I've picked up some tricks, honed my methods and figured out some things that always work and help make things go smooth. The kitchen is still a mess and covered with flour or sugar or butter but as long as I have a sweet treat in the end, all is good.
Leaveners - Baking soda & Baking powder - are key ingredients in most sweet treats. Make a not of the expiration dates on these and keep them sealed air tight for the best results. They cannot be used interchangeable in all recipes as they react very differently. But once you understand how they differ you can certainly use judgement. Baking soda is activated by liquid or acidic ingredients to release carbon dioxide which in turn lifts the cake or cookie. So its essential that you bring together the two ingredients right before it goes into the oven. Delaying this will cause your cake to drop or turn out dense. Baking soda also reduces the sharpness that ingredients like sour cream or buttermilk bring to the dish.
Baking powder on the other hand is a combination of baking soda and 2 acidic ingredients. So it doesn't necessarily need a additional acidic ingredient. It would still need a liquid to begin the aeration though. The first stage happens when it comes in contact with a liquid and the second stage is heat activated, and hence is also referred to as double-acting. Recipes using baking soda need to be baked immediately, but those with baking powder can be allowed to rest for a while. Do keep in mind that the longer it sits lesser effect it will have.
Sugars - White, brown, light brown, dark brown, granulated, powdered and many many more. Once you get baking you will soon see your pantry fill up with all these different kinds. If you are lucky enough to have a store with bulk bins, use it to your advantage and buy just the quantity you need. In some cases the kind of sugar called for cannot be substituted for another kind 1:1. The texture, density and quantity vary with which kind you use. But there are still some tricks that are good to know. If you have regular granulated white cane sugar you can whiz it up in the blender to make your own powdered sugar instead of buying a separate box. Light/Dark brown sugar is granulated white sugar + molasses. The amount of molasses dictates if its light or brown. So by having a bottle of molasses will be useful not just in recipe for molasses but to also use in recipes that call for brown sugar.
Turbinado sugar has bigger granules and to me tastes similar to what I was used to having as a kid. I use it on a day to day basis for coffee/tea and desserts. It had a mild caramely, deep flavor that is great in Indian desserts as well. Crackle cookies that are really popular these days get the 'crackle' part from a light coating of this sugar. The bigger granules don't disintegrate in the high temps of the oven and lend a desirable crunch.
I can't leave out butter in a post about baking, can I! This is the first ingredient to set aside and a very important one at that. There are many varieties out there and I don't intend to go into which is better. The one thing to pay attention to is if its salted or unsalted. Adding a little bit of salt is always desirable even is a sweet dish as it brings out the flavors of all the ingredients, exaggerating them even. Now a days you will notice a pinch of salt in most ingredient lists and unsalted butter. You can always use salted butter but make sure you skip the additional salt. I am not going to get into salts in this post since that will take up a lot more space :)
Its important to have your ingredients at room temperature before you begin. This will allow them to combine very easily and react as expected to give you good results. Set butter, eggs and other ingredients like sour cream or cream cheese at room temp for atleast 3-4 hours. But like me, if you decide to bake something last minute and haven't done this then don't fret. If you have an hour to spare, cube the butter into little chunks to speed up the process. Less than that, microwave the whole stick, with wrapper for 10-15secs at a time, rotate and repeat 4-5 times until you feel it warm up. Or cut it in cubes and place is a warm glass bowl.
The first step is most recipes will be to cream butter and sugar. This part is essential as it creates little air pockets enveloped in fat which go on to create texture in the final dish. Starting off with room temp butter will help this step. Start on low speed and slowly increase the speed until the butter sugar mixture is pale, almost white and not as grainy to the touch. Its very hard to over beat but definitely possible. About 3-4mins with a handheld blender is a good reference point. The heat from over beating will cause butter to melt, thus breaking the bubbles we tried so hard to create. Once other ingredients are added there chance to create more bubbles is lost, so complete this stage before adding extracts or eggs.
Eggs are another ingredient that need to be a room temp, if you are running short of time, immerse them in warm (not hot!) tap water for 10-15mins. If a recipe calls for multiple eggs, add them one at a time after each previous egg is fully incorporated. When adding eggs to the butter-sugar mixture it is natural for it to look curdled since at that point there is a lot more fat in the batter, once flour is added, balance will be restored, so don't fret :)
Extracts give the distinct flavor of each baked treat, be it vanilla, orange, almond. They are the backbone of any cookie or cake. Vanilla is the most common of them all and to me is the cardamom of non-Indian desserts. Almost all recipes I've seen use it as it gives a depth of flavor and its signature fragrance is hard to beat. Making your own extract takes less that 10mins and the resulting liquid is sheer magic in your homemade treats. The aroma that fills up your kitchen will be amazing, I promise. You can use the same technique to create any flavor extract you want and control what goes into your baking.
Spices are another great complement to a sweet dessert as they break the monotony of sweetness. A little bit of ginger will give a warm, mildly spicy kick, nutmeg does the same by rounding out flavors. Cinnamon is a key holiday scent and the kind used for baking has a much sweeter smell and flavor compared to its Indian counterpart, cassia bark. I also have begun using allspice which has a musty, spicey flavor like cloves+nutmeg+cinnamon. When you are done baking don't let these fabulous power houses sit in the spice cabinet. I add a sprinkling of these to my evening tea instead of chai masala or use them instead of garam masala.
I have a set of three heavy nesting bowls that I've had for more than 5-6yrs. They are solid and work perfectly for my baking projects. I use the largest one for creaming butter-sugar since that is where the final mixing happens. The middle one holds the dry mix, and I've began sifting even if a recipe does not call for it. Sifting the dry ingredients helps blend all the spices & leaveners, break any lumps and distributes the ingredients evenly throughout. Sifting also incorporates some amount of air and this will also help in the final texture.
And finally, don't throw away the butter warppers, use them instead to prepare the ever important baking sheets/pans. Whats the point of taking pains to create a perfect batter if it won't leave the pan, right ? Even if its a non-stick baking sheet I like to use parchment as insurance. But paper doesn't really want to stay in place, so use the butter paper to grease the pan, this will ensure that the parchment sticks to the baking sheet. If using the baking tin with high edges for cakes, grease the pan and sprinkle a thin layer of flour and dust off any extra flour on the surface.
There you go! I did not know I had so much to share and I still have a lot more. I just realized I could go on about each of these topics for a lot longer, so there might be more posts in the future. But I hope these little bites of information will get you started on some of the seasons baking.
Please do share your tips and tricks as well so we can all benefit from our trials and tribulations :)