I hate to bake. That’s not to say that I can’t bake. I just don’t like it very much.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve baked a lot. When I got married, I gained not only a husband, but also a stepson, and I quickly learned that baked goods go a long way with boys. I don’t want to be stereotypical and say that the way to a man’s heart is his stomach, but the evidence is compelling. It may not be the best way to express love, but making delicious desserts is a simple and satisfying way to show almost anyone that you care.
Cooking is a necessity and therefore something most of us take for granted. Dessert is an “extra” — a treat we don’t have to have.
So I’ve become a baker. And I’ve learned a few things about baking over the years. These top five secrets have made baking desserts easier, and the recipients happier.
1. Remember the end goal: happy eaters.
If you’re someone who loves dessert, then you’re more likely to be a baker. I’d rather have a salty snack than a sweet one anytime. So for me, baking is about making other people happy. Real bakers say they love the meticulous nature of baking and find comfort in the almost scientific precision that baking requires. What they fail to tell the rest of us is that the greatest pleasure of baking is its capacity to evoke awe and joy. Baking is a crowd-pleaser. Perhaps not in the process (because for me, baking is not a cook pleaser), but in the delivery from cook to eater, and in the eater’s obvious pleasure as the sweet carbohydrate goodness is consumed.
2. Know your audience.
In my opinion, there is no point in making a 14-layer cake with home-dried strawberries and freshly grated coconut for a 3-year-old’s birthday party. I don’t mean that children don’t appreciate fine baked goods — I have a daughter who loves croissants more than cake. However, on the day your child’s birthday party, you may wish (as I frequently have) that you’d put more effort into foods that provide sustenance for kids who don’t want to take time to eat and less effort into baking. Let’s face it, most kids will eat any kind of cake that’s put in front of them. Why go to the extra trouble of making a fancy dessert when the birthday boy just wants a thick slice of chocolate cake? Sometimes the simplest desserts are the best.
Of course, the flip side of this rule is that there are times to go all out with baking. I recently went to a grown-up party of food-preservers where someone brought dozens of homemade profiteroles. She was a real baker, and she knew that she’d be bringing this finely crafted dessert to an informed audience who would really appreciate her skill and hard work. We did.
3. Don’t make “mini” anything.
I love tiny desserts, as I love anything miniature. But after too many failed batches of tiny cupcakes, I’ve recognized my limits. Baking is not a good multitasking activity, and as a mom I live my life as a multitasker. The proper baking time for tiny baked treats is short, and the window for perfection is shorter. In my opinion, mini baked goods should be left to the professionals. They get paid to give baking their undivided attention.
I do, however, make individually portioned baked goods when it seems like the path of least resistance. I recently invented a recipe for brownie s’mores, simply so I could avoid making cupcakes for my daughter’s class at school. Making brownie s’mores involves nothing more than scooping brownie batter into cupcake liners and topping each portion with graham cracker crumbs, chocolate chips and marshmallows near the end of the baking time.
4. Chocolate chips make (almost) everything better.
If you’re not a chocolate lover but bake for someone who is, embrace the chocolate chip, or chocolate shavings, if you bake primarily for adults. For chocolate fans, a little chocolate will cover a multitude of baking sins. And for the non-chocolate lover, eating something with chocolate chips is much more palatable than eating something that’s made entirely of chocolate.
5. Avoid any baked good that you do not like to eat.
Remember Rules 1 and 2: You are not only the cook, but the consumer as well. No matter how much time and effort you spend in making baked perfection – if you don’t like it, the whole thing becomes a complete waste of time (and makes you irritable as the rest of your audience gobbles up your treats.) Cook for yourself as well as your family.
For instance, I don’t like cakes, which I know is controversial, but that’s just who I am. So our family rarely eats cake. I only make them when someone has a birthday or on the rare special occasion when coconut cake is required.
The special case of coconut cake
Coconut cake is the one exception I made to my cake-hating rule. If you’re from the South, as am I, then you’ll understand. There are certain holidays when family tradition requires coconut cake with seven-minute frosting for dessert. I’ve learned to make it well and it’s become my signature cake for two reasons. First, the seven-minute frosting is almost magical and it will make any yellow cake (even a slightly over-baked one) taste moist and delicious within 24 hours. Second, and perhaps more importantly, this cake is made only for special occasions, which means that people don’t expect me to bake a coconut cake at the drop of a hat. This is perfect for someone who doesn’t like to bake and doesn’t like to eat cake.
I made brownie s’mores for dessert tonight. My youngest daughter was covered in chocolate within seconds and she looked so cute that I couldn’t resist asking her how she liked her dessert. She looked up at me sweetly and said, “I don’t want to talk, I’m too happy.” Moments like these make me think that I may grow to love baking after all.
So when you bake, make yourself happy, both in terms of the process and the results. And send me your cake recipes.
Makes 24 cupcake-sized brownies
2 cupcake pans that make 12 cupcakes each (if you only have one cupcake pan, just bake in two batches.)
24 cupcake liners
“small” (2 tablespoon) cookie scooper
1 sifter or fine mesh sieve
1 ¾ cup sugar
1 ½ sticks butter- melted and slightly cooled
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 ⅓ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon finely ground salt (or ½ teaspoon coarse sea salt)
1 cup mini-chocolate chips (¾ cup for batter and ¼ cup for topping)
1 graham cracker- crushed between your fingers to create crumb topping
¾ cup mini-marshmallows (you need 72 marshmallows if you want 3 marshmallows per brownie)
1. Heat oven to 350 F.
2. Line cupcake pans with cupcake liners.
3. In a large bowl, combine sugar, butter, water, and vanilla extract. Stir until well-mixed.
Add two slightly beaten eggs and stir to combine.
4. Sift dry ingredients and add to wet ingredients. (I don’t like to do dishes, so I put a sieve over my bowl of wet ingredients and sift them directly into my bowl. This way I don’t have to clean a second bowl.)
5. Mix to combine wet and dry ingredients, then add ¾ cup of mini-chocolate chips.
3. Place one scoop (approximately 2 tablespoons) of batter into each cupcake liner.
Bake for 7 to 8 minutes, until a crust forms around the edges of the brownies, but the center is still slightly wet.
4. Evenly divide reserved toppings (¼ cup mini-chocolate chips, marshmallows, and graham cracker crumbs) between 24 brownies. Return cupcake pans to oven and bake no longer than 2 to 3 additional minutes. (The marshmallows will deflate if you bake them too long.)
5. Be careful not to over-bake the brownies. They are done when a crust should form on top of each one. If you put a toothpick into the center of a brownie, brownie dough will still cling to it slightly when you pull it out.
Note: As you may have guessed, I’m a pretty lazy baker, but I do believe it’s important to sift the dry ingredients. This will help distribute them throughout the batter with less mixing and help you eliminate any hard clumps of cocoa that always seem to form in the cocoa container.
Photo: Brownie s’mores. Credit: Susan Lutz
Zester Daily contributor Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer. A native of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, she currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner. She also blogs about the subject at Eat Sunday Dinner.