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Graters are graters, right? A box with four sides, options for slicing, rough cut, fine, finest. When you remove zest from a lemon, a box grater skins your knuckles along with the fruit. And if you forget to soak that classic box grater, well, then, forget getting all the little bitties out of those tiny rough-edged holes.

Not any more.

“Zesting a lemon” — taking off the outer yellow skin while leaving the bitter white pith behind — used to be somewhat of a family joke, in part because it involved verbing a noun. And because it got precious, fast. At one point I gave Dad a small, hand-held metal tool with five wickedly sharp holes set on an angle. This miniature torture device carved long, skinny curls from the outer skin of the lemon, curls that we then had to chop before we could use them. “It’s a zester,” I crowed. “A winner in the ‘silly one-use kitchen tools’ category!”

Enter the Microplane.Microplane lemon zester from "Baking Family"

I bought my Microplane grater early in Microplane’s shift from the tool bench to the kitchen: My zester doesn’t have the fancy handle that most now do. It’s just a long strip of stainless steel with squared holes, their leading edge ever-so-subtly shaped. I worried at first about holding the thing, but soon realized it would not bite the way a regular grater does: The single-direction cut, narrow field, and one’s ability to position the “plane” makes it almost impossible to damage either your holding hand or the knuckles of your grating hand.

I use this most often for taking zest off lemons or oranges. The pile of golden shavings that accumulates — fast and freely — is astounding. There’s an estimate floating out there that Microplanes double the amount of zest you can get from one lemon. How? Well, the edges are much sharper than any other grater you own, nothing is left behind on the tool…and it’s fun, so you just keep going.

That increased yield plays havoc with the recipe instruction “add the grated peel of one lemon.” For me, a lover of lemon, the added punch is terrific. If you are not such a fanatic, you’ll want to consider adding grated peel to your dough or dish in stages, to ensure that your new grater isn’t giving you TOO much lemony goodness.

Microplanes are available in a bunch of different sizes and shapes. My go-to for lemon zesting is the finest one; I also have the medium for grating hard cheeses and chocolate. Here in DC, Microplanes are available at one of my favorite neighborhood stores, Home Rule, along with kitchen and hardware stores.

You’ll want to have this in hand before you make Lemon Buttermilk Pie or Lemon Sponge. Your tastebuds — and your knuckles — will thank you.

I got a question today from someone who’s thinking of baking a cake — a first-time caker! — but was not keen on the idea of using aluminum cake pans. “I’m a bake-in-glass gal, is there such a thing as glass cake pans?”

Great question, and sure there are: Those familiar Pyrex made-in-the-U.S.A. glass dishes that we’ve been using for lasagne and brownies for years. The deal with these is you trade the ease of pre-shaped round layers for the thrills of post-baking production.

Here’s what I’d suggest: Try the Cordon Bleu basic cake recipe. Set the oven temperature to 375°F instead of 400°F. Bake the cake in a 9-by-13 Pyrex (or other oven-safe glass) baking pan. Use the same pan-prep and cooking time, and watch for that telling gap at the edge of the cake. (I would definitely still use parchment-paper lining with tab handles to make it easy to get this cake out.)

When the cake comes out of the oven, you have at least two options: Let the cake cool a bit, then slice it in half across the long side. Put one “cake” on your serving plate, ice the top, and then layer the second “cake” on top and ice the whole thing. If you’re a stickler, slice off the short ends to get rid of the gently rounded corners — you’ll end up with a fashionable rectangular two-layer cake, with icing to spare. Option two is to lift the whole cake out of the pan and place it on a monster platter or cookie sheet covered with foil. Ice the whole darn thing, and dig in.

And if that seems not as much fun as circular layers, Norpro makes round stainless steel cake pans. Sur La Table also has All-Clad stainless circular bakers, and silicone cake pans. I’ve tried silicone bakers for muffins and they’re pretty good. I haven’t tried a cake-size version, nor have I tried steel pans for cakes, and would be curious to know how they work.

Tell me what you do, will you? Would love to know that there is one more cake baker in this world.

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!

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