When starting a recipe, you want to take out all the ingredients listed. This serves 2 purposes:
1) You can make sure that you have everything you need. There’s nothing worse than starting a recipe and realizing that you don’t have something essential. Last minute substitutions never work out as well.
2) You need to let cold ingredients come up to room temperature. The butter needs to soften so that you don’t have butter chunks in your batter (Viola hates butter chunks). Cold cream cheese will not beat smooth and instead leave you with unappetizing lumps. Cold eggs aren’t a huge deal, but you’ll get better rise from your cake if you use room temperature. While I do have a few tips for warming them up on the fly for last-minute baking, the best thing to do is leave the cold ingredients on the counter for 15 minutes.
Note on butter: Now when I say softened butter, I don’t mean melted or partially melted. Melting the butter will change the texture of your batter, making it denser. You want the butter soft enough that it gives when you press it with a finger but still keeps its shape.
Note on eggs: Cold eggs separate more easily, but warm eggs whites whip up better, so if there is ever a recipe that calls for egg whites, you’ll want to separate them while still cold from the fridge and let sit until warm.
Some ingredient staples that you’ll want to keep around the house are:
- All-purpose flour (I prefer unbleached)
- Granulated sugar
- Vanilla extract
- Unsweetened cocoa powder
- Unsalted butter
- Table salt*
- Semisweet chocolate chips
- Baking powder and soda
- Light brown sugar
- Powdered sugar (also known as icing or confectioner’s sugar)
Most recipes use some sort of combination of these ingredients.
*You may be wondering why you need to by unsalted butter if you have to use salt in the recipes. The answer is simple- because you can’t regulate the salt in salted butter. Baking is a science and measurement is key. You want to be able to control the amount of salt in your recipes.
Some other things that I recommend keeping around the house are:
- Powdered buttermilk blend- this is awesome. I love it to pieces. Keep it in the refrigerator after opening, and it keeps for 2 years. You can mix this with water or sift it into the dry ingredients and add the water when it calls for the buttermilk. It doesn’t have quite the same flavor as buttermilk, so if you’re making buttermilk biscuits or pancakes, you’ll want to use the real deal, but for cakes it works wonderfully.
- Light corn syrup (note: not Lite. My father made that mistake once when I asked him to buy it for me. Not good.)
- Ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, & allspice
- Unsweetened chocolate and other baking chocolates
- Shortening (Crisco)
- Marshmallow Fluff
- Decorating tips and disposable pastry bags
Arguably the most important piece of equipment in baking. Now, I know not all oven are created equal and you can’t just stop by the store and pick one up if your’s is crap. Trust me, I know. The kitchen recently got redone and the oven I had before… well, it’s best not to dwell. The most important thing that you want to remember with the oven is to let it preheat. You put things in before the temperature’s up and they won’t cook evenly. A cold oven can cause cakes to sink in the middle. I’m a slow baker, so I start the oven when I start mixing the batter, and it’s ready by the time I’m done. My new oven has a built in thermometer that tells me when it’s up to temperature. If your oven doesn’t have that, I suggest investing in a oven thermometer. They come cheap and can save your cakes.
Say hello to Viola! Now, I know stand mixers don’t come cheap, and for Viola that was especially true (not a cheap date, that one). For the most part, you can use a handheld electric mixer. But if you’re going to be baking a lot, I would recommend investing in one. They just make it so much easier. And they don’t have to be exorbitantly priced (like Viola). The one I had before Viola, the older-than-me one my mother bought, started out life discount priced, and it served its purpose. Whatever you choose, you’ll definitely need an electric mixer of some description, stand or handheld.
You’ll need a liquid measuring cup, a set of dry measuring cups, and measuring spoons. Now, I have liquid and dry measuring spoons. The dry measuring spoons are from Pampered Chef and are another legacy item from my mother. They are awesome. They’re adjustable so you don’t need scads of spoons, just the two. I highly recommend them; they’re only $8 and so worth it (and the new ones are all shiny and pretty). If not, you can find dry measuring spoons, and all the other measuring items, cheap at grocery stores or discount stores like Christmas Tree Shops or Home Goods. You can even check dollar stores and drug stores. I once saw a set of measuring cups and spoons at Rite Aid for a dollar. So do yourself a favor and shop around for a deal.
You’ll definitely need a cookie sheet, a rimmed baking sheet, and a muffin tin. I also recommend getting a half-size muffin tin for those recipes that yield 14-18 cupcakes or muffins. You’ll also want at least two 9” round cake tins (for layered cakes) and an 8 x 8” square cake tin. I also have a 9 x 9” square tin (and a tiny 4 x 4”) but the 8 x 8” gets the most use. You’ll want a 9 x 13” for sheet cakes, cinnamon rolls, large batches of brownies, lasagnas, baked macaroni and cheese, tuna casserole… really if there’s one pan you want to invest in, that’s the one.
Other than the cookie sheet and the baking sheet, most of these can be found in disposable foil pans, so if you can’t clutter up the kitchen you can always get those from grocery or even dollar stores.
You’ll also want to have wire cooling rack. Until recently, I was using the wire inserts to a roasting pan, so it really doesn’t have to be fancy. I found a new set of three at the Christmas Tree Shops (one of my favorite stores in the world; you’ll be hearing that name a lot) for just a couple of bucks. Cooling racks allow the air to circulate under your baked goods letting them cool faster. Why is that a good thing? Because you don’t want things to overcook.
And don't forget a flexible rubber spatula for scraping down the sides of bowls and folding in egg whites and other ingredients to your batter.
Note: you may be asking why you need a cookie sheet and a rimmed baking sheet. Cookie sheets don’t have sides, which means they better allow the heat to circulate around the cookies in the oven. This means they cook faster and more evenly. While you can make cookies in the rimmed baking sheet, it’s easier on the cookie sheet.
- Parchment paper: if you’ve never used parchment paper before, prepare for your life to forever change. This is non-stick paper for lining cake pans and cookie sheets so that you don’t have to grease the pans and makes them 10x easier to clean when you’re done.
- Baking cups: I think you know what these are. They come in paper or foil and a rainbow of colors and patterns.
- Baking spray with flour: For when you can’t use or don’t have parchment paper. Now, you could grease the pan and dust with flour, but the spray is just so much easier.
- Don’t open the oven door while something is baking. I know it’s tempting, but this lets cold air into the oven which could cause your cakes to fall or cook unevenly. You want to wait a minimum of 10 minutes to check on them, or within a few minutes of the minimum baking time.
- If you need to warm up eggs last minute, put them in a bowl of lukewarm water and let sit for about a minute. If you need to soften butter last minute, nuke in the microwave 5 seconds on 30% on each side until softened.
- Start with a clean space and an empty sink. I don’t always listen to my own advice on this, but it does make it easier.
- Take your time. Rushing just makes it more likely that you’ll mess up or forget something.
- Make sure to measure ingredients accurately. Level off ingredients in dry measuring cup/spoons and check the liquid measuring cup at eye level.
- Be patient, both with yourself and your baked goods. Baking’s not the fastest of cooking methods, and it does take some practice. Don’t get discouraged if things don’t come out well the first time.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment. It might be awful, but you might just come up with something amazing.
- Don’t be afraid to get messy. I’m not. Viola certainly isn’t. Just make sure you have an apron to protect your clothes, okay?
- And always remember that it’s okay to lick your fingers so long as you wash your hands immediately afterwards.