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“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.

calder
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.

Back in college, Hannah Schell was a professor who’s zen-like knowledge could be, at times, a little overwhelming. When I received her assignment (Make an effort to see all creatures as suffering and desiring happiness), I sort of relegated it to the back of my mind & figured I would devote proper time & effort to it when the time came (not unlike how I handled most of Hannah’s class assignments). After toying with a number of ideas, I pressed for further instruction, hoping that maybe she would have something more specific &, well, less contrived than the few possibilities that I’d cooked up.

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Break something on purpose. Drop an old lamp onto the floor. Smash an old television, etc. Film the event and then post it to Youtube.
»» Greg Eggebeen

How to tell a story about an action without a purpose?

I suppose I could try to put meaning behind Greg’s assignment (one of a dozen he proposed, others including: join a mud wrestling league; watch 24 straight hours of MTV, &, my favorite, “Complete a 1000 piece puzzle. Or 5000. Just, like, a really big puzzle”), but when your assignment is to videotape yourself smashing something, then put that video on Youtube, searching for a ‘deeper meaning’ might be a lost cause. So, because I make everything harder than it needs to be, I made a project…of the project.

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I made my fourth attempt at meditation last week &, as with two of the three attempts before it, I fell asleep on the floor.

I have a hunch that this isn’t how it should be. I also have a hunch that I shouldn’t be having dreams about Mel Torme sitting at the end of a long dining table, illuminated by a single spotlight & asking me over & over again where the god damn salt was.

To clarify, I’m not being a complete dope about the meditating process. I am sitting upright, alone in a quiet space, attempting to channel my energies in a positive way & ‘calm my being’. I don’t wait until just before bed, when I’m sure to be exhausted. No, I am not overly full. No, I am not high (what up, future employers who Googled my name!). But every time I sit down and close my eyes, one of two things happens:

1. I think about the 10,000 other things that I should be doing instead of sitting on my ass, literally trying to think of nothing.
2. I fall asleep. With Mel Torme.

I decided that a little research was in order, & set off to that great book boon in the sky, Amazon.com. Entering “meditate” on their handy little search bar, the breath was sucked from my lungs when Amazon returned this:

72,250 BOOKS!!! ON MEDITATE!! One book – Royal Zen Garden – cost $2,459.47. $2,459.47!! USED!! I’m sorry, but unless I open that book & Jack’s fucking beanstalk pops out there is no way I can even conceive paying 2.5K for a book on meditative gardening.

Overwhelmed by Amazon (& totally guilty of judging books like this one by their covers), I opted instead to contact The School of Metaphysics, a facility far better equipped to help me with my meditation difficulties than a book that costs MORE THAN I EARNED IN THE WHOLE OF LAST YEAR possibly could.

I had a long post of the counsel the SOM had offered me, but they asked to review the material before I posted it on-line, & after a week of not hearing back from them, I’ve decided to simply forgo their quotations. I can tell you that they gave me lots of advice about meditation being a progressive process, not something you can just, well, do, & that I would be a lot better off working with a teacher than I would sitting in my apartment, alone with the centipedes.

They also referred me to a FREE yoga class taking place on the very block on which I live, an opportunity I was all to happy to learn of. So it was that, pumped up & equipped with my roommate’s adorable gray yoga pants, I opted to make a move away from meditation & ready myself for a morning of bodily contortion with random strangers in my first ever yoga class. Whee!