HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


Three baking-related questions

  • c

I rarely bake these days and have noticed a widening gap btwn. my cooking vs. baking competency. Last night I made a lemon polenta cake from my Food & Wine cookbook that turned out just ok (ie, original recipe probably not worth passing on). Three questions for you baking hounds:

1) When a baking recipe calls for salt, do you use iodized salt instead of kosher? Assume that I should use iodized for baking but kosher for cooking.

2) My oven is running way too hot. Baked at 325F, recipe estimated done in 50 min., but took it out of oven at 35 min., which was even a tad overbaked! Is there an easy and cheap way to calibrate my oven? Specific info on techniques and devices appreciated.

3) Anyone have an awesome lemon polenta cake recipe (preferably using olive oil instead of butter) that has a strong lemon flavor and is incredibly moist? If it makes any dif., I will be using Meyer lemons.

Thanks all!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. 1. You can use any kind of salt for baking, but it should be fine grind, or there is a possibility that it would not mix well with other igredients.

    2. Just buy an oven thermometer (clip-on/hang-on kind) and keep it in the oven. Use that as an indicator when setting the temperature, instead of the one on your stove. Sometimes ovens overheat/underheat by a fixed number - i.e. hotter by 50 degrees at any temperature setting, but often they are hotter by 25 degrees at 300 and by 50 if you set if at 350, etc.

    3. You recipe may be moist enough - I would try it again without overbaking.

    13 Replies
    1. re: summertime

      Thanks for your helpful responses. Even if my cake had not been overbaked, I wasn't that crazy about the flavor. I added more lemon juice in the batter, and even improvised by making a lemon glaze after since the cake itself wasn't lemony or sweet enough for me. Could've also used more polenta and less flour for my taste. I'm sure I could experiment, but I don't want to have a bunch of mediocre cakes sitting around or waste my Meyer lemons.

      About the thermometer, is there a certain brand that you recommend? I really know nothing about these devices. Thanks.

      1. re: Carb Lover
        Jeremy Newel

        About the lemony-ness of your cake. Did the recipe call for lemons or Meyer lemons? If you substituted Meyers for regular, there will be markedly less lemon flavor to the finished product, because Meyers are not very lemony for baking purposes.

        1. re: Jeremy Newel

          Yeah, good point. The recipe merely called for lemons, and I figured that Meyers could be subbed in and would impart a nice flavor. I doubled the amt. of lemon juice and tasted the batter before it went in. Ugh--these are the very rigid parameters of baking that cause me to avoid it in the first place!

          Should find a recipe that calls for Meyers...maybe one of the Chez Panisse cookbooks will have something. Are Meyers usually just used in vinaigrettes and such and not featured in baking so much? Anyone w/ a good Meyer lemon recipe out there? Thanks.

          1. re: Carb Lover

            I make a really tasty martini using meyer lemons and spiced rum! (probably not what you're looking for!)

            1. re: Funwithfood

              Do tell! I'd love your recipe. Would you mind posting it?

              1. re: eel

                I took a picture of one when I served it last week. I'll post it with the recipe when my husband loads it, etc. (computer/digital etc is not my forte!)

            2. re: Carb Lover

              Well, if you subscribe to Sunset, you can find this recipe for a Meyer Lemon Custard Cream Pie on their Web site from the March 1997 issue.

              My Meyer lemon tree has been producing prodigiously, but I managed to use at least some of my lemons with this recipe!

              Link: http://food.sunset.com/sunset/display...

              1. re: Carb Lover

                It didn't call for zest? I don't see how you could possibly get sufficient "lemonyness" with just the juice.

                1. re: danna

                  Along w/ juice, it did call for one tbsp. of zest.

                2. re: Carb Lover

                  I think part of the problem is that Meyer lemons just may not have the tartness you think of as being lemony. They just aren't as tart, and adding more juice doesn't really help. Their distinctive quality is that they're perfumey/floral, and they really need to be used differently.

                  If you're using Meyers because you have a tree, maybe you could trade with someone who has a tree of "regular" lemons. Or add some "regular" lemon juice to your Meyer lemons.

                  If you can get your hands on a copy of Annie Somerville's "Fields of Greens" there's a lemon pot de creme recipe that's fabulous (and I don't use that term lightly) with Meyer lemons.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    Thanks for the recipe tip, Ruth. Love lemon...love pot de creme...so recipe sounds perfect for me. Will check my public library for the book.

                    I actually have the best of both lemon worlds...my in-laws in San Jose have a Meyer lemon tree that was planted ages ago and is producing like wild right now. MIL gives me a big bag of Meyers everytime I see her. My next door neighbor has a huge standard lemon tree (lemons w/ thick, slightly bumpy rind) that drapes over into our back patio area. No maintenance on my part, but all the pleasure...

                    1. re: Carb Lover
                      Caitlin McGrath

                      Good vehicles for highlighting Meyer lemons' flavor (and the color of their juice) include lemon mirengue pie, lemon bars, custards (like pots de creme), and sorbet. I usually use extra zest and unstrained juice to get the most out the flavor if I'm making something homey. Since the juice is so much sweeter than standard lemon juice, you may want to reduce the sugar in standard lemon recipes. It's not a good idea to use Meyers if you want that lemon "zip," as in savory dishes that include lemon juice as an acidic counterpoint, because they don't have it.

              2. re: Carb Lover

                I like KitchenAid oven thermometer (check amazon - they have one on the website). It seems more reliabel than the two other ones I tried (I checked them against three different remote wire digital "meat" thermometers and Kichen Aid won). I do not remember the name of the other two - they were somewhat cheaper from a specialty store.

                Meyer lemons have less pronounced lemon flavor than regular lemons in my opinion. I also find that greener (less ripe) lemons taste stronger, so I seek those in the supermarket bins. But this is unscientific - just my personal experience, I could be completely wrong.

            3. c

              My ovens have all been way off - no idea how to calibrate. An oven thermometer helps a lot, at least you can fiddle with the temp as needed.

              As for the salt: in older cookbooks, you could generally assume that salt meant plain old table salt. But a lot of newer cookbooks assume that you only use kosher salt. If so, this should be mentioned somewhere (probably an "ingredients" section at the beginning of the book.) If using a cookbook or recipe that doesn't specify, you can probably make the assumption that the author just intended regular salt. Confession: I only have kosher salt in the house, use it for everything and have no trouble. I don't increase the quantity because I'm pretty sensitive to salt and don't mind being a bit short. The difference is not enough to matter for most baked goods.

              2 Replies
              1. re: curiousbaker
                Caitlin McGrath

                I don't keep iodized salt around; I use fine sea salt for baking (and most cooking, but that's a different discussion).

                1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                  me either...the last of my idodized got poured on garden slugs last summer!

              2. Ovens are not difficult to recalibrate. I just posted photos to Carb-Lover showing how it is done. If you need the pictures to understand e-mail me and I'll send them to you.

                First set your oven at for instance 350 F. Put an oven thermometer on the rack and measure the internal temperature (Taylor is a good brand). Okay, when you have found out how far off from the set temperature you are, pull off the temperature gague knob. In my oven, after pulling off the knob the adjustment is on the oven. In some models it is on the back of the knob. You will see a little bar or half moon with little notches in it. Above that on mine is a screw that has to be loosened and then you can move the dial along the notches to go up or down. Take the oven temperature again and adjust accordingly.

                1. For baking, when I am adding salt to a dry mixture (ie; flour), I use sea salt. If salt can be added to a liquid (ie; milk), I use Kosher.

                  My oven was way off when I first purchased it. It was re-calibrated by the manufacturer. You could probably get it calibrated by any appliance repair person (inquire re prices). Otherwise, a reliable thermometer will suffice.

                  1. w
                    Wayne Keyser

                    I think all this fuss about salt is a bit "precious." It's all just salt - a trace amount of iodine won't change a thing. Un-iodized is the same as kosher, just pulverized a little finer.

                    The oven: an oven thermometer will help - when the guy came and calibrated my oven, he warmed it to 350 and let it stay hot a few minutes, checked it with a thermometer, removed the dial, loosened a small screw and reset the dial's position to match the thermometer - presto! Recalibrated!

                    1. I've been on a polenta kick lately; I made A16's recipe for braised meatballs and served it over polenta. Man that was good. The idea of making a lemon polenta cake is mighty appealing right now.

                      I've got a recipe from a John Ash cookbook for a lemon polenta cake that calls for vegetable oil. I've never made it. But I'll go ahead and do so now, and substitute olive oil for the vegetable. If it goes well I'll paraphrase the recipe for you. Oh wait, it has butter too. Well, I'm going for it anyway.

                      I'll probably just use regular lemons for now. I often sub Meyers in dessert recipes, and when I do so I use only 2/3 of the sugar called for. Because Meyers are less tart and more sweet than a regular lemon, you need to reduce the sugar so the acid/sweet remain in balance.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: nja

                        Thanks for the Meyer vs. regular conversion. Since I do like the pucker-inducing zing of regular lemons in desserts, I may just use those next time and save the Meyers for something else.

                        Please post the recipe if it's worthy. You may know this, but don't use a very fruity olive oil when baking. I used the mid-grade Trader Joe's brand EVOO and it blended nicely into the cake. Best of luck!

                        1. re: Carb Lover

                          Well, I don't think this is the recipe you're looking for. It's moist, but certainly not "incredibly moist." Though I did make a couple modifications (thought I had plain yogurt, but turned out I only had sweet vanilla flavored) so perhaps if one stuck to the recipe it would be moister. Here it is as I prepared it [and in brackets the original recipe].

                          Lemon Polenta Cake
                          Adaped from John Ash's "From Earth to Table"

                          2/3 cup cornmeal and 1/3 cup polenta [3/4 cup cornmeal and 1/4 cup polenta]
                          1/2 cup all purpose flour
                          1 1/2 tsp baking powder
                          1/4 tsp kosher salt
                          1 cup sugar
                          2 large eggs plus 2 egg whites
                          1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil [1/4 cup vegetable oil]
                          2 tbsp room temperature butter
                          1/2 cup heavy cream [1/2 cup plain yogurt]
                          1 1/2 tbsp grated lemon zest
                          2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
                          Spiced Apricot Sauce
                          1/2 cup fresh mascarpone, lightly whipped

                          Sift cornmeal, polenta, flour, baking powder, salt.
                          In another bowl, beat sugar, eggs, and eggwhites. Beat in oil, butter, cream [yogurt], zest, and juice. Beat until smooth. Fold in dry ingredients.
                          Pour in 8" cake pan lined with oiled parchment. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
                          Cool for 15 minutes, remove from pan, and let cool to room temperature before serving. Top with Spiced Apricot Sauce and dollop of mascarpone.

                          Spiced Apricot Sauce
                          3 inch cinnamon stick, broken into 3-4 pieces
                          8 whole cloves
                          1 1/2 cups dry white wine
                          3 oz dried apricots, finely diced
                          3 tbsp honey, or to taste
                          1 tbsp tequila [2 tbsp brandy]
                          1/4 cup dried cranberries [1/4 cup dried currants]
                          1 tsp grated lemon zest

                          Tie cinnamon and cloves into a piece of cheesecloth. Simmer spice bag, wine, apricots, cranberries, and honey for about 15 minutes. Blend until smooth (I used a stick blender). Stir in tequila [brandy] and lemon zest. Let cool. [In the original recipe, the currants are not simmered but added at the end with the liquor and zest. Also, the sauce is not blended at any time.]


                          1. re: nja

                            Wow, Nick, you don't mess around. Thanks for the quick follow up. The recipe sounds very good; something I would def. serve guests w/ the added sauce and mascarpone. Most importantly: how did everything taste together?

                            Incredibly moist may be unrealistic for a polenta/cornmeal based cake. Same goes for cornbread. I will settle for moist.

                            I will do some testing on my end. I want to make something a little more simple for my everyday eating. My latest idea that I'm striving for: lemon polenta loaf cake w/ rosemary. I have about 3 recipes that all touch on some part of that concept so will see what I can whip up.

                            1. re: Carb Lover

                              They went pretty well together. The sauce was a bit tart, but that's probably due to the cranberries (store didn't have currants and I had just used my last ones a few days earlier). I was unhappy with the quality of the mascarpone, too dense (Lat-Bri brand from Italy). But this morning, for breakfast, I whipped a bit of the mascarpone with a dash of some of that heavy cream and a pinch of sugar, and it was much better.

                              Rosemary sounds really good. I'm a big fan of thyme, especially lemon thyme, in lemon based desserts. I add minced thyme to citrus-based granitas and, my favorite, Meyer lemon sorbet. I've posted the recipe for the latter on these boards somewhere. Probably before Home Cooking so it's likely buried in General Topics in a Meyer lemon thread.

                      2. j
                        JK Grence (the Cosmic Jester)

                        Use regular salt unless the book says otherwise. Since kosher salt is a specialized ingredient, 99 times out of a hundred they will specify kosher salt, I think even Alton Brown does even though he almost never uses regular.

                        The reason to avoid the kosher salt is because it won't completely mix into the batter. You'll end up with little specks of salt in the batter, and those will provide a bit of "crystal crunch" to it, sort of like what you get when you bite into a piece of reeeeeally good Parmigiano Reggiano, but on a bit bigger scale. The other thing the specks will bring is a hit of saltier flavor. This might turn out welcome in something like a savory scone, but would be very odd to get in a chocolate chip cookie.

                        If you want to get a bit more of the crystal crunch and salty flavor, moisten the surface of your baked goods before baking and give a light sprinkle of kosher salt.

                        1. Thanks everyone for your helpful replies. My first two questions were completely answered.

                          I will continue to use a fine-grain salt for baking, unless a recipe/book specifies something different. I'll be sure to look out for any introductory remarks about salt in my baking books.

                          Seems like it's relatively easy to calibrate my oven...and it sounds like askewed ovens are a very common problem. I'm going to stop by my nearby Bed, Bath, & Beyond to check out their oven thermometers and take care of this over the weekend. Better baking and braising awaits! Means I'll have to have another go at galleygirl's pear tart...

                          My third question remains a work-in-progress. With my abundance of Meyer and regular lemons, I'll do some more experimenting and post any noteworthy results or recipes. Thanks again all!