Category Archives: Baking Basics

Gear Essentials: Building/Finishing

One thing I’m not is a talented decorator/finisher. However I know enough about finishing to know that you can achieve some remarkable things with a little gumption and a handful of tools. Here’s what my finishing arsenal looks like, all this photo is missing is my blowtorch, the pieces of which I hid so well from my kids that now I can’t find them. Oh well, life must go on.

Starting at the top and moving clockwise, my colors are first. I like the concentrated gels which are a lot more versatile than the liquids at the grocery store. Moving to the upper right are my cake building tools. There’s a fondant smoother, a cake comb and an offset spatula (which I plan to be buried with, it’s that useful) all on top of an Ateco cake wheel. All of those are essentials if you like to make American-style layer cakes.

Next are piping bags. I use the disposal kind whenever I can, though I love the antimicrobial Thermo-Silver bags…talk about a great idea! I tend to buy tips only when I really need them, same with collars (get the kind without the notch in the end because you’ll do a lot of piping without tips). That little pink thing is a rubber nipple that fits over a tip if it has to sit around for a while, it keeps the end from drying out. Another bit of genius if you ask me.

Next are stainless rings. I went through a big ring-buying phase a few years ago which nearly bankrupted me. I definitely don’t need all the sizes I have, but they’re great all-purpose forms. You can build all sorts of little multi-layered desserts in them, or just bake in them if you want. They’re definitely an IN-essential in the broad scheme of things, but can be fun. Speaking of plated desserts, squeeze bottles can be a good time as well.

Lastly I have a couple of thermometers which are essential for creating syrups (the kind that go on plates or into frostings), caramel, marshmallow, curds, custards, the list goes on. An instant-read is a must and not expensive. The bigger mercury job is very accurate and great for large quantities and for frying.

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Gear Inessentials: Baking

The world of forms is a wide one. Here’s a small selection of specialties. They’re the sorts of forms you might use only once in a while, but when you want ‘em you want ‘em. A pudding mold (upper right) is key if you’re British, of course. Tube pans of various kinds are important for angel food or bundt-type cakes (tube pans are a world unto themselves, actually). Brioche pans are more for look than function, and as for the charlotte pan, I just happen to love charlottes, is all. I also use that thing for soufflés when I’m feeling pretentious (often).

The thing to remember about specialty forms is that they take up a lot of space and you only use them once in a blue moon, so think about where you’ll store them outside of the kitchen. I have an industrial rack in my basement full of these kinds of things. What’s my excuse for owning all this crazy stuff? Why, you are of course. I talk about you probably once a week in my house. Honey, I’m a pastry blogger. The readers expect it and it doesn’t cost much. You may never comment, you may only rarely read, I may never get the chance to learn your name, but you provide a pretext to keep my form addiction going, and for that I thank you — deeply and from my heart. Have a great weekend!

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Gear Essentials: Baking (Part 2)

If you’re going to bake with forms — and there’s no saying you have to do that — there are basically six categories the average home baker needs: loaf pans, cake pans, tart pans, springform pans, pie pans and muffin pans. I keep several sizes of each, and I vastly prefer shiny finishes over dark nonstick, though sometimes you need a pan and can’t find anything else.

The most useful loaf pans are probably the standard 9.5″ x 5.25″ if you’re baking bread. For tea breads you want the little 3.5″ x 5.5″ inchers. The go-to round cake pan size is 9″ though 8″ and even 6″ are nice to have around. I didn’t show my 8″ square cake pan but that’s fairly essential if you make a lot of single-layer cakes, brownies or bars.

For tart pans a 9″ and 10″ are fairly essential, but I also like smaller sizes when I find them cheap (I’m a big one for throwing together an appetizer tart out of frozen dough scraps and I never know how much I’ll have). Get ‘em bottomless. I recommend 8″, 9″ and 10″ springform pans, but don’t buy the expensive coated things.

Indeed I don’t recommend paying more than ten or fifteen bucks for any basic form. Buy them at restaurant supply stores, not kitchenware boutiques where you’ll get taken to the cleaners as it were. Value shop. Look for things used. Professional bakeries do that…why should’t you?

All that said if you find you’re getting heavily into some particular sort of baking, there’s nothing wrong with paying up for expensive gear that will deliver incremental improvements. If you’re really into tennis you probably have a great racket. Most of us, however, get all the enjoyment we need out of a $20 Target special. Knowadimean? But be sensible and don’t go broke over something you’ll use only a couple of times.

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Gear Essentials: Baking (Part 1)

I’m going minimal here because I wish to underscore how powerful this simple gear array is when used in combination with an oven. An oven stone, a few sheet pans (“half sheets” technically), cooling racks and some parchment paper will deliver a truly stunning amount of delicious bakery: breads, rolls, sponge cakes, galettes, cookies, bars, free-form pies and tarts…I could go on and on.

Find the thickest oven stone you can (you can even use clay tiles or bricks if your oven can handle it and you’re sure they’re unglazed), lay it on the lowest shelf of your oven and leave it there all the time. Bake directly on it or simply use it to even out cold or hot spots. Similarly, buy good, thick sheet pans. They bake more evenly and are resistant (though not impervious) to warping.

Where parchment paper is concerned, the roll stuff will do in a pinch. Far better are pre-cut flat sheets. Get them at the King Arthur Flour website and let them on top of your refrigerator where you can always get at them. You can bake on them, line pans with them, make pastry bags out of them. They have a thousand uses. How do I feel about silpats? Good, not great. It’s true that nothing sticks to them, but you can say the same thing about coated parchment and it’s much more versatile. Just a preference. Don’t jump all over me, silpat lovers, I know you’re out there.

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Gear Essentials: Shaping

The “shaping” step, for some kinds of pastry, can be extremely involved. However you can do a heck of a lot with just the implements you see here (starting with the background of this and every Joe Pastry photo: a nice, solid maple board). The bench scraper on the bottom left is something most home bakers don’t own, but is invaluable for scraping up sticky bread doughs, portioning dough for rolls, cutting the ends off jelly rolls, the list goes on.

You’ll notice the three pins I own. The tapered one is French, useful for light-duty jobs that need finesse. The cylindrical one is an Asian-style, which is my go-to all-around pin. The big honking’ German pin is what I use to roll large quantities of laminated dough. It’s fabulous for any job that requires extra muscle.

Of course once that dough is portioned and rolled, you usually need to trim or cut it. The pizza cutter and round cutter set will take you far in that department. I couldn’t find my little biscuit cutter for this shot, but it belongs there. Of course you can buy cookie cutters in a million custom shapes. I have quite a few holiday shapes, but then I only use them once a year!

The pastry brush isn’t about “shaping” strictly speaking, but then shaping is the step that you generally apply the melted butter or egg wash. I’ve had that little one for years and it’s all I really need.

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Gear Essentials: Rising

Not terribly much here, and I’d never call a $150 folding proofer an “essential.” I just like it, is all, both for rising and proofing (proofing being the second rise just before baking). For rising you really don’t need anything more than a large bowl or pot and a cloth to cover. However proofing containers like those on the left there are quite helpful. The hash marks on the sides let you gauge how fast your dough is rising and to what volume. They have many other uses in the kitchen as well, like measuring large quantities of fruit or brining chickens. Trust me, you need some.

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Gear Essentials: Mixing

Of all the baking gear I have, my mixing equipment gets by far the most use. ‘Cause let’s face it, pretty much everything in pastry has to be mixed. Not necessarily by machine of course, but I myself would be lost without a stand mixer. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Mixing starts with measuring, so I use (mostly) a scale. A scale is essential for dry ingredients like flour which can vary quite a lot using dry measures and the ol’ dip-and-sweep method. A scale that does metric as well as imperial is handy when you’re converting a Continental recipe.

Liquids can be weighed as well, though most people prefer to use volume measures. Those are quite accurate though you want true liquid measures (not dry measures you’re pouring liquid into…that’s a no-no). I like this Perfect Beaker, plus that little shot glass thingie, which is fun. Of course when you’re down to that level of measurement, spoons are just fine.

For the actual mixing I stand behind stainless steel bowls which are nice and light (none of those infernal authentic-looking, ten-pound crockery things) durable and shallow for easy manipulation of contents. To operate those you’ll of course need implements: wooden spoons, whisks and scrapers (I like semi-rigid heat-resistant silicone the best).

Regarding machines, I keep meaning to get a hand mixer but I never do. I’m too accustomed to the stand mixer. However I must confess that I wish I had one since this big 7-quart beast of a Viking isn’t very good at subtlety. The implements don’t reach the very bottom of the bowl, so I find myself picking up the bowl every time I want to beat a very small quantity of something. That said it’s a powerhouse and will push through pretty much anything.

Now me, I don’t think everyone needs that kind of volume and torque. Almost every other serious baker in the world will do fine — more than fine, really — with a 5-quart KitchenAid. Those things were originally designed by Hobart, the #1 name in industrial mixers, so there’s no going wrong there. They were even re-engineered a few years ago with more powerful motors. So unless you have a backyard brick oven and want to make loads and loads of bread or pizza dough in one go, you really don’t need a Viking.

I should add that I’ve heard that Breville and Cuisinart make good stand mixers, but I’ve never used either. (That was a free product hint in case you didn’t pick it up, Breville and Cuisinart marketing teams).

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The Whipping Method

I think of the whipping method as “European” and I don’t think that’s an inaccurate assessment, since you only tend to come across it when making spongecakes like génoise, joconde, ladyfingers or specialty cakes like rehrücken. I can’t think of any common uses for the whipping method here in the States, except perhaps for flourless chocolate cake. Essentially, the whipping method is how European bakers create very light cake layers in the absence of chemical leaveners.

You need a lot of eggs — plus plenty of sugar, which helps create a thick syrup that keeps the egg foam from collapsing. The neat thing about the whipping method is that it gives lie to the myth that egg foams can only be created with whites. Twaddle. Indeed in most instances where the whipping method is employed you’re whipping either whole eggs or egg yolks plus sugar. Egg whites plus sugar are a rarity in the whipping method universe because, well, then you’d have a meringue, would you not?

But I digress. In general sponges made via the whipping method begin with the egg-sugar foam. Any flavorings (like chocolate) are added next, then the dry ingredients are carefully folded in so as to preserve the bubbles (I said you can make a foam with egg yolks…I didn’t say that foam was stable). Sometimes a meringue is folded in as well to add more volume.

The upside of the whipping method is that it creates sponges that are very light, sweet and eggy-tasting. The down side is that those sponges can be a little dry tasting, at least by New World standards. All this begs the question: why use the whipping method at all when perfectly good chemical leaveners are available? The answer is because egg sponges have a cleaner taste and a lighter texture. The high proportion of egg can also create very plastic sheets of sponge that are perfect for rolling into things like yule logs. And anyway, dry cake is what cake syrup is for!

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The Roll-In Method

The “roll-in” method is the description for what you do when you laminate dough for croissants, Danishes and puff pastry. Effectively you’re “rolling” butter into a flour-and-water dough. Personally I think of it as “folding” it in, but there you go. Who am I to argue with decades of established pastry lingo?

There’s no question that laminating seems more like a technique than a “mixing” method, though when you consider that one of the chief aims of mixing is to incorporate fat it all starts to make a little more sense.

So what does the roll-in method accomplish? By itself it’s an elegant way to maximize the process of “mechanical” leavening, i.e. the raising of a dough via steam power. Lest we forget, a drop of water transformed into steam occupies something on the order of 1400 times more space. Which makes confined steam a heck of a leavening engine.

Done well, the roll-in method creates over a thousand ultra-thin, alternating sheets of fat (usually butter or margarine) and dough. When heated the fat melts, freeing the dough sheets to push apart from one another through the action of steam.

The question often asked is: where does the water come from? The butter? Yes, though plenty of water/steam is released from the dough itself. In fact the dough supplies all the water that’s needed for leavening. A “wet” butter with a high proportion of water can actually harm the process, dampening the dough sheets and making it harder for them to separate from one another and rise. This is why experienced laminators favor fats like Euro-style butter, “dry” butter or margarine which have little-to-no water, and which create higher rising, crispier products.

How high can laminated doughs rise? Under perfect conditions, up to 7 times their original thickness. Granted that’s far less than the theoretical 1400 times, but then nobody’s perfect. Even under the best circumstances the vast majority of the steam we bakers try to capture escapes.

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The “Blitz” or “One Step” Method

This technically isn’t even a method. Rather it’s the opposite of a method. But I made reference to it in the gâteau battu series I did (which seemed to go on for months). The “blitz” method is simply shorthand for putting everything in the mixer bowl at once and turning on the machine. See what I mean about it being a “non-method”? There’s no methodology to it at all!

However you see this sort of thing quite a bit in the bread kitchen, notably with enriched breads like challah and (sometimes) brioche or a “cake” like gâteau battu. Because time is of the essence in bread bakeries (lots and lots of mixing to do each evening, donchaknow), extra ingredients like fats, sugar and flavorings are occasionally just dumped into the bowl with all the other dough components. Mix, transfer to rising container. Next!

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