Monday Author: Susanne Skinner
When I am at odds with the world, I find my happy place by combining sugar, butter and flour. Whether I am seeking solace, creativity, or inspiration, I begin with these three ingredients—the Holy Trinity for just about any baked good.
Baking is therapeutic. It allows me to disconnect from whatever is pressing down on me and focus on a single, joyful task. Creating something new or falling back on a tried-and-true favorite shuts out the noise. I center myself in the sequence of measuring, mixing, rolling and kneading. These steps bring me a familiar and comforting cadence
I find it calming in the worst of times and in the best of times.
Mise en Place
In the kitchen, mise en place is a French culinary phrase meaning everything in its place. It’s one of the first lessons taught in culinary school. his is my kitchen religion. Before I do anything else, I gather every ingredient I will use and measure it. Then I double-check it against the recipe. It’s the old measure-twice-cut-once rule, adapted for the kitchen.
Why? Because it prevents mistakes. Ingredients prepared ahead of time mean less chance of error. It will not prevent burned cookies or an underdone cake, but it will make you a better and more organized baker.
Measure Twice, Mix Once
Pre-measuring and weighing is the first step in any recipe. Copy your favorite television chef and invest in half a dozen graduated bowls to measure ingredients—especially spices. Take it from me; baking powder and baking soda are hard to tell apart. Powdered sugar, cornstarch, and flour are deceptively similar in texture and appearance. Forgetting the salt is a mortal baking sin. Someone who looks like me has done all of this…and more.
Mise en place is a form of Baking Zen, creating good kitchen habits and simplified processes. Think of it as the first step in any successful baking project.
My kitchen has always been a safe place to land. It is a happy place, with no shortage of recipes and ingredients to test. I have a shelf dedicated to baking cookbooks—the masters and the outliers—and a pantry filled with pans, tools, and gadgets. The cookbooks, marked with post-its and notations, are challenges calling my name.
Cultured butter waits patiently in the freezer, and my homemade vanilla will find its way into any mixing bowl. There is a shelf dedicated to spices I’ve collected from around the world. Some I compound myself. Pumpkin Spice is one of them—a store-bought version never measures up.
The art and science of baking call upon all of our senses—sight, taste, touch, sound, and smell. When I am baking, these wash over me, putting a world right when it is temporarily upside down. The incense of baking stills my soul.
Baking quiets a busy mind. By concentrating on a single outcome, I center myself in a time and place removed from stress. If I am honest, the stress is there when I’m done but I handle it better with a little bit of sugar, butter, and flour.
Ingredients Make a Difference
When it comes to ingredients, I follow two simple rules. Buy the highest quality your budget will allow and always weigh your ingredients. Weighing is an exact science; measuring is a hit-and-miss method that can ruin a recipe.
My preference is for cultured butter, differentiated from regular butter by the addition of friendly bacteria, added before churning. Artisanal butter is also fun to try. When it comes to butter, price does not predict taste. I bake with unsalted butter to control the exact amount of salt I use.
Speaking of salt, my go-to brand is Diamond Crystal kosher salt. It measures differently than Morton’s brand and regular table salt, something you must pay attention to when baking.
Sugar affects texture. It not only sweetens, it deepens color, adds flavor and creates tenderness. Sprinkling sugar on top of muffins or cookies produces a crunch when the moisture evaporates from the surface.
Adding sugar to batter pulls water away from proteins and starch. The right combination controls the structure of the finished product. When the sugar, protein and starch are balanced a cake not only has a beautiful shape, its texture is moist and tender. Incorrect measurements give a tender result without structure, or a structured result that lacks taste and crumb.
The amount of protein in flour dictates what its baking purpose should be. Amounts vary by brand and affect the outcome of every item. The general rule of thumb, shown below, excludes southern flours like White Lily and Martha White. Although considered all-purpose, they have a finer texture and are around 9%. Lower-protein content creates a higher rise in baked goods, especially biscuits.
Cake & Pastry Flour: 7 – 9 % protein
All-Purpose Flour: 10 – 12% protein
Bread Flour: 12 – 16% protein
Whole-Wheat Flour: 16% protein
Flour measured by weight is critical to baking success. The dip-and-level method can be off by as much as ¼ cup.
A Gift You Can Eat
People often ask how I bake and don’t gain weight. The answer is that I rarely eat it. I taste it, confirming hoped for results, and then I gift it. Joy, for me, lies in the creating and the giving.
My neighborhood and my husband’s office are willing test kitchen accomplices. Last week I had a request for “pumpkin spice anything,” a reminder we’re heading into fall.
Bake someone happy. It’s a way to stay connected while we’re apart and you never forget a gift you can eat.