Holiday classics made easy with a few baking basics
It's the season to savor and enjoy the enticing aroma of home baked cookies wafting throughout the house. This year I dusted off a vintage gingerbread recipe that boasts signature spicy flavors, without all the time consuming rolling and cutting the dough. Before we get to the culinary festivities, let's review good baking practices.
• Start from scratch: Invest in inexpensive culinary insurance for pricey holiday baking. Replace old leavening to include yeast, baking powder and soda. These ingredients are the powerhouse behind raising your desserts to great heights.
• Oven checkup: What's the difference between first and second place in baking contests? Most likely, it's the oven temperature. Cookies pale on top, yet sporting dark brown bottoms, signal a hot oven. Pick up an oven thermometer at hardware or kitchen supply stores. Place thermometer in cold oven, heat to 350 degrees and check at 5 minute intervals. It may be time for a new oven!
• Baking sheet secret No. 1: Use pans revered by the professionals: the heavy-duty half-sheet pan. Large, yet easily fits in home ovens, these pans offer a shallow rim allowing for versatility in use. Look at Gordon Food Service or specialty kitchen supply stores.
• Baking sheet secret No. 2: Parchment paper! This culinary wonder protects sheet pans, helps prevent over-browning and saves oodles of time in the kitchen. Skip the expensive rolls and head to GFS for the 50 count package.
• Tools of the trade: My favorite baking toys are Pyrex 2-cup and 4-cup measures, metal nested measuring cups and spoons, large stainless steel mixing bowl, small whisk and hand scrapers. All inexpensive, and priceless when crafting signature desserts.
• Ingredient quality does matter: Unsalted butter delivers a fresher product and allows bakers to completely control salt in a recipe. Why does this matter? In bread recipes, salt keeps yeast in check. With sweet desserts, salt balances sugar on the taste buds, resulting in a nuanced culinary experience.
Back to this season's featured cookie recipe, I began with a standard gingerbread drop cookie, setting out to infuse layers of spicy flavors and diverse textures. Specifically, crispy outer shell covering a gingerbread style interior. Hold the rolling pin.
Robust molasses offers deep caramel flavor and color, while enhancing brown sugar's ability to provide crispy texture.
The original recipe called for all shortening, but I opted for a mix of unsalted butter and Crisco to preserve buttery flavors and keep the center softer.
Turning up the spicy flavors meant boosting the amount of ground ginger and cinnamon. Ground cloves, nutmeg and allspice add background notes to this roundtable of spices. No vanilla extract is needed, but a sprinkling of salt balances the brown sugar.
Crafting signature cookies, fresh from your oven and heart, remain the perfect holiday gift that inspires memories for years and generations to come. Enjoy the season!