
-Careful, small treats tend to be fragile.

Remember: make small, mini treats for special events. Since they are labor intensive and may require special tools, save them for a extra SWEET party you are hosting.

Happy Baking!
-SC

Friday, January 6, 2012

How to make sure your cake batter is UNIFORM!

Cupcakes collapse. Cake fall in the middle. Banana bread turns out lopsided. What the heck happened to your delicious treat? Well, many factors can explain what happened to your baked good. What is a main factor in most failed baking attempts? The batter was not uniform. It does not matter if you are baking vanilla cupcakes, rich chocolate cake, or cinnamon bread, your batter must be uniformly mixed to properly bake!

What is an uniform batter?
All the ingredients are properly mixed together. The sugar and butter are properly creamed. There are no flour chunks. It looks nice and shiny!

Why does it need to be properly mixed together?
Think of it this way: Your car needs to be properly "built" to run smoothly. If oil is leaking, your muffler is dead, or out of gas, your car won't start. If your cake batter is not properly mixed together, it will not "come out" like planned.

What are some tips to make sure my batter is properly mixed?
1) Cream the butter and sugar together, very well. I make sure I scrape the entire bowl, with a spatula, at least 3 times, during the mixing process.
2) Room temp ingredients "bind" together well versus cold ingredients. Make sure your butter is soft and your eggs are room temp as well. (Just microwave 'em for 10 seconds to take the chill off!)
3) Always sift the flour and dry ingredients to avoid flour chunks.

Something went wrong, and my baked good came out look horrible! What happened?
Ekk, it is hard to pin-point exactly what happened to the cake. Make sure you:
-Used the correctly ingredients.
-Baked it at the properly temp.
-The batter was mixed uniformly. It was not UNDER or OVER mixed.
-You used the right cooking tools.
There are so many baking/cooking blogs and advice on the internet, you can easily detect what happened. Sometimes, it is the recipe itself that is wrong! Make sure you write small helpful notes on the side of your recipes.

What does a uniform batter look like?
-Smooth
-Shiny
-No clumps
-Not "broken." It is easy for the sugars and butter to "break" when liquids are added. Add the liquids slowly.

What other factors can lead to a failed baked good?
-Wrong oven temp (too hot versus too cold)
-Over mixing the batter
-Under mixing the batter
-Wrong ingredients
-Wrong size pan
-Expired ingredients
-Using the wrong kitchen tools (like a paddle attachment versus a whisk attachment)
-The amounts of the ingredients are wrong


A uniform batter is key to a delicious baked good. Know your steps and ingredients to make sure your sweet treat comes out RIGHT.

Happy Baking,
SC