In the spirit of the holidays, and to keep me busy, so I don’t think too much: I am going to post as many holiday-ish recipes as I can this month. They will mostly be baking recipes and candies.
There will be nothing nasty like fruitcake or divinity. Of course, nasty is relative, and I love hard Christmas candies. As well as its counterpart, called ribbon candy, anyone who says it is “granny candy” or that it is not good is flat-out wrong. Don’t argue. You are wrong.
I wish I could make candy canes this year, but I can not seem to find any candy cane molds, so good old fashioned hard candy will have to do. I have never made black licorice - the only real licorice and the best candy in the world, undisputed! - I am looking for real licorice recipes that don’t default to using extracts, usually anise. I also need to find licorice root in a form suitable for candy. I am not optimistic about my chances of being able to make it.
Baking and making candy are fascinating sciences and perplexing - at least to me - arts. I have very few artistic impulses but cooking in general keeps what little artistic-ness I have happy. The science of baking is simpler for me to understand and more enjoyable. The kitchen is the ultimate chemistry lab. Art certainly has its place and is very important.
What both of these hobbies require are specific tools, so I will go through some of the basic tools and ingredients needed to make most any type of baking recipe. There are, in my opinion, required, and thus tools. I categorize tools that are not necessary but might make the job easier as gadgets. It is arbitrary and perhaps a tad bit snobbish, but that’s okay.
It is a poor craftsman that blames his tools.
That is a saying that a lot of people misunderstand, even in my profession. Some wrongly take it to mean that tools don’t matter. That is an incorrect take on this. Tools matter, those who are good in their field know better than to choose low-quality tools, and if they do, they know not to blame the tools. A poor craftsman doesn’t likely know or at least not care that using a rock to pound nails all day long, or baking a cake in a dollar store pan is not a good idea. So, they will buy super cheap tools that break, or they only do the job halfway or poorly. They try to create a web app in PHP or use dollar store cooking pans and wonder what went wrong. Professionals don’t do that, and neither should you, even if none of us are professional bakers. Use the best tools that you can find and in this context, ‘best’ means the best that is affordable.
Good quality baking tools aren’t necessarily expensive, but they can be. Caution is always required: the price doesn’t always reflect the quality, and the price isn’t a legitimate basis for comparison on quality. Put another way: expensive doesn’t necessarily mean it is good quality. However, cheap - unless on a steep discount - always means that it is poor quality.
Stay away from the dollar stores and avoid Walmart as much as possible. Walmart products are often made specifically for the store and the items look like that brand’s other products, but they are not. Corners are cut to make it cheaper and less-gooder. Don’t believe me? Compare Levi’s jeans in Walmart to those in real clothing stores. It is the same thing in the kitchen aisles. You can compare model numbers on products in Walmart to model numbers in better stores, the numbers will be very similar with one slight difference. They are not the same product. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the item in Walmart is so terrible that it won’t work or last. It is just that Walmart should be the last resort.
Home Goods is a good chain store to get pots and pans, although what they carry varies from day to day. Do research online for decently priced items. Unlike chain stores, a locally owned baking supply store will have knowledgeable employees. Look for pans and other things made of high-quality ceramics, glass, and steel.
You can make a cake recipe that will fill two pans, put half in a poorly made pan and the other half in a quality pan, and cook it in the same oven, same temp and same amount of cooking time. I bet you can tell the difference in how they turn out.
Ovens and stoves are important. The problem is that a great one is extremely expensive and not something the vast majority of people can get, including me. Ways to get around it are to learn about your oven. If it has a convection feature, use it. Use a thermometer to see how far the actual temperature is from what the oven says it is. Adjust accordingly. If there are hot or cold spots in the oven, turning the pan every so often can mitigate that issue.
You certainly don’t need to become an expert on pan materials. Recipes will often give hints about the type of pan. The more solid the pan, the better it typically is. The better ones are made of steel, for the most part. Calphalon, among others, make great pans - and pots, they are a bit expensive but worth it. Sadly, I don’t have any right now. I did have a few a long time ago. Not sure where they ran off to. If they cost too much, don’t fret, there are lots of great brands around the average price point.
A wide variety of baking pans are useful The standard ones: bread and square, round and rectangle cake pans, pie pans - glass ones are great, cupcake and muffin tins, and cookie sheets. There are more specialized ones for various uses like flan, angel food cake pans, shaped pans, and my favorite: springform pan. These are great for cakes and pretty much anything that uses cake pans. The side is removable so getting it out of the pan to frost or stack together is much easier than a normal cake pan.
There are two types of mixers: handheld and standalone. There are several attachments, and they are the same regardless of type: beaters, whisks, dough paddle, and dough hook. All should come with both and avoid those that do not have all of them. For hand mixers, one that has enough power for at least cookie dough is useful. Good hand mixers can be found for under $100. I am not sure if there are any that could blend bread dough. At least 300 watts seems to be the lower limit that provides enough power.
The standalone mixers are expensive. They are also not necessary unless making a lot of dough, especially if a lot of bread making is in your future. As with most kitchen things, commercial mixers are insanely expensive. Ones made for home usually start around $200, which is 2% of the cost of some of the entry-level commercial mixers. The home mixers are not very large but are still useful for kneading bread and making a big batch of cookies at once. It is certainly not a must-have, but a hand mixer is. I tried to beat egg whites for angel food cake by hand once, just once. It is not a pleasant experience.
There is a hand crank egg beater that my mom had when I was a kid, but even that was tough. I am not sure if they still exist.
A Thermometer is a must-have. Several of them for different uses. One for the oven, one for your refrigerator, and at least one that can handle high temperatures. The one you buy to test the temperature of food should be a digital thermometer that can quickly display the correct temperature. Surprisingly, they are even useful for break dough since getting them to a specific warm range while kneading helps them turn out better.
A double boiler is a must-have also. It is useful for puddings and such things, certain types of frosting and sauces of all kinds.
Rolling pins in various sizes and weights. A large, heavy stainless steel rolling pin is nice because you can freeze it to roll out cookie dough without heating it. Various types of pastries turn out better when rolled out with a cold pin. Strangely, rolling out dough is a difficult skill to master, and the weight and type of pin that should be used depends on the dough. My heavy cold, stainless steel pin would not be great for pie dough or other pastry doughs. I have lighter and smaller aluminum pins as well as a comfortable old wood one. Marble pins look great, retain cold but are pretty heavy for their size. If you can only get one, a medium-sized one made out of stainless steel would probably be the way to go.
Sadly, most American cookbooks do not use the metric system. Baking recipes are more accurate if the list is in grams. A scale with the tare feature so you can disregard the container weight is a must. Also, make sure that the scale displays and are accurate to at least one decimal point, e.g., 3.7 g. If you look, you can find books with proper measurements. This brings us to the other, less accurate way to measure.
Measuring cups and spoons are important in the US. Avoid if you can, but it is nearly impossible. Make sure they are solidly built. I prefer aluminum with nothing soldered on, like the handles. They should be one piece. Plastic is okay, but aluminum is better. Glass measuring cups are great but bulky to store, heavy, and costs a bit more. Same thing for the spoons. Buying quality ones will increase your odds that they are accurate.
Spatulas and wooden and metal spoons along with hand-held whisks. A dough cutter or two are useful, especially for bread and scraping off the gunk leftover on your table. A hand-held dough blender is perfect for pie crust and other pastries. A flour sifter keeps flour from clumping together and items made with sifted flour generally turn out better. Other items that are useful depend on what you want to make including cookie cutters, ring and doughnut cutters - ring cutters come in sizes of up to 12(~30 cm) or more inches in diameter depending on your needs. A cake decorating bag along with a good selection of tips is useful for more than just cake, especially if your set has at least one wide tip. Other things like cannoli sticks and cream puff horns can also be useful.
There are lots of other tools and gadgets that are helpful, but these cover the basics and more specialized equipment.
Baking ingredients are easy to find, but unfortunately, quality ingredients are not always as common. The basics: flours, sugars, salt, eggs
Flour is the base of pretty much all baking. The most common is all-purpose flour, which comes in both white and wheat. The key is to never buy bleached flour. Pretty much all all-purpose flour has malted barley flour already added. Malted barley is important as it provides good food for the yeast to eat. As such, if you are not using yeast, it doesn’t matter. If the flour you buy doesn’t have it - some organic flours do not add it - you need to find diastatic malted barley powder. Off the top of my head, I am not sure how much gets added. It is around 1 teaspoon per cup of flour, at best. It is easier to ensure what you buy already contains it.
Bread Flour is an important staple. Most good bread recipes will list about half bread flour and half all-purpose, although all all-purpose does a decent enough job. Bread flour is available in white and wheat versions. Bread flour contains more protein. That produces a result with higher gluten - this is undesirable if you have celiac disease or a small number of other issues, but otherwise not harmful. Using baking flour as some or all of the flour makes the bread heavier and chewier. It will generally have larger air holes in the bread, and in between the holes, the cooked dough is more compressed. It is useful for lots of bread like more traditional French bread, pizza dough, and much more. You don’t want to use it in pastries, cakes, cookies, etc.
Other flours are more specialized and not used as much: pastry flour, rye, oat, quinoa, etc.
Sugar is typically not used in bread but is widely used elsewhere and comes in a few forms. Granulated, brown and powdered. It is a good thing to have all three on hand. There is also raw sugar that tastes like granulated, but each piece is a bit larger but otherwise tastes the same. Supposedly, it is healthier than granulated, but sugar is flat-out bad for you. Other sweeteners aren’t used as much: honey, molasses, sugar cane strips, etc.
Oils in baking are typically shortening, lard, butter and vegetable oil. I tend to stick to butter since it is better than most of the others, but they all have their places. Shortening makes for flakier pie crust, for example. Buy brands that are not processed in poor ways or contain bad oils. Oddly, lard is healthier than some forms of vegetable oil. Avoid margarine like the plague that it is. Margarine is not a valid substitute for butter. It is extremely unhealthy, and baked goods are nowhere near as good.
Leavening agents include baking powder and soda and yeast. Instant yeast is the way to go over traditional yeast as it needs no prep work to activate. Many professional bakers will recommend instant, especially, but not exclusively, for home use.
Dairy products like heavy cream, milk, condensed milk, etc have their place. I swear by powdered milk in most recipes that need milk. At least in bread recipes, it adds a lot, although milk is not a typical bread ingredient. Fresh milk is much better in puddings, cream pies, etc than dry milk.
Extracts are used in cakes, cookies, and frostings. Buy real extracts. Yes, real vanilla extract is much more expensive but worth it. If it says ‘imitation’ or ‘flavoring’, avoid at all costs!
Candy making tools
These are simpler and fewer. An easy to use and read thermometer is the most important. Full stop. Without it, nothing will turn out correctly, and you will mostly just burn everything. A digital thermometer is best, provided that it is accurate, but any easy to read thermometer will do. Get one that says it is okay for candy because it will need to read temps above 375 F( 190 C). Messing up candy is an easy thing to do, so skimping here is like shooting off your feet before a race. Sure, it might feel good and seem like the thing to do, but how will you finish the race?
Granted, you can test it by putting a small amount of the mixture in cold water and see if it becomes chewy or hard. A thermometer is an easier and more accurate way to make sure it turns out correctly. Going from underdone, to done, to burnt is very easy to do and dropping it in water takes time.
Decent pots that don’t scorch easily and wooden spoons round out the most important tools. A double boiler is pretty much mandatory for melting chocolates and whatnot, although rigging something up, MacGyver style, in a pinch is doable.
Many types of candies require molds. Pay attention to whether the mold is for chocolate or hard candy. If you pour the mixture for hard candies, the molds will likely melt and warp. Some silicone molds are made for high temperatures, some not. Other than that, it doesn’t matter. You can get molds with holiday shapes and any other shape imaginable. Except for candy canes for some reason…
The basic candy ingredients are easy to find. The more specialized ones can be difficult to track down in your local stores. Check if there are baking and candy supply stores in your town. Otherwise, a search online should find what you need.
Granulated and powdered sugar are by far the most common of the dry sugars. The most common is corn syrup, which serves as the base for many candies. Cooking the mixture of sugar and corn syrup to a specific temperature will result in a hard, soft, or somewhere in between. This is why it is important to have a thermometer, the difference between ‘hard crack’ and burnt is very small. Here is a good explanation of the candy temperature ranges.
Chocolate comes in many forms. You will generally see milk chocolate, light chocolate, dark chocolate and white chocolate. The light chocolate might not have the light qualifier. It also comes in sweetened, semi-sweet, and unsweetened forms. Which one depends on the recipe but unsweetened is the most flexible since it can easily be sweetened at home and you have a say in the quality of the sweetener. Most commercial sweetened chocolate uses the cheapest and nastiest thing possible. This is true in the US, where food standards are quite low. Chocolate comes in a bar that is scored to break into set size pieces, loose pieces, and powder. Which one depends on the recipe, but I find the bars and pieces to be more flexible. Powdered chocolate is also useful, mostly for baked goods, but some candy recipes will say to use it. In all cases, I typically use the solid bar, even if it says to use powdered, but I am a rebel.
Lots of different kinds of nuts are useful in both baking and candy making. Typically, raw nuts work best but follow the recipe.
Extracts are commonly used as a flavoring, especially in hard candies. The cheaper it is the more likely it is that it is fake. Fake extracts don’t typically use the term extract, they will qualify it with ‘imitation’ or outright call it ‘flavoring’. If you don’t see the word ‘extract’ on the package, move along. I would like to learn how to make extracts. It might be fun, if not a ton of work.
Food coloring adds aesthetic appeal and not much else. They typically come in the primary colors filled in squeeze bottles or come with a dropper. Mixing colors can be fun, especially for me, since I struggle to identify colors. White and black food coloring is also widely available. Six bottles are all you need: blue, yellow, green, red, white, and black. Like everything else, try to get colors that don’t add artificial ingredients, but that can be a tall order with food coloring.
The other types of supplies for baking and candy making include wax paper and parchment. Sometimes you need them to line pans or pour the hot candy mixture straight onto it. Candy sprinkles, cupcake liners, and other such things are useful for various recipes.
Airtight storage is helpful unless it is going to be eaten right away. This requires various types and sizes of containers.
When making candy you need to generally work quickly, without distractions, and very carefully. Trust me on this, you don’t want candy mix that is 300 F touching your skin, it will stick to it. The happy news is that if it is 300 F, it doesn’t really hurt because the nerves get damaged. I have a small permanent scar from that and it didn’t hurt at all but have been burned at lower temperatures which did hurt a lot. A can of Dermoplast spray nearby is useful.
Working quickly is important because the mixture will set quickly, especially the harder candies.
As much as kids like helping in the kitchen, it is a good idea to not let them “help” make most candies.