Baking. It’s the one place that can inspire sheer terror in many novices, along with being asked to prepare a holiday dinner. It doesn’t have to be frightening, and it’s not as difficult as some people would like to convince the novice it is. It’s not even a huge mystery.
Baking, whether making bread or the most elaborate pastry imaginable, is more a science than anything, although an artistic bent can improve your presentation, it isn’t critical to be “artistic” and make something that both looks attractive and tastes delicious. I’m sure you are wondering why right now too.
Baking is mostly about chemistry, but before you panic over the intellectual sound of that word, remember…baking started a very long time ago, with what we commonly call “cave man.” If the foundations were laid in a cave with a grunting spouse who was busy scratching flea bites, surely we can manage it in our modern kitchens with products purchased at the grocery store!
First of all, we have the advantages of recipes, which are the equivalent of our magical formulas. To follow these recipes, you will need a few basic tools. In America, our recipes are usually written by volume, whereas the Europeans use weight often for dry ingredients. To keep things simpler, we’ll start with those American methods.
Every kitchen and baker needs the measuring tools, which are your equivalent of a carpenter’s measuring tape. That means a set of measuring cups containing at least 1/4 c., 1/3 c. and 1 cup. 1/2 and 2/3 c. are also nice and save time. Make sure these cups are flat, as you need to be able to scrape the top level for accurate measuring of dry ingredients. In addition, you’ll also need a 1 cup liquid measuring cup, the best of which is glass and has the increments marked on the side of the cup. The last item required for measuring out your ingredients is a set of measuring spoons. All of these items can be purchased very inexpensively, although much more expensive (and hopefully higher quality too) ones are also available. If you are on a tight budget for your foray into baking, check out dollar stores for bargain measuring tools.
There are some other tools that are necessary for even the beginning baker. The next set of tools you will need are your mixing tools. These do not have to be expensive ones initially either–I baked for decades before purchasing my Ferrari, aka KitchenAid Stand Mixer. For most things, you can achieve a reasonable level of success with just a hand mixer, which are available for as little as $5 on sale at Walmart or other discount stores. Remember that here too, the amount spent is often comparable to the level of quality, but the cheapest are adequate (if not long lived) for basic baking.
Next, you will need bowls. Plastic bowls work fine for 90% of the mixing, but you will also need a glass or metal mixing bowl if you intend to become proficient at cake mixing. This isn’t a mystery, it’s pure science. Plastic tends to allow traces of oil or fat to cling to their surfaces, no matter how hot your dishwater or how hard you scrub them clean. That trace amount is enough to inspire your egg whites to fail to whip up fluffy enough for cakes. To eliminate that problem, it is essential to have at least one glass or metal mixing bowl of sufficient size to beat egg whites–I suggest a 3 or 4 quart bowl. I love my glass bowl–it’s also non-reactive to acids.
Finally, there are your spoons, spatulas, and whisks. While an experienced cook may have a magical and mysterious arrangement of these tools, the novice doesn’t need as many, nor do they have to be expensive. I suggest an inexpensive set of wooden spoons, a heat resistant silicone spatula (for scraping bowls and spreading) and a single balloon whisk. Most of these can be found at any dollar store.
Now, you are ready to mix…which is considered by some to be the easy part, and others to be the hard part. It’s usually the messiest part, resulting in the most dirty dishes. Even so, you will also need the pans to bake your mixed product in.
For most novices, the initial step to choosing your pan is going to be choosing your recipe. The recipes usually state which size and type of pan to use. For those who wish to purchase their complete initial set of baking pans, be aware…there is a huge variation in quality and prices. It is up to the individual baker to decide what quality is necessary, as well as whether non-stick or uncoated surfaces will be more appropriate. Often, there is also the choice between glass, metal and silicone too. For your lowest initial outlay, inexpensive metal pans are often your best bet, but be aware…these pans can rust quickly, ruining them for use as baking pans, even if you wash and dry them carefully.
One of the first steps in most recipes is to tell the baker to grease or grease & flour the specified pan size and type. I happen to have reached the point of aggravation on more occasions than I would like to admit to, and experience has taught me that the simplest way to achieve these states on my pans is to use spray on coatings. Typically, I’ll use a store brand of an oil based coating, and for the “grease and flour” state, I use Baker’s Joy. They work efficiently with minimal mess. They keep my sanity intact, as there is nothing as frustrating as greasing that pan, only to attempt to coat it with flour and discover you have missed spots, requiring the pan be washed, dried, and start over with the whole process once again. In addition, in my attempts to eliminate the missed spots, I have been known to go overboard with the shortening and flour, resulting in greasy floury spots on my cake’s surface. Baker’s Joy eliminates all of those issues.
I started baking in third grade, when my mother bribed me with the promise I could bake anything I wanted on my own…if I turned in my homework for a whole week straight. (I didn’t mind doing the homework, it was the turning it in that was the problem. My teacher was tired of searching my desk for the missing homework assignments, and my stubborn refusal to turn them in was driving my mother crazy.) I could then take my baked product to school to share with my peers, as part of the coordinated effort between my mother and my teacher to get me to pass the grade. It worked, whereas no other bribe or punishment had interested me in cooperating with them. What recipe did I choose?
The Crazy Cake.
I still bake them. It’s one of my favorite recipes, super easy, no bowl or mixer required. It’s mixed right in the 9×13 pan it will be baked in, with nothing more than a fork or spoon to achieve it. It also uses no eggs, milk or butter–it’s a “Depression” recipe. It travels well, and is ideal for both lunch box desserts or taking to work. I highly recommend it for the first time baker, whether an adult or child. For lunch boxes, I typically will take the hot cake out of the oven, sprinkle about 1/2 c. of chocolate chips on top, let them melt, then spread them into a thin chocolate layer. When the cake pan is cool to the touch but the chocolate still hasn’t set, cut the cake into serving size squares, and let the cake finish cooling and the chocolate harden. When the chocolate has hardened, remove the pieces from the pan, wrap in plastic wrap and store them in the freezer to pop into lunch boxes. Using chocolate as “frosting” means that it won’t stick to the plastic wrap unless the lunch box gets very warm! Here’s the same recipe that I used in 1969 for that school cake.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups white sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 cups cold water
Sift flour, sugar, salt, soda, and cocoa together into a 9 x 13 inch ungreased cake pan. Make three wells. Pour oil into one well, vinegar into second, and vanilla into third well. Pour cold water over all, and stir well with fork.
Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 30 to 40 minutes, or until tooth pick inserted comes out clean. Frost with your favorite icing.
Variations: Stir in baking chips (chocolate, peanut butter, white chocolate, mint chocolate, etc.) or chopped nuts along with the water. About 1 cup will be a moderate proportion in the cake.