With the holiday season upon us, visions of sugar plums are dancing in our heads. Okay, maybe not sugar plums, but what about cookies, cakes and candies? There is nothing better than a homemade treat on a cold winter evening. There is nothing worse than slaving all day over an old family recipe, wanting it to taste "just like Mom made it" only to have it be a huge flop.
Here are some of the tips I have found make my baking life easier and insure success with each recipe.
Being Precise: Baking is not a matter of adding a pinch of this or a dash of that. As opposed to cooking, baking requires exact measurements and precise ingredients. If it calls for a cup of sugar, use an exact level cup. Use a knife to level off any excess ingredients in your measuring devise to insure you are using the proper amount.
Using Proper Equipment: Like any professional, you should use the proper tools for your product. Dry ingredients should always be measured with a standard measuring cup while liquid ingredients should be measured in a cup that has a spout. Measuring spoons are a must. You can not use a kitchen spoon to measure a teaspoon of ingredients. Your mixing bowls or cooking pans should be used in a size to allow plenty of room for mixing. Using a bowl or pan that is too small can result in "spill over" causing a loss of ingredients and a flop for your dessert.
Following the Recipe: This is one of the most important rules of baking. You must follow the recipe exactly. If it calls for 1 1/2 cups of flour, that is what you must use. Don't say "I just have 1 1/4 cups, but that should work." Trust me, it doesn't. While it may "turn out" okay, the taste will definitely be effected if you take shortcuts or cheat on the recipe.
Talking with the Source: One thing I have found to be very important when you try a new recipe, is to talk it through with whoever gave you the recipe. Especially ones that are old family recipes that have been passed down. I have tried recipes from Mom that were a huge flop. When discussing it with her, she would say "Well, did you make sure you......? And my response would be no, the recipe didn't have that on it. Many times through the years, the cooks have failed to write down pertinent steps and it results in a disaster when you try to follow their recipe. For example, the famous No Bake Chocolate Oatmeal cookies. I tried to make those for years. I even had Mom's exact recipe in her handwriting. They never would set up. They were always gooey. When I mentioned it one day, she asked how I was making them and I read her the recipe. She had neglected to tell me that over the years the family realized that 3 cups of oats made them gooey so she had changed it to 2 cups and it worked better. But it was never written on the recipe. So make sure you go over every ingredient.
Following the directions: Again, discuss the instructions whenever you can with somebody who has made it before. It may have left out pertinent information that you need to know. For example, do you add the ingredients in a particular order so it mixes and blends better. If you are heating part of it on the stove, do you use medium or low heat. Do you time it or cook it to a particular stage (soft ball, hard ball, etc.) These little things will insure your success, but earlier generations just knew to do them, so they failed to write them down. When I get a recipe from someone, I ask a ton of questions about the process to insure the success of the dish.
The Importance of Ingredients: This one is something that not everyone adheres to, but I have found it to be invaluable. If you eat a dessert and love it, ask for the EXACT recipe, down to the brand they buy. I have an easy, delicious no fail peanut butter fudge recipe. I always make it with Carnation cream and Parkay margarine. When I give the recipe out, I make sure they know that is very important. One lady tried numerous times to make it and she said hers was never as creamy and smooth as mine. Upon checking with her, she substituted the cream with Eagle Brand and the Parkay with real butter. The taste will never be the same if you change ingredients. I make a Reese Peanut Butter Brownie trifle. If I do not use Duncan Hines brownies and Cool Whip brand whipped cream, it is nowhere near as good. So if someone mentions a specific product, don't try to cut corners and use an off brand if you want to duplicate the flavor.
Patience: The final and most important ingredient of any successful dessert is the patience the baker puts into preparing the product. If you are required to stand and stir constantly for 5 minutes after it comes to a boil. Then that is what you must do. You can't stop to go answer the phone, or grab a cup of coffee. Extreme care and a great attention to detail must go into every recipe you make. You cannot allow distractions. It could cause a simmer to become a rolling boil. It could cause you to miss including an important ingredient. Baking is not something you can "throw together" in a few minutes. It is a process and it requires patience to see it through. But the end result is well worth the wait.