“Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished.”
New York Times, 1902

Are there any two words more comforting than “baked goods”? The smell of dough rising. The warmth of a cookie fresh from the oven. The childish glee of licking frosting from your fingers. Even the most horrible cake is wonderful when received as a gift. So when it came to Kaht & John’s Assignment #11 (bake something exceptional then give it away), I knew I had to do it right.

I decided to break this assignment into 3 parts:

  1. Ensure I’m making the best possible item I can.
  2. Bake it.
  3. Make sure the final product winds up in the hands I intend.

For part 1, I turned to the professionals, asking a slew of oven aficionados for their Top Three Very Best Baking Tips. Not that I haven’t churned out a few cookies in my day, but I wanted some advice from people who do it on the real – as in, for money. It seems that any baking site worth it’s salt has a pointer or two, but wanted something more personal. I decided to skip the middle man & directly contact the people who make it happen. As it turns out, many of the people who make it happen are not very good emailers. Or maybe they hate blogs. Or Calders. Or maybe it was just that I wasn’t THAT Calder.

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I was lost. Should I sift or fold? Should I whisk or beat? Whom could I turn to? How could this be done?! I was close to panic when I found that the bakers who bake best advise last. & oh! How they came through with their advice! That anyone should have their tips in one hand & a recipe in the other & STILL fail at baking, well, at least now you know who can do it for you.

Thank you, dear bakers. Your advice to me is valuable beyond measure. I hope that others will benefit from it, too.

BAKING ADVICE FROM FOUR SPECTACULAR PROS

Gemma Petrie

Gemma Petrie is the author of Pro Bono Baker, a Chicago-based food website.  She also writes for Gapers Block in the food section, Drive-Thru.

Tips:

Oven Temperature
I believe the single most important thing a home baker can do to improve product quality is to invest in an inexpensive oven thermometer.  I’ve baked in many apartment ovens over the last few years, and not one of them was within 10 degrees of what the dial claimed.  If your recipe tells you to bake at 350 and you are really baking at 325 or 375, your results could vary in disappointing ways.

Mixing
Recipes often call for mixing with wooden spoon.  I have never in my life used a wooden spoon to mix doughs or batters.  I use a strong, flat roux whisk for gently mixing batters and I use my hands for bread doughs.  If the dough sticks to your hands at first, simply rub your hands together and reincorporate the pieces.

Baking Stones
Instead of baking pizzas and breads on costly pizza stones, pick up an unglazed quarry stone at a home improvement store for under a buck (make sure it has no glaze, or it may contain lead).  The stone will help you create excellent quality crusts.

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Aja Marsh

Aja Marsh is a natural foods chef, writer, and photographer living in Brooklyn, New York. Raised in Texas, she received her undergraduate degree in Visual Arts at the University of Florida and came to New York to be educated at Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts. Aja will sleep when she’s dead. You can find more of her work on her website, www.ajataharimarsh.com.

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Julie Harber

Julie Harber is a freelance food writer and graduate of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago where she earned a certificate in the culinary arts.  She recently wrote a restaurant review for Hungry Chicago (a soon-to-be released book of Chicago’s best restaurants and bars).  Julie has a B.A in English from Lake Forest College which focused on creative nonfiction writing. She loves going out to eat at both the well-known and hidden restaurants in Chicago, cooking with her friends, and frequenting the Music Box Theatre.

Tips:

My first tip would be to gather all your ingredients together and have your mise en place (cooking term that translates to everything in its place) ready.  In other words, look at the recipe and measure out all the ingredients before you begin stirring, mixing, kneading, or melting.  Most baking recipes calls for wet and dry ingredients and most dry ingredients can be put into one bowl so don’t waste a million little dishes if the ingredients are all going to wind up together anyway!  This is something I learned in cooking school.  When I used to just bake at home I would get out ingredients as I went and I was always so frustrated and unorganized and it made the whole process very tense.  When everything is in its place and ready to go, it makes baking much less intimidating.

When it comes to making cookies, the best tip I can offer is to use room temperature ingredients. When fat (in this case butter) is at room temperature, it homogenizes with the sugar much more easily and won’t leave lumps.  Also, having your eggs at room temperature will make it easier for the eggs to emulsify and make an even better dough.  Once your dough is made, chill the dough before baking.  This will help maintain the structure of the cookie.

My third and final tip is to keep it simple.  The best desserts are the simplest ones with a few ingredients.  People respond to simple things made extraordinarily. Vanilla ice cream is like Chanel’s little black dress–it’s simple, timeless, and always fabulous.  Pair the vanilla ice cream with a warm hazelnut brownie and caramel sauce and you’ve got one hell of a dessert!

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A-K

A-K is the author of Swell Vegan, a vegan/whole foods blog (and zine!). A professional chef and food photographer, A-K resides in Minneapolis with her bicycle, kitties, & girlfriend. She has, on occasion, been known to seriously get down.

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Thanks again, everyone! Coming soon – Part 2: The Baking, or, Oh, What a Tangled Dough We Weave.

It is worth noting that last week I turned 25, passing the one year mark with many of my assignments undone. That is, technically, a failure of this endeavor. I will be continuing this project however, pursuing each of the remaining tasks until all 24 are done. I’ll be writing up a summary of the project after that point. I hope you keep reading, & thank you to everyone who has been so amazingly supportive through out all of this.

3563662141_c572602d32In other news, my birthday was truly awesome, & thank you to everyone who made it so.

(& thank you Lindsey for this excellent photo)

My flight left Chicago at 7am (in order to be at the airport by 6, having woken up at 4:30, which is INSANE) & travelled back in time (Mountain Time, that is) to put me in Tucson only two hours later. Judy picked me up at the airport, smiling & waving & hugging & laughing. Thirty seconds onto the road, I saw this:

arizona-2
It made my day.

I was horribly, horribly overdressed, by which I mean I had worn pants instead of something far more Tucson-appropriate. Like nothing. The heat there is incredible. There are no trees, though there are shrubs & cacti a-plenty. There is also no grass, so everyplace looks like a “bad neighborhood” – an observation Judy quickly refuted by pointing out that, in lieu of greenery, people landscape with rocks. How inviting.

arizona-4

We made our way up the first of many mountains I was to scale during my trip. (“Scale” is something of a misleading word. “Rode up smoothly in a blessedly air-conditioned vehicle” would be more correct.) Half-way up we pulled over to the side of the road – a crazed bicyclist flew past us, careening down the mountain on two slim wheels, a mist of sweat lingering in his wake.

“Oh look!” said Judy, “that’s my boyfriend Peter!”

Peter slowed his bike, then turned & began to ride back up the mountain, coming to a stop beside us. The three of us spoke briefly, & Peter lamented that it had been just too hot for him to reach the mountain summit – he’d have to try again tomorrow. He then pointed out that I was burning.

“Yeah, I do that,” I said. He had legs like two giant hams. I began to imagine pineapple rings dotting each one I had to make myself look away.

After chit-chatting/roasting, we parted ways, Peter downhill (quickly) & Judy & I up to the top, where the extreme elevation created an entirely different, much more hospitable climate. One with hummingbirds!

We ran around like this all week, ascending & descending & riding bikes through the desert & talking about nature & history & culture. Tucson is a great place to spark conversations of that sort: it’s a city of every sort of environment, ethnicity, concept & cultivation. Art ranges from the Ansel Adams collection at the U of A to the glittering shrines that spill across the sands with candles & roses & stones. The phenomenally wealthy literally look down upon the impoverished, building their second homes on the mountaintops & living beside the deep-space telescopes of Kitt Peak & the Tohono O’odham Nation at elevations of nearly 6,000 feet. The University of Arizona rises up from the middle of town, its uniquely open architecture a bold testament to the 300+ days of sun the city receives each year. Judy is a PhD student there, & her research consists of painstakingly tracking microscopic molecules & finding methods of practically employing solar power across the United States. She will probably save the world.

arizona-10
Everything about Arizona was beautiful in a way I’d never experienced before, & I am so, so happy to have gone ahead & taken the trip. I’d missed Judy, more than I’d even realized, & having her show me around her home threw me into a deep romance with Tucson’s arid terrain. By Sunday, though, I was happy to be on my way home, looking forward to crawling into my own cozy bed, sunburnt & freckled, deep in the heart of my own rainy city on the lake.

You can see more pictures from my Arizona adventure here.

tucson

xo

Awesome In-Flight Event:

An older man – Latin, perhaps late sixties & deeply tan with silvery curls spilling down his shoulders –  sat beside me right after boarding. He turned to me, & I smiled & wished him a good morning.

“Are you going to Albuquerque?”

“No,” I said, “I’m going to see a friend in Tucson.”

“You have to try the soup!” he said, & touched my arm for emphasis. “You must! It is delicious!” He unbuttoned the top three buttons of his pink & white striped shirt & slipped off his loafers, tucking them below his seat.

“The soup?” I asked.

“It is delicious.” He grinned widely, then pulled a small satin bag from his shirt pocket. From this he removed a small bottle, the contents of which he poured into his hands, then flicked into the air of the seat in front of him. Wiping his palms on the bag, he turned to me again before returning the bottle & its case to his breast pocket, smiled & said, “Delicious” once more, then coughed & went to sleep for the remainder of the flight.

I’m not a great traveller. I don’t jump trains, I don’t court Death, & I don’t know another language. I want to shower. I want to brush my teeth. I want to poop in a receptacle that I did not have to dig from the ground with my bare hands. But the biggest hurdle for me in travelling is cost – I am perpetually broke. Always. Forever. So while some places (Mars Cheese Castle) are within my budget, more thrilling destinations (not Mars Cheese Castle) remain out of reach. Sigh.

In tackling Assignment #11 (Spend time in a state you’ve never been to), I decided to do the truly American thing & head West. On credit. With the help of my soon-to-be-destroyed credit card, I bought myself a round-trip ticket to Tucson, Arizona, home to saguaro cacti, El Tiradito, and the set of Young Guns II. It is also where many old people go to die. I’m really excited because the only time I’ve ever gone any direction that wasn’t east I wound up at a fraternity formal in Davenport, Iowa. I’m thinking this might be something of a more authentically western experience.

I’ll be staying with my friend Judy, who I haven’t seen in almost three years. Three years! Three years is long enough for babies to be born & grow & walk & kill every last shred of their parents’ independence. Legions of pet hamsters are laid to rest over the course of three years. It’s a crazy amount of time to go without having physically seen someone – lucky for me, Judy is the pinnacle of awesomeness. She’s one of those people who you can be away from for ages, then you’re back together for about two seconds & already you’re laughing over inside jokes & turning up the radio & shrieking in that wonderful, obnoxious girl way. She’s out in AZ working at the University, where she is a scientist, like a for real scientist with lab coat & computers & notebooks filled with cryptic equations on how to stop global warming/giant lizards. She is probably going to save the world. I’m excited to visit her.

Judy’s warned me that it’s been averaging about 100+ in Tucson, which, after dealing with Chicago Winter, will be AWESOME. She’s also hooked up a loaner bicycle for me. Apparently Tucson is a tremendously bike-friendly city – probably because everyone there is enjoying their air conditioning or driving a golf cart. I’m wondering, though, if anyone has any suggestions on what to do while I’m out there. I’m on a budget, but I’m pretty open to trying everything & anything & taking lots of pictures. I’m not above ridiculous tourist traps, though I lean a little more towards nature & all that granola-ish stuff. Oh, & you needn’t bother suggesting a visit to the set of Young Guns II – I am so on it.

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