Bake your winter

My picture-postcard White Christmas dream got dashed. (A White Halloween was little retrospective consolation.) Come on, Winter: Cloak this ground in immaculate white, fluffy flakes competing for airspace with perfect, graduated steam puffs from stovepipes! Let’s unfurl the blankets and curl up in fireside cocoons with cocoa and cookies.

But whence will the cookies come? By this time most years, I’m up to my apron strings in baked goods; but this naked Earth offers little motivation to a traditional winter romantic. It might as well be summer, with all that patchy grass outside.

Nonetheless, here are a few baking tips to help get you (and me) in the mood. For a surrogate storm, let’s cover the kitchen table with unbleached all-purpose snow.

But you can forgo the sifter: At this point in society’s evolution – when the primary function of sifting is no longer to remove errant chunks of millstone – we perform this arduous task for two reasons: to ensure accurate measurement of ingredients and to add a perceived airiness to the texture of the finished product. But you can do that with a whisk instead.

Real vanilla and real almond extract are worth the real money: Real vanilla extract is fragrant tapered pods soaked in straight Kentucky bourbon. Imitation vanilla (vanillin) is chemically treated wood pulp. I don’t care if the Cook’s Illustrated blind-taste-test participants preferred it in baked goods. (N.B.: Cook’s Illustrated said, in spite of this fact, that it still could not recommend the chemically treated wood pulp.) The same, even more so, goes for almond extract.

While you’re at it, measure an extra batch’s worth of dry ingredients: You’ve already got your measuring spoons and cups out – or you’re New York Times à la mode, doing this all on a digital scale, sucking all the comfort and joy out of the familiar scooping and leveling with the flat back of a butter knife that, to me, makes baking baking – and a pre-combined pouch of the dry ingredients necessary to make muffins, cakes, cookies et cetera makes a subsequent batch a snap. Just seal the mix in an airtight bag or jar, and use it as soon as possible.

Clean as you go: It’s good to assemble all your ingredients like a little carbohydrate army on the counter before you start baking, so you don’t have to run to the store mid-mix. But as you use each ingredient, you should set it back in the pantry or refrigerator. It seems like a self-evident truth, but it took me about ten years to learn.

Cold butter for piecrust: Cold butter is essential for good pastry crust. If it has been out of the refrigerator for more than a couple of minutes before you start blending, put it back in. Crust is high-maintenance, eager to fail and to embarrass you. In my experience, there is no discernible difference between crusts made by hand with a pastry blender and crusts made with the aid of a food processor, except time and elbow grease, so I recommend the latter. Just make sure that there are some pea-sized lumps of butter when you pat it into disks, and fling them to the back of the refrigerator to rest for at least one hour before rolling out.

Sour cream makes cake moist: We like our wit and our wine dry, not our cake. Substituting sour cream for milk, half-and-half, heavy cream or buttermilk pretty much guarantees a moist crumb. There’s a good, Googlable how-to article by Michelle Powell-Smith on – or find and favor a sour-creamy recipe.

“Underbake” butter-loving, chocolate and sided treats: Brownies, the perfect trifecta of chocolate-butter-sides, should come out of the oven as soon as possible, before their edges dry out. Most recipes give a range of minutes to bake; choose the low end of the range. The middle will firm up a little bit when you remove the brownies from the oven, like a pumpkin pie does.

Real pumpkin for pies: You can use canned, but why? Real pumpkin tastes better, is a more vibrant color, gives better texture and is relatively easy to extract: First, cover a sheet pan with foil or parchment paper. Slice your pumpkin in half; scoop out seeds and pulpy middle and place the pumpkin halves cut side down on the baking sheet. Roast at 350 degrees for about one hour. Peel away the rind and place the flesh in a large mesh strainer set over a bowl, in the refrigerator, to drain overnight. Chuck it in the food processor and whirr until smooth. You’ll get about one cup per pound and real pumpkin props.

Or maybe you could slice it paper-thin and make an upside-down cake, because anything can be an upside-down cake: In a ten-inch cast iron skillet, combine sugar and water. Whisk over medium heat until the sugar completely dissolves. Raise heat to medium/high and cook, without stirring, until clear bubbles begin to take on a golden tinge (five to six minutes). Using a dishtowel to grip the handle, swirl the skillet so the sugar colors evenly. When the sugar is dark golden/light amber in color, remove the skillet from the heat and immediately whisk in butter. Set aside. Slice up anything – pineapple, apple, carrot, banana, fennel, the sole of a shoe – and place the slices in a skillet, beginning at the center of the pan and forming an overlapping spiral that covers the caramel. Set aside. Work up a plain cake batter and dollop it on top, then bake in a 350-degree oven until golden brown. Invert and serve.

And for the love of Baby New Year, buy an oven thermometer.

Happy 2012, everybody!


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