So here we are, careening towards the holidays. Please stop the train, I need to get off.
Fortunately, there is something to look forward to in all this calendar-flipping madness. The good part is that the best of high baking season is coming up soon! Let’s make it great this year, friends. Let’s break out our best tried-and-true recipes and magazine clippings that we shoved away and haven’t gotten to yet. Stock up on flours and sugars and pounds of butter. Finally buy a dang candy thermometer and get to some old-fashioned confectionery magic (you can do it!!). Wrestle the baking sheets out from under the everyday pots and pans and fire up the oven. And hey, even let your kids get into the fray! (I’m speaking for my Type A self here–it’s not my favorite thing to bake with little ones underfoot and under armpit; there I said it.)
But here’s a top tip that I think has changed my baking for the better: Reach for the bittersweet chocolate this year, even if your recipe calls for semi-sweet or milk. I’m talking at least 60 to 70% cacao, nice and dark. Because nothing balances out a sea of sweet quite like it. In the same way that a good hit of salt or acid (like lemon juice or buttermilk) makes sweet things all the more craveworthy, a slight bitter edge can also add the kind of balance that makes you unable to resist taking just one. More. Bite. Tastebud trickery! Plus, if you really love chocolate, bittersweet is just that much more chocolaty, because it’s got more cacao power AND it has less fat and sugar, both of which can coat and confuse the tongue and keep you from getting the ultimate chocolate experience.
Picasso had his blue period, Hugh Hefner had his blonde period. I am currently in my dark muscovado sugar period.
That sentence made a lot more sense in my head before I typed it.
At any rate, I’ve been playing with this heady, dark, mysterious sugar a whole lot over the past few months, and I’m smitten, friends. In my last Baking Booster post, I waxed all fangirl about dark brown sugar, and can’t nobody take those feelings away. But! When I want Real Big Dark Brown Sugar Flavor, all smoke and molasses and sticky sweetness, I reach for dark muscovado, and since we’re heading into serious baking season and lots of sweets with big bold flavors like gingerbread and pumpkin pie and decadent dark chocolate somethings, I’ve got to urge you–nay, implore you–to find some and give it a shot. It’s basically dark brown sugar on steroids! Magical. Let’s talk about it.
Over the next couple of weeks as we head into High Baking Season, I’m giving shout outs to my go-to ingredients that instantly transform standard baking recipes into something infinitely more crave-worthy. It’s not necessarily about spending more on exotic items (although Ina is right–sometimes the “good” vanilla really does make a difference!), it’s about easy swaps that you might already have in your pantry, or simply handling ingredients in a different way to get the best out of them, leaving you with baked goods that will blow minds and take names. As the old saying goes, “Bake smarter, not harder”…or something like that.
To kick off this series of Baking Boosters, I can think of no better, easier baking ingredient upgrade than switching to dark brown sugar. Any recipe that calls for light brown sugar will be 50 times more flavorful (roughly–what do you think I am, a flavor scientist?) by simply swapping out light brown sugar for dark, and it won’t cost you a penny more at the supermarket. These days, I typically only keep dark brown sugar in my pantry, and have raaarely run into a situation where light brown sugar would have been a better fit.
Or a “For the New Mom Gift Guide”.
Or the “I’m a New Mom and Desperately Need to Treat Mah Self as to Not Feel 90 Years Old All the Time” List.
The point is that I’ve been thinking a lot about the little things that have made life with a new baby a little brighter, and thought maybe we could talk about those things. Because Lord knows I’d love a break from talking about how my baby never, ever wants to sleep for more than a couple hours at time. Like, EVER. So whether you are a Mom type yourself, or you are looking to get something off the beaten registry path for a friend who is about to, or in the midst of, having life ruled by a tiny high-maintenance person, consider the following:
Well, hello! You’ll never guess what I’ve been up to over the past couple weeks. Okay, I’ll just tell you. That baby boy? The Inside Baby that was making me huger and more miserable by the minute? He finally decided to make his entrance into this crazy world two weeks ago and it turns out he’s been making up for giving me a massive ongoing case of heartburn for the past nine months and a myriad of other aches and pains by being an absolute Superstar Outside Baby. Nursing well, even sleeping well, he is the stuff of newborn dreams, I’m telling you. I will be sure to share more stories and photos as the weeks go on and we get into a groove around here.
But in the meantime, I wanted to take a quick minute to share some tips with you about a recipe from Pure Vanilla. Turns out, at the exact moment Sir Baby was making his entrance, the fabulous folks at USA Weekend published a lovely piece on the cookbook and the recipe for Creamy Vanilla Rice Pudding. And as a bit of press in a national publication is wont to do, it’s garnered some attention and filled my inbox with e-mails from enthusiastic home cooks: some raves about the recipe (thank you, I love you, too!), some polite questions about substitutions and technique (many thanks to you, too, for wording your thoughts so nicely), and, of course, a couple standout notes from a few people for whom the world has seemingly ended due to their pudding not setting (oh, Internet, you vex me so).
At any rate, all the correspondence left me with me with a serious case of rice pudding on the brain (related: having a newborn also gives you a serious case of Rice Pudding Brain–coincidence?). So I gave into the craving and whipped up a batch the other day (you know, for quality control), and while working through the recipe, I realized that to the inexperienced, a traditional, eggless rice pudding recipe like the one in Pure Vanilla can be tricky to master, and we all know what I stickler I am for giving you clear, concise recipes that work. So in the interest of always being Your Kitchen Pal, I thought I’d lay out a few tips to lead you to rice pudding success, and point out a couple things that are listed in the recipe, but might benefit from further emphasis or clarification.
Psst. Over here! Hi! Peeking out from behind the curtain of Thanksgiving weekend! Is it time yet? Can we all start baking like deranged, totally inspired people?
I seriously hope so. We’ve been holding out too long, my fellow kitchen elves. I have so many recipes clipped and bookmarked, it’s ’bout to get crazy up in here. Let’s do this!
To kick things off, I thought I’d pull out a video from the archives that has me rattling off my baking pantry essentials. It’s basically a top 10 list of a bare bones bakers’ arsenal that will allow you to make pretty much whatever, whenever with craveworthy results (minus leaveners like baking powder and soda–now’s a good time to buy fresh boxes of both). Here’s the rundown:
1. All-purpose flour. Obvi.
2. Granulated sugar. The cornerstone of many a great baking recipe.
3. Cornstarch. The baker’s magic ingredient. See video for evidence.
4. Eggs. Large, please.
5. Unsalted butter. So you can control the salt in recipes. Also, because salt is a preservative, unsalted butter is most often fresher than its salted counterpart.
6. Salt. Table salt is just fine, fine sea salt is great. Flaky, coarse salt (like Maldon) is divine for finishing and adding crunch.
7. Dark brown sugar. Same price as light brown, major flavor points.
8. Vietnamese cinnamon. You’ll never go back to plain old ground cinnamon. Trust.
9. Pure vanilla extract. I keep two varieties: one basic, all-purpose supermarket vanilla, one fancy for vanilla-forward recipes.
10. Instant espresso powder. Bumps up chocolate flavor, big time.
Know what’s super fun? The influx of emails, tweets, comments, and Facebook messages I’ve received from folks working through the recipes in Marshmallow Madness! in recent weeks–lots of sweet stories and photos of fluffy, puffy successes that warm the cockles of my heart. ‘Tis the season for homemade mallow making and gifting!
But I’ve also gotten some requests for a few marshmallow-making tips and troubleshooting help for the recipes, which I also happen to love. Happy to help. For those new to mallowing, it is most certainly wacky, leaving plenty of room for self-doubt and simple mistakes. But don’t freak out! It’s just sugar! Everything will be okay. Keep in mind that the following tips refer specifically to recipes and techniques in MM, but some will cross over into any homemade marshmallow recipe you might try.
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