Hi there, all! I thought that, before I packed it in until the 29th, I would offer a handy guide. Answers to some questions I get asked a lot, answers to questions you might not have thought of, and answers to questions that can help you become a better baker. No, really--you can thank me later.
1. Why don't my muffins have happy little peaks on their tops?
This is generally a function of too low an oven temperature. You want cupcakes to set up gradually and just have the barest dome--the better to accept frosting. With muffins, you want the edges to set up quickly, forcing the rest of the batter UP. As the muffins set rapidly from the outside in, you end up with a majestic peak. So, cupcakes bake at 325-350 degrees, F, and muffins bake at 375-400 degrees, F.
2. Why do my muffins have stupid tunnels in them?
This is caused by too much gluten development in your batter. When mixing using the muffin method (all wet onto all dry and stir), mix just so the batter is barely together. Lumps will sort themselves out of their own accord, but once you get that liquid in the flour, gentle is the name of the game. Use a low-protein flour, as well. That should help.
3. Is Reynold's Release foil worth it?
Yes. It is magic. Get some.
4. What is the secret to really light and fluffy biscuits?
If you're not looking for flakes, you want a really wet dough--so wet that you have to flour your hands in order to form the biscuits. Stay away from any recipe that talks about "kneading the biscuit dough." That's a recipe for "tough". It's okay for flaky biscuits, but if you want those really tall, fluffy Cracker Barrel biscuits, go with a very wet dough. Everyone's favorite food geek, AB, has a recipe he will be happy to share.
5. Help! My cookies are spreading too much!
That's not technically a question, but since I'm here to help...Butter melts very quickly, and all at once. At one temperature, it's a solid, and then you blink, and it's all melted. If the butter melts before the structural elements (starches and egg proteins) set up, you'll end up with a very flat, oddly shaped wafer of a cookie. All-butter cookies tend to spread more than cookies made with all (or part) shortening. If you don't want to go the shortening route (I try and stay away from it, although it is good for some stuff), try shaping your cookies and then putting the whole tray in the fridge for thirty minutes or so--the race between butter melting and starches and proteins setting up will be more even this way, and you'll get less spread. Oh, also, don't flatten the dough much--just lightly press down. You want the dough to be thick enough that it takes the heat awhile to penetrate. Meanwhile, your starches and proteins will have a chance to start setting. And don't put your dough on hot cookie sheets. That is all.
6. What's the best way to prepare cake pans so my cakes don't stick? And how do I get the suckers out of the pan?
Oh, good one! If you've prepared your pans properly (points for alliteration), you won't have any trouble turning out your cakes. For flat-bottomed, straight-sided pans, spray the bottoms and up the sides thoroughly with pan spray--pick your favorite--cut a piece of magical Release foil or some parchment paper to fit in the bottom. Then, I lightly spray that, too. Once your cake is out of the oven, let it cool for 10-20 minutes in the pan. This gives the still-woogly starches and proteins time to set up more firmly and not break into chunks when you try and turn it out. Once the cakes have cooled a bit, place a cooling rack on top of the cake pan. Holding the two firmly (with oven mitts or towels, please) flip them over. Whack the bottom of the pan lightly (Is it possible to whack lightly? Whatever.) and remove the pan. Pull it straight up so you don't mess up your cake. If the top of your cake isn't flat, you'll want to cool it right side up. Put another cooling rack on top (which is really the bottom) of your cake. You now have a cake sandwich with cooling rack bread. Grasp this whole contraption firmly, and turn it all over. Remove the first cake rack, and let your lovely cake cool, right side up.
7. How do I ice a cake so it looks like I know what I'm doing?
First, brush all the crumbs that you can off of the cake. Use a pastry brush for this. No, you may not use your Dust Buster. Make sure your icing is thin enough to spread. Test it--if it wants to curl up around your spatula as you're trying to ice, it's too thick and needs to be thinned out with a little water, milk or other liquid. Once your icing is the correct consistency, apply a very thin coat of icing all over the cake. This is the "crumb coat." No, it is not a coat of crumbs. It is a coat of icing designed to trap any crumbs that might be lurking, ready to make your icing job all speckled and sad. Put your cake in its swanky new crumb coat into the fridge to let the icing firm up. After half an hour or so, you can add your final icing coat. I do the sides first with a small, offset spatula. I don't try to be very neat at this point, I'm just trying to get frosting on the cake. Once the sides are all covered, I hold my spatula 1/4" away from and parallel with the sides of the cake. I angle the spatula to scrape away extra icing. Then, I slowly spin my turntable, scraping the extra icing into the bowl. Next, I dump a ton of icing on top of the cake, spreading it out to hang over the edges of the cake by a little bit. I'll also scrape extra icing back into the bowl. When the icing is as thick as I want it (maybe 1/3"), I perform the little sides-of-the-cake number again--just the scraping portion. What I now have is a cake with smooth sides and a little icing "perimeter wall" standing up maybe 1/2" all the way around the cake. I knock that down with my spatula, one section at a time, sweeping in towards the center of the cake, and scraping all the extra icing back into the bowl.
That's all I've got, right now. If I didn't cover one of your burning questions, please leave your question in the comments section.
I celebrate Christmas, so "Merry Christmas!" Whichever holiday you celebrate, and however you choose to celebrate it, I hope you have a wonderful one. For those of you celebrating Festivus, may you dominate in the Feats of Strength.
Thank you to all my loyal readers. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to know that we're building a quirky little baking community here! I look forward to seeing you all on the 29th.