Great gifts from your own kitchen!

I have written prior Cooking Tips on great stocking stuffers for a cook as well as culinary books that would make a great gift. Those contain wonderful ideas but sometimes the best gift is one you make yourself in your kitchen. Yes, you can certainly go with cookies, brownies or bread. However, why not try something a bit different? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip. Read on for some great suggestions for all cooking levels.

Nuts

Probably one of the easiest holiday food gifts is nuts. Not just plain nuts but flavored nuts. You might want to flavor them with sweet and holiday-like spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and orange. Or, you might want to go the savory and even spicy route. Any nut can be used but almonds, pecans and cashews are especially tasty. Flavored nuts might be made stove-top or in the oven or sometimes, a combination of the two methods.

Bark

Another easy but impressive food gift is chocolate bark. Melt your desired chocolate, pour into a lined pan and smooth out. It is fun to do two layers – one of dark chocolate and one of white. Also, add-ins make all the difference. Try crushed-up peppermint canes, dried fruit or nuts. Some people even add potato chips or breakfast cereal. Not sure I would like the latter but someone would.

Use a good quality chocolate and not a chocolate coating. Ideally, you would temper the chocolate but I have found you can get by without this step. Just realize that the bark might melt a bit in your hand and not be quite as shiny.

Hot Cocoa Bombs

These became popular a few years ago and are still going strong. They do take a bit more work but are worth it. You will need some sort of mold that you use to make the exterior shell. Once again, I prefer to use a great tasting chocolate but that does require the tempering step. If you are not into that, try a quality coating chocolate such as Ghirardelli or Merckens.

Put whatever hot cocoa mix you like inside but to make it extra-special, make your own mixture and use that. Mini-marshmallows are a must for most people. Decorate them as you wish, box them up and watch the smiles!

Hot Cocoa Mix

It is so easy to assemble your own hot cocoa mixes using quality cocoa and chocolate. When packaged festively along with directions on how to use, it makes a great gift.

Toffee and Brittle

These are a bit more labor intensive and definitely require the use of a candy thermometer. For those of you who live at high altitude, take a look at this Tip for adjustments you will need to make. These two items are very similar with the major difference being that toffee uses butter whereas brittle usually does not or at least not as much.

Chutneys

Take a break from the candy-like gifts and give something like a homemade chutney. Chutney is a savory condiment typically made from fruits, veggies and/or herbs with vinegar, sugar and spices.

I make a great holiday-themed chutney with fresh cranberries, apples, raisins, sugar, orange juice and fresh ginger. Not only is it delicious, it also looks very festive especially when packaged in a beautiful gift jar.

Spice Mixtures

If you have read my Cooking Tip on spices, you will know I prefer to make my own spice mixtures rather than buy pre-made ones. Why not take that a step further and package up your favorite mixtures as gifts? It can be anything but a BBQ mixture is always popular. Other possibilities are Jerk Seasoning, Fajita Seasoning, Cajun Seasoning and Lemon Pepper. You can get pretty little spice jars and make your own tags to make this gift extra-special.

Flavored Syrups

A sugar syrup is just a mixture of sugar and water that is cooked until the sugar is dissolved. When you add things such as candied ginger or herbs to it, it takes it to another level. Or, use a fruit juice such as pomegranate juice for all or part of the water. Give your gift recipients ideas on how to use it such as in drinks or drizzled over ice cream or desserts.

Homemade Marshmallows

If you have never tasted a homemade marshmallow, you need to make some just for yourself. After you do, you will see how they could make a delightful holiday gift. They are so different than store-bought ones both in terms of flavor and texture. For more info, see this prior Cooking Tip.

These ideas just scratch the surface of Homemade Holiday Food Gifts. Let me know if you try any of them or have your own favorites. Your friends and family members will thank you!

Embrace your leftovers — but do it safely.

Are you a lover or hater of leftovers? I’m definitely a lover – not only is the flavor of some dishes enhanced by a rest overnight in the refrigerator but it is great to have an easy & quick meal sitting there after a day of work. It makes life so much easier. One time that you will surely have left-overs is after a Thanksgiving meal. You can do so much with those left-overs but you need to store them in the best and safest way. That is what I will be talking about in this Tip.

Hot foods (including leftover turkey) should be packaged and refrigerated within 2 hours after serving. (For turkey, after you cut the meat off the bones, save the bones to make a great turkey broth.) The concern for bacterial growth is when food is left in the “danger zone” between the temperatures of 40° and 140° for more than 2 hours (reduce this to 1 hour if the ambient temperature is above 90°). That is why it is important to keep your food hot (at least 140°) or refrigerate it so the temperature drops to less than 40° within 2 hours. For cold foods, keep it under 40° at all times.

For large pieces of meat, it is best to cut it into smaller pieces to quicken cooling. For a dish such as soup, you will want to portion it into shallow containers to allow faster cooling. You can place these items directly into the refrigerator or if you want more rapid cooling, use an ice water bath.

All leftovers should be wrapped well in air-tight packaging. This helps keep bacteria out while retaining moisture and preventing your left-overs from picking up other odors from your refrigerator.

Most left-overs can be stored safely in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. Here is a chart from FoodSafety.gov about recommended refrigerator times. For longer storage, freeze the packaged left-overs. Generally, these items can be frozen for 2-6 months. Although you can safely freeze them for a longer time, the food does tend to lose moisture and flavor. Here is another USDA link that talks more about freezing with more specific recommendations for time.

The USDA also has a FoodKeeper app that you can download. You can look up almost any kind of food and it will give you safe storage information specific to that food.

When thawing food (including leftovers), you still need to be aware of the danger zone. That is why it is not recommended to thaw items by sitting at room temperature. Rather, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator. For faster but still safe thawing, use either a cold-water bath (make sure the leftovers are in a leak-proof package) or the microwave. Not all foods need to be thawed before re-heating. You can go directly from frozen to hot either on the stovetop or in the microwave.

One important caveat – when re-heating leftovers, you want to take them up to 165° as measured with a food thermometer. Not only will this temperature assure safety as far as bacteria is concerned but it will also be safe to re-freeze the item, if necessary.

So, be happy about left-overs from your Thanksgiving meal. How do you like to use your left-overs? Email me with your favorite ideas and I will share them with others!

An Essential Ingredient to Thai Curries

In the last couple of Cooking Tips, I discussed different aspects of Thai Cooking. In the first Tip, I explained the differences between a Thai curry and an Indian curry. Tip #2 was a more general discussion of important Thai ingredients. In this Tip, I want to spend a bit more time looking at one of those ingredients – curry paste.

The word curry can be used to either mean a dish or a spice mixture. In Indian cooking, that spice mixture would be made up of dry, ground spices. In Thai cooking, it is called curry paste and it is a moister mixture that is finely ground or pureed made not only from spices but also from many fresh ingredients.

There are many different versions of curry pastes and the ingredient list for each may vary depending on the cook and/or brand. Let’s first discuss ingredients and then the most common types of curry paste.

Ingredients

  • Chilis – depending on the variety of curry paste, it may contain red or green chilis, either in the dried or fresh forms.
  • Fresh aromatics – typical ones are shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, makrut (aka kaffir) lime zest, grachai (a member of the ginger family), turmeric and ginger.
  • Dried spices – other than those pastes that have some Indian or Muslim influence, dried spices are not typically used. When they are included, you might see coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and cloves.
  • Umami boosters – shrimp paste and dried shrimp. Besides giving an umami boost, shrimp paste also gives an authentically Thai flavor.

Types of Curry Paste

Red
This paste is made with dried red chilis and can have up to 20 different varieties. Traditionally, the dried red chilis are soaked, which reduces some of the harshness and heat. One expert lists what he calls the “Basic 10” of ingredients – dried red chilis, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, makrut lime zest, white peppercorns, shrimp paste and salt. Others may also add coriander and cumin.

Green
The chilis used in this paste are very similar to those in red but here they are in their fresh (green) state. Besides the fresh green chilies, other typical ingredients are shallots, lemongrass, white pepper, coriander root, garlic, kaffir lime zest, shrimp paste and sea salt. This all gives this paste a green color. In the final dish, sweet basil leaves, round green Thai eggplant and kaffir lime leaves are often added, which contribute even more to an overall green hue. As compared to red curry paste, this one has a more balanced and herbier flavor.

Some consider red curry paste as the spiciest whereas others give that prize to green paste.

Traditionally, Thai people considered green curries as the hottest followed be red. As Thai food became popular in the West, the red curry emerged as the hottest. However, in authentic Thai cuisine, a green curry will always be spicier than a red.

Yellow
The color of this variety comes from fresh turmeric and curry powder. Other common ingredients are coriander, cumin, lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste, dried red chilies, sea salt, ginger, garlic and shallots. It is milder than the other pastes but the actual spiciness will depend on the actual chilis used. It also often has a touch of sweetness.

Panang
This curry paste is similar to red but has the addition of ground peanuts as well as cumin, coriander seeds, dried red long chilies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, coriander root, white pepper, salt and shrimp paste.

Massaman
Because of the Muslim in influence in this curry paste, it has abundant dry spices that are commonly seen in south Asia – cinnamon, star anise, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg. Other ingredients are dried red chilies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, coriander, cumin, white pepper, salt and shrimp paste. It is a relatively mild curry paste.

The most common use for curry paste is in Thai curries where the curry paste is cooked with a protein and/or veggies and a liquid such as coconut milk or stock. That is not the only use, though and these pastes can be used as a marinade, a rub for chicken, fish or beef as well as in stir fries.

If you have been reading these Cooking Tips for very long, you know that I do not use or recommend many convenience items. For example, when you need a small amount of Chinese Five Spice, do not buy an entire bottle that may go stale before you use it all up. Rather, make your own from ingredients that are probably already in your pantry.

Curry pastes are different, though. You can certainly make these pastes from scratch but it is a fairly time consuming process and involves a whole host of ingredients, many of which are difficult to come by outside of a good Asian or international food market. Therefore, most of us will buy a good prepared curry paste.

A good curry paste is said to have an aroma strongly of herbs. When looking at the ingredients, there should only be herbs, spices, salt and shrimp paste. No oils, no additives and no water. Many Thai cooks strongly suggest only buying Thai brands.

Some differences that may be seen between store-bought & home-made is that the home-made version may have more complex flavors and may have a fresher taste as the herbs are added at the end and not further processed. Another advantage of home-made is that you can customize the blend to accommodate dietary restrictions and flavor preferences.

Brands – Favorite store-bought brands are:

  • Maesri – one advantage of this brand is that it comes in small cans rather than larger containers.
  • Mae Ploy – this is my favorite brand but it does tend to be saltier than other brands.
  • Chef’s Choice – this brand is mostly found in Europe and Asia.
  • Mae Anong – a favorite of many Thai afficionados.

Storage
Curry paste can be refrigerated for at least a week or frozen for six months to a year.

With the info found in these last three Cooking Tips, you should be able to make your own kitchen your favorite Thai restaurant!

Ingredients – The Key to Great Thai Meals

Learning to make Thai meals is always one of my most popular classes. Since so many people love it, I thought I would write a few Tips on this subject. Last week was the difference between Thai and Indian curries. This one discusses Thai cooking in a general sense and the next one will concentrate on Thai curry pastes. If you want to learn how to cook Thai in your own kitchen, contact me for information. In the meantime, for some tips on cooking Thai at home, read on.

One thing I teach over and over is that mastering cooking techniques rather than recipes should be the goal of all of us. If you have a good grasp of techniques, you can cook any cuisine. The techniques of cooking Thai as opposed to Italian or Indian or French are not all that different. What really makes the difference are the ingredients.

What do I mean by cooking techniques? I would recommend reviewing a couple of resources as a starting point. On my Home Page, you can download a free article entitled “Great Tips to Improve Your Cooking”. I also wrote an earlier Tip on “What Not to Do in the Kitchen”. These would be a great foundation for you.

Besides what you will find in those articles, a good cook should know the difference between cooking methods such as sauteing, stir-frying, grilling, roasting, poaching, steaming and so forth. Having good knife skills and always trying to improve is also important. (Why not book a class concentrating on Knife Skills?) Knowing what pots/pans are best to use for a particular dish as well as controlling the heat under that pot is very helpful.

For the rest of this Tip, we are going to presume you have a working knowledge of good cooking techniques. Let me move to what makes Thai food taste differently than other cuisines and that is Ingredients.

There is no way I can discuss all the ingredients that a Thai cook might use but I do want to go over some common ones. If you really want to make Thai dishes with authentic flavor, I strongly encourage you to seek out the real ingredients rather than relying on some of the substitutions I list. The following are listed in alphabetical order.

Aromatics

These are veggies from the allium family and include items such as shallots, onions, scallions and garlic.

Basil

Most commonly used is Thai basil, a relative of Mediterranean basil. It has purple stems and flowers with a slight licorice flavor and a hint of spiciness. As the flavor profile is so distinct from Mediterranean basil, it is best to seek out the Thai version rather than substituting if that is what is called for. Some Thai recipes call for sweet basil, which is the Mediterranean version.

Chiles

Although it does not have to be overly spicy, most Thai food will have somewhat of a bite to it. This is provided by fresh and dried chili peppers. The one most commonly seen in our local supermarkets is called a Thai chili pepper, a small and very hot pepper. In reality, though, there are many different varieties with varying heat level. On the Scoville scale, they can range anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 heat units. To put that in perspective, the jalapeno averages around 5000 units. For more information on chili peppers in general, see this Cooking Tip.

Cilantro

Also known as Chinese parsley, this herb is commonly found in our supermarkets.

Coconut Milk

Although not used in all Thai dishes, it is used in many. Coconut milk is made by soaking fresh or dried coconut in water, squeezing out the liquid and discarding the pulp. It is not the liquid inside fresh coconuts. Although you can drink that, it is not generally used in cooking. Also, stay away from Cream of Coconut, which is a sweetened product used for making cocktails.

The best coconut milk has a significant layer of coconut cream that rises to the top of the more liquid part. This is one thing that distinguishes a quality coconut milk from a lesser one. The better ones have a nice layer of cream on top. At times, you will want to use the cream separate from the thinner milk and at other times, you will just mix it all together. The cream layer, though, will give you a more luxurious taste and texture. My preferred brand is Chaokoh. Cooks Illustrated also likes that brand but at their last review, they chose Aroy-D as their favorite. These may or may not be available in your local supermarket although they certainly would be at an international market.

Curry Pastes

Thai curry pastes are a mixture of many fresh and dried ingredients. They are totally different from curry powder. There are numerous kinds with some of the most common being red, green, yellow, panang and masaman. Each has a different blend of ingredients yielding a different taste and level of spiciness. They are used not only in Thai curries but can also be used in Thai soups and stir-fries.

You can make your own but despite the advice in my Spice Cooking Tip, it is not something I normally do. The ingredient list is long and fairly complex. There are great commercially available curry pastes from which to choose. My favorite is Mae Ploy. The important thing to remember is that even among the same type of curry paste, the flavor and especially spiciness can vary greatly from brand to brand. Whether you are using a recipe or making your own Thai curry paste, always start with less than you need. If you are used to using one tablespoon of your favorite brand, don’t assume one tablespoon of another brand will be the same. I recommend finding a brand you like and then sticking with it for consistency.

Fish Sauce

Made from fermented fish, typically anchovies, this is the “salt” of Thai cooking. It is both a condiment and an ingredient and is full of glutamates that enhance flavor. In taste tests, the best fish sauce had the highest protein content. The higher protein content helps to balance the saltiness and other flavors. Most experts recommend the Red Boat 40°N brand but other highly rated ones are Thai Kitchen, A Taste of Thai and Golden Boy. Megachef is another recommended brand but the one you are most likely to see in an international market is in a blue bottle and is said to be formulated more for Vietnamese cooking. Megachef does have a Thai version in a brown bottle but is more difficult to find.

Galangal

Another herb with a pale yellow root and a distinctive flavor. Since it is a relative to ginger root, you can substitute that although it will not have the same taste.

Kaffir lime leaf

These are the leaves of a dark green knobbly lime that add a sharp and sour flavor. The leaves are used in curries and soups and the juice is sometimes used in soups. There is no real substitute but you can try lemon leaves or finely grated lemon/lime rind. One kaffir lime leaf is equal to ½ tsp lemon rind.

Lemongrass

This is a Thai herb with a distinctive, lemony flavor. The outer layer is discarded along with the straw-like top. Only the bottom ⅓ is used and is normally sliced or chopped. Although many mainstream grocery stores will carry pre-packaged lemongrass in their herb section, I usually find it dried out and not worth buying. You are much better off getting fresh lemongrass from the international markets.

Limes

Juice from regular limes is a very common ingredient used to add sourness and balance other favors.

Palm sugar

Made from various palm trees, it is a light brown, raw sugar. It comes in two forms: hard/lumpy or softer/paste-like. I would suggest you seek it out due to its distinctive flavor but in a pinch, you could try substituting raw sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup or even honey.

Rice

Easily found in our supermarkets due to its popularity, Jasmine rice is the type that is served with Thai dishes. It is very flavorful with a distinctive aroma.

Tamarind

This is an ingredient made from the seed pod of a large Asian tree. It often comes in a block requiring you to break off a piece and soak in lukewarm water for 5 mins. (1 Tbsp of pulp in ¼ cup water) After soaking, the pulp should be squeezed & kneaded well to dissolve everything that can be dissolved followed by straining out the seeds/fiber. You can also easily find tamarind concentrate, which does not require soaking/straining. Although the taste will not be authentic, you can try substituting lemon, lime or grapefruit.

This is not an exhaustive list but if you have these items in your pantry, you are well on your way to delicious Thai meals. Stay tuned for the next Tip on Curry Pastes.

Curries — Thai vs. Indian

Most of us have probably eaten dishes that carry the name of “Curry” but do you really know what that name means? One curry dish can be dramatically different from the next one in terms of taste, ingredients and heat level. In this Cooking Tip, I will try to help you understand this term so you are better informed whether you are ordering at a restaurant or making it at home.

The food reference book The New Food Lover’s Companion defines curry as coming “from the southern Indian word kari, meaning sauce.” They call it a “catch-all term referring to any number of hot, spicy, gravy-based dishes of East Indian origin.” That definition may be true but is incomplete. A more general description of a curry is a dish with a sauce and containing fish/meat, veggies and/or lentils. The flavor comes from a fairly complex mixture of spices and herbs. The dish is typically eaten with rice, noodles or bread depending on the country of origin.

Although many people think of Indian cuisine when they hear the word curry, there are other countries that also boast of their curries. The most common and popular non-Indian curry is Thai curry. Let’s contrast these two very popular and flavorful dishes.

Indian curry

  • The base is often made from sautéed tomatoes and onions.
  • The flavor comes from dry spices that are typically sauteed in clarified butter.
  • Common spices are cumin, turmeric, coriander powder, cardamom, fenugreek, red chili powder, mustard seeds, paprika, and cinnamon.
  • Curry leaves are often, but not always, used.
  • Indian curries may use coconut milk but very often just use water, cream or yogurt.
  • They are thick and more stew-like.
  • They are eaten with basmati rice and/or Indian bread. They are never served with noodles.
  • There are many different varieties including, but not limited to, Bombay, butter chicken, saag, vindaloo, korma, kofta, madras, tikka masala, biryani and Kashmir.

Thai curry

  • Thai curries start with fresh ingredients blended into a curry paste. Due to these ingredients, there are more flavors of fresh herbs and hints of citrus.
  • Curry pastes come in different types but common ingredients are fresh chilis, ginger, lemongrass, lime, shrimp paste, garlic and shallots. Other common ingredients are onions, garlic, galangal, cilantro and tamarind paste.
  • Curry leaves are not used. Rather, Kaffir lime leaves are utilized.
  • Curry paste is fried in oil before adding other ingredients.
  • These curries are more often based in coconut milk although there are water-based Thai curries. They do not typically use dairy.
  • Thai curries are thinner and more soup-like.
  • In general, Thai curries are spicier than Indian curries.
  • Common types of Thai curries are green, red, yellow, panang and masaman.

Which do you like to cook? Which is your favorite to eat? For me, the answer to both questions is Thai although I would be happy eating a good Indian curry. I just find Thai curries fresher with more bright flavors. What about you?

Cakes – How to put it all together!

In the last Cooking Tip, we looked at cake ingredients. In this one, we want to delve into the methods of mixing those ingredients into a cake batter. The different methods are going to give you different results and it is good to have a working knowledge of them. In fact, you can learn to predict what method you are going to use based on the ingredients. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip. This Tip is not written with high altitude concerns in mind. If you are one of us that does live at high altitude, there are other considerations that are in addition to the following information. See this prior Cooking Tip for that.

As we learned in the last Tip, cakes have basically the same ingredients – flour, sugar, butter, salt, eggs, chemical leaveners, milk, flavorings. How you combine these ingredients determines what you end up with – a cake, muffins, a quick bread, etc.

Creaming

This is a relatively easy method that you will use if the ingredient list calls for softened butter and sugar. This method involves mechanically incorporating air into the batter to produce a light result. Although you can do it by hand, it is very difficult to get the desired result and will be much easier to use some type of electric mixer. The basic method is as follows:

  • It is very important that the ingredients are at room temperature (~70°F).
  • Combine room temperature butter with sugar and mix thoroughly until light and pale yellow. The sugar will cut through the butter, creating air bubbles, which will expand in the oven.
  • Either lightly whisk the eggs together and add to the batter in a slow stream or add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until they are fully incorporated.
  • Add dry ingredients, which may be done in one of two ways. Some recipes will have you add them all at once and mix just until combined. Others will have you add the dry and wet ingredients alternately, starting and finishing with the dry to ensure the batter can absorb all the liquid. One exception is if the wet component is whipped egg whites. You will end with those to prevent deflating.

Cakes made with this method will be soft but sturdy, easy to slice and stack in layers. Examples are pound cakes and butter cakes. This method also works well for batters put into Bundt pans as well as for many cookie recipes and cupcakes.

Reverse Creaming

This method is sometimes referred to as the “two-stage” or “high ratio” method or even the “paste” method. By high ratio, what is meant is that there is more sugar than flour by weight or at most, equal amounts. This method does not work well for cakes that have less sugar than flour. These cakes will also contain a chemical leavening agent rather than just relying on air as the regular creaming method often does. The method is:

  • Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl and mix.
  • Recipes may vary a bit after this. Some will add only the softened butter and mix to form a coarse crumble followed by adding the liquid ingredients, either all at once or in two additions. Others will add some of the liquid with the butter and end with the remaining liquid.

This method is said to allow the butter to coat the flour. The liquid is then combining with the sugar instead of the flour, limiting gluten development. It produces less air holes and the resulting cake is very soft and tender.

When Cooks Illustrated compared creaming and reverse-creaming side-by-side using identical ingredients, they found that tasters could not tell the difference. They also used a tool to analyze firmness and they were very similar. They did find that the cake using the regular creaming method had a slightly domed top and a more open crumb. With the reverse creaming method, the cake top was more level and the crumb very fine and velvety.

One-stage method

This is also known as the “muffin” method and is a very simple method.

  • Mix all the dry ingredients in one bowl.
  • Mix all the wet ingredients in another bowl.
  • Mix the wet into the dry and combine gently to avoid developing excessive gluten.

You will recognize this method when the ingredient list has all the dry ingredients grouped together and all the wet together. The ingredient list also has:

  • A liquid fat (oil, melted butter) as they are easier to incorporate with this method.
  • A good amount of liquid.
  • A higher amount of chemical leaveners than cakes or cupcakes as this is the only way to get a rise. There is no mechanical leavening such as you get with whipped eggs or from creaming butter & sugar together.

Blended

Also known as the “single stage” or “one bowl” method, it is the absolute easiest of all cake methods. You just put everything in a bowl at once and stir together. With this method, it will often call for oil rather than butter as it is easier to incorporate. This method can be used with cakes made from scratch but it is normally used with cake mixes. It results in cakes that are very moist and good for add-ins but on the denser side.

Foam method

This method produces very light and airy cakes. The leavening is provided by whipping air into the batter. The method can be done either with whole eggs or what is called the “separated egg foam.”

  • Separated egg foam
    • Separate eggs and beat the yolks with part of the sugar until thick and light in color.
    • Beat egg whites separately with sugar to stiff but not dry peaks.
    • Very gently fold beaten egg whites into the yolks alternating with the dry ingredients.
  • Whole egg foam – warm or cold
    • For the warm method:
      • Whole eggs and sugar are warmed together over a hot water bath until sugar is totally dissolved and then beaten until thick.
      • You continue beating until the mixture is cooled and ribbons form. At this point, mixture is almost tripled in volume.
      • Finally, the dry ingredients and melted butter are folded in alternately.
    • For the cold method:
      • Egg and sugar are place in a bowl and whipped at high speed until creamy, light in color and volume has greatly increased.
      • Butter is typically not included as cakes made by this method are later soaked in a liqueur or flavoring such as in tiramisu or a trifle. With this method, part of the sugar melts in the oven rather than over the water bath. This results in larger air bubbles in the finished cake, which are great when soaked in a flavorful liquid.

Angel food cake method

Angel food cakes are a type of sponge cake made from egg whites, sugar and flour. There is no butter or other fat.

  • Start by sifting the flour and part of the sugar in a bowl.
  • Egg whites are beaten with the remaining sugar to peaks and then gently folded into the dry ingredients.

Chiffon method

This method is an amalgamation of different methods. It will contain a liquid fat, usually oil, as well as a chemical leavener like baking powder. The basic method is:

  • Sift together dry ingredients with part of the sugar.
  • Mix in the oil, yolks, water and flavorings.
  • Beat egg whites to peak with remaining sugar and gently fold into batter.

Is one of these methods better than another? Does one produce a better cake than another? It all depends on what kind of cake you want. No matter what result you want and what method you choose, there are some tips for great cake baking in general.

  • Baking cakes, especially if you live at high altitude, is not a time to fly by the seat of your pants. It is, rather, a time to follow the recipe exactly. The only variations would be those you make at high altitude.
  • Buy a food scale and weigh the ingredients. It is more accurate than cup measures and will yield better results.
  • Pay attention to temperatures called for in the recipe. If it specifies room temperature butter (and/or other ingredients), you will only get the desired result if you heed that advice.
  • Butter should be unsalted unless otherwise specified. If all you have is salted butter, reduce the salt in the recipe by ¼ tsp for each 4 ounces of butter. If you do much baking, try to always have unsalted butter on hand. It keeps wonderfully in the freezer and you will not have to make adjustments.
  • I did a prior Cooking Tip on pan sizes. Review that and then measure your cake pans to know if they are going to work for the recipe.
  • Try to not use dark-colored pans as they will not give you the desired result of a golden, moist and tender cake.
  • Most recipes will call for greasing the cake pans. Even better is to grease the pan, line it with parchment, and grease again. For bundt-style cakes, grease the pan thoroughly and sprinkle lightly with flour or use a flour-based pan spray.
  • Allow enough time to thoroughly preheat your oven. It is also a good idea to use an oven thermometer to check its accuracy.

Do you do much cake baking? What is your preferred type of cake? What method do you use? Do you live at high altitude and have you experienced altitude-related challenges?
Let me know and send me photos of your wonderful creations!

What makes up a cake?

I recently wrote about the difference between cupcakes and muffins. In that Tip, I mentioned I would be delving more into cakes. I wish to do just that in this and my next Cooking Tip. In this one, we will look at the ingredients and their function in cakes. In the next one, we will learn the different methods of incorporating these ingredients to achieve different types of cakes.

All cakes have similar ingredients – flour, sugar, eggs, a fat, maybe a leavener and flavorings. Let’s take each in turn along with a couple others.

In general, cake ingredients can be categorized as strengtheners or tenderizers. Great cakes are a balance of these two characteristics.

Strengtheners

  • Flour
  • Eggs

Tenderizers

  • Sugar
  • Fat

Flour

Flour gives cakes structure. However, just one look at the store shelves will tell you that there are many different types of flour. Choosing the right one for your cakes is important.

In the US, we name our flours based on the usage such as bread flour, cake flour, pastry flour and all-purpose flour. The differences between these flours is the protein (predominantly gluten). Even among these categories, protein content can vary from brand to brand or even within different shipments of the same brand. One company that pledges to always have the same protein content no matter where or when you buy their flour is King Arthur Flour Company.

The type of flour with one of the highest protein contents (12-16%) is bread flour. This is why when bread dough is kneaded, the gluten is developed leading to the structure and chewiness of artisan breads. It will not give you tender, moist cakes

Cake & pastry flours have the lowest protein content (7-9%) and are milled to a finer consistency. They are what gives the tenderness to these baked products and are often recommended for cakes. I will warn those of you that live at high altitude that this may not be the best choice. As one of the problems at altitude is lack of structure with resultant falling of the cake, cake flours are not ideal in this situation. See my Cooking Tip on cake flour for more info.

All-purpose (AP) flour has a protein content in the middle: 10-12%. If you only want one flour in your cupboard, this is the one to choose. Because it has a moderate protein content, you can use it for almost any purpose. You won’t necessarily get the same result as you would if using one of the other flours, but it will be perfectly acceptable.

Eggs

  • Add structure in the form of protein.
  • Add volume to the cake when beaten.
  • Act as a binder keeping the cake together.
  • Yolks contain emulsifiers that help to form a thick batter that doesn’t separate.
  • Contribute to browning.
  • Contribute to the overall flavor partly because the fat in the yolks helps to carry other flavors.
  • Being mostly water, they contribute to the overall moisture content.
  • The fat in yolks helps to shorten gluten strands and tenderize the final product.

Sugar

  • Adds sweetness.
  • Aids in browning.
  • Assists in the aeration and stabilization of the batter.
  • Helps to keep the cake moist.
  • Helps to form a finer crumb due to its ability to impede gluten formation by attracting the water away from the flour.

Fat

  • Adds flavor.
  • Tenderizes the crumb.
  • Aids with browning.
  • Decreases gluten development by coating the gluten in the flour so it is less available to the liquid.
  • Solid fats are used to incorporate air bubbles to increase volume. This is done through the creaming method, which I will discuss more in next week’s Tip.
  • Oil will help keep the cake moist but can also yield a denser cake.

Salt

  • In cakes, the main purpose of salt is as a favor enhancer.

Leaveners

  • Aid in rising of the cake.
  • Chemical – usually baking powder.
  • Mechanical – by beating air into the batter.

Liquids

  • The most common liquid in cakes is milk but there could be other liquids specified in the recipe.
  • Add moisture.
  • Help dissolve the sugar and salt.
  • Provides steam for leavening.
  • On the caution side, liquids can increase gluten formation resulting in a tougher cake.

Flavorings

  • Spices, extracts, citrus zest, liqueurs can add flavor and aroma.

Now that you have a good idea of what all these ingredients do, stay tuned for next week’s
Cooking Tip to see how to put them all together!

Is it a muffin or is it a cupcake?

I have been working on a Holiday Brunch class that I will be teaching in November. I was testing a recipe for what was called “Chocolate Orange Muffins”. Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful holiday bread? As I was mixing them, I noticed that the directions were a bit different than what you find in most muffin recipes. When they were done baking, they looked beautiful and tasted delightful. However, they tasted almost more like a cupcake than a muffin. That led to this Cooking Tip – just what is the difference between a cupcake and a muffin?

There are actually real differences between these two items. The first (and most important) difference is the Mixing Method. There are numerous different mixing methods in the world of baked goods. (Stay tuned for a future Cooking Tip that will explain this more.) For now, let’s just mention the Muffin Method, which is also known as the one-stage method. All the dry ingredients are mixed together in one bowl and all the wet are mixed up in another bowl. Then, the wet ingredients are mixed into the dry ingredients. Any mix-ins such as fruit or chocolate chips are then gently folded into this batter. Apportion the batter into your muffin cups, bake and voila – you have muffins. Recipes written with this method in mind have all the dry ingredients listed together and all the wet ingredients together.

Cupcakes are really just small cakes and therefore, use a method more appropriate for cakes. There are multiple methods for cake making but the one called for in my recipe is what is termed the Creaming Method. In this method, softened butter and sugar are mixed up until light and pale yellow. Eggs are gently whisked together and gradually added to the mixture. Finally, the dry ingredients are mixed together and gently folded into the batter. There may or may not be milk also added, usually alternating with the flour as you mix it. The longer beating results in a tighter and more even crumb. The batter tends to be softer and smoother than a sturdier muffin batter. When you see “softened butter and sugar” in the ingredient list, you are probably going to use the creaming method.

Ingredients are another distinguishing factor. Although they do tend to call for very similar ingredients, cupcakes tend to have more sugar and fat than muffins. One expert source quoted a ratio of flour to sugar at 2-3 cups of flour to 1 cup sugar for muffins (a ratio of 0.5-0.33 sugar to flour) and 1½ cups flour to 1 cup sugar (a ratio of 0.66 sugar to flour) for cupcakes. Most cupcakes probably call for AP or maybe cake flour. Muffins often vary this by adding in a whole grain flour or other “healthier” flour.

Cupcakes usually use butter as the fat while muffins will often substitute a type of oil. Cupcakes also often have other “cakey” ingredients such as vanilla but do not normally have many add-ins or fillings. Muffins, though, are a great base for adding nuts, fruits, etc. Cupcakes are generally frosted whereas muffins are not. If muffins are topped with something, it will more likely be a crumb topping, a sprinkle of coarse sugar or a thin glaze.

You will also notice Textural differences, which is a result of the different mixing methods. Think of a great cupcake you have eaten. No doubt that it was soft and very easy to take a bite of. Contrast that with a muffin – the muffin will be denser and a bit harder.

Size/Shape – Although not 100%, cupcakes do tend to be smaller than muffins. Muffins often flow out of the cup in which they are baked. Many people love these “muffin tops”. Cupcakes do not generally do that.

So, what about my recipe? Was it a cupcake or a muffin? The author of the recipe called it a “muffin” but, let’s take a look at it.

  • Method – it used the creaming method
  • Flour to sugar ratio – 2½ cups flour to 1½ cup sugar, which is a ratio of 0.6 sugar to flour
  • Fat – butter, no oil
  • Other ingredients – it called for vanilla, milk and sour cream
  • Add-ins – orange zest and chocolate chips
  • Final texture – it was very soft and easy to eat but a bit denser than many cupcakes
  • Size/shape – no muffin tops here
  • Toppings – none

By most of the above measures, this does appear more of a cupcake than a muffin although you might be a bit confused when eating it. As my husband said, it’s a little bit of both muffin and cupcake. Despite what you call it, it was very yummy and just might make it onto my Holiday Brunch table!

Oregano – not just one herb!

I had a friend visiting and I took her to my favorite spice shop, Savory Spice, to restock her spice pantry. One of the items she wanted was Oregano. I asked her if she wanted Mediterranean Oregano or Mexican Oregano. She looked at me strangely and asked about the difference. She said she did not know there was more than one kind. Since she is a great cook, I figured if she didn’t know this that maybe many of you did not know either. Thus, this Cooking Tip was born.

What most cooks think of as oregano is probably the Mediterranean version. It is part of the mint family, Lamiaceae.

Mediterranean is a bit of a generic term for all types of oregano grown in that region. Different varieties include Greek, Italian and Turkish. Most supermarket versions will not specify what type it is but good spice shops will often list that information. The most common is probably Greek. It is typically known as the “true oregano” although some will also apply that term to the Italian variety.

Mediterranean oregano in general has a robust flavor with sweet, minty and peppery notes. It will, however, vary somewhat in taste depending on which variety it is. Some may be more bitter, sweet or peppery than others. Greek is said to be the most savory and earthy, Turkish is the most pungent and the Italian is the mildest. The latter is actually a hybrid of sweet marjoram (also a type of oregano) and common oregano.

Mexican oregano is native to Mexico, the southwestern United States and Central America. It is part of the Verbenaceae family, to which lemon verbena also belongs. Its flavor is different than Mediterranean oregano. It has pungent, citrusy flavors with a peppery note and a subtle licorice undertone.

When do you use which variety? Well, if you have read many of these Cooking Tips, you will know I do not have many hard and fast rules. However, the best results happen when you pair the particular variety to the cuisine of that geography.

Therefore, you would use the Mediterranean variety when you are making those dishes. It pairs well with flavors such as onion, garlic, basil, flat-leaf parsley and thyme. It is especially known for its use in Italian dishes including pizza & pasta sauce, herb butters and Italian vinaigrettes.

Pair your Mexican oregano with other spices such as cumin, chili and paprika. Use in dishes with Mexican or southwest-type flavors such as chili, enchiladas or salsa.

One last tidbit about oregano. Chefs generally prefer fresh herbs over dried herbs in many preparations. However, oregano maintains excellent flavor when dried. In fact, many feel that fresh oregano is too pungent and they prefer the dried.

Did you know that there were different types of oregano? Do you always use just one or do you switch it up depending on what you are cooking? Now that you know the differences, I hope you will feel much more comfortable using this wonderful herb!

Non-Recipe Culinary Books

I ran across an interesting culinary book the other day that was not a cookbook. It caused me to think about other such books that I have in my library or have found interesting. These books might also be a great gift for those cooks in your life and are the subject of this Cooking Tip.

What’s The Difference?

This little book is by Brette Warshaw and the chapters in it are very similar to these Cooking Tips. Some of the titles are:

  • Apple Cider vs. Apple Juice
  • Aioli vs. Mayonnaise
  • Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder vs. Natural Cocoa Powder
  • Crème Fraîche vs. Sour Cream

Food FAQs: Substitutions, Yields & Equivalents

This extremely useful book has been put together by Linda Resnik and Dee Brock. They have painstakingly compiled lists and charts that answer questions such as:

  • How much juice in an average-sized lemon?
  • How many onions are required to make one cup of chopped onion?
  • What can I substitute for a quince?

The New Food Lover’s Companion

A culinary dictionary is a great addition to your collection and this one is by Rob and Sharon Tyler Herbst. My copy (and the one pictured here) was published in 2013 and is a great book to grab when you run across a term or an ingredient with which you are not familiar. The authors also published The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion in 2015. It is a larger book both in size and content including information on more ethnic ingredients, food labels, ingredient substitutions and safe cooking temperatures.

Ratio: The Simple Code Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking

If you would like to be freed from using recipes all the time, this book by Michael Ruhlman may be for you. He discusses many dishes and breaks down the ratio of ingredients that are in each. He also includes representative recipes. Just some of his topics are:

  • Doughs
  • Batters
  • Stocks
  • Sauces
  • Custards

The Flavor Bible

Do you like to be creative in the kitchen but worry about what flavors work together? Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg have put together an exhaustive guide to help you. It is full of easy-to-use charts arranged alphabetically by ingredient starting with Achiote Seeds and ending with Zucchini Blossoms.

The Spice Companion

This is a recent addition to my bookshelves and is written by Lior Lev Sercarz. It is beautifully illustrated with photographs of all the representative spices. He describes the spice’s flavor, aroma, origins and harvest season as well as listing traditional uses for the spice along with recommended pairings and recipe ideas.

I am sure that there are many other non-recipe culinary books that would be helpful for us home cooks.
Do you have a favorite. Let me know.