Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kitchen essentials: Stand or hand mixer?

Whether you’re a serious baker or just start out, you will need to purchase an electric mixer, and I would make it one of the first pieces you purchase. So the question becomes: should I buy a hand mixer or a stand mixer? Here are a few things to think about before your purchase:

• How often to you plan on using it? If you’ll only use it once in a while for the occasional cake or batch of pancakes, a hand mixer will be fine. If you expect to be making lots of baked goods, including breads and large cake recipes, you’d best opt for the stand mixer.

• Do you have someplace to store it? A hand mixer can easily be stored in a drawer or cabinet, whereas a stand mixer will be staying out on the countertop or need to be stored in a large space in a cabinet.

• Are you willing to spend the money on quality? There are inexpensive hand and stand mixers on the market, but you often get what you pay for. A good quality hand mixer will cost between $50 and $100, while a good quality stand mixer will be in the $200 to $300 range.

• Do you have any physical limitations? Carpel tunnel and other arm or shoulder injuries can limit use with a hand mixer, especially with heavier dough. Again, this will be dependent on how much you’ll be using it.

• Looking for extras? While there are attachments you can use on hand mixers, a stand mixer, particularly a popular model like KitchenAid, can become a kitchen workhorse, especially if you like to do things like make your own pasta or sausage.

I personally own an inexpensive hand mixer (I also own a KitchenAid hand mixer as a back-up, because I know this one will die soon!) and a KitchenAid 325-watt Heavy Duty stand mixer with bowl lift. If I’m doing a lot of baking, the stand mixer comes out and I leave water in the sink to wash things up following each recipe, whereas if I’m just making one batch of cookies or one cake, the hand mixer comes out.

If you’re a beginning baker, I would opt for a hand mixer to start with. If you’re thinking about upgrading your utensils, I would opt for the stand mixer – my preferred brand is KitchenAid, as I hope to get into pasta-making eventually, but other quality brands include Cuisinart, Breville and Viking (they’re also a bit more expensive than KitchenAid).

**Disclosure: I receive no compensation from any brand names mentioned in this article.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Cmh

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bookmark this: King Arthur Flour

The more I get into baking, the more great websites and blogs I find! King Arthur Flour’s website features products for sale, recipes, tutorials and a great blog with more recipes, decorating ideas and some beautiful pictures.

Available for purchase at King Arthur Flour – beside flour, of course! – is a variety of add-ins for whatever you’re baking: pizza, muffins, pastries, breads, cakes, cookies…things you would never think of until you see them and go “Ooooh, that could work!” Something I’m eager to try (since I recently made my first batch of pizza dough) – Pizza Dough Flavor.

A few of the recipes that look good enough to eat off the screen:

Pizza Buns – I’d have to figure out something to use in place of the sausage…
Chocolate Bark: the easiest candy ever – I make peppermint bark at Christmas, but it doesn’t look like this (also interested in the peanut butter cup bark toward the end of the article… :) )
Soft Bread Sticks – if these really taste like Pizza Hut breadsticks, I’ll be VERY happy! :)
Savory Cheddar Cheese Bread – in my constant search for a good cheese bread recipe, this may be my next victim.

Check out the King Arthur Flour website, and don’t forget to bookmark it!

Friday, December 23, 2011

A visit to The Podge

I’d been past it at least a hundred times (NOT an exaggeration!), but I had never stopped into The Podge – probably because I thought it would be dangerous…me and all those cookie cutters…

I finally broke down (maybe because I’m now writing about baking) and dragged my mom (with whom it would likely not be as dangerous) to the store, located at 10205 Main St. in Clarence, New York. The Podge specializes in gourmet foods, teas and coffees, kitchen gadgets and Jelly Belly jellybeans – and has a HUGE back wall full of cookie cutters! That wall alone made me feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store (not the Jelly Bellies!). All kinds of cookie cutters – large, small and tiny – as well as a cookie cutter set for the Nativity, miniature numbers and letters and more than I can remember. If you can’t find what you’re looking for here, it might not be available! (If it isn’t, check out this trick from the blog Bake at 350!)

The staff was very friendly, and I was able to get out of there without doing too much damage – just a couple of – you guessed it! – cookie cutters. Had I not been with mom, it might have been a completely different story (I was seriously looking at the olive oil bread dip mixes…).

Check out The Podge’s Facebook page, and don’t wait as long as I did to stop in if you’re in the Buffalo area.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bookmark this: The Pioneer Woman

Chances are, you’ve seen her blog, her cookbook or her Food Network television show – and you’re probably a big fan like I am! Ree Drummond is “The Pioneer Woman,” and she takes us to her “frontier,” or rather many of them: the kitchen, photography, home decor, and everyday life. There are actually two cooking pages associated with the site: The Pioneer Woman Cooks! and the Tasty Kitchen. PW Cooks! is Ree’s own page, with recipes and her beautiful photos, while Tasty Kitchen is a community site featuring recipes from cooks and bakers from across the country.



Some of my favorite recent posts:
What the Heck is an Aperture? and What the Heck is Shutter Speed? from PW Photography (a great refresher!).
Food From My Frontier from Confessions – a sneak peak at the new PW cookbook.
Homemade Tater Tots from the Tasty Kitchen blog



Make sure you check out The Pioneer Woman – and bookmark it!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bakeware essentials for the baker’s kitchen

If you’re outfitting a kitchen for the first time, or you’ve just taken up baking as a hobby, there are a few essential pieces of bakeware that every baker needs:
Baking sheets – you can get these in a variety of sizes, but make sure you have more than one! In addition to baking cookies, they’re great for reheating pizza and chicken fingers (I CANNOT do either in the microwave!).
9” x 13” pan – used for brownies, cakes, casseroles, pasta bakes – another workhorse.
8” x 8” or 9” x 9” pan – also used for brownies (check the box to see what size you need!), a square pan can also be used for fudge or coffee cakes.
Pie pans – in case you want to make the jump into pie baking.
Round cake pans – used for making layer cakes.
Loaf pans – for bread, coffee cakes, meatloaf and more.
Bundt pan – “A buuuundt?” Sorry, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” flashback.
Cooling racks – for cooling cookies, cakes, and more.
Springform pans – in case you want to make the jump into cheesecakes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Planning a holiday cookie exchange


Looking for an excuse to get family and friends together during the holidays? Well, if the fact that it’s the holidays isn’t enough, why not try having a cookie exchange? Cookie exchanges are a great way to bring people together, as well as a great way to try new cookies and get new recipes. Organizing a cookie exchange is one of the easiest, least time-consuming parties to plan. Here are a few tips for making your cookie exchange a party to remember.



  • Invitations - information should include day, time, place, and RSVP date, as well as how many cookies to bring and any other items to bring (for example, copies of the recipe and a container for taking the goodies home).



  • How many cookies - plan on six to twelve cookies per invitee, plus an extra couple dozen to serve at the party; for example, if you're inviting ten people, tell each person to make five to ten dozen cookies (depending on size) for exchanging, plus two dozen more to serve.



  • Be prepared with additional supplies - in case someone forgets a container, or brings one that won't fit all their goodies, have extra plastic bags or plates with foil or plastic wrap available.



  • Don’t forget the non-bakers - suggest homemade candies or chocolate-covered fruits or pretzels for someone who doesn't bake but would like to participate, or suggest a simple recipe if they are willing to try.



  • Displaying the goods - have a large table adorned with a colorful tablecloth set up for the cookies being sampled. Ask the participants to place cookies for sampling on a plate or tray, and supply them with a pen and paper to write the cookies' name on.



  • Refreshments - since your guests are supplying cookies for nibbling, all you'll need to supply are some beverages; consider a seasonal drink like cider or eggnog, along with tea, coffee, and, of course, milk.



  • Decorations - even if the rest of your house isn't completely ready for the holidays, make sure the room you're using (most likely the kitchen and/or dining room) has some festive touches.



  • The day of the exchange - set out napkins and plates, the coffee maker and cups, plus set up the cookie table. Have some holiday music playing in the background, or if there is a television and DVD player or VCR available, put on some classic holiday shows or movies.



  • Ideas for cookie recipes - there are a number of websites where you can find holiday cookie recipes; allrecipes.com, about.com, cookinglight.com, hersheys.com, and bhg.com are just a few of the sites I check out on a regular basis.



  • Enjoy the party, have fun, and eat cookies!


Image: Paula Thompson

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Holiday music to bake to

‘Tis the season for food, parties, gifts and indulging in your favorite things. One of my favorite things is music, especially holiday music – let’s face it, it doesn’t get old because you only hear it for six weeks out of the year! I love listening to holiday music while I’m baking – since I need to start baking in mid-November, it puts me in the mood even when there’s no snow on the ground or chill in the air. These are a few of the CDs in my holiday music collection I go to when holiday baking season comes around.

Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong – released in 2006, McLachlan’s voice is beautifully suited for holiday music. The album features a combination of holiday standards (“What Child Is This?” and “Silent Night”) and winter-themed tracks (two of my personal favorites, Joni Mitchell’s “River” and “Song For a Winter’s Night,” a McLachlan standard since 1994, originally by Gordon Lightfoot).

Various artists, A Very Special Christmas 2 – from 1992, this compilation album includes a wide variety of top artists from the late 1980s and early 1990s, like Debbie Gibson (“Sleigh Ride”), Randy Travis (“Jingle Bell Rock”), Paul Young (“What Christmas Means To Me”) and Jon Bon Jovi (“Please Come Home For Christmas”).

Various artists, The Edge of Christmas – a unique combination of artists including Queen (“Thanks God It’s Christmas”), Pat Benatar (“Please Come Home For Christmas”), Kate Bush (“December Will Be Magic Again”), David Bowie and Bing Crosby (“Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”), The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl (“Fairytale of New York”) and one of my all-time favorites by The Waitresses (“Christmas Wrapping”).

Lorrie Morgan, Merry Christmas from London – from 1993, this may be my all-time favorite Christmas album due to its variety – from the opening “My Favorite Things” to the closing “Ave Maria,” there isn’t a bad track on this CD.

Do you have any favorite holiday songs or albums that need to come out every year? Let me know in the comments!