How I Got Started + Tips for Sucessful Baking
I'm a firm believer that everyone can bake. Before I got started, I had let friends convince me that making a cake from scratch was too tricky to even bother, that I was doomed to fail. I had only ever made boxed cake before, and that tasted good enough. Why risk it? But after watching a lot of Ace of Cakes one summer, I got it into my head that I was going to make my roommate's birthday cake. And not just any cake - I wanted a two-tier, multi-layer cake covered in pink fondant, a chocolate tiara, and pink penguins. Cooky, I know, but she loved princesses and Happy Feet. So I found a recipe for homemade fondant using marshmallows and powdered sugar. It was easy enough, and it tasted far better than the canned stuff at Michael's. More importantly, it was fun - messy, but fun! I didn't make the cake from scratch, but making the fondant was my first step in the right direction. And I was hooked. That summer, I volunteered as a decorator at a cupcake shop in my hometown. I learned a lot, and it fueled my fire for baking. A few months later, I found Joe Pastry's blog, and it became my guide - my sherpa. Suddenly I was making cinnamon rolls, turnovers, sugar cookies, danishes, and crème brûlée. When I finally made a cake from scratch, the veil had been lifted. It turns out it's not that scary. Anything in baking is possible as long as you follow (good) directions, and Joe's were fantastic. He made everything look doable, even Opera cake and croissants. Granted, it took some gumption to tackle more complicated projects like traditional apple strudel, but the point is that it's possible. And it's so satisfying to look at a fresh-from-the-oven treat and think, "wow, I made that!"
If you're new to baking or just never quite got the hang of it, it can feel overwhelming. But don't ever feel like you can't do it just because a recipe is new, seems too scary, or too time consuming to attempt. Even the most talented chefs were beginners at some point, and it just took a few key things and good habits:
First, always read and re-read your recipes. I know it sounds tedious, but if you don't read all of the steps before you start, you may end up missing steps or making irreparable mistakes like scrambling your custard while adding all of the hot cream at once. And be sure to read any side notes if included. They may preemptively answer questions you would have had.
Mis en place - French for "putting in place." Again, this may seem tedious, but you always want to have all of your ingredients measured and ready before starting. Yes, it will likely mean more dishes. But for instance, when making a caramel, you need to be ready to halt the cooking process with your measured cream or it can burn the second your back is turned (ask me how I know).
A "can-do" attitude and patience are also musts. It's easy to want to give up when your carefully tended babka doesn't rise. But you have to remember that it's just pastry, and you can always do it again. Just brush the flour off of your hands, try to figure out what went wrong, and start again. It'll feel so satisfying when it works.
Having the right equipment is also important. While there are truly only a few items that you absolutely must have for a simple cake or batch of cookies, it helps to have a few extra things on hand for precision, convenience, and reducing labor. I've listed some of the items in my kitchen by what I consider necessary and what are added luxuries.
Nice to Have
- Stand mixer - these are definitely a luxury, but they are SO useful. In addition to making cake batters, meringues, and whipped creams, these will knead your bread doughs. Stick with the metal bowl since the glass can shatter.
- Digital instant read thermometer - faster and more accurate than a candy thermometer, these are fantastic when making candy, ganache, custards, cooked meringues, and when checking the doneness of some breads and doughs. The Thermapen is the best (and most expensive), but other brands will work with decent accuracy.
- Silicone baking mats - these are washable mats that cover your baking sheets so you don't have to use parchment paper. They're also less thermally conductive than metal pans, so they'll distribute heat slowly and won't burn the bottom of your cookies.
- Food processor - I love mine for chopping nuts, making tart doughs, almond paste, and certain cake batters. But you can get by without one.
- Flour sifter - good for aerating flour and getting rid of clumps in powdered sugar. But I found that a sieve is just as well and is more versatile.
- Pastry brush - this is helpful when applying egg washes to pastries and syrups to cake layers. You can always use your fingers and spoons, respectively, but brushes allow for a more delicate application.
- Cake leveler - if you're making layer cakes, this handy tool will help you evenly cut layers and remove the top of an uneven cake. But this can be accomplished with a serrated knife, too.
- Cake lifter - this is basically a really wide metal spatula for lifting delicate or large cake layers without tearing them. It's handy only if you're building layer cakes.
- Cake turn table - Ateco makes a fabulous metal turn table for decorating cakes, but it's not necessary unless you're trying to get a smooth finish on your buttercream. A lazy Susan will also work.
- Piping bags and tips - these are great if you think you'll use them often. But a plastic storage bag with a hole cut into one corner will work in a pinch.
- Small grinder - Krups makes a cheap grinder that's great for turning whole nuts into flour. It doesn't hold much, so it takes a few batches and some sifting, but it's a work horse!
- Microplane - great for zesting citrus fruits and grating fresh nutmeg, but you could always use the fine side of a cheese grater.
- Pastry blender - this is only useful if you're making a lot of pie dough by hand. But even then, I prefer just using my hands (or a food processor).
- Marble pastry board - hello, fabulous! These are great for tempering chocolate and keeping doughs cold. But they're a luxury. Even now, I mostly just use mine as a prop.
Need to Have
- Pans - obvious but important. You'll want at least a couple of simple cake pans (aluminum are best), a pie tin (metal heats better than ceramic), and a couple of rimmed half sheet pans. You can get by without un-rimmed baking sheets. Tart, muffin, springform, tube, and bundt pans are all specialty items only specific to certain recipes.
- Oven mitts - again, obvious. But try to get some quality mitts made out of silicone or Nomex (like the Ove Glove). A cheap fabric glove will burn you through the cloth.
- Cooling racks - round or rectangular, I like the waffle design best because smaller pastries won't fall through the cracks.
- Scale - baking is about precision, and scooping up dry ingredients by volume is a lot less precise than weighing them. I'm slowly trying to convert all of my recipes to weight measurements, so you'll need a scale for some of them.
- Measuring cups and spoons - often ingredients aren't listed by weight, so be sure to have measuring cups and spoons of various sizes. You'll want cups for both liquid and dry ingredients. And get spoons with a 1/8 teaspoon measurement.
- In-oven thermometer - unless you have a brand new, top-of-the-line oven, you'll want a thermometer to determine how accurate (or inaccurate) the oven's thermostat is. Hang it on the middle rack for the best reading.
- Clip-on candy thermometer - if you're boiling sugar for candy, a meringue, toffee, or caramel or you're making ganache, a thermometer is key. Digital pen thermometers are better (see the "Nice to Haves"), but a clip on thermometer will do fine.
- Hand-held mixer - If you don't have a stand mixer, a cheap hand-held electric mixer will work great for cakes, meringues, and whipped cream. It just won't knead dough for you, and it's a little to aggressive for silky buttercreams.
- Silicone spatulas - these are indispensable. Buy twelve.
- Offset spatulas - they come in different sizes and they're great for applying frosting to cookies and cakes.
- Whisks - have at least one medium-sized whisk. If you want to be able to whip egg whites to stiff peaks by hand (because you're a boss), pick up a balloon whisk, too.
- Parchment paper - for lining cake pans and baking sheets.
- Rolling pin - you don't need a fancy pin; a long piece of 1 1/4 inch PVC pipe will do nicely in a pinch.
- Sieve - these are great for sifting dry ingredients together, straining fruit purées and custards, and applying powdered sugar or cocoa to desserts. Get a couple in different sizes.
- Biscuit cutters - you can always use a drinking glass in a pinch, but it won't release the dough as easily.
- Bench scraper - these are fantastic for cutting dough, scraping dried batter or chocolate off of your counter, smoothing buttercream, leveling dry ingredients, and measuring the thickness of rolled doughs. I have an extra long one for smoothing the frosting on tall cakes.
And that's it. Organization, practice, the right attitude, and a few key tools can take you a long way. Of course, you should be prepared for some failures - they're inevitable. But failures will help you develop good instincts if you choose to learn from them. Just give yourself grace, and you'll get better every time. And most importantly, you'll have fun in the process!