Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Cookies – make them the best they can be!

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Although making cookies is something we do all year-round, it certainly ramps up during the holiday season. Many of you probably have wonderful memories of making cookies with your mother or grandmother and want to create similar memories with your own children. Others of you just love to make – and eat – cookies. You do want your cookies to turn out well and I have written a prior Tip with some great advice on how to get the type of cookies you want. I encourage you to read that Tip. In this Cooking Tip, I want to share with you some ideas from cookie chefs out there who are always seeking that perfect cookie.

Baking pans

  • In my prior Tip, I mentioned that light-colored baking sheets are better than dark-colored ones.  That is still an excellent recommendation.
  • A number of sources advise against greasing your baking sheets. They feel it can cause your cookies to spread too much and lead to a greasy cookie. If your cookies stick, the pan may be the culprit due to the residue that accumulates over years of baking. In fact, spraying your pans with a nonstick spray is one of the items that leads to the residue build-up. To avoid sticking, the other choices are to get a new pan or use parchment or silicone mats.
  • Cookie experts do have some words of caution as to parchment and silicone.
    • Cookies baked on silicone mats tend to spread more than those baked on parchment.
    • Cookies baked on silicone also tend towards greasiness.
    • There is a bit of disagreement on the browning aspect of the cookies. Some feel that the cookies brown more with parchment and others think that is true for the silicone mats.
    • If using a silicone mat, try to remove the baked cookies to a rack as soon as you can. As silicone doesn’t breathe, cookies left on a mat to cool may sweat, affecting the texture.
  • Don’t rotate the pans. You may have heard that if you have more than one baking sheet in the oven that you should rotate them half-way through the baking time. This is said to help with even baking and the problems of hot spots in your oven.  Cookies, though, bake for a relatively short amount of time. When you open the oven, you immediately lose heat and this can lead to cookies that do not properly brown or rise as you would expect. So, you may want to skip the rotation advice with cookies.
Image by Silvia from Pixabay

Shaping cookies

  • If making a drop cookie, use a cookie or ice cream scoop. This not only helps with better shape but also ensures the cookies balls are equal in size and, therefore, bake more evenly.
  • It also helps to gently roll the balls between your hands to get as perfect of a round shape as you can before baking.
  • If making “slice & bake” cookies where the dough is rolled into a log and put in the refrigerator to chill, it can flatten as it sits. Put your dough in a slit open cylinder from a roll of paper towels before placing in the refrigerator. This will help the log keep its round shape.

Rolling out dough

  • As you have seen from cookie recipes, most advise chilling the cookie dough before rolling it out. However, it can crack if it is too cold. An alternative is to roll it out before you chill it. It will make it easier if you divide the dough in half before rolling. Just-made dough will be sticky and so, you will want to roll it between wax or parchment paper. You probably will not need to dust the surface with flour to prevent sticking. The paper also makes it easy to flip over during the rolling process to get an evenly rolled dough. It will need to be chilled after rolling before you cut out the shapes. This helps the dough to firm up but having it rolled out first means it will chill much faster than a whole block of dough.
  • Some cookie experts recommend rolling out your cookie dough on a surface sprinkled with powdered sugar rather than flour. This prevents sticking to the counter without adding extra flour to the cookies.

Doubling a recipe

  • If you wish to make a double batch of cookies, pay attention to these tidbits of cookie wisdom.
  • Make sure your mixer will hold a double batch. If you have too full of a bowl, not only can it get messy but it can lead to over-mixing as you try to get all the ingredients incorporated.
  • Know which ingredients can be scaled straight-up.
    • The main ingredients (flour, sugar, milk, etc.) can be doubled without a problem.
    • With spices, be careful you are not adding too much as some spices are very powerful.
    • Baking powder or soda can be a problem. Adding too much can lead to premature rising and subsequent collapsing when they come out of the oven. So, one expert recommends you use the following formula for these leavening ingredients. For every one cup of flour, use 1 to 1¼ teaspoon of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon of baking soda. If your recipe has both in the ingredient list, look at the ratio of one to the other and try to maintain that ratio.
  • I have written about this before but it is worth repeating. Write down the doubled measurements directly on your recipe so you don’t get partway through and then forget to double an ingredient; something that is so easy to do if you are just doubling things in your head.
  • If you are rolling out the cookie dough, divide it in half for rolling. Keep the other half in the refrigerator while rolling out the first half.

Ingredients

Butter

  • As mentioned in my prior Tip, your choice of fat affects both the flavor and texture of the cookies. Butter gives you superior flavor and a more tender cookie but leads to more cookie spread. Shortening melts slower and, therefore, you get less spread. Some recommend a 50/50 blend to try to get the butter flavor without excessive spread.
  • J. Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab likes 1 part flour to 1 part sugar to 0.8 parts butter. He claims this leads to cookies with moderate spread and no “cakiness”.
  • The form of the butter can also make a difference.
    • Creamed butter yields lighter/firmer cookies.
    • Melted butter leads to denser/chewier cookies.

Sugar

  • Granulated sugar yields thin, crisp cookies.
  • Brown sugar results in taller and more moist cookies
  • For a good balance, you may want to try a mixture of the two sugars.
  • Corn syrup – this is another sweetener and can yield cookies that are soft, wide and darker in color. If you like a chewy cookie, swap out some of the sugar for corn syrup.

Leavening

  • Baking powder produces cakier cookies that rise higher during baking with smoother tops.
  • Baking soda will give you cookies that are craggier and denser.

Salt

  • Do not forget the salt as it brings out the sweetness and flavor of your cookies.

Mix-ins

  • Chefs who have tested different types of chocolate prefer hand chopped chocolate from bars saying it gives the most intense flavor and a more interesting texture.
  • Press a few of the chunky ingredients (chocolate chips, cranberries, peanut butter chips, etc.), into the tops of the cookie dough balls before baking. It tells people what is in the cookies, it is attractive and helps with the texture.

Freezing cookies and cookie dough

  • Do not freeze cookies with a more liquid batter (tuiles, Florentines, pizzelles).
  • Very cakey cookies such as Madeleines do not freeze well.
  • Baked cookies that freeze well are bar cookies, sugar cookies, drop cookies, biscotti. Place cookies on a baking sheet and freeze solid and then put in an airtight container.
  • To thaw, take out of container and allow to sit at room temp.
  • Can gently reheat cookies in a 275°F oven for a few minutes.
  • Any doughs with a good amount of fat freeze well. Examples are shortbread, gingerbread, drop cookies (oatmeal, chocolate chip, etc.), icebox cookies and sugar cookies.
  • For drop cookies, form dough balls, place on a baking sheet, freeze and then transfer to a plastic bag or storage container.
  • For icebox cookies, wrap logs in plastic wrap, put into freezer bags and then freeze.
  • For roll-out cookies, wrap the dough in plastic wrap and then in a freezer bag. Can also roll the dough out between parchment paper, wrap in plastic wrap and freeze.
  • If your cookie recipe calls for a dip in powdered sugar, freeze the dough balls without the sugar. Roll in the sugar just before baking.
  • Most cookies can be baked straight from the freezer but may need a few extra minutes in the oven.

I hope this Tip along with my prior Tip help you achieve wonderful Cookie Success!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

The Final Step to a Great Pie

(Updated September 2022)

In the last few Cooking Tips, we have been discussing how to put that perfect pie on your dinner table. We looked at ingredients and techniques for making a great pie crust. You are now ready to put it in the oven but there is another subject to discuss – blind baking your pie crust. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Blind baking a pie crust is simply pre-baking your crust (either partially or totally) before adding your filling. So, when do you blind bake your crust? The simple answer you might say is – when the recipe tells you to do so. Yes, that is true, but there are general guidelines to let you know whether you should do this.

Pies that have fillings that are not baked require a fully baked pie crust. An example is a yummy French Silk Pie. Since the pie is not going into the oven after adding the filling, the pie crust needs to be fully baked.

Other times you want to blind bake is with custard pies or pies with delicate fillings. With custard pies (such as pumpkin), the moisture in the filling might make the crust soggy before the crust is fully baked. Partially baking the crust before adding the filling helps to prevent this. There are also some delicate fillings that are only briefly cooked on the stovetop. If you do not blind bake the crust but rather put the filling in an unbaked crust, the filling would be over-cooked before the crust is fully baked. An example is Chocolate Cream pie.

One time you do not want to blind bake is if you are making a double-crust pie. If you blind bake the bottom crust, your top crust won’t adhere to the bottom crust. If your filling is such that you would prefer a blind-baked crust to prevent sogginess, you can place decorative pieces of crust over the top to give you a type of open double crust such as in this Gooseberry Pie recipe.

Blind baking is not as simple as putting your unfilled pie crust in the oven. If you do that without adding some weight, your pie crust will puff up – not ideal if you want to put a delicious filling into it. It also makes it much more likely that the sides of your crust will droop before it sets.

Now we know why we need to blind bake a crust, how do we do it? There are three recommended ways depending on what you are looking for in your finished pie.

If you want a pie with a pretty crimped edge or you have a tall crust, line the unbaked crust with foil or parchment making sure it fully covers the crust and the edges of the pie crust. Foil is often preferred over parchment as you can get it into the corners better as well as folding it over the crust to prevent overbrowning. Fill the crust at least 2/3 full with something to weight the crust down as it bakes. I love ceramic pie weights. They conduct heat well and fill up the entire crust. Just make sure you have enough to fully cover the crust. I tend to use two boxes of these for one pie crust.

You have probably heard that you can use dry beans or rice. Those are poor heat conductors resulting in a longer baking time to get to the proper stage.  Another option is granulated sugar, an excellent heat conductor.

Stacey Ballis with MyRecipes.com did an experiment testing different types of weights. Her favorite method was granulated sugar, which conducts heat as well as the ceramic weights but gets into the corners of the pie crust better. She uses the sugar a couple of times and then uses it in her baking. Since it has slightly caramelized by being in the oven, she recommends using it for meringues. Serious Eats agrees with this choice. If you don’t want to use sugar, the ceramic weights are a close second.

As I discussed in last week’s Tip, you should have chilled your pie crust. If you haven’t done that by this step, you may chill it with the weights in place. After chilling, place it in a 375° oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully remove the very hot pie weights. Prick the bottom with a fork and return crust to the oven. If you will be baking the pie filling, bake the crust for another 5-8 minutes. If you are not baking the filling, bake the crust for another 12-20 minutes until fully baked. This method should work for most pie crusts but some recipes may have slightly different baking temperatures and times.

A second method is called the “Low & Slow” method. With this method, the pie crust is baked at 350° with pie weights in place for an hour. Baking at a more moderate heat is said to reduce shrinkage & puffing.

A third method is to sandwich the crust between two pans and bake upside down. This method is good for pies with a flat edge that do not need the extra height or when you are not looking for a decorative edge. To use this method, place the crust in the pan and flatten its edge. Spray the outside of another pie pan and nestle into the crust. You may also line the crust with parchment before putting pans together. At this point, chill for 30 minutes to solidify fats and prevent shrinkage.

Now, place the pans upside down on a baking sheet so that the empty pan is on the bottom. Bake for 20 minutes in 375° oven. As the proponents of this method say, “Gravity ensures that as your crust slips ‘down’ the side of the pan, it’s actually moving up!” When baked, remove from the oven and use a spatula to carefully turn over and prick with fork. Return the crust to the oven right side up without second pan and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. You may now fill the crust. When would you want to do this method? It is ideal for pies where the edge of the pie is not as important as its top, such as Lemon Meringue.

What about your pie plate? That is the subject of next week’s Cooking Tip. See you then!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Techniques for a great pie crust

(Updated September 2022)

After discussing the ingredients you need to make a pie crust, I now want to turn to bringing that crust into reality. That is the subject of this week’s Cooking Tip – how to make a great pie crust. As you read this Tip, you will notice that I often give you different recommendations. Everyone has their preferred method and I want to give you alternatives so you can find what works best for you.

The first point I want to make is COLD is your friend when making pie crusts. The fat that you cut into the flour needs to stay solid as long as possible so that once it is in the oven, it will melt at the appropriate time creating steam and thus, the flaky layers we all crave in pie crusts.

The fist method is the hand method. Start by putting your flour and salt in a bowl and whisk together. I highly recommend weighing your ingredients but if not, measure carefully. At this point, if your kitchen is warm, you may want to refrigerate the bowl/ingredients/equipment. Your aim (no matter the ambient temperature) is a final dough temperature of 65° to 70°. Yes, you can take the temperature of your dough. Just one more reason to have a good digital thermometer in your kitchen armamentarium.

Serious Eats points out that if your room temperature is above 73°, everything that touches the dough will warm it. You may have noticed that your dough seems to need less water on a hot day. That is because the butter is softer making it act more like a liquid. Although you may be tempted to use less water, this may lead to a weaker dough giving you headaches when you try to roll it out.

A solution is to chill everything with an aim to keeping your dough temperature below 70°. Take everything (your bowl with the dry ingredients, your rolling pin and your pie pan) and put them all in the refrigerator. Your fat and your water should already be in there keeping COLD until you need them. If your countertop is warm, fill some plastic bags with ice water and place on the countertop to cool it.

Next, add your COLD fat – butter, shortening or a combination. If you are using a combination, cut up the shortening and add first. Mix it in until the mixture is like sand. Then, add your butter, which should be cut into small cubes, and toss gently in the flour. Working quickly, cut the butter into the flour. I think no tool works as well as your hands to do this step although you can use a pastry cutter. Using a snapping motion between your fingers and thumbs, you will flatten out the butter cubes. Continue this until all the butter is flattened. If your hands are warm, you may want to cool them under the cold tap first. Do not overmix – you want to be left with an uneven mixture with butter pieces that vary in size. Remember, this is what is going to give your crust its flaky layers. So, you do not want your butter to melt or totally disintegrate as you are doing this.

This is the point where you add the ICE water. One train of thought is to never add all the water at once. Add it incrementally so the dough does not get too wet. Start with drizzling in a few tablespoons and gently tossing the mixture. A bowl scraper works great for this. Continue until the dough holds together if you squeeze it in your palm. The reasoning for this is that excess water can lead to more gluten development. However, a too-dry dough can be very difficult to roll out.

Another point of view is that gluten is not necessarily the enemy of soft, flaky crusts. Adding the water listed in the recipe all at once and mixing until it comes together will give you a dough that is easier to roll out without tearing.

After adding the water and mixing, empty the bowl onto a very lightly floured surface or onto a piece of parchment paper. There are two ways you can proceed from here. The easiest is to just gently gather the dough into a ball. If it is still too dry, add more ice water but a small amount at a time. A spritz from a spray bottle may be all you need. If you have added too much water, sprinkle a bit more flour and gently mix it in.

A second way of finishing your pie dough is only slightly more work but gives you even more flaky layers. For this method, you may want to put your dough onto a piece of parchment. Press your dough into a rectangle and then, using the paper to assist you, fold it into thirds – just as you would a business letter — and then fold in half so it is square-shaped. If necessary, using a water bottle, spritz any dry areas with the ice water and then fold. You can also do this folding without parchment by putting your dough onto a floured counter and use a bench scraper to help with the folding.

At this point, shape your dough into the shape of the pan into which you will put it. This will make it easier to roll out to the correct shape. If you have made enough dough for a double crust, cut the dough in half before shaping. Some recommend rolling the shaped dough’s sides along a floured surface to smooth the edges.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, formerly of Serious Eats, loves using a food processor to make the dough. He claims his method creates a tender and flaky dough that is very easy to roll out. He puts 2/3 of the flour in the food processor bowl along with salt and any sugar and pulses to incorporate. He then adds the cut-up butter and pulse until all the dry flour is gone followed by spreading the dough around the bowl with a rubber spatula. The rest of the flour is sprinkled over the dough and pulsed until the dough is slightly broken up. At this point, transfer the dough to a bowl, sprinkle with water and use the spatula to fold and press the dough until it comes together into a ball. If you want to read about his reasoning, see this article.

No matter which of the mixing methods you use, you need to next chill the dough. One recommendation is to wrap your dough into plastic and put in the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes. This hardens the fat, which has warmed and softened during the mixing process. It also allows the gluten to relax. You may wish to freeze the dough at this point for use at a future time. If so, wrap in plastic and then in foil before putting in the freezer.

When you are ready to actually assemble your pie, remove the chilled crust from the refrigerator. If it has chilled longer than 30 minutes, you may need to let it warm up just a bit on the counter, leaving it wrapped. It needs to be soft enough to roll but should still be cold to the touch. As you roll it out, you should see large pieces of flattened butter.

Since rolling the dough “wakes” up the gluten and softens the butter, a different recommendation is to roll out your dough and put it in the pan right after you make it. Then, chill it thoroughly in the pie pan – about two hours.

Transferring it to the pan can be done by folding the rolled-out dough into quarters, placing it in the pan and unfolding it. Another method is to gently roll the dough around your rolling pin and then unrolling it over your pan.

You are now ready to finish your pie, right? No, remember the word I mentioned in the beginning – COLD. You want to chill your pie crust before filling it. Once again, this chilling helps to solidify that wonderful fat as well as minimizing shrinkage during baking.

Some just recommend refrigerating the dough after being put in the pie plate. As you have mixed and rolled out the dough, the gluten strands that have developed are stretched and want to snap back. You have probably seen that as you roll your dough; it doesn’t always stay put but tends to shrink. Resting the dough allows the tension in the strands to ease so they remain stretched and don’t shrink back when heated. However, as the pie is baked, the dough is not well set by the time the butter vaporizes. So, the air pockets created by the steam when the butter melts disappear. The soft, not-yet-set dough sinks into those spaces resulting in less flakiness.

Others recommend freezing the dough before baking. As you bake frozen dough, it heats up and sets relatively quickly in comparison to the time it takes the butter to melt. By the time the water in the butter starts to turn to steam, the dough is well into its setting stage. The air spaces occupied by the frozen butter, now that it has largely turned to steam, hold their shape because the dough has started to set. Thus, flakier layers. The downside is that as the water freezes, it holds the stretched gluten in place rather than allowing it to relax. So, when you bake it, the gluten strands snap back and the crust shrinks.

Many recommend a compromise by first refrigerating the dough for approximately 40 minutes to relax the gluten to minimize shrinkage followed by putting it in the freezer for 20 minutes to improve flakiness. Yes, this does require a bit more timing but could lead to a superior result. Now you are ready to choose your favorite filling. However, before putting your filling in the pan, stop and ask yourself if you need to par-bake your crust. Stay tuned for next week’s Tip as we delve into what par-baking is, when you need to do it and how to par-bake. See you then!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

The Foundation to a Great Pie

(updated September 2022)

As Fall is approaching, many of us start to think about pie making. In the next few Cooking Tips, I will discuss ingredients, techniques and equipment. Let’s start with ingredients for the foundation of your pie — the pie crust.

Do you make your own or do you use Pillsbury? Making a pie crust is so incredibly easy. Although store-bought crusts may be fine in a pinch, I encourage you to start making your own. They freeze beautifully and you will always be ready for pie. There are really two parts to making a great pie crust – your ingredients and your technique.

The ingredients that go into most pie crusts are minimal – flour, fat and water. Some will also have a bit of sugar, eggs, dairy (such as sour cream or cream cheese) or even nut flours. Let’s address these one by one.

Flour – most of us are going to use all-purpose flour for our pie crusts. I recommend mastering the technique with this flour before branching out as other flours will act differently.

Fat – the main fats used in pie crusts are butter and/or shortening. Lard used to be a stand-by but, today it is hard to get good quality lard. This is a subject for another Cooking Tip. For now, let’s stick with butter and shortening.

The main advantage of butter is flavor. It will give you a flaky crust since as the water in butter converts to steam, it puffs up the crust. The downside is that because butter has a low melting point, it is hard to maintain a nice crimp to your pie crust.

Shortening has a higher melting point allowing it to stay in solid form longer. Therefore, the crimp has a chance to set before it melts. There are those that think that this higher melting point also leads to a flakier crust than butter. It does lack, though, the wonderful flavor of butter.

This contrast is what leads to the recommendation of using both butter and shortening. Some claim that using a ratio of 3:2 butter to shortening gives you the best of both worlds.

Personally, I think there is nothing better than an all-butter crust. Yes, the crimp does slump but you can try to somewhat prevent this by proper chilling of the dough, discussed in next week’s Tip.

Water – all pie doughs need some sort of liquid to pull everything together. It is usually, although not always, in the form of water. Occasionally the liquid will be provided by another ingredient such as eggs, sour cream or other dairy. One point that is very important is that in order to keep the fat in the dough solid as long as possible, the water should be very cold.

There is a debate about how much water to add to the dry ingredients. Because water leads to the development of gluten, some say to add your water gradually just until you have a cohesive dough. They caution that too much water will result in a tougher crust due to the increased gluten. Others say that gluten is not necessarily a bad thing as it helps your dough to be stronger and less prone to tearing as you roll it out. I will discuss this more in next week’s Tip on the proper techniques of making pie dough.

This balance of too much/not enough water is what leads some experts to recommend adding vodka or any 80-proof spirit for part of the water. There is no discernible alcohol taste but they claim it is easier to roll out the dough. The reasoning is that although gluten forms with the water, it does not with alcohol. They recommend mixing ¼ cup of water with the same amount of vodka and using this mixture in your pie dough. A tender but very easy to roll out dough is the result. I must say that I have not noticed this is much of an advantage when I have tried it.

What about the old recommendation of adding vinegar or lemon juice to your pie dough? The sources that recommend this say it reduces gluten development. However, when put to scientific tests, it has been found that slightly acidic doughs actually have more gluten. To get the desired tenderizing effect, you would have to use about ¼ cup of acid, which would give your dough a very sour taste.  So, this is one “old wives’ tale” that we can put to rest.

For basic pie dough, called Pâte Brisée (translated broken paste or dough), the only ingredients are flour, fat and water. An easy to remember ratio is 3:2:1 – 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat and 1 part water where 1 part is 4 ounces. Another recommendation is 2 parts flour to 2 parts fat with 1 part water. As I mentioned above, I use all butter as my fat but you could also do a mixture of butter and shortening. This type of pie crust can be used for any application.

There may be times when you want a sweeter dough, called Pâte Sucré (sugar paste/dough). Although recipes vary, the one I like to use contains flour, fat, sugar and eggs. The latter is what provides the liquid. Any sweet pie or tart filling works great with this dough. A delicious example is a Lemon Tart.

A third version is Pâte Sablé (sand paste). In this type of dough, you use a nut flour in addition to your AP flour. Other ingredients are sugar, butter and eggs. This is the only pie dough of these three where the ingredients are better at room temperature as they will be creamed together in a mixer. This dough can be made into cookies or used in other sweet pastry applications.

Now that you have the necessary ingredients, stay tuned for next week’s Tip on technique. Although ingredients are important, it is really the technique that will make or break your pie crust. It sure is getting delicious around here, isn’t it?  See you next week!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Crepes — Simple but Impressive!

I am going to be teaching a fun class on Crepes. I thought all of you might also enjoy learning all about these delightful creations. From very light and sweet crepes used to make Crepes Suzette to sturdier and nuttier Buckwheat crepes that you would use in a full-flavored savory dish, there is so much to learn. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Although you will find crepes used in other cuisines, they are French in origin. The word crêpe is French for pancake. They originated in Brittany in the northwest of France. At that time, they were not typically filled but rather eaten as bread. Buckwheat flour was the preferred flour up until about 100 years ago. A sidenote is that in some parts of France, the heartier Buckwheat crepe, normally containing a savory filling, is called a galette. The word “crepe” is reserved for the lighter and more likely sweet version.

February 2nd is known in France as Le Jour des Crêpes (the day of crepes). According to The Institute of Culinary Education, this celebration is “believed to have begun in the year 472 when crêpes were offered to French Catholic pilgrims visiting Rome for Candlemas by Pope Gelasio I. Now, Le Jour des Crêpes and Candlemas are synonymous occasions in France and Belgium, where crêpes take on additional meaning, their circular nature symbolizing either a coin or the sun.”

The ingredient list for crepes is small – flour, eggs, butter, milk and/or water. Other ingredients such as salt, sugar and vanilla are optional depending on the type of crepe you are making.

Flour – most standard crepes use just all-purpose flour. For a heartier crepe, buckwheat flour can be used. This is a very strong tasting flour, which can be tamed by using a combination of buckwheat and all-purpose flour. One advantage of using all buckwheat is that it is gluten-free. Rice flour can also be used for gluten-free crepes and is better suited when you want a lighter and/or sweet crepe. Other flours that can be used are garbanzo flour, chestnut flour and whole-wheat flour. Even cornmeal is sometimes used.

Liquid – some recipes may call only for water but this does lead to a bland crepe that lacks some structure. Milk gives you a richer crepe. There are those that feel all milk is too heavy and will use a mixture of milk and water.

Seasoning – for a savory crepe, just add a pinch of salt. For more variety, you can add finely chopped herbs, minced sun-dried tomatoes or other spices. For sweet crepes, add a touch of sugar and vanilla extract.

How to make crepes

Start by melting your butter and allowing it to cool just a bit so it doesn’t scramble the eggs. Browning your butter before using it adds a delightful nuttiness to the crepe. The easiest and best method for combining all these ingredients is by using a blender although you can do it by hand with a whisk. Just make sure everything is thoroughly incorporated and realize that your crepes might end up a bit denser than they would if you used a blender.

Some recipes will have you just add all the ingredients to the blender or bowl and then combine. Others will have you do it in steps. Those recipes have you start by first blending the liquid and eggs. This is followed by adding the flour and again blending. Finally, pour in the melted butter as the blender is running.

Most sources will tell you it is very important to rest your crepe batter for 30-60 minutes before cooking the crepes. You can even refrigerate it overnight. This allows the flour to fully hydrate, for bubbles to disappear and for the flavor to develop. There are those such as J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats who feel the resting stage is not that important.

To cook them, you do not need any special equipment – only a small nonstick skillet. I have a special nonstick crepe pan that I love. It has a slightly larger surface area and shorter and straighter sides than a nonstick skillet. It looks something like this one. You can even purchase the type of crepe maker that you see experts using in crepe shops. The diameter of these is much larger and requires a bit of practice to learn how to twirl the batter to get a good result. I bought one for my husband and every time I get it out, I have to re-learn how to do it.

There are a few important tips on how to cook them. First, you want to add melted butter or oil to your hot pan. Add a small amount and wipe out the excess with a paper towel. Since you want a thin crepe, it is critical to only add enough batter to get this result. How much you add will depend on the size of your pan but for an 8-inch pan, you will want to try about 3 tablespoons. Add the batter to the center of the pan and quickly tilt and rotate the pan so the batter flows out and covers the bottom. As you cook a few, you will soon find the best amount of batter for your pan. For a scientific explanation of the best method, see this article from Physics.

Some recommend the “pour out” method in which you pour in more batter than you need, swirl the pan once to get an even coating followed quickly by pouring the excess batter back into your bowl. Try both methods and see which you prefer.

Cook them only until the bottom is set. This shouldn’t be more than 15-30 seconds. Carefully flip the crepe and finish cooking the other side for an additional 30 seconds or until set. If you cook them too long, they could get rubbery. Realize that crepes are similar to pancakes in that the first one often does not turn out. You will get better results as you do additional crepes.

Crepes are best eaten just after cooking. However, you can store them in the refrigerator in an airtight container for three days. Gently reheat them in a skillet before serving. They can be frozen up to a month. Be sure to place either wax paper or parchment between each crepe before placing in an airtight freezer bag.

Crepes are delicious but they are really just a type of envelope to hold the filling. This could be nothing more than my husband’s favorite of a sprinkling of lemon juice and sugar. It could also be whipped cream/berries, chocolate sauce, Nutella or the classic Crepes Suzette.

For savory fillings, a couple I like are Chicken, Corn and Red Pepper as well as a Beef Picadillo with a Chipotle Crema. One of the best meals we had in Paris was an unbelievably delicious but so simple Ham and Egg crepe.

The French way to fill a crepe is to place the filling on the crepe and then fold it into quarters. You can also just roll them like an enchilada, fold them into a square or do a simple fold-over. Here is a link to a nice description of some of the most common folds.

Once you learn the basics and practice just a bit, you will be able to easily impress your friends and family with these delectable creations!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Custards – how to cook this yummy dish.

I have been working on a class I will be teaching on Crêpes. In the class, I will be teaching how to make different varieties of crêpes as well as numerous fillings, both savory and sweet. One of the sweet ones is an Orange Custard filling. Custards are delicious and wonderful creations and it is a technique that all cooks should know. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

A custard is nothing more than a mixture of milk, eggs and often sugar that is cooked into a thickened product. It forms the filling not only for crêpes but also is the basis of crème brulee, flan, ice cream, quiche and more. It is not difficult to make a custard but there are some hints that I hope you find helpful. I also recommend that you invest in a good instant read thermometer as it will help you make a delicious custard that is safe to eat but not overcooked.

Custards can be categorized in a couple different ways. The first is by the cooking technique.

  • Baked custards are typically started on the stovetop but baked in the oven. Examples are crème brûlée, flan and cheesecake.
  • Stovetop (stirred) custards are, as the name implies, cooked totally on the cooktop. These custards are smooth, creamy and thickened but do not gel as with a baked custard. Examples are crème anglaise, pastry cream and zabaglione.

The other way to categorize custards is by how they are thickened.

  • Basic custards – thickened by eggs alone. They are delicate and care must be taken to not overcook them. They thicken between 160° and 180°F. Cooking it beyond 185°F may cause it to curdle and lose its shape as the egg proteins break down. You also run the risk of creating scrambled eggs. To prevent this, these custards are usually cooked by using a double boiler. They should never be boiled.

    These custards are meant to be very soft and creamy although the thickness can be adjusted by changing the proportion of the egg content. If you use more whole eggs or egg whites, the custard will turn out firmer and glossier. More egg yolks (or yolks alone) produce a softer, creamier custard.

    Examples – crème anglaise (which can be frozen into ice cream), flan, pot de crème, crème caramel.
  • Starch-thickened – this type of custard is thickened with the aid of a starch such as flour or cornstarch. They have more body and are not quite as delicate as the starch helps to protect against curdling. The recommended amount is one tablespoon of flour or two teaspoons cornstarch (or arrowroot) for every cup of liquid. Whereas this does help guard against curdling, it can also turn a smooth, creamy dish into a thicker and coarser one. This type of custard needs to be brought to a simmer to ensure it is cooked properly. A guideline is to cook it for 1-2 minutes after bubbles appear. For more information types of thickeners, see the Tip.

    Examples – puddings, pastry cream, cheesecake.
  • Gelatin-set – gelatin is used to produce a set-up custard that can stand on its own after it has been chilled properly. I love using leaf gelatin rather than powdered for the silkiest texture. See this Tip for more info on gelatin types.

    Examples – a classic example is a Bavarian, which is usually set in a decorative mold. A basic custard may also have gelatin added to it, often along with a fruit puree or chocolate. It then can be made into an icebox pie.

Now for some technique advice. Many custards start by having you beat/whisk the eggs (whole or just yolks) together with the sugar until it has thickened and turned light yellow. Some will recommend you continue to the “ribbon” stage, which means the mixture will form a ribbon as you lift up your spoon and allow the mixture to fall back into the bowl. These instructions are meant to help you ensure that the sugar has mostly dissolved. You do not necessarily need to go all the way to ribbon stage but a good mixing until the color and consistency changes is a good idea.

Some recipes will have you heat the dairy (milk, cream) before adding it to the egg/sugar mixture. This is not necessary unless you want to infuse flavor into the dairy. For example, I have a custard tart recipe in which I infuse vanilla seeds and orange zest into milk. This is achieved by bringing the dairy to a boil, adding those two ingredients, covering it, taking it off the heat and allowing to steep for 30 minutes. That steeped dairy is then whisked into the egg mixture. If I did not want to infuse any flavors, I could have added everything together and then heated it on the stovetop.

If you are told to add hot milk/cream to the egg mixture, the danger is that the eggs will start to cook and you will end up with a scrambled egg mixture. To avoid this, you should “temper” the hot liquid into the eggs. This simply means adding some of the hot liquid very slowly into the eggs while whisking. Once the eggs have been diluted with the dairy, you can put it all back into the pot and continue with the recipe.

If your egg/dairy mixture is started cold, the heating should be done very gently so as not cook the eggs but still thicken the mixture. Resist the temptation to turn up the heat to speed the process. I love how Harold McGee puts it in his book, On Food and Cooking.

“Turning up the heat is like accelerating on a wet road while you’re looking for an unfamiliar driveway. You get to your destination faster, but you may not be able to brake in time to avoid skidding past it.”

As he goes on to explain, the chemical reactions that cause the thickening of the custard don’t stop just because you take it off the heat. So, if you try to hurry this step, you may easily get to the point of curdling or overcooking.

Whether your custard is made totally on the stovetop or ends up in the oven, if there is no starch in it, it requires gentle heating. On a stovetop, this generally means using the double boiler method with constant stirring. If in the oven, a water bath should be used. A water bath just means putting the custard dishes in a larger pan (such as a roasting pan) that has enough hot water in it to go up about half-way the height of the custard dishes. Even though your oven temperature may be set at 350°F, the water in the pan won’t exceed 212°F (or even less if you live at altitude). This means the custards are exposed to a gentler & more even heat. Some recommend putting a rack in the bottom upon which you place the custard dishes so that they are not directly exposed to the hot bottom of the pan.  Without a water bath, the outside of your custard could overcook before the center is done.  With a water bath, you are more likely to catch them at the perfect degree of doneness.

If you are concerned about egg safety, you may be wondering if the eggs in a stovetop custard are cooked enough to sterilize them. As long as the mixture is cooked to at least 160°F, you will be fine. As mentioned above, you do not want the mixture to go above 185° or it might curdle. A basic crème anglaise should be ready between 175°-180°F but some recommend taking it to 180-185°F if using it to make ice cream as it will be a bit thicker.

Baked custards should come out of the oven when they are still jiggling when gently shaken, which will be around 170°-175°F.

Who doesn’t love a custardy dish? Whether you want to make a savory quiche, a chocolate pudding or an elegant crème brûlée, I trust this Tip will help you impress your friends/family.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Luscious Caramel Sauce

When you want caramel sauce to pour over your ice cream, do you run to the store and buy a pre-made bottle? We have all done that but did you know you can make your own so very simply? How to do that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Why would you want to make your own? First, you avoid a run to the store. Second, you know what exactly is in the sauce. Here is the ingredient list for a couple of major brands.

Ghirardelli Premium Caramel Sauce – Corn syrup, water, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, skim milk, heavy cream, salt, natural flavor, pectin, disodium phosphate.

Torani Caramel Sauce — Corn Syrup, Sugar, Invert Sugar, Heavy Cream, Water, Butter, Nonfat Milk, Natural Flavors, Salt, Lecithin, Sodium Bicarbonate.

What is the ingredient list for homemade caramel sauce? It is usually just sugar, water & dairy. That is a much shorter ingredient list without any artificial ingredients.

There are two main methods of making caramel – wet and dry. In the wet method, the sugar is dissolved in water whereas in the dry method, the sugar is melted without the addition of water. The wet method takes longer as the water must evaporate but you are less likely to burn the sugar than with the dry method.

Even though recipes will give you amounts of ingredients, the timing and resulting caramel will vary depending on such variables as the size/type of pan used as well as the type of cooktop and its heat. It is something that you need to use your eyes and nose for as the color of the sugar changes and the aroma develops. It is also something that takes just a bit of practice to get it just where you want it.

In the wet method, you add the sugar and water and stir until dissolved over medium-low heat. After the sugar is dissolved, raise the heat to high and let it cook without further stirring. Keep an eye on it as after a few minutes, it will start to turn a light amber and then darker amber. The longer you cook it, the darker the color and the deeper the caramel flavor. Be careful, though, as it can quickly go from dark amber to burnt. After it is at your desired color, very carefully add heavy cream (it will bubble vigorously) and whisk to combine.

Note that the longer you cook the caramel, not only does the color darken but the harder the resulting caramel will be when it cools. If it ends up too hard, you can gently re-heat it and add more liquid to thin it. On the other hand, if it is too thin, make a second batch, cook it slightly longer than the first batch and combine the two.

For a dry caramel, sprinkle a thin layer of sugar into your pot, not reaching to the edges. Over medium-high heat, cook it and watch as the sugar starts to dissolve. It will then start to turn amber around the edges. At that point, gently and carefully swirl it to distribute the sugar. Once most of it has turned amber, add another thin layer of sugar and continue to cook until amber. Repeat until you have added all the sugar and reached the desired color. Remove from the heat and immediately and carefully add your cream.

What about butter? Some recipes call for it whereas others do not. Butter produces a very nice mouthfeel due to the high fat content. However, as butter is solid at room temperature, your caramel sauce will be firmer when cooled, especially after being in the refrigerator.

Many pastry chefs will tell you that you can use either of these methods interchangeably and get similar results. Others will say that since with the wet method, you must take time to evaporate the water, the sugar cooks longer resulting in more complex flavors.

The biggest problem people have is that the sugar can crystallize, making the sugar syrup very grainy. If it does this, take it off the heat, add a couple tablespoons of water and heat again until the crystals dissolve.

The following are recommended methods to prevent crystallization in the first place.

  • Use a wet pastry brush to wipe down any sugar crystals on the side of the pan. Not all chefs do this and say they have no problems.
  • Although not as common, some will lightly oil the sides of the pan before starting so the sugar does not stick to the pan.
  • Another method involves putting a lid on the pot if you see any crystals on the side. This will produce steam and dissolve the crystals.
  • Add a different type of molecule. Crystallization is most common in what is called a “pure solution”. By adding a different type of ingredient such as corn syrup (mostly glucose) or a few drops of acid (lemon juice, vinegar, cream of tartar), you can prevent crystallization.
  • A common recommendation is to not stir as the sugar is cooking, particularly before the color starts to change. Then, only stir if spots are getting too dark. I must say that there are pastry chefs, though, who do some careful stirring without resulting crystallization.

Another problem is that the caramel gets too dark or even burns.

  • Use a heavy gauge stainless steel pot. With a thin pan, you are more likely to experience uneven cooking and a higher likelihood of burning.
  • Try to not to use a pot with a dark interior as it is much harder to judge the color.
  • A wide saucepan or even a deep skillet is better than a tall and narrow pot. With the latter, there is less surface area, which slows down the caramelization process.
  • Have a bowl of cold water ready. When you reach the desired color, submerge the bottom of the pan into the cold water to quickly stop the cooking process.
  • Quickly add your cream as the cold cream will cool down the solution. Just be careful as it will bubble vigorously as you do this. Stand back and then whisk together.

Once you get the correct color, there will be almost no water left. As this cools, it will become rock hard. You need to add moisture to get the desired consistency. The more liquid you add, the thinner it will be. If you add too much, just put the pot back on the heat to evaporate some of the water. If it is too thin, add more liquid.

Remember that cooked sugar is extremely hot and can cause serious burns. Always be careful when making caramel or anything that requires you to melt sugar. Use heavy oven mitts and long sleeves. Many experts recommend that you put a bowl of ice water nearby in case any of the mixture splashes onto your hands. If so, immediately put them into the ice water. NEVER taste it until it has fully cooled!

Homemade caramel sauce is a delightful concoction. Although it does take a bit of practice, once you master it, there will be no more quick runs to the store for that pre-made sauce.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

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!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

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!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

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!