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The ratio of cake to icing is a very important area of focus for bakers. Too heavy on cake, and you may have a Sahara desert. Too much icing . . . well, can there really be too much icing?

My mother makes a killer layer cake by starting with a pound cake and carefully slicing it into seven layers. Given its pound-cake shape — and density — this can be accomplished by turning the cake on its side, taking a big serrated knife, and boldly slicing downward. You adjust a bit for the slight tilt caused by the outward bow of the cake sides. And pound cake is solid enough that spreading on icing will not usually cause the layers to crumble. (I say “usually” because faithful readers know about my solid-icing incident, in which topping and cake fought to the death.)

Slicing round layers into two, and then finishing your cake, takes a bit more thought. Here are three tips, however, that will make your life easier. All of these start with one or more cooled round cakes, out of the pan. (Carrot-cake fans: Never tried this on a carrot cake. Let me know if it works!)

1.   Pick your weapon. If you’re almost comfortable slicing horizontally with a big knife, try adding toothpicks to guide you: Insert toothpicks horizontally into the cake, halfway up, spaced about three inches apart all the way around. Your cake will look like a Tinker Toy piece. Slice above the toothpicks.

If you had a bad bagel-slicing incident in college and have not picked up a big knife since, use dental floss. (I can’t quite believe that I have to specify UNFLAVORED dental floss, but I probably should, right?) Get yourself a nice long piece of floss. Start your slice by cutting into the far side of the cake from where you are standing; plant the middle of the floss in there, wrap the ends around the sides of the cake — halfway up the sides — and cross your ends (so the left end is now in your right hand, and vice versa). Begin a gentle sawing motion, slowly tightening the loop of floss that is working its way through your cake. Make sure you’re pulling out to the sides, not up towards the ceiling. Eventually, the loop will close up on itself and pop out the side of the cake right in front of you.

2.    Make structure work for you. Each new layer has one “finished” side and one “unfinished” side. Either the top or the bottom of the original cakes count as “finished,” while your crumbly sliced side is “unfinished.” The finished sides have more structural integrity: Those are what you ice. That way your spreading knife has something to push onto, and you’re not crumbling…the…cake…with…each…pass. So however you have to flip or flop your layers, do it so the unfinished side is always DOWN.

3.   Go for icing with spreadability, not spackle. Again, you have less structural integrity in your cakes at this point. Any engineer would tell you that the more you drag and pull on the cakes as you spread icing, the more likely you are to create havoc. So if your icing is a bit stiff, thin it down — lemon juice, milk, cream, whatever works with your icing — so that you have a spread that glides on.

I want to hear who’s slicing and icing, and how you up your frosting-to-cake ratio. Which is, of course, always the end goal.

All content copyright 2010 Garside Group LLC

Having coffee with a pal the other day, and she started to talk about baking with her little girls. “Do my cookie sheets have to be flat?,” she asked, “What if they have sides?” There was a distinct wrinkle to her brow.

There are many people who have strong opinions about cookie sheets — they must be nonstick, they must never be nonstick, dark is good, dark is bad — and there are indeed some core nuggets that will make your cookie-baking easier. So read on, but keep in mind this fact: If it’s got a flat part and fits in your oven, you’ll probably be able to bake cookies on it. Everything beyond that is fiddling at the top of the charts.

  • My favorite cookie sheet is big, heavy, medium-shiny and has a little rise that creates a handle on each short end — kind of like this one. It’s made of really heavy-duty aluminum, and it is NOT coated with a non-stick finish. Parchment paper is my friend, and I always have a large roll of Reynolds parchment (available at your average grocery store). I like it because it’s just a tiny bit wider than this favorite pan, so zwwwwwippp and I have the pan covered and ready to go.
  • If what you have are dark cookie sheets, use parchment on them as well, and watch carefully — you may have to reduce oven temp by 25 degrees or shorten cooking time to make sure the bottom of the cookies doesn’t get too done. The parchment may not help much to reduce the extra heat off the dark pans, but it DOES make it easier to see through the oven window how fast your cookies are browning on the bottom.
  • If what you have are pans with higher sides — two inches or so — you’ll find that the sides of the pans create hot spots, so that cookies get extra-done on the edges closest to those high sides. You can use these in a pinch, but consider turning them over and using the bottoms instead. Just handle with extreme care so that your parchment does not slide off.
  • The lighter-weight a cookie sheet is, the more likely it is to have hot spots or to flex in the oven. That said, I happily baked many batches of Toll House cookies on a medium-weight aluminum pan with slightly raised edges all around and a dark taupe nonstick coating. What was that I was saying about cookie-sheet rules?
  • Glass is just not great for cookies. If that’s really all you’ve got I’d spring for two metal cookie sheets.

If you’re here in Washington D.C., you’ve got several buying options — Hill’s Kitchen has good sheets, as do local branches of Sur la Table and Williams-Sonoma. And if you’re headed out to a hardware store instead of a kitchen-specialty place, you know I’ll send you to the best hardware stores around: Logan Hardware and its sister stores — they carry the Baker’s Secret and Airbake Ultra lines — and Strosnider’s in Bethesda. You’ll find pans, and probably fill in on some missing gift-list items too!

Last week, I was talking about Pumpkin Custard No. 1 with April, whom I met at an American Marketing Association event. She sounded kind of interested in the dessert. “Could I add pecans?,” she asked. I didn’t delve beyond the feeling that pecans, pumpkin and Thanksgiving just all go together for her. Makes sense.

I said, “Definitely! I’d toast some pecans, maybe candy them, and chop them not too fine. Then you serve the pumpkin custard with whipped cream on top, and sprinkle a healthy handful of pecans on as well…” and I realized that right there we were coming up with something that would feel and taste different from just plain Pumpkin Custard No. 1. Just enough of a twist — on the recipe or on how you serve something — and you’ve made a dessert yours.

April, if that sounded good to you, here are two options for creating your glazed or candied pecans:

  • Viviane Bauquet Farre has maple-glazed pecans on the salad in her vegetarian Thanksgiving. (You have to scroll down a bit, but who’s complaining with this menu of hers??)
  • Suzie the Foodie has the most gloriously photographed candied pecans on her page. (If you’re upping this recipe, you don’t need to increase sugar and water in the same proportion. I made this with 1/2 cup pecans, 4 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons water, following Suzie’s cooking instructions.)

And from all of you, I want to hear this: How are you making what’s probably a pretty traditional set of desserts reflect you and your family at Thanksgiving? What do you do to make your mark on dessert?

Me, I’m going to make Grammy’s Pumpkin Pie with a cream-cheese crust. Too rich? Maybe. I’ll let you know!

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