Baking powder is a combination of baking soda and an acidic salt, such as cream of tartar, plus cornstarch. Like baking soda, baking powder is a chemical leavening agent that causes batters to rise when they are baked. Combined with baking soda, baking powder does most of the leavening, while the baking soda neutralizes the acids found in the powder.
Too much baking powder can produce bitter batter. It also can make a batter rise too rapidly, creating large air bubbles, which may cause the batter to break and fall. If you use too little baking powder, your baked goods may be dense. For this reason, when you are creating your own recipes, be mindful of how you use baking powder and how much you use in a recipe.
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is a leavening agent. When combined with an acid (like that found in baking powder, yogurt, lemons and more), it releases carbon dioxide, which makes batters expand and rise.
When we specify butter at room temperature (about 65˚F), we mean just that. For recipes that call for mixing and creaming butter, the butter should be cool to the touch and easily retain your fingerprint when you touch it. Butter that is too soft (over 68˚F), melted butter, or butter that has been melted and then cooled, should not be used in recipes that require creaming.
We use unsalted Grade A butter (preferably local) in our recipes. The fresher the butter and the higher its quality, the better tasting your baked goods and pastries will be. If you don’t plan on using butter right away, freeze it to preserve its flavor.
We prefer to buy whole green cardamom pods and to grind them ourselves. Grind whole pods in a coffee or spice grinder until a fine powder forms. Remove any fibrous strands before using.
The general rule of thumb is buy the best chocolate you can afford, and one that has the fewest ingredients. Brands we love include Callebaut, Guittard, Scharffen Berger, Taza and Valrhona. For most recipes, unless otherwise noted, we recommend using chocolate with a 60 percent cocoa content or higher. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the darker—and the less sweet and more bitter—the chocolate will be.
If you are vegan, for our chocolate chip cookie recipe, be sure to use a chocolate that does not contain milk or milk solids (most high-quality dark and bittersweet chocolates do not contain dairy products).
Dark Dutch-Process Cocoa Powder
Dark Dutch-process cocoa powder (also called extra dark, black, black onyx and cocoa noir) has a high alkali content, a low fat content, an intense bittersweet chocolate flavor and a beautiful black hue. This cocoa powder is essential to our Brooklyn Blackout Cake (see recipe) and our Salted Dark Chocolate Pudding (see recipe). Since dark Dutch-process cocoa powder can dry out cookies and other baked goods, be sure to use it in very wet doughs and in small amounts in other cookery.
This cocoa powder is available by special order from Sahadi’s (www.sahadis.com) and Surfas Culinary District (www.culinarydistrict.com).
Dutch-Process Cocoa Powder vs. American-Process (Natural)
Dutch-process cocoa powder has been alkalized to make it neutral, and it will not react with leavening agents. American-process (natural) cocoa powder is acidic and, therefore, will react with and activate leavening agents (baking soda, baking powder and so on).
Generally, American-process cocoa powders are sharper, smokier and more acidic than Dutch-process cocoa powders, which are deeper and have a purer chocolate flavor. For the most part, our recipes do not rely on cocoa powders to enhance the rising power of leavening agents, so you can use American-process and Dutch-process cocoa powders interchangeably. The key is to buy high-quality cocoa, like Guittard or Scharffen Berger.
Eggs come in a few different sizes (large, extra-large and so on). We use large eggs in all our recipes. A general rule is to bake with eggs that are at room temperature. At room temperature, eggs and dairy products combine to form a bond that traps air. When batters and doughs are heated, the air expands, producing a lighter crumb. For this reason, we also like to let our milk and cream come to room temperature before baking, unless otherwise noted.
Testing Eggs for Freshness
We prefer local eggs from pasture-raised hens. Since these often don’t have an expiration date on them, stick any questionable whole eggs in a bowl of water to determine their freshness. Fresh eggs will sink, and rotten eggs will float. So if any of your eggs float, throw them out.
Crack the egg on the side of a bowl, pry the shell open and let the whites run out until all that remains is the yolk. Or crack the egg on a flat surface, dump the egg into the palm of your hand and let the whites run through your fingers until all that’s left is the yolk.
We prefer to make our own (see recipe), but if you use store-bought, be sure to reduce the jam (or jelly or marmalade) before using it in a recipe, such as in our holiday cookies. To do so, bring the jam to a boil in a saucepan, and then simmer it for 5 minutes to thicken it. Let it cool before using.
GRINDING NUTS AND SPICES
Pour nuts or spices (like cardamom pods, fennel seeds or cumin seeds) into a food processor or spice/coffee grinder. For nuts, grind until the nut meal has a sandy texture. If you grind nuts for too long, they will turn into a creamy butter (which is delicious for spreading, but unusable for our recipes). For spices, grind until a fine powder is formed and you cannot see any pieces of seed or any fibrous threads.
Milk, Cream & Buttermilk
In all our recipes that call for milk, use whole milk. Whole milk contains about 3.5 percent fat, and as you would guess, 2 percent milk has that exact fat content and skim contains none. Fat helps bind ingredients together and will help your baked goods and pastries come out tender and moist.
Heavy Cream vs. Whipping Cream
Heavy cream and whipping cream differ in that the former contains at least 36 percent milk fat and the latter contains at least 30 percent. For our recipes, you can use either type. For recipes that call for whipped cream or for whipping cream until it is stiff, the more fat, the more stable it will be. We recommend using heavy cream (the cream with the higher fat content) for piping decorations, frostings and whipped toppings.
Buttermilk adds a rich tang and moisture to many of our recipes. We believe in using the real stuff, full fat, if you can find it. If not, widely available low-fat buttermilk will do.
Natural Food Coloring
We use only natural food coloring for our red velvet cake and our Pomegranate Buttercream (see recipe). The artificial stuff is a derivative of coal tar and petroleum, so we avoid it. Natural food coloring from India Tree and Chef Master Naturals are largely available in health food stores or online.
Nuts & Seeds
As with spices, the fresher nuts and seeds are, the better. Since nuts and seeds are high in fat, they can go rancid. To prevent rancidity, we keep ours in an airtight container in the freezer (which also preserves their flavor better than the refrigerator) if we won’t be using them right away. Experiment by substituting your favorite nuts and seeds in any of our recipes that call for them.
We use rolled oats (not quick-cooking oats) in our recipes. Rolled oats and gluten-free rolled oats differ only in the fact that the latter is milled in a gluten-free certified facility. If you don’t have a gluten sensitivity, feel free to use regular oats.
Organic vs. Local
Local ingredients found at markets or in specialty grocery stores create a lower carbon footprint and—especially if purchased at a farmers’ market or directly from a farmer—tend to be fresher. As we’ve said, in both baking and cooking, the fresher the ingredients, the better. When locally grown ingredients are not available, we try to use organic ones wherever we can. Organic ingredients are now widely available in local grocery stores.
One of our favorite ingredients, pomegranate molasses lends a bright, tart and fruity flavor to cakes and frostings (and it’s all natural!). When not using it in one of the recipes, try it in a cocktail. Pomegranate molasses is available from most Middle Eastern specialty stores, or online.
Part of the fun with many of our recipes is choosing which salt to finish cookies and bars. For crunch, we usually reach for a coarse-grained sea salt like La Baleine or a flaked sea salt like Maldon for its beauty and sheen. Light pink Himalayan salt and black volcanic salt are also great for decoration and flavor.
These salts are widely available in stores or online.
Use dried spices that are as fresh as possible, as they lose their potency over time. We purchase the majority of our spices for home use from The Spice House in Chicago (www.thespicehouse.com). We love the quality of their products.
To remove the tiny vanilla “caviar” from their tough skins, slice a vanilla bean lengthwise. Then, using the edge of the knife, scrape the caviar from the entire pod. Tap the seeds into a bowl or directly into your mixture. Stuff any used pods into your sugar jar. Just a few will flavor the sugar, which is great for baking, poaching fruits and more.
Vanilla extract is made from preserving vanilla beans in alcohol. Be sure to use only the pure stuff (not imitation). Vanilla extract is also very easy to make: Simply slice three vanilla beans lengthwise, and place them in a pint-size jar with an airtight lid. Add a cup of your favorite booze (we personally like using bourbon, the cheap stuff), screw on the lid and let the mixture age for a month, shaking it every so often. As you use the vanilla extract, top the jar off with more liquor, and replace any old vanilla beans every four months or so. You can even add any scraped vanilla bean pods to the jar. The longer the extract ages, the more potent it becomes.