Surely every obsessive-compulsive baker shares my megalomaniacal fantasy that one of her best recipes will end up famous, clamored for the world over. Today must be my day for fantasy fulfillment, because my recipe for chewy fudge brownies is in The New York Times! I have never been so proud! There’s even one of those food-porn close-up shots of three of my brownies stacked on top of each other unabashed, like the teenage models in American Apparel ads, or a painting by Balthus. One little crumb has fallen seductively to the table, daring you to pluck it up between your fingers and eat it . . . well, in the photo that ran in the paper, there was a crumb . . .
At the lofty Times, it’s not enough for the reporter to test the recipe and vouch for it – a recipe tester has to try it out, too. Novelist and Mothers Who Think contributor Alex Witchel, who made the brownies for her biweekly column in the Dining section, “Feed Me,” told me during a fact-checking phone call that not only did she think my brownies were “like crack” (“I have to get these things out of my house! Now!”), but that the recipe tester thought so, too. Oh, the glory! I can hardly stand it.
Alex’s question about whether to use a glass baking pan or a metal one reminded me that I planned to offer some of my time-tested baking tips for Cakewalk’s readers, so here is part one of that post on Cakewalk 101: Equipment. These are the items I find indispensible for baking.
BOWLS: I used to like those big vintage earthenware mixing bowls because they were pretty and homey, but I always got nervous using a hand mixer – would the bowls crack or the glaze flake off into my cookie batter? Eventually, a few of them did crack, though mostly because they ended up dropped on the floor. I still keep them for backup, but in recent years I’ve moved on to sets of graduated metal bowls with rubberized bottoms. They don’t slip, they’re easy to clean and they’re lighter for pouring out batter.
MIXERS: I didn’t have a stand-up mixer until I was given one as a wedding present in my thirties, but there’s no denying that a standard KitchenAid is the only way to go. Get an extra bowl, too, great when your recipes call for beating egg whites separately, or for splitting large volumes of doubled recipes. And I also have a KitchenAid hand mixer that comes in handy for little jobs and taking with you when you’re baking remotely.
FOOD PROCESSOR or BLENDER: They’re not always interchangeable, but having one or the other is helpful, if not both.
MEASURING SPOONS and MEASURING CUPS: Forget those cutesy sets of spoons for measuring out a “smidgin” or a “pinch” and such, you’ll never use them. Get a set of metal measuring spoons (tablespoon, teaspoon, half teaspoon, quarter and eighth) and put them on a key ring if they don’t already come on a ring. Also get a set of metal cup measures as well as at least one glass liquid measuring cup: I have a 4-cup, 2-cup, and 1-cup.
WOODEN SPOONS: You’ll never find them in a commercial kitchen anymore, but I love the feel of them. They won’t damage the surface of your pots and pans and the handle is always cool while you stir.
WHISK: Metal balloon whisks are indispensable for stirring up flour before measuring as well as just about everything else.
SPATULAS: I love spatulas, but I’ve gone through dozens and dozens of cheap wooden and plastic-handled rubber spatulas over the years — they break when you’re stirring dense batters, or the rubber end slips off the handle, or the wood gets gunky inside the rubber. Or villains in your household use them to stir their scrambled eggs, and the spatula end melts into postmodern sculpture. Get yourself a heatproof, silicone spatula with a metal handle, like one of these:
Make sure everyone in your household knows that this particular spatula is not for flipping pancakes or making scrambled eggs! “Heatproof” is a relative term, and they will eventually melt on the edges if they’re deployed on highly heated surfaces.
You also need at least one good thin metal spatula for lifting cookies from baking pans and that sort of thing. Here are my two favorites:
And for icing cakes and cookies, thin, flexible offset spatulas, like these:
METAL RULER: It comes in handy all the time, especially for scoring cookies and candies and making even-sized portions.
THERMOMETERS: You want an oven thermometer to, um, check your oven temperature and make sure it’s accurate, and a candy thermometer for getting sugar syrups, jams and candies to the correct temperature.
KNIVES: Your favorite sharp chef’s knife comes in handy for baking, as does a non-serrated table knife for leveling flour while measuring, etc..
ROLLING PIN and ROLLING RINGS: I use an ancient wooden rolling pin with fixed handles that I think was a pasta roller in a previous life, and another elaborately carved old pin that was used to make imprinted springerle cookies (and is great for decorating gingerbread!).
Many people like the weight and cool temperature of marble rolling pins over wooden ones. I highly recommend rubber rolling pin rings, which you put on your rolling pin to roll out dough to exactly the thickness you want. Genius!
DOUGH SCRAPER: It’s a square of metal with a wooden handle on one side, used to scrape the leftover dough from the surface where it was kneaded or rolled. It’s also great for scraping up flour after rolling cookies.
ZESTER: I use citrus zest in so many recipes I should really get a microplane, but I still use the tiny side of my trusty pyramid grater.
SIFTER: I use my sifter less often for flour these days than for sifting cocoa and powdered sugar. (For flour, a good whisking before measuring is usually all you need to do.) You can also use a sifter to shake powdered sugar over the surface of cookies or a baked cake to make it pretty.
PASTRY BRUSHES: These, like rubber spatulas, tend to be ruined by people using them for the wrong purposes, like school art projects. Get a couple in different sizes and hide them.
PASTRY BLENDER: A pastry blender is the best tool ever for mixing flour and fat into light, flaky pastry. I’ve had my grandmother’s wooden-handled pastry blender for a thousand years. That is, I had it until I took it to a rented beach house over Gary’s fifty-fifth birthday weekend to make blackberry crostatas from the berries we picked in the lane ourselves – and then left my favorite baking tool behind when we returned home. I never got it back, sob. What you want is a wooden handle with rungs of flat (not rounded) metal coming out of it in a sort of arched horseshoe shape. Push the metal part against your hand to find out if they stay in place when pressure is applied. If the metal rungs bunch together (as the rounded wires on these ones, pictured below, tend to do), it won’t work — keep looking for another pastry blender.
WAX PAPER and PARCHMENT PAPER: I use wax paper almost every time I bake – perfect for measuring dry ingredients and then pouring the excess back into their respective containers. Parchment paper is equally useful.
BAKING PANS: These are the ones I use all the time. Light-colored metal helps to keep baked goods from browning too much on the bottom, which is also why I prefer glass baking and pie pans: the bottoms will be crisp but not burned.
–light-colored, heavy metal rimmed baking sheets (two or three at least)
–9 x 13 glass baking pans
–8- or 9-inch round, light-colored metal cake pans (I have three)
–8- or 9-inch round springform cake pan (that’s a cake pan with a removable bottom)
–an angel food cake pan with a removable bottom
–a bundt cake pan in whatever shape or design you like
–cupcake or muffin pans with 12 cup indentations (two or three)
–9-inch glass pie pans (two)
–a round or oval ceramic baking dish for bread puddings, fruit crisps, etc.
–tart pans: I have 8- and 10-inch round fluted metal pans and another that’s 8 x 10-inch rectangular
–two or three standard-sized metal loaf pans
WIRE COOLING RACKS: Get some that fit inside your rectangular baking sheets for use when you’re glazing cookies and cakes – that way the drips go onto the pans rather than spreading all over your counter.
…Next time at Cakewalk 101, useful ingredients to have on hand and what to do with them, based on the frustration and triumph of long experience…