(Ferraro Rocher Cupcakes, March 2011)
Baking I think in many ways is a personal journey. I was born into a family that bakes, and it's really been part of who I am for my entire life. I could wax poetic for days about this, but what I'd really like to do is answer a few questions that have come in from you over the past few weeks, mostly surrounding being a new baker, tips and tricks, and recipes.
While I'm definitely not an expert, I have accumulated a few bits for new cupcake makers and bakers alike. So let's start at the very beginning...
- Perfect the basics. Find good vanilla and chocolate recipes. Make them well with consistency. Memorize them. Many of your other recipes will either branch off from or contain one of these bases, so getting them down pat is a very good place to start.
- Learn to read your batter and frosting. Does this sound nutty? Perhaps. But this is the school of thought that I come from. Baking is, indeed, very much science. Unlike cooking, if your measurements are off, the end result is not necessarily salvageable. That being said, the Italian in me knows that a cup of flour is about the size of my fist, and a pinch of salt is more or less a quarter teaspoon. I've gotten to the point where I rarely measure ingredients for my buttercreams. I know when the consistency is off, when I need more milk and when it's sturdy enough to hold a chocolate dip or get piped into ruffles. This also takes me to the next two points.
- Cream the butter and sugar. No, really. Whip it good. And do it for at least three minutes. This process of incorporating sugar and butter exists because it brings air to your base, which helps cakes rise to a light texture once in the oven. If you don't eat rocks, don't bake rocks.
- Overbeating is the enemy. Just as crucial as creaming in the beginning is not overbeating during the flour incorporation at the end of most general cupcake recipes. Overbeating is like the un-athletic kid who gets picked last in gym class dodgeball. It's great that he's is so enthusiastic, but he always gets hit first. Buzzkill. Just say no to overbeating by sifting your flour prior and never underestimating a proper fold-in technique. I prefer to mix a little and finish by gently folding the last of the flour in with a spatula or wooden spoon at the end.
- Recipes are everywhere. Ok, well, kind of. Clearly the best place to find basic recipes is the internet. Food Network and Martha Stewart are great places for novice and seasoned bakers alike. Many cupcakeries have cookbooks or publish their recipes too. But what I mean by recipes being everywhere is that the better you can learn how to make a basic cupcake, the more likely you are to be able to modify it into your own recipe.
- Know thy oven. I've learned through the power vested in me by moving every year since college that no two ovens are the same. What might rise well in a brand new convection might fall flat in a one pan oven from the fifties. So the sooner you learn to understand your oven, the more readily you will be able to alter your own recipes and find success with what the oven demands of you.
- Art is art is art. Have you seen the video where no New Yorker identifies "art" in the same three words? This is how I feel about baking. To me, it's art, and it's personal. It is art when I have an idea and turn it into something. It is art when I find myself covered in flour and frustrated mid-process ("ah!" I think, "this is what a pissed off Picasso must have felt like!" Riiiighhhhht.) And it is definitely art when juxtaposed with the fact that I spend my days reading the minds of the people running financial institutions in New York. So above all, and I stress this, own your creativity. If your purple frosting actually looks brown, then add some more vanilla because that's brown too! If you ate a really good ice cream sundae and want to recreate it, then get the whip cream and sprinkles ready (and add a cone). AND if you want to put bacon and eggs on a pancake cupcake, then do it, dammit.
- Go forth and bake!