I'm really looking forward to making a few items, but I'm at a loss regarding the various types of flours that are available. In addition, I'm seeking pointers as this will be my first time in over a year baking on a continual basis. These are the things I have in mind, I'd appreciate your input and brand suggestions if possible.
Pasta (upcoming project)
Crumbles (oat suggestions)
Lastly, what are the pros and cons regarding Crisco and lard. I've never used the latter but I know some swear by it. When should either be used?
For type of flour, usually the recipe will tell you white, cake, bread, etc. As you start out, I'd stick with what the recipe recommends and after you get used to it, then experiment. For regular white flour, which most recipes call for, I like King Arthur's white unbleached. I play around w/ different types of flour, mixing them, adding cornstarch, gluten, etc. The same goes with the type of fat--go with what the recipe calls for. Crisco is a man-made fat, and usually contains partially hydrogenated oils which some people try to avoid for health reasons. You can buy a trans-fat free one but I've never used it. I love the taste of butter in baked goods and usually go with recipes that use it. However, I do find I get a flakier cookie/pastry w/ Crisco. I rarely use lard but it makes the flakiest, melt-in-your mouth cookie/pastry. Raw cookie dough made w/ lard tastes terrible, though. Some people make their own lard but I don't. Overall, find a good recipe as a starting place and stick with what it recommends. If there is something special you want, ask for a recipe for it or do a search here. There are a lot of good recipes on Home Cooking.
I find pastry easier to work with when I used lard. Found Crisco makes my pie dough "stretchy" and hard to roll out. I don't know if it's psychological, but I find organic flour gives superior results.
I'm not sure where you live but if you can get King Arthur All-Purpose Flour, I'd use it for cakes, tarts and cookies. Some piecrust recipes specify pastry flour but I've had fine results using all-purpose flour. I use a piecrust recipe that uses both butter and Crisco. The butter gives the dough a good flavor and the Crisco makes it flaky. As for biscuits, I think they key is handling the dough as little as possible. White Lily flour is the classic for this purpose but it's much easier to find in the South than in the North. I've never made pasta but usually the recipes specify a grade of flour. As for crumbles, most use old-fashioned rolled oats (not the quick or instant kind). If you live near a Whole Foods, I find it quite handy to be able to buy a single scoop of oats or semolina or whatever in the bulk foods section rather than having to store containers in my apartment kitchen.
re: Velda Mae
Your answers have been very helpful! I have some KA unbleached flour on hand. However, I'm attempting to make a biscuit recipe and wanted to try WL, but I haven't had any success finding it in Chicago thus far. I think Fox and Obel has the self rising bleached version but admittedly I wasn't sure which WL is used for this purpose.
I'll need to grab some Crisco and appreciate the Whole Foods suggestion. I'd completely forgotten about their bulk products. One last question, regarding vanilla and cinnamon. I noticed that Penzey's had a double strength version and various versions of cinnamon. Any suggestions? Thanks again!
Cook's Illustrated rated the China Cassia cinnamon very high at one time. It is a very robust cinnamon that works well in most recipes. The Vietnamese cinnamon is preferred by many people for its more subtle qualities. If you make Mexican or Middle-Eastern dishes, I would suggest the Ceylon cinnamon; it has a more dusky and exotic flavor.
I used to buy the double-strength vanilla, but I switched to the single-strength. I don't really think it makes an appreciable difference, though I'm sure people have other opinions. I think the single-strength is less expensive too, isn't it?
I also recommend using King Arthur AP flour: it might be psychological or something but my pastries taste better with it. Note for making pie crust though: the usual first, work fast use cold ingredients but note that when you add the water specified you'll notice that the dough doesn't come together as well as you like (you'll see lots of flour and it won't stick together in a perfect disk). Just press it into as close a disk as you can get and throw it in the fridge. This allows the flour to absorb some of the moisture that you added and when you take it out it will be a rollable disk. I didn't know that the first few times I made crust and I would add water and knead and my crusts would come out a bit dense.
Also for pasta some swear by using semolina in it and I find that while half semolina and half AP is nice it's just a lot more convenient and easier to use all AP flour. Good luck on baking it's the funnest thing ever.
my recommendation is to buy Alton Brown's "I'm just here for more food," it explains everything very well, you will truly UNDERSTAND what you are doing