Monday, December 17, 2012

Tips & Tricks | Baking Tools & Ingredients

Dear Foodies,

I've started a small tradition over the last few years. Each year, around Christmas I bake sweet treats and mail them to some of my dear friends. It started as a one time thing to try some of the recipes I had bookmarked. The joy it brought to them and in return to me was so enriching that I now look forward to it each year. But I am no baker, even after multiple batches of cookies, cakes, bars I am still learning and its a touch and go process. Cooking comes easy to me as I can taste test and make adjustments at any point. It is a still a science but a friendlier one :)

I've picked up some tricks, honed my methods and figured out some things that always work and help make things go smooth. The kitchen is still a mess and covered with flour or sugar or butter but as long as I have a sweet treat in the end, all is good.

Baking is all about measurements, you need to have all your ingredients to come together in the perfect ratio in order to make a good end product. And so having measuring cups and spoons is vital. I don't own a kitchen scale as yet but its on my list for sometime soon. For now though, I rely heavily on these little cups and spoons. I've picked up many variations because they look good or are cute, but the ones I reach for the most is the simple plastic cups and my ceramic and stainless steel measuring spoons. I have them hung on the wall right next to my counter so they are right where I can use them easily. If not I would go back to my old ways of guesstimating 1 tsp which definitely does not work.

Leaveners - Baking soda & Baking powder - are key ingredients in most sweet treats. Make a not of the  expiration dates on these and keep them sealed air tight for the best results. They cannot be used interchangeable in all recipes as they react very differently. But once you understand how they differ you can certainly use judgement. Baking soda is activated by liquid or acidic ingredients to release carbon dioxide which in turn lifts the cake or cookie. So its essential that you bring together the two ingredients right before it goes into the oven. Delaying this will cause your cake to drop or turn out dense. Baking soda also reduces the sharpness that ingredients like sour cream or buttermilk bring to the dish.

Baking powder on the other hand is a combination of baking soda and 2 acidic ingredients. So it doesn't necessarily need a additional acidic ingredient. It would still need a liquid to begin the aeration though. The first stage happens when it comes in contact with a liquid and the second stage is heat activated, and hence is also referred to as double-acting. Recipes using baking soda need to be baked immediately, but those with baking powder can be allowed to rest for a while. Do keep in mind that the longer it sits lesser effect it will have.

Sugars - White, brown, light brown, dark brown, granulated, powdered and many many more. Once you get baking you will soon see your pantry fill up with all these different kinds. If you are lucky enough to have a store with bulk bins, use it to your advantage and buy just the quantity you need. In some cases the kind of sugar called for cannot be substituted for another kind 1:1. The texture, density and quantity vary with which kind you use. But there are still some tricks that are good to know. If you have regular granulated white cane sugar you can whiz it up in the blender to make your own powdered sugar instead of buying a separate box. Light/Dark brown sugar is granulated white sugar + molasses. The amount of molasses dictates if its light or brown. So by having a bottle of molasses will be useful not just in recipe for molasses but to also use in recipes that call for brown sugar.

Turbinado sugar has bigger granules and to me tastes similar to what I was used to having as a kid. I use it on a day to day basis for coffee/tea and desserts. It had a mild caramely, deep flavor that is great in Indian desserts as well. Crackle cookies that are really popular these days get the 'crackle' part from a light coating of this sugar. The bigger granules don't disintegrate in the high temps of the oven and lend a desirable crunch.

I can't leave out butter in a post about baking, can I! This is the first ingredient to set aside and a very important one at that. There are many varieties out there and I don't intend to go into which is better. The one thing to pay attention to is if its salted or unsalted. Adding a little bit of salt is always desirable even is a sweet dish as it brings out the flavors of all the ingredients, exaggerating them even. Now a days you will notice a pinch of salt in most ingredient lists and unsalted butter. You can always use salted butter but make sure you skip the additional salt. I am not going to get into salts in this post since that will take up a lot more space :)

Its important to have your ingredients at room temperature before you begin. This will allow them to combine very easily and react as expected to give you good results. Set butter, eggs and other ingredients like sour cream or cream cheese at room temp for atleast 3-4 hours. But like me, if you decide to bake something last minute and haven't done this then don't fret. If you have an hour to spare, cube the butter into little chunks to speed up the process. Less than that, microwave the whole stick, with wrapper for 10-15secs at a time, rotate and repeat 4-5 times until you feel it warm up. Or cut it in cubes and place is a warm glass bowl.

The first step is most recipes will be to cream butter and sugar. This part is essential as it creates little air pockets enveloped in fat which go on to create texture in the final dish. Starting off with room temp butter will help this step. Start on low speed and slowly increase the speed until the butter sugar mixture is pale, almost white and not as grainy to the touch. Its very hard to over beat but definitely possible. About 3-4mins with a handheld blender is a good reference point. The heat from over beating will cause butter to melt, thus breaking the bubbles we tried so hard to create. Once other ingredients are added there chance to create more bubbles is lost, so complete this stage before adding extracts or eggs.

Eggs are another ingredient that need to be a room temp, if you are running short of time, immerse them in warm (not hot!) tap water for 10-15mins. If a recipe calls for multiple eggs, add them one at a time after each previous egg is fully incorporated. When adding eggs to the butter-sugar mixture it is natural for it to look curdled since at that point there is a lot more fat in the batter, once flour is added, balance will be restored, so don't fret :)

Extracts give the distinct flavor of each baked treat, be it vanilla, orange, almond. They are the backbone of any cookie or cake. Vanilla is the most common of them all and to me is the cardamom of non-Indian desserts. Almost all recipes I've seen use it as it gives a depth of flavor and its signature fragrance is hard to beat. Making your own extract takes less that 10mins and the resulting liquid is sheer magic in your homemade treats. The aroma that fills up your kitchen will be amazing, I promise. You can use the same technique to create any flavor extract you want and control what goes into your baking.

Spices are another great complement to a sweet dessert as they break the monotony of sweetness. A little bit of ginger will give a warm, mildly spicy kick, nutmeg does the same by rounding out flavors. Cinnamon is a key holiday scent and the kind used for baking has a much sweeter smell and flavor compared to its Indian counterpart, cassia bark. I also have begun using allspice which has a musty, spicey flavor like cloves+nutmeg+cinnamon. When you are done baking don't let these fabulous power houses sit in the spice cabinet. I add a sprinkling of these to my evening tea instead of chai masala or use them instead of garam masala.

I have a set of three heavy nesting bowls that I've had for more than 5-6yrs. They are solid and work perfectly for my baking projects. I use the largest one for creaming butter-sugar since that is where the final mixing happens. The middle one holds the dry mix, and I've began sifting even if a recipe does not call for it. Sifting the dry ingredients helps blend all the spices & leaveners, break any lumps and distributes the ingredients evenly throughout. Sifting also incorporates some amount of air and this will also help in the final texture.

And finally, don't throw away the butter warppers, use them instead to prepare the ever important baking sheets/pans. Whats the point of taking pains to create a perfect batter if it won't leave the pan, right ? Even if its a non-stick baking sheet I like to use parchment as insurance. But paper doesn't really want to stay in place, so use the butter paper to grease the pan, this will ensure that the parchment sticks to the baking sheet. If using the baking tin with high edges for cakes, grease the pan and sprinkle a thin layer of flour and dust off any extra flour on the surface.

There you go! I did not know I had so much to share and I still have a lot more. I just realized I could go on about each of these topics for a lot longer, so there might be more posts in the future. But I hope these little bites of information will get you started on some of the seasons baking.

Please do share your tips and tricks as well so we can all benefit from our trials and tribulations :)

Here are a few recipes for the holiday season -
Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti 
Shortbread CookiesFruit Cake CookiesEggless Oatmeal Raisin CookiesaltChocolate TrufflesClementine MarmaladeRaspberry Jam

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Simple meals | Orecchiette in Arrabbiata sauce

Dear Foodies,

I try to cook almost everyday since time in the kitchen helps me unwind and relax. Keeping track of what ingredient goes next, what needs to be washed, chopped, grated, pureed...enough salt ? spice ? With all that happening there's no choice but to throw out all of the days worries. At the end of it all there is a nice meal to enjoy as well, so its a win-win. That does not apply to the clean up that follows, but lets not go there. On days when I want a meal done asap all inspiration is lost on me though. I get into a mechanical mode reaching out for a few selective dishes. There is no energy expended in planning for them. Traditional Indian meals that my mom made fall under that category for the most part - Pappu or chaaru or sambar and plain annam (rice), a quick stir-fry of cabbage or beanskichadi + kadhi are some of them.

Over the last few years I have added a few more dishes into this category. I make a mixed veg quinoa quite often throwing in any veggies I have on hand and the first masala I find in the spice cabinet. And then there is pasta...

it could be the new rice...the new guilty pleasure :) And I say that as I don't always be good and use whole wheat pasta. But whichever one you choose its always quick to make as most dry pastas cook in less than 10-12 mins. And more often and not that's how long I take to prepare a sauce to go with it. So with that I start this 'Simple meals' category which will make use of pantry ingredients and not take too much hands on time.

There is this tiny cafe next to the grocery store I shop at and they make the best gnocchi I've had. Its served in an arrabbiata sauce that has the right amount of heat and the gnocchi ...oooh the gnocchi. It just melts in your mouth and it has a snow like grating of cheese on top that seals the deal. This weekend when the weather was gloomy and cold all I wanted was a warm plate of pasta in a zesty sauce. I did not have gnocchi and so I used orecchiette but feel free to use any pasta you have on hand. Its the sauce that is the magic component here.
Orecchiette in Arrabbiata sauce
Cooking time - 20mins
Servings - 2 
  • 2 cups - Orecchiette (or any dry pasta) 
  • 4 - Plum tomatoes
  • 2 - Garlic, cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp - Red chilli flakes
  • 1/4 tsp - Dried Oregano
  • 2 Tbsp - Olive oil
  • Salt to taste
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Toasted pine nuts
  • 5-6 - Basil leaves, chopped
  • Freshly grated Parmesan/Asiago cheese
  1. Bring water to a rolling boil in a deep pot, add about a Tbsp of salt, dry pasta and give it a stir. Cook per package instructions.
  2. In the mean time, add oil to a pan along with garlic and red chilli flakes. As they begin to sizzle add chopped tomatoes and a small pinch of sugar. Continue to cook until the tomatoes soften and break down. Crush oregano in your palm and add to the sauce and season with salt to taste.
  3. Save about 1/2 cup pasta water and drain the pasta a minute or two before its done. Add it to the tomato sauce along with 1/4 cup reserved pasta water and continue to cook until pasta is al dente. Add more water as needed to achieve desired consistency.
  4. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with chopped basil, toasted pine nuts and fresh grated cheese.

This is an uncomplicated, hearty meal for a cold, gloomy day. Arrabbiata is nothing but a spicy marinara and this sauce can be used as a dipping sauce or on pizza's as well. There are very few ingredients in this recipe and so each of them counts. Use plump, ripe tomatoes is available, canned tomatoes will also work. Fresh basil and toasted pine nuts complete the dish. I love pine nuts and usually add a few extra to my bowl. The basil, shockingly came from my ever-brown garden. I had given up on the basil and had even stopped watering the plants and surprisingly I saw it spring back to life. The cheese is optional but a light sprinkle on warm pasta is tempting. What are your go-to simple meals ?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Home-made Extracts

Dear Foodies,

Its December already and a year has flown by with its share of ups and downs. This space has also seen the ebb and flow of posts coming its way(or not!). Driving home from work today I almost contemplated closing this blog given the erratic updates. But something in me couldn't fathom not being able to log in and pen down my thoughts and recipes here. Its been over 6 years since I started blogging and it has slowly but firmly planted itself into my identity. I may not come here as often but I will never cut it off.

With my mind cleared out I was back to planning the 'butter+sugar' month. Though I come from a Hindu family, Christmas has always held a special place. I think its a combination of 12 years at a convent school, holidays around this time, having family friends who brought us decadent fruit cakes and home-made wine and the magic of experiencing an all-white Christmas in the US. I am not a baker and would peg myself into the cook category as I can never strictly adhere to a recipe. But come December I whip out the hand mixer, buy pounds of butter, sugar and flour and start compiling recipes to bake.

Flavor extracts are a key ingredient in many desserts, especially vanilla. Orange is another flavor that I find myself adding to most of my recent recipes. Its just as easy to add zest but having an extract on hand is convenient when you are out of fresh fruit or don't want to taint the color of a cream frosting or white chocolate etc.

There is not exact recipe for these -combine your choice of (prepped) flavoring ingredient + vodka (triple distilled, 80-100 proof) and allow it to steep in cool, dark place.
Homemade Extracts
Vanilla Extract
  • 2-3 Vanilla beans, split lengthwise
  • 3/4 cup - Vodka
  • glass bottle with lid/cork
  1. Pick a glass bottle that can hold a whole vanilla bean. Clean and dry completely. Place vanilla beans in the bottle and cover completely with vodka. Seal well and place in a cool, dark place in your kitchen. Give it a shake every day or so for the first week. 
Notes: Within 3 days you will begin to notice a light brown color and the extract was strong enough to use within 2 weeks. A month would be ideal but if you want to use it sooner start off with extra vanilla beans. I used 4-5 beans in my current batch and add more vodka as I use some of it. I buy my vanilla beans on Amazon from this supplier, its a great deal and the quality has been great. You can use vanilla beans in the extract for recipes as well. They will be super moist and you can squeeze out the seeds easily.

Lemon/Orange Extract
  • 1-2 - whole organic lemons or 1 orange
  • 3/4 cup - Vodka
  • glass bottle with lid/cork
  1. Wash and dry fruit thoroughly before peeling off the thin outer layer. If any white pith remains, slice it off with a paring knife as they tend to add bitterness. Fill the bottle with peels and cover completely with vodka. Seal well and place in a cool, dark place in your kitchen. Shake the bottle gently one a day for 2-3 days. Check for readiness after a week or continue to steep longer.
Notes: Use organic fruit or fruit not treated with pesticides or wax coating since we will be using just the peels here. I wanted the extract to have a strong citrus flavor and used a high zest to vodka ratio. Some recipes I saw online suggested straining the extract after a month but I've had mine steeping for about 3 months now it had not turned bitter on me. But do check on your batch and strain if needed after you are satisfied with the flavor.

You can apply the same method to make flavored liqueurs. Below are raspberry and lemon (my take on chambord and limoncello) liqueurs getting ready to do their thing. For the raspberry (which was my fav of the two), I used 2 pints of organic berries and 2 cups of vodka. After steeping for 2 weeks all the color from the raspberry transfers to the vodka along with the their fabulous flavor. Strain gently, and add equal quantity of cooled simple syrup to the flavored vodka. Simple syrup is a combination of equal parts sugar and water heated just  until sugar is melted. Allow it to cool completely before adding to your vodka. Store for another 2 weeks before its ready to be served. A similar process for limoncello as well - reference recipe.

These make perfect gifts to anyone who loves to bake or enjoys cocktails. They don't require much hands-on time once you have the bottles filled and stashed. I bought the smaller bottles at Michaels and the larger ones at Marshalls for a bargain.

These extracts will immensely improve the quality of your baked goods. The flavors are strong and provide a depth that can never be replicated by store bought ones. So far I've made - Cranberry Pecan Muffins using the recipe from America's Test Kitchen (register to read recipe + useful tips & tricks, or check this). These were perfect with a prominent cranberry flavor, just enough sweetness and a fabulous nuttiness from the pecans. The streusel topping stayed crunchy even the next day. Do give it a try before fresh cranberries disappear from the store aisles.

I attempted my first batch of macarons using Helene's tutorial. No two macarons were the same shape but they all tasted great :) Next on the list was replicating my favorite treat from Starbucks - cranberry bliss bars. I searched for recipes online and ended up with this one. I used vanilla and orange extract in the blondie batter. I made the frosting with 8 oz cream cheese, 1 cup powdered sugar and my vanilla and lemon extract. I also replaced the sugar frosting drizzle with melted white chocolate. The bars were a huge hit and the cream cheese frosting was amazing with that zing of lemon.

I bake these goodies and share them with my colleagues at work. What should I try next, any suggestions ?

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