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Baking Basics for Cakes and Pastries

There isn't a better way to be inventive and creative in the kitchen than baking pastries or cakes or even pies. The history of baking these lovelies is long, and the traditions and techniques are international.

Many recipes are American to the core, while others are rooted in French culture. Using a combination of American and French influences, the sky is the limit to your baking creativity.
Baking Equipment
Refrigerators and Freezers
Baking Sheets and Pans:
Rolling Pins
Pots and Pans
Work Areas and Surfaces
Baking Ingredient Equivalences
Cake Decorating
How to Bake the Perfect Pie
How To Measure Ingredients
Measuring Dry Ingredients
Measuring Liquid Ingredients
High-Altitude Baking
Roll Shapes and How To Form
Substituting Baking Pans
Baking Basics:
Preparation for baking will have a huge impact on the outcome. If prepared when you start the experience will be much more enjoyable and the outcome favorable.

Know the requirements, instructions and ingredients required before starting - read the recipe first.

If some part of the recipe is not clear or if it specifies a step or procedure which you are not familiar, get clarification before beginning.

Gather all utensils and equipment required before starting. Set up the work area and work surface.

Gather all ingredients required. If feasible, pre-measure all ingredients and place in separate containers - such as separate bowls. If eggs are required at room temperature, set eggs out to allow them to return to room temperature before starting.

Prepare all utensils as instructed, such as flouring or buttering.

Preheat the oven to required temperature. Attempt to break the recipe into steps and have all utensils, ingredients, and equipment in place and ready for each step.

When all is prepared, begin the project and enjoy!
How To Measure Ingredients:
Measure as precisely as possible according to the recipe's ingredients. All baking recipes are for level measurements, for example, cups, tablespoons, teaspoons, etc., unless otherwise indicated. If a recipe calls for buttering or flouring, that amount of butter or flour is not part of the ingredients of the recipe. Ideally, have one set of measuring utensils for dry ingredients and one set for wet ingredients.

Measuring Dry Ingredients: Use utensils which measure in exact amounts, for example, a 1/4 cup measuring utensil, a separate 1/2 cup measuring utensil, etc. A utensil which has graduated measurements cannot be leveled properly. When measuring, fill the utensil with the ingredient so that the ingredient is heaped on top of the utensil. Use a flat edge, such as a knife, to level the ingredient to the rim of the utensil - you then have an exact measurement of the ingredient.

Measuring Liquid Ingredients: Ideally, use utensils which measure in exact amounts, for example, a 1/4 cup measuring utensil, a separate 1/2 cup measuring utensil, etc., and ideally the utensil will have a pouring spout. Place the utensil on a flat, level surface if possible to introduce the liquid.

If separate measuring utensils are not available and the utensil had a graduated measuring scale, pour the liquid into the utensil and look at the utensil from eye-level to determine the amount of ingredient in the utensil - not looking at eye-level will have too little or too much of the ingredient.

There are measuring utensils available - and actually are a must to have - which are in fractions of teaspoons, teaspoons, fractions of a tablespoon and tablespoons and should be used for small amounts of ingredients.

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Baking Equipment:
Ovens: There isn't much difference between gas and electric when it comes to baking. What is more important is knowing how your appliance works at different temperatures. If you have baked something at 350° F for the specified amount of time and the finished product comes out over or under browned, the indication would be that your appliance is not calibrated to the temperature on the dial.

Check your appliance by using a thermometer with the appropriate heat ranges and place the thermometer inside the appliance for a period of time. If the dial on the appliance indicates the temperature is 350° F and the thermometer indicates 325° F, there is an indication the appliance is not correctly calibrated. Ideally the appliance would be corrected to the proper calibration. If that is not possible, adjustments to cook times would be necessary. The cook time would be decreased if the appliance is actually higher in temperature than indicated via the dial.

Unless specified in the recipe, cook pastries on the center rack.

Don't bake on more than one oven rack at the same time.

Leave a couple of inches between utensils and between utensils and the walls of the appliance to allow for better air flow.

Baking in microwave ovens is not recommended. All other appliances, such as convection ovens and even grills will bake, however, baking times will have to be adjusted. The standard gas or electric oven, which is properly calibrated for temperature is recommended.

Refrigerators and Freezers:  As with ovens, it is important to ensure your refrigerator and freezer are maintaining appropriate temperatures. Verify temperatures by placing an appropriate thermometer inside your refrigerator compartment and inside the freezer. Freezers should maintain a temperature of at or below 0° F.

Some dough requires refrigeration prior to baking. Many doughs may also be frozen for later use.

Refrigerators and freezers must have level horizontal shelves.

Dough which require refrigeration are refrigerated ideally at 40 ° F.

Dough which is to be frozen for later use must be in a freezer with a temperature of 0° F or below and maintained at that temperature.

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Baking Sheets and Pans:  When buying and using baking sheets and pans consideration should be given to the fact that some will be good conductors of heat and other will not conduct heat very well and may in fact reflect heat away.

Utensils have varying grades of thickness and quality. There are basically two types of utensils, shiny and dark.

Shiny metal reflects heat and results in pastries which are lightly browned and a crust which is tender but may be on the soggy side and not crisp.

Dark utensils, which could be made of metal, glass or ceramic are good conductors of heat and hold heat well. Dark utensils produce well browned, crisp and crusts which are on the thick side pastries.

If possible, buy and use cast iron, glass, heavy aluminum, carbon steel or ceramic utensils as they all hold and conduct heat well and will result in better baked pastries.

With baking sheets, thick is better. Thin sheets tend to bend or buckle when placed in the oven and do not brown well as they are a poor conductor of heat. Sheets should be at least 1/16 inch thick and have a rim which will help prevent the sheet from flexing.

Use baking sheets when the shape of the pastry being baked does not depend on the shape of the utensil. Pastries such as cookies, puff pastries, some breads and tarts do well on a baking sheet.

Rolling Pins:  There are many types of rolling pins available. Buy and use rolling pins which have a little weight to them as they are easier to use than a light flimsy pin.

Rolling pins may or may not have handles. The traditional pin used in most American homes has handles, is made of wood and greatly varies in overall length. If limited to one pin, look for one in the 20 inches plus range and around 2 inches in diameter. A smaller pin would also be desirable for working with smaller pieces of dough.

It is not advisable to wash wooden pins in water and it is especially important that wooden pins not be soaked in water. Pins will do quite well when wiped off with a soft clean cloth after use.

Pots and Pans:   As with baking sheets and pans, pots and pans which are heavier, of a non-reactive material, have a thick bottom and conducts heat well are preferable.

Consideration must be given to whether a pot or pan is oven proof and whether lids will be required.

Aluminum, stainless steel and in some cases cast iron pots and pans are available.

Aluminum utensils tend to be on the thin side, are good heat conductors, but do react to acidic foods and may give off a metallic taste and will often react negatively to eggs.

Cast iron is heavy, conducts heat well and overall is a very good utensil for use in an oven.

Stainless steel is not a good conductor of heat, does not react to acidic ingredients, heats liquids well, is light weight and easy to lift, but will tend to have ingredients stick to the bottom if not watched.

Try to use the size and shape pan specified in the recipe, however, if you do not have such a pan or you would like to change the shape, see Substituting Baking Pans to find pans with comparable volume. Note however that liquid is the determining factor in the volume of a pan and note the volume of batter. Baking time may have to be altered if changing pans.

Work Areas and Surfaces:  The characteristics of a good work area are basically, is there enough room to work and are the needed utensils, ingredients and appliances readily available.

A good work surface should be smooth, flat, of sufficient size and clean. Clean does not only mean free of contaminates, such as germs, etc., but also free of cross-contaminating flavors such as onions or garlic or other food stuffs which can affect the taste and flavor of dough. Ideally, a work surface used only for working with dough would be used.

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High-Altitude Baking:  Most baking recipes are based on baking at sea level. As altitude increases, the air pressure and thickness decreases, and baking and results are affected. A number of expected characteristics of baking change as leavenings expand more, water boils at lower temperatures, heat is not conducted as well, liquids evaporate quicker and batter sticks more.

Experience cooking at higher altitudes remedies most of these factors and such experience addresses such requirements as increasing the cooking time of food requiring boiling, raising oven temperatures by 25 degrees, increasing required amounts of liquids, using less leavenings, using less sugar than indicated and under-beating eggs to name a few.

Water at sea level boils at 212°F, at 2,000 feet 208°F, 5,000 feet 203°F, 7,500 at 198°F, 10,000 feet 194°F and 15,000 feet at 185°F.

Roll Shapes and How To Form:  There are primarily four different shapes of dinner rolls, Parker House Rolls, Cloverleaf Rolls, Bowknots, and Fantans.

For Parker House Rolls, roll dough out to 1/4-inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Brush with melted butter. Cut into 2 1/2 - to 3-inch circles. Use handle of a wooden spoon to make a depression just off center across each circle. Fold along depression and place on greased baking sheets with larger portion on top.

For Cloverleaf Rolls, pinch off pieces of dough and shape into 1-inch balls. Dip into melted butter, then place three balls in each cup of a greased 2 1/2-inch muffin pan.

For Bowknots, divide dough into equal portions; roll each portion with your hands on a lightly floured surface to make a strand 6 inches long. Tie loosely into a knot. Place on greased baking sheets.

For Fantans, roll dough out to about 1/8-inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Brush with melted butter. Cut dough into strips 1 inch wide. Stack 6 strips on top of one another; cut stacked strips into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Place each stack horizontally in cup of greased 2 1/2-inch muffin pan.

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