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What are the steps to becoming a good dessert home cook?

What are the steps or building blocks to becoming a good dessert home cook?

I am not talking about becoming a professional pastry chef.

What are the steps you would recommend to improving as a dessert cook using self study techniques?

Book recommendations are fine but I am really more interested in actual skills needed.

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  1. I think knowing how to make the different butter crusts in an important skill--Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking is great for learning that and most other French-based baking skills. I might not tackle the puff pastry right away, but the pate choux for eclairs and such is not difficult and very impressive.

    1. what a great start for a thread! i don't know the answer, but i would start with (very american bias)

      simple baked sweets: skills--mixing, decorating, proportions, execution speed

      cookies: choc chip, sugar, molasses, gingerbread, "christmas/holiday." peanut butter, oatmeal, hermits, classic "betty crocker" or "joy of cooking" favorites, specialty ethnic cookies

      brownies, other bar cookies

      pound cake, shortbread, simple cakes

      fruit crisp/crumble/slump, baked fruits

      skills--whipping, folding, more complex cake baking, working with eggs, leavening, rising:
      devil's food/angelfood cakes, sponge cakes, chiffon cakes, yellow cake, layered cakes, frostings and simple cake decorating

      regional or liked cakes ex: boston cream pie, fruitcake, upside down cakes, carrot cakes

      technique: simple pastry; showpieces, decorating:
      pie/piecrust, fruit pie, or regional non-pastry crust pie, ex: key lime pie, pumpkin pie, buttermilk pie, chess pie

      tarts/gateaux/ "fancy" cakes, cheesecakes

      coffee cakes, sweet breakfast rolls/sticky buns/ muffins/quickbreads, scones

      bread puddings, rice puddings, trifles


      classical pastry:
      choux pastry, puff pastry, filo

      chocolate technique:
      chocolate desserts, properly tempering chocolate, ganache, simple candies (fudge, caramels, truffles)

      dessert sauces, syrups, and jams, candied fruits

      mousse, creme caramel, panna cotta, creme brulee, cold pudding, etc, making pastry cream, creme anglaise, other custards

      subject to interest: doughnuts, flans, sweet empanadas, strudel, other ethnic pastries

      sorbet and ice cream

      i'd just go with what interests the cook and what the family likes. when i was little i loved a frozen strawberry dessert my mother made. i requested it often, though her pies were better. i was looking at the current thread on the new "martha stewart bakes" show (i know, i know, ya love her or hate her) and i was thinking it was a good intro course for a home baker. maybe check it out, one of the posters listed the show topics on the thread:


      1. What are you familiar and comfortable with making right now?

        1. Just a few thoughts off the top of my head:

          1. Working with chocolate (kinds of chocolate, when you need to temper, how to melt)

          2. Working with eggs (making custards, whipping, making souffles)

          3. Working with butter (when to use cold, when to use at room temp, how to incorporate)

          4. Different ways to use sugars

          5. Different kinds of flours and how they work differently

          6. How to work with yeast

          7. How to use cream (how to whip heavy cream, making custards)

          I know you're looking for techniques not books but I'll quickly mention one book you might like: Secrets of Baking. It talks about different "families" of desserts, with basics and then twists on the basics and lots of tips. I think it's good for understanding the relationships between things in the same dessert "family."

          1. What's your favorite dessert? Keep making it until you get it right, and be very observant about what you do each time you make it. Practice it, and practice it, and practice it some more, until you get it right. Then, what's your second favorite dessert?

            Take a class and learn about the processes you go through to make the things on the list above. Then apply the processes. Then practice, practice, practice.

            1. I am hoping to keep this thread general enough for everybody but since people are asking things like "what am I familiar with and what do I want to learn, I thought I would answer those.

              I am familiar with chocolate and cake decoration. I bake occasionally but not a lot. I'm an engineer so I am going to be more interested in the science than a lot of you.

              So far, and it is subject to change, my plan is to learn the custards, puddings, creams including crème brulee, pots de crème, and crème caramel. I have been studying them recently. I am going to make those 3 first. I have made crème brulee before. It came out fine. I have made a cheesecake, mousse, curd and a souffle before. They all came out fine.

              You would laugh if you saw it but I have a spreadsheet on custard ratios. It shows things like crème brulee is all cream and all yolks where pot de crème is half milk half cream and still yolks only. Crème caramel is half milk half cream with whole eggs and yolks.

              Anyway, I am going to go through all of them until I am very comfortable. Experiment with them a little.

              Second I think I will experiment with caramel because I will have gotten involved with it in the crème caramel anyway.

              Third the basic pastries and pie doughs and cakes. I will probably break those into 3 parts.

              By then, I should be able to combine the skills to have a fairly impressive list of desserts I am comfortable with.

              I haven't forgotten fruits. I just haven't figured out where on the list it will be.

              I have ordered the following books:
              Pastry Cook by Catherine Atkinson
              Perfect Pastry by Nick Malgieri
              The Ultimate Brownie by Weinstein and Scarbrough (It was cheap, why not?)

              I already have the following books:
              Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Shere
              How to Bake by Nick Malgieri
              Dessert Techniques by Le Cordon Bleu
              Chocolate by Nick Malgieri
              Chocolate Cake by Michele Urvater
              Chocolate Artistry by Elaine Gonzales
              The Art of Chocolate by Elaine Gonzales

              22 Replies
              1. re: Hank Hanover

                Since you're an engineer and probably appreciate science, I'd recommend Shirley Corriher Bakewise (Cookwise is also good). I love the details she gets into as a food scientist. That said, it works great w/ things like cakes and cookies but nothing beats hands on experience w/ pie crusts, puff pastries. I took classes in pie crust and croissant and it's incredibly helpful to have an instructor over your shoulder. It can get expensive learning so that eliminated the trial and error. Learning basic pie crusts helps w/ things like scones, biscuits, other pate crusts, etc. And croissants helps w/ puff pastry and those types of rolled and folded doughs. There are a lot of crossover skills with baking.

                Overall, I think what everyone is asking is what interests you and go with that. I'd make a list of my favorites, top to bottom and do those in order. Why spend time on something you don't love when there is something you do? I've spent 12 years on chocolate chip cookies alone.;-) But, I only spent a couple of years on cheesecake and was ready to move on. And, I found the one lemon curd recipe that's my go to and haven't done any more. I don't care to get into the details of a good lemon curd--I just stick with that one recipe.

                1. re: chowser

                  Overall, I think what everyone is asking is what interests you and go with that. I'd make a list of my favorites, top to bottom and do those in order. Why spend time on something you don't love when there is something you do?
                  If his engineering brain is anything like mine, it's because things need to be put into categories, and a category needs to be exhausted before moving on, even if something in that category doesn't appeal! I spent a while eating lots of creme caramel, which I don't particularly care for, because I was learning about custards and eggs.

                  Hank, I've just bought a stand mixer so am on a drive to make a cake once a wekk. My tactic for the last couple of weeks has been just to pick something I fancy, but I become paralysed with indecision because THERE'S NO SYSTEM!!! So i'll watch this thread with interest.

                  1. re: gembellina

                    If you need to categorize cakes, what about going by fat and type? Start w/ angel food until you get the feeling of the beaten egg whites. Then, using that, add the egg yolks to make a sponge cake. Once you get that, you can do genoise or chiffon (whether you want to do oil or butter). At the same time, you can play w/ egg whites by trying different types of buttercreams. So, your first category is really all about egg whites, how they react to heat, sugar, fats.

                    This is a good tutorial on buttercreams:


                    When you finish, you'll know the array of cakes and frostings.

                    1. re: chowser

                      I think if I was going to categorize cakes, I would do it this way. Oh gembellina, you could use this list as the start of your cake a week system.

                      Butter cakes
                      Foam cakes
                      Fruit cakes
                      Spice cakes
                      Sponge cakes and angel food cakes
                      Yeast cakes
                      and yes I realize some cakes fit into more than 1 category.

                      Nice Article by the way, thanks.

                      1. re: Hank Hanover

                        Foam cakes include sponge and angel and a whole host of cakes. That's the category I was talking about with starting w/ angel and then adding more fat with yolks to get the sponge then adding more to get chiffon and genoise. In the end, you'd have butter cakes. I think of spice cakes as more of a quick bread type which leads you to pumpkin, carrot, etc. Is that you mean by fruit cakes? The addition of fats seems like a natural progression to me, as foam cakes go. At the same time, one could explore simple syrups with them. And, of course, the frostings w/ egg whites.

                        Then, keeping with the egg white exploration, after these cakes and frostings, one could move to stiffer whites to meringues/dacquoise, souffle, mousse. All that could take months/years. This is where my passion would take over my analytical side because I wouldn't spend time on yeast cakes. I'd ask CH for their favorite recipe for a xxxxx and then make it but wouldn't spend time experimenting. Not interested enough in it.

                        1. re: Hank Hanover

                          ah, you're an engineer! i agree w Chowser about maybe trying out some recipes for genoise and chiffon cakes (file them with sponge and angel food cakes in your list). these will be interesting to you i hope. with a genoise, you first heat the eggs before you beat them, for triple maxxx volume. the firm cake is good for layering, petits fours or jelly rolls and soaking up boozy syrups by itself. chiffon cake is a sponge cake with the addition of vegetable oil for a tender crumb. they are very versatile, & in particular a good plain genoise is a great recipe to know, you can use it as a "building block" for all sorts of projects.

                          1. re: soupkitten

                            I think the best skill in the foam cakes is learning how to beat the eggs whites and how much to beat the egg whites and then learning to fold flour into them w/out deflating. That skill will lead to souffles, mousse, etc. And, let you practice layer cakes, soaking cakes with simple syrup, and rolled cakes which is a whole skill in itself. If started now, a buche de noel will be easily do-able by Christmas! LOL, and you would learn to make those meringue mushrooms for the side, too.

                            1. re: chowser

                              Yep... I really do want to do a buche de noel although meringue and marzipan mushrooms, I can do without. Maybe I will use truffles in mushroom molds or I could even shape the ganache by hand and dip them.

                              Of course, you could get carried away with the decaying log theme by adding termites and moss. Paints a vivid picture doesn't it?

                        2. re: chowser

                          This makes good sense. Learn an ingredient, how to handle it and its different guises.

                          For example, you have egg whites at room temp before beating, but to whip cream, have the cream, beaters and bowl cold. For beating egg whites, make sure there's no water in your bowl. Less critical with cream. For some chocolate things, keeping all water away is criticial. For other uses, not so much. That kind of thing.

                          And then I'd highly recommend Secrets of Baking. Because it has different "families" of desserts or components, with guidance on handling each. And then tweaks to the basic recipes to make them more complicated.

                          The vanilla chapter has a master vanilla sauce. The "family tree" for that chapter includes oven baked custards like pots de creme, creme caramel and brulee. And stovetop custard with starch added which includes pastry cream, creme chiboust and some baked stovetop custards like a number of souffles.

                          The Secrets book has a chapter on caramel with a master recipe and then variants. The caramel family tree has 1) crunch caramel (including brittle and pralines; 2) creamy caramel, including caramel sauce and cream, caramel souffle and caramel custard tart; and 3) clear caramel including a glaze, a semifreddo. And lots more in each subcategory.

                          I think this would really appeal to your sense of order and organization. And everything I've done from this book has been great. The only caramel recipe I've tried that has been easy.

                          1. re: karykat

                            Oh it really does appeal to me. I even liked the order of the chapters. I'll probably talk myself into it. It won't be the first time I talked myself into buying an expensive book.

                            1. re: karykat

                              That sounds like a great book to add to my list of "wants." Thanks!

                          2. re: gembellina

                            It would be educational to spend time making angel food and chiffon and sponge and yeast cakes...But, personally, I wouldn't get too excited about eating any of those.

                            This is a personal preference, but I'd focus on layer cakes. My proposed plan of study:
                            1. American layer cakes using the traditional creaming method (cream butter and sugar, and add wet and dry ingredients alternately) - I think the yellow cake layers in CI's new best recipe would be a good example. Try a chocolate and a yellow

                            2. American layer cakes using the hi-ratio or two-stage method of mixing (mixing dry ingredients and butter and then adding liquids. - Rose Levy Berenbaum is known for this. Chocolate and yellow.

                            3. A white cake, lightened with egg whites

                            You would learn a lot about your preferences by doing this. You'd also have five cakes to frost. Here are frosting types to practice:
                            1. ganache
                            2. American (powdered sugar buttercream)
                            3. Italian Meringue buttercream
                            4. Swiss Meringue buttercream - I love the recipe in Baking with Julia
                            5. Custard or Viennese buttercream

                            Once you've finished with the American Cakes, move on to French. "The Art of the Cake" by Healy and Bugat is invaluable, and one of the authors was a physicist, you might enjoy the overall approach. You will practice genoise, of course, but the fancier recipes will get you into meringue layers, jocondes, mousses....You can have a lot of fun while producing desserts that people will be excited about eating.

                            1. re: CathleenH

                              I think this is the best post yet.

                              1. re: Jay F

                                I agree. it was a very helpful post. Thank you.

                              2. re: CathleenH

                                Correction- the yellow layers in CI's The New Best Recipe actually use the two-stage mixing method. It's a great recipe though, and much better than anything I've tried out of The Cake Bible.

                                1. re: CathleenH

                                  I agree about the Best Recipe yellow cake--I like that cake for a light fluffy yellow cake. If I want a dense one, my go-to one is from Restaurant Eve below. I've liked all the cakes I've made from the Best Recipe which seems to approach their recipes as suggested here--accumulating recipes and trying them to see what the differences are.


                                  1. re: chowser

                                    How sweet are these two recipes, chowser? If you like something not too sweet, which cake would you like best?

                                    1. re: karykat

                                      Neither are too sweet which is one reason I like them. As a personal preference, I like the denseness of the Restaurant Eve cake. The BR cake attempts to replicate the fluffiness of box cakes (iirc) and much more of a light melt in your mouth cake, a lot of air. The Restaurant Eve frosting is fair, a little too sweet for me and that's the one part I usually skip.

                                      1. re: chowser

                                        Great. I've saved both recipes.

                          3. re: Hank Hanover

                            I love the sound of your spreadsheet, by the way.

                            1. re: gembellina

                              If you are interested, you can email me at a special email I set up for dealing with chowhound.

                              I'll send you a copy of the spreadsheet.


                            2. re: Hank Hanover

                              I'm completely taken with Nick Malgieri and you have 3 of his best books (my favorite is A Baker's Tour but it can wait till later). Chocolate has the world's best brownie recipe in it hands down and going away (Supernatural). I think if you sat down with these and made whatever appealed (the instructions are clear and Perfect Pastry is especially good with photos, etc) you'd be well away.

                            3. If you don't already, get a digital kitchen scale and get used to weighing your ingredients instead of measuring them by volume.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Pia

                                A person after my own heart. I hate recipes that call for cups of flour. How do you measure the flour? Packed, dip and sweep, loosely spooned?

                                1. re: Pia

                                  Yes, the kitchen scale is one of the most important tools needed for making good desserts. That and a convection oven.... (a personal dream of mine) :)

                                  1. re: cioccolata

                                    I agree about the kitchen scale, but not about the convection oven. I make pretty good desserts with a standard oven. Of course, it could be argued that since I don't have a convection oven I don't know what I'm missing !

                                2. Practice

                                  Intrepid spirit

                                  Lots of willing guinea pigs

                                  1. It sounds like you are already on your way to to becoming (or already are) amazing.
                                    I second having guinea pigs.
                                    I'm pretty sure you probably have them already, but I'll suggest them anyways: thermometers. I'm in love with my bench scraper. Don't be afraid to use lard . . .

                                    9 Replies
                                    1. re: Eat.Choui

                                      Embrace lard. In fact, that could make a good chapter on its own. Making your own and then using it.

                                      1. re: chowser

                                        Yeah! Make your own or find a good local source for the real stuff.

                                        1. re: chowser

                                          Ok...it took me a few minutes on the web to find out how to render my own lard.

                                          Apparently, nothing makes flaky pastry like good lard. Some store bought lards contain partially hydrogenated oils.

                                          I also found out that crisco is not lard which I already knew. It is mostly soybean oil.

                                          So... you are saying that homemade lard makes better pastries especially pie dough because of a few partially hydrogenated oils found in store bought lard?

                                          1. re: Hank Hanover

                                            I have a bias against manufactured food. I probably carry that to excess. I have been able to get rendered leaf lard from a local restaurant but they tell me it's extraordinarily easy to make. And they put it in lots of stuff, even soups and stews I've had.

                                            I use butter for butter tarts and don't make American crust. But my friend who does uses the lard she gets from the restaurant. And it's the best flakiest crust you will ever have.

                                            This article will appeal to you: It methodically tests crusts made from all different fats in different combinations. The Crisco crust came out on the bottom, based on taste and mouth feel. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage...

                                            This is interesting too, about how to render the lard and how great it is for frying: http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/l...

                                              1. re: buttertart

                                                The traditional flakey crust with lard or shortening. (The kind that's hard to roll out! At least for me.)

                                                In contrast to what I'll call the European crust with butter that's more like shortbread and usually an egg that's really easy to roll out.

                                                The one is flakey if done right and the other is more shortbreadish and not flakey.

                                                1. re: karykat

                                                  Gotcha. I was never happy with mine (my - Canadian - mother's was fabulous, she used lard as do I when i can get it) until I tried (and followed the instructions closely) the recipe for the Cook's Illustrated vodka crust. Awfully good. And I really prefer that kind in butter tarts.

                                                  1. re: karykat

                                                    There are French names for those two crusts (hence, they're not American vs. European, really). The fat-flour-water flaky crust is pate brisee, and the cookie-like crust (fat-flour-egg, plus often a bit of sugar and/or cream) is pate sucree.

                                              2. re: Hank Hanover

                                                Lard makes a better pie crust and it's hard to get good lard for most people. There are sources but ones I've found have an odd musty odor to them and imparts that to the baked good. Partially hydrogenated oils leave an oily film in my mouth.

                                          2. I would say to go after this with your heart more than with your brain. I recall reading on chowhound a man's happy memory of making "chocolate eclair" with his grandmother when the dessert he recalled with such affection wasn't an eclair at all but a dish of graham crackers layered with instant pudding and Cool-Whip (to which many of us would say, yuck). But just imagine a four year-old boy getting to lay the crackers in place on the pudding as Grandma poured in the creamy stuff and the little boy waited impatiently for it to "finish" in the refrigerator. So start with something you will love to eat and consult a cookbook as necessary to re-create the apple pie or tapioca pudding or cream puff or meringue tart or peach cobbler or brownie of your memories and dreams. Mostly we don't eat dessert for its nutrients---we are, to paraphrase the song, lookin' for love in all the right places.

                                            13 Replies
                                            1. re: Querencia

                                              Best post so far. While reading this thread I was thinking that there was one intangible missing - passion.

                                              Also, get a membership to a gym. You cannot bake without tasting after :)

                                              1. re: souschef

                                                I think there's passion in abundance. Just taking a different form.

                                                1. re: karykat

                                                  What I meant was that you can't do pedantic research coldheartedly on a bunch of recipes, as HH is implying an engineer would. You have to be passionate about the subject, and first make something you really enjoy eating, as others have stated.

                                                  I tend to disagree with HH's statements about engineers; I am one too, but I constantly change tried and true recipes (rum instead of Cognac, Felchlin instead of Callebaut chocolate, etc). I do, however, stay true to engineering in that I weigh everything and follow procedures exactly.

                                                  1. re: souschef

                                                    I don't think research precludes passion: one wouldn't embark on a project like this without loving cooking and eating. And the point as I see it is that the research leads to a better understanding of what can be substituted and why, and all the testing along the way leads to an understanding and intuition about what would taste good. It's not about not staying absolutely rigid with recipes, it's about systematically learning how things work. I made creme brulee because I love eating it, but then I made creme caramel because it's simialr but slightly different and I wanted to know what the differences were. Turns out I don't like it as much, but it's all part of the process.

                                                    1. re: souschef

                                                      I have to admit, I won't be researching yeast breads very enthusiastically.

                                                      Unfortunately, I do have a tendency to keep with a recipe once I have decided it is best. I mean, I almost always order the same dish at my favorite restaurant because while the other dishes sound good. They don't sound better than my favorite.

                                                      On the bright side, I had been cooking pork tenderloins with success for years but went through a period of experimentation with them to see if I could improve on them, but I don't usually change recipes unless by necessity, like being out of a standard ingredient.

                                                      I do look at recipes and try to figure out what else I could do with them especially savory recipes. When I cut and paste a recipe, I usually put possible variations at the end.

                                                      I would have to be much more careful about baked goods.

                                                      1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                        "I have to admit, I won't be researching yeast breads very enthusiastically."

                                                        Don't miss out on savarin and baba au rhum, which are yeast cakes soaked in rum syrup. The more you can soak them the better they are.

                                                        1. re: souschef

                                                          I've never made either, what am I waiting for??? Love to eat them, love to make yeast doughs.

                                                          1. re: buttertart

                                                            There is a great recipe in Pierre Hermé's "Chocolate Desserts"; oh wait, you don't have that book :)

                                                            There is also a recipe in French Cookery School, which you do have, but I have not used that recipe.

                                                            In Hermé's book he states that he likes to leave the baked cake lying around on the counter for a day or so to dry up, so that it soaks up a lot of syrup. I found that I had to use more syrup than he specified.

                                                            1. re: souschef

                                                              It's the rum, M no like. Maybe Cognac instead?

                                                              1. re: buttertart

                                                                Sure, but not XO, I'm sure, even though M like.

                                                                I have had it made with Screech (Newfoundland rum) at a fancy restaurant, and it was great. I have a bottle of the stuff, so that's what I'll use the next time I make it.

                                                                1. re: souschef

                                                                  XO ok, not the '49 Armagnac. Don't get much Screech down these parts - is it a dark rum? I've heard about it for years and years but I don't think I've ever laid hand on it.

                                                                  1. re: buttertart

                                                                    Yes, it's a dark rum.

                                                                    The savarin would probably also be good with orange zest in the dough and a soaking of Grand Marnier syrup. BTW have you ever tried the GM that was bottled for their 150th anniversary? It is truly sublime. I was given a bottle for Christmas many years ago by my better half. It was quaffed straight. Very nice bottle too. Now $250 here.

                                                                    1. re: souschef

                                                                      The Grand Marnier idea sounds great. I would love to try the vintage one, was sorry it came out after my dad died since GM was his absolute favorite thing on earth.

                                                1. I just adore Jacques Pepin's programs on PBS. He is a true master chef who is also a master of pastry but not locked into rigid preparation. The desserts on his Fast Food My Way series and its sequel are often very simple preparations complemented by fruits or sauces that turn them into elegant dishes.

                                                  I enjoy http://confectionsofamasterbaker.blog... as much for the writing as the baked goods. Haven't actually made many of them but the step-by-step and photos make things quite clear. The latest entry is quite the engineering feat, with a blow-by-blow guide. This is the same sloping layer design as the gorgeous green tea matcha/cassis cake recipe from a couple of months ago but at that time she did not have step by step shots and promised to do a follow-up. Even with Rumpelstiltskin at my side, I would not attempt this one but enjoyed learning how it was done.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: greygarious

                                                    I am familiar with the site. However, I must confess that I thought it was Confessions of a master baker. I guess you read what you want to read.

                                                  2. Find a grandma who bakes a perfect apple pie and make one with her side by side (That's what I did).

                                                    6 Replies
                                                    1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                                      I think that is excellent advice for anyone except an engineer. The closest an engineer would come to that is taking a class.

                                                      More likely, he would look up 20 - 30 apple pie recipes. Research what the best pie dough recipes were. Make 5 apple pies and evaluate them. Take what he considered to be the best attributes of all the pies and change the recipes and make 3-5 more pies. He would probably then have enough data to pick what he considered the best pie recipe and adopt it. He would never make an apple pie any other way again.

                                                      All of you engineers or people that know an engineer are smiling and nodding ....aren't you? :-)

                                                      1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                        I'm not an engineer, but I did start out that way with notebooks describing likes and dislikes and changes and what does what to this and that and looking for recipes that goes by weight and not volume to better control my ingredients. But now, I'm more likely to look at a recipe and know if I am going to really like it, or understand I can modify it to my liking without having to test a bunch of different recipes. I think I became a somewhat decent home baker when I started to understand my ingredients knowing if somethings too much or too little without to measure or weigh. After a while, you just . . know. I'm becoming more and more like my mother everyday :D

                                                        1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                          pie pastry is deceptive in its simplicity. it is not so much the ingredient proportions (though this is important) as it is a skill or a knack that's built on repetition-- your first 5, or 15, or 50 pies may not turn out perfectly, or even well, at all. after 10 or 20 years of making piecrust consistently it does become natural and you don't have to consciously think about making a perfect crust, it just happens. but a piecrust, unlike most cakes, is not something that can be engineered. that little ol' grandma will whup you at piecrust every time, because she's developed the knack. what will frustrate an engineer about it is that her/his perfectly weighed and measured ingredients may work well one day, and the next day they will fail, the humidity or some other detail will throw the whole thing off. meanwhile the old grandma isn't weighing anything carefully, but with a light touch is making little adjustments to get the "feel" of the pastry correct. her pastry will be perfect, but if you ask her the recipe it will be frustratingly imprecise (for an engineer).

                                                          1. re: soupkitten

                                                            I'm afraid you're right about that feel thing. However, I do have good instincts and I will catch up with grandma and I will know why something works... she won't. Eventually, I will develop the feel, too.

                                                            1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                              Sounds like we will in the future need a throwdown between HH and someone's grandma. Maybe Bobby Flay's grandma? :)

                                                          2. re: Hank Hanover

                                                            That sounds rigid, and leaves no room for creativity I can't help but think of a book I have by Roger Vergé, a retired 3-star chef from France, in which he says that sometimes when making a dish he has made many times before, for some reason he feels that he should add a pinch of sugar, for example, where he has not done so before.

                                                        2. I'd recommend Sherry Yard's Book The Secrets of Baking. I really like the way she breaks down the dessert world by technique. She'll give a "Master Recipe" for a custard, pastry cream, and tell you the basic steps, then on following pages how to make other custard style desserts, such as creme brulee and creme anglaise. One technique, several ways to apply it. She approaches it in a way that makes more sense than a lot of home baking books I've read.

                                                          6 Replies
                                                          1. re: sarahjay

                                                            Yes, the book looks really good. I just haven't been able to talk myself into spending the money for it. It's pretty expensive.

                                                            I really liked the chapter titles. Here is the list of chapters.

                                                            Chapters in Secrets of Baking

                                                            Vanilla Sauce
                                                            Pate a Choux
                                                            Pound cake & Genoise
                                                            Pie and tart dough
                                                            Laminated dough

                                                            1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                              Does your local library have it? I always get cookbooks from the library before I buy them. Or you could buy it used from amazon, or on ebay. I can't believe the price on it. I bought it when it came out for about $30.

                                                              1. re: sarahjay

                                                                It looks brilliant - I've just read the intro on amazon and her system sounds good. One questions though: are the recipes in cups, or in proper weight measurements?

                                                                Strangely, I can see it on amazon (uk) for £25 new, or used for £136!!

                                                                1. re: gembellina

                                                                  It is in stock for $28.04 at this site.


                                                                  Borders has it around $35.00 but I would go in to the store on that one. I understand they may be filing bankruptcy so I'm not sure I would want to order anything from them until it settles down a little.

                                                              2. re: sarahjay

                                                                Yes - Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard

                                                                Wonderful book - exactly what you are asking for - a must for anyone into desserts and learning pastry techniques.

                                                              3. Hank, lots of excellent for suggestion on what to bake in the dessert category but I'd like to add the importance of the right tools. I did see mention of a scale, but how are you fixed for measuring equipment, beaters, bowls, work surface, therms, timers, wisks, etc? Without my various baking tool "kits" the recipes I know I wouldn't get very far. Nothing over the top expensive but the essentials.

                                                                2 Replies
                                                                1. re: HillJ

                                                                  For an engineer, I would think MIchael Ruhlman's "Ratio" would be essential. Baking is essentially different combinations of the same ingredients, and "Ratio" breaks down the different, well, ratios of the ingredients and explains the difference between different categories as largely a difference of ratios. It is a small book, and in my opinion a worthwhile addition. Also contains sections on stocks (seemingly one of Ruhlman's principal passions), but it is mostly baking and desserts.

                                                                  I don't have Alton Brown's second version of "I"m just here for the food", which deals with baking, but if it's anything like the first version, it should also be a very worthwhile addition. Also definitely Shirley Corriher. All of these authors are of the new school - teaching you how to cook, rather than how to read a recipe.

                                                                  Other recommendations: Dessert University by Roland Mesniers (former white house pastry chef)has some nice, original tips. Kaffeehaus by Rick Rodgers is interesting in that it illustrates Viennese as opposed to French baking. For ethnic:Secrets of Jewish Baker by George Greenstein, and The Sweet Spot by Pichet Ong for Asian influences. Also maybe something about Southern cake-making and desserts. Obviously, anything by Nancy Silverton.

                                                                  Bruce Healey was a retired physics professor who became a baking enthusiast and guru, and published a few books - including Mastering the Art of French Pastry and The Art of the Cake. The first is considered a sort of masterpiece, like a Julia Child of pastry, but might be a bit dated by now. The latter is interesting in that it deals entirely with French cake-making - something English language books don't give a lot of attention to. Finally, Francisco Migayo of the CIA is probably the expert on modern, molecular baking techniques. His book, " The Modern Cafe" is big and expensive, but fascinating. It is mostly for professionals, but worthwhile for the interested amateur. Obviously, you can spend a lot of money on this hobby.

                                                                  I don't know what you're personal living situation is, but one thing I was thinking of is dedicating a room as my own baking "studio", to avoid kitchen contention with other family members (read wife). This way you can also buy professional, dedicated equipment (like a small convection oven), which can be cheaper than home kitchen appliances, as they don't require the same styling, insulation (ever wonder why restaurant kitchens get so hot?), all-purpose flexibility, etc.

                                                                  1. re: MarkC

                                                                    One last point, if you're getting into this in a big way, there is some amazing new equipment on the market, very expensive, of course. One thing on my wish list, which I haven't been able to bring myself to shell out the 1,200 or so dollars, is a thermomix. It basically combines a monster food processor and mixing machine with a cooking element (as the name suggests). For the baker, it automates the enormously tedious and time-consuming chore of having to continuously stir a mixture (eg egg yolks for a sponge cake) while it is heating, being careful not to overheat the mixture so the eggs curdle. I HATE doing this. With the thermomix, the temperature is constant so you don't have to worry about curdling, and you can just turn your back on it and let the thermomix do it. The food processor is also stronger than the standard, allowing you to make things like pistachio paste which the others don't have the strength for. You can also use it as an ice-cream maker - just freeze your mixture and then let the thermomix churn it. It sounds like a dream machine.

                                                                2. Well, I broke down and ordered "Secrets of Baking" by Sherry Yard. I got a really good deal for a brand new copy for $15.00 + $3.99 shipping at half.ebay.com. Unfortunately, it was the only reasonably priced one. It's back up to $45 or so there.

                                                                  Anyway, I'm excited to have it coming even if I didn't need it.

                                                                  4 Replies
                                                                  1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                    I think I learned as much from that book as I did at pastry school (which ended up covering a lot of what I had learned at home with the book). I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about baking.

                                                                    1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                      Good. Let us know what you think once you've had a chance to work with it.

                                                                      1. re: karykat

                                                                        Oh, how I love CH for all the expertise and book recommendations! Just ordered this from the library. Thanks, all!

                                                                        1. re: pine time

                                                                          Great! Report back once you've tried some things and let us know what you think.

                                                                    2. There are three basic steps to becoming good at making deserts and they're the same three that'll get you to Carnagie Hall.


                                                                      I'd also look for cookbooks that are more text book than recipe book.


                                                                      1. Progress Report - My first batch of pots de crème.

                                                                        There were several recipes out there. I was somewhat surprised to see a lot of them didn't require baking.

                                                                        I made this recipe for Valentines day along with a mixed bouquet of flowers.


                                                                        I made a half batch - four 4 ounce ramekins. I had to buy some 4 ounce ramekins. Mine were 8 ounce and I knew this stuff was way too rich to eat 8 ounces of it. If anyone is thinking of making a batch, it was extremely easy.

                                                                        I will say that the espresso powder does add a certain richness to the chocolate. I didn't put so much in that you could directly taste the coffee flavor.

                                                                        It turned out pretty well. It was heavier than I expected. I cooked it too long. The recipe said 30 - 35 minutes. I should have checked at 25 minutes.

                                                                        This recipe calls for a 2 to 1 ratio of cream to milk. Next time I am going for a 1 to 1 ratio. I used Ghirardelli Gourmet 58% Cacao semi sweet chocolate. Frankly, I wasn't impressed.

                                                                        Next time, I am going to use my 54% Callebaut semi sweet. It tastes much better than the Ghiradelli.

                                                                        I will make another batch soon, possibly as soon as tomorrow.

                                                                        Oh I received one of the books I ordered. It was "Pastry cook" by Catherine Atkinson. Lots of pictures. Lots of info on pastry doughs. I'm still working on my custards but I will get to it. Anybody else have this book?

                                                                        2 Replies
                                                                        1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                          SOunds good Hank- for the chocolate sourcing, I'd encourage you to think about trying some Theo 70% or even the Single source (80-90%) Dark chocloates. It's really easy to get amazing flavor out of them, and because you are adding the sugar and fat, I find it much easier to work with than some of the 50% varieties out there.

                                                                          1. re: wallyz

                                                                            I have the 54% Callebaut because of the truffles I make. I use it because I can dip with it or make a ganache with it. I have never had anyone complain. They were too busy lining up to get some.
                                                                            I will just adjust the sweetness before I pour the chocolate mixture into the ramekins.

                                                                        2. Hank, I'd suggest four things, even for a home pastry cook:
                                                                          1) Weigh everything.
                                                                          2) Learn to sense the different stages of whipped egg whites, i.e. soft peak, stiff peak, dry.
                                                                          3) Ditto whipped heavy/double cream (quite a number of desserts depend on developing this particular skill).
                                                                          4) Get comfortable working with boiling sugar, and aim to discern soft ball stage by eye: pate a bombe is the secret weapon in so many recipes, and it's a snap once you're through the ice-water-test stage for soft ball syrup.
                                                                          Have fun!

                                                                          2 Replies
                                                                          1. re: MmePatissiere

                                                                            I had to look it up. For you dummies like me, pate a bombe is a term used for egg yolks beaten with a sugar syrup, then aerated. It is the base used for many mousse and buttercream recipes.

                                                                            Yes, it sounds like I will have to develop an eye or feel for those things and a lot more. Thank you.

                                                                            I have a feeling that with that handle, you know a thing or two about pastry.

                                                                            1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                              Hank, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to come across as all snooty and know-it-all, far from it!
                                                                              A thing or two, maybe....but I'm still learning a thing or three or four... :-)

                                                                          2. I finally received my copy of the book, "The Secrets of Baking" by Sherry Yard. In the chapter on curds, she says that the thickest curds have a ph level of 2.5 or below. She recommends that things like orange or grapefruit juice, that have a PH level of 3.5 or so, be mixed with lemon juice to raise the acidity level or to lower the PH.

                                                                            I had the impression that you could still make a orange curd but it wouldn't be as thick as a lemon curd.

                                                                            My question is... Could you lower the ph level with ground vitamin C tablet? It is absorbic acid isn't it? Does anyone else know the answer? Also, would a ground up vitamin C tablet have or affect the taste?

                                                                            Would anything else but lemon and lime juice lower the ph level?

                                                                            6 Replies
                                                                            1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                              Citric acid is sold as sour salt in kosher sections of supermarkets - it will do the trick much better than ascorbic acid.

                                                                              1. re: buttertart

                                                                                No major offputting taste to it? I had thought of citric acid too. I wasn't sure where to get some but I had thought of it.

                                                                                It is strange that I could find very little on the web about doing this.

                                                                                1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                  No, it's just very very tart. You really don't need much. I use it in soup sometimes. The one I got was from an Eastern European store in one of those sachets like the Dr Oetker vanilla sugar comes in, labeled limon-something (I think it's from Croatia).

                                                                                  1. re: buttertart

                                                                                    Well, the engineer in me says I can mix it into the fruit juice and use litmus paper to test it until it gets below 3 anyway.

                                                                                    Then there are lemon or lime combos that would go well like lime and raspberry. lemon and pomegranate.

                                                                                    Oh, does anybody know the ph of pineapple juice?

                                                                              2. hank, these are the steps i've taken which has helped me. i took a local class which was actually a series and took a few weeks. we covered cookies, breads, cakes, puff pastry, pies etc. it helped me to get hands on with endless ingredients around but also get tips from classmates and instructors. there's something pretty awesome about baking with a bunch of people in a giant kitchen. not only do you learn from others successes and mistakes but your own.

                                                                                i also got the cooks illustrated book and also rose beranbaum's cake bible. that book in itself is a study at baking cakes and the science behind it.

                                                                                lastly, keep an open mind. recently, my young son was diagnosed with an egg, peanut, and tree nut allergies and immediately i thought oh, there goes all the baking! but now i've discovered how to bake a cake without egg (which i'm so surprised but came out better than most egg based cakes i've made) and learned to use unconventional ingredients to make things come out right. it's been an eye opener and improved my baking quite a bit. good luck.

                                                                                1 Reply
                                                                                1. re: trolley

                                                                                  Yeah, there are a few. Whole foods has one. A local bakeshop puts some on.

                                                                                  There is also the Wilton Cake decorating courses at the hobby shops.

                                                                                2. I was doing some reading on butter cakes especially "high ratio" butter cakes. In an article by Shirley Coniher, she was calling out a specific amount of eggs. She wanted it as close to 4 ounces in weight as possible. It seems that a large egg is about 1.75 ounces by weight. 2/3 of an ounce is yolk so I guess that leaves about 1.08 ounces of white. Anyway in this example she said you could use 2 eggs (3.5 ounces) or 1 egg and 3 yolks (3.75 ounces). She liked using the 1 egg and 3 yolks because of taste and texture.

                                                                                  Sorry, I know it was a lot of setup. My question is has anyone ever separated the whites and yolks and blended them to obtain a different ratio of yolk to white? A 50/50 ratio comes to mind.

                                                                                  And at the very least, do you combine the eggs with a light whip and pour in exactly how much you need by weight?

                                                                                  Oh, here is a link to the article. It is very interesting. http://www.finecooking.com/articles/r...

                                                                                  14 Replies
                                                                                  1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                    This is an intriguing discussion. Weighing the eggs to achieve the exact ratio you desire would be more precise, and would allow you to use different sized eggs with more precision (often the XL eggs are a better value). If you were to lightly whip your preferred ratio together, I think the only concern is that you add them slowly to allow them to emulsify properly, as you would with adding one egg at a time. I'm trying to think of reason not to do this, and all I can really come up with is that it adds an extra step. Since you would need to weigh the whites and yolks separately to begin with, the extra whites can be reserved cleanly for another use. The small amount of combined eggs you may have left can be reserved for eggwash or another use. The only downside I can see is in mixing a much larger batch than you need, as once deshelled the eggs will deteriorate at a faster rate. Please report back on the ratio you find best.

                                                                                    1. re: maxie

                                                                                      Well, it would certainly take longer and use more dishes for very little difference.

                                                                                      However, on the positive side, your cake would be more repeatable. Once you got the cake you wanted, you could get that same cake every time.

                                                                                      About the only variance would be how much gluten is in your flour. The gluten content of all purpose flour varies from 9 - 12%. I'm not sure that little variance makes a big difference or not.

                                                                                      I'm not even sure that control over the eggs would make much difference.

                                                                                      1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                        Personally, I'm loosey goosey with the eggs. Rather than whisk a single egg and measure it out for half, I'll just throw in a yolk. From a science and recipe development perspective, your experiment allows you to figure out your preferred ratio, which helps you to alter other recipes more to your liking. Baking a cake the three ways suggested (whole eggs, 50/50, 1 whole plus 3 yolks) allows you to figure out which qualities you prefer, or if you can even tell the difference, which seems to be the point of the exercise. It makes sense to learn to bake to your personal ideal, rather than someone else's. The beauty of your entire process is that you're not just learning how to bake, but also how to develop or alter recipes. A lot of people can't do that. Work out the eggs before moving on to gluten.

                                                                                    2. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                      "My question is has anyone ever separated the whites and yolks and blended them to obtain a different ratio of yolk to white? A 50/50 ratio comes to mind."

                                                                                      I am puzzled by your question, especially since there is no way to measure the ratio after you blend them together. The best you could do is measure the volumes separately, then together after blending.

                                                                                      I see the reason for your question (would you get more white to yolk or vice versa, hence affecting the texture) if you are not using a whole number of eggs, but I don't think you need to get into that fine detail.

                                                                                      This is probably a good question for Rose Levy Beranbaum (my heroine), who went to the extreme of spending her salary for a month or two on a Metzler lab scale.

                                                                                        1. re: buttertart

                                                                                          Yeah, but I'm sure it's not all deductible. Not even I am that fanatical.

                                                                                          I have worked with lab scales...in a lab, and they give you accuracy to fractions of a gram. Great when you're doing chemistry, but not really necessary when measuring baking powder. Mind you, 1 tsp of baking powder is 6gm, and most kitchen scales are accurate to 1 digit (1 gm). That's a 17% tolerance, so maybe Rose is not so crazy after all.

                                                                                          1. re: souschef

                                                                                            Is there a lab scale "lite" I wonder?

                                                                                            1. re: buttertart

                                                                                              Sure, you could get a balance scale and use little measuring balls that are less than a gram each. We did it when I was in quantitative analysis chem 25+ years ago before all this new technology. The question is, why? As you once said, you get great results measuring, not weighing, so why spend the time/effort to be more precise? Baking is a science but at some point, it's also about feel--some of the best bakers I know don't follow a recipe and throw a little of this and that in a bowl but their biscuits, scones, etc are better than people who are precise.

                                                                                              1. re: chowser

                                                                                                I have a scale that's accurate to 5 grams that I use quite a lot, but I also go by measure (and can be quite slapdash, actually). souschef likes to be very precise and I kid him about it. No intention of going in for more precision myself.

                                                                                                1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                  I go back and forth, too. Sometimes the analytical chem in me kicks in and I'm incredibly accurate. Other times, like this morning, I threw together a coffee cake and then orange ricotta pound cake and just winged it with a measuring cup and tablespoon. Lazy. But, they both turned out fine.

                                                                                                  1. re: chowser

                                                                                                    I think the hoohah about baking being a science and everything having to be weighed down to the last quintillionth of a gram is a bit overdone and puts people off trying to bake. For regular home baking of the sort you did you don't have to be accurate +++. My mom measured everything - dry ingredients included - in a 2 c Pyrex liquid measure and no one ever complained about her baking (because it was fabulous). For fancy stuff like souschef's specialties you do need to be more careful.

                                                                                                    1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                      Whew, thanks for the reality check, buttertart! My measurements are surely off, but my baked goods are always heartifly eaten, and no one has died, so I'll keep eyeballing most ingredients, sometimes weighing flour, sometimes dip & level, sometimes sift, sometimes pour into the cup. Never found too much variance in the final product.

                                                                                                      1. re: pine time

                                                                                                        Unless you're making something really delicate it really doesn't matter that much. And if you and yours are happy with what you make, who cares? ;-)

                                                                                        2. re: souschef

                                                                                          In this ladies article, her basic formulas for a "high ratio" cake was Sugar = flour; eggs = butter; and eggs + liquid = sugar measured by weight. At least in her example a cup of sugar weighed 7 ounces.

                                                                                          Anyway, if you were going to make a cake that called for 3 cups flour and 2 cups sugar. Assuming your sugar weighs 14 ounces then there is no need to measure 3 cups of flour. Just weigh out 14 ounces of flour. Same thing with the eggs. If you didn't mind the natural ratio of yolk to white that nature provides and you don't mind wasting some egg. Just whip your eggs together and weigh out the 8 ounces of egg to exactly match your butter. Of course you could take the same approach to the butter and not have to whip anything.

                                                                                          Sorry to make this so much of a science project. I'm just using you folks as a sounding board.

                                                                                      1. There are a lot of cake recipes with sour cream and some with buttermilk. Is there a difference in taste and or texture with one over the other.

                                                                                        I wouldn't think there would be much taste difference but probably some.

                                                                                        Buttermilk is more liquid than sour cream. Do cake recipes use less buttermilk as a general rule than sour cream?

                                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                                        1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                          Sour cream and buttermilk are NOT interchangeable in recipes...there is a liquid and a fat component difference. Buttermilk is actually not a source of fat, being made these days from either skimmed or low-fat milks products. You can subsitute buttermilk for sour cream in SOME older baked recipes, but you would then have to adjust the ratio of (other) added fats. Don't substitute buttermilk for sour cream in for example a chocolate frosting recipe where the SC is present to add flavour AND body.

                                                                                        2. The Cake Bible changed my life. Desserts are about precision. Copper bowl for whipping egg whites and a marble slab for rolling dough are indispensable. And a scale, a good digital scale. And a thorough understanding of fat content. Good luck!

                                                                                          17 Replies
                                                                                            1. re: Surfwench

                                                                                              I doubt that a $240 copper mixing bowl is indispensable That kind of money buys a lot of cream of tartar.

                                                                                              1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                                I got lucky with mine. Saw it in a store priced at $100 (about 20 years ago), then a week later I happened to walk into that same store and saw it reduced to $50; someone had dropped it, putting a small dent it it. I bought it.

                                                                                                I always use mine for egg whites when I make soufflés as I find that the texture is better than when I use my KitchenAid. There's a real technique to it.

                                                                                              2. re: Surfwench

                                                                                                A copper bowl and a marble slab are very nice, but I strongly disagree that they are indispensible. A bowl, a whisk, and a rolling pin are indispensible.

                                                                                                1. re: rohirette

                                                                                                  A bowl, a whisk and a good strong arm.:-)

                                                                                                  1. re: chowser

                                                                                                    Buttertart lacks the good strong arm, so she would disagree with you !

                                                                                                    A marble slab is nice if you're making puff pastry.

                                                                                                    1. re: souschef

                                                                                                      I'd like a marble slab, but yes, I prefer electricity over muscle.

                                                                                                      1. re: souschef

                                                                                                        Darn, maybe I need technique work--I have pretty strong arms but my arms still get tired whisking for a long time.

                                                                                                        I'd love a marble slab--I was adding on to the bowl/whisk thought with the strong arm. Although...it would be nice to have strong arms if you have a big heavy marble slab, too. My future kitchen will have a baking center w/ a lowered counter top made w/ marble. Not sure what the resale housing market is for 5' tall bakers but I want it for me.

                                                                                                        1. re: chowser

                                                                                                          I'll buy it, I'm the same size and the height of counters drives me crazy.

                                                                                                          1. re: chowser

                                                                                                            I'm with you (and about the same height) I'd love a lower counter for baking. My Gran always hefted an old marble slab onto her table for the same reason.

                                                                                                            1. re: maplesugar

                                                                                                              My mother has a butcher-block island that's about 32" that has a prep sink, where she does all her cooking prep, but it's an especially useful height for kneading and rolling dough. I've always been jealous of her lower counters! (She and I are in the same club as you ladies, height-wise).

                                                                                                              1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                                                                                And I was lucky at one house, I got to choose 40" counters. Wonder how the new owners like them? If they even cook.....she was a ballerina. Maybe she does plies on them instead.

                                                                                                                1. re: coll

                                                                                                                  She was probably used to it - 36" is standard counter height in the US. Every place I've lived (rentals, including both apartments and houses) has had 36" kitchen counters. When my mother remodeled, she put in 32" counters on the cooking side, and standard-height on the sink/dishwasher side (dishwasher wouldn't fit under lower counters, anyway).

                                                                                                            2. re: chowser

                                                                                                              Whisking is definitely about technique. I'm a 160-lb weakling, and on one occasion, when I had a 250-lb strongman take over whisking from me, it was interesting to see that he could not get the speed that I did, to his amusement. This was not the first time that it happened.

                                                                                                              My arm does get tired whisking for a long time, but fortunately I have a matched pair of arms.

                                                                                                              1. re: souschef

                                                                                                                I'm always impressed with the speed some people can get w/ a whisk. I'm with buttertart on this--I have electricity and a stand mixer. Lets me multitask.:-)

                                                                                                                1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                  I find that when whisking egg whites I can control the texture better when I whisk them by hand. It's easy to over-whisk them with a machine.

                                                                                                                  1. re: souschef

                                                                                                                    I always whisk almost as stiff as I want in the machine and finish by hand, often just using the whisk attachment instead of regular whisk, unless I'm making an Italian meringue.

                                                                                                    2. I know from your more recent posts, Hank, that you are well along in your dessert-making voyage. I wanted to add one thing: don't bother making a recipe for a dessert you don't love. This is, of course, no different that the rule of thumb for savoury foods. But it is even more important with desserts since the nutritional value is lower and the calorie count higher, making sure you really want to consume the results of your experiments if even more vital.

                                                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                                                      1. re: LJS

                                                                                                        I totally agree. I care about all of my cooking but I definitely put the most time, effort, and love into my desserts since they are what I really savor the most during the week. Then again dessert has always been my favorite meal...

                                                                                                      2. I am not sure anyone recommended this book or not but I have been enjoying reading "The Dessert Bible" by Christopher Kimball (copyright 2000) of Cook's Illustrated fame. it is quite informative. He talks about experiments he made to establish the recipe he presents. There is a lot of 'hows and whys" in this book which is comforting for my analytical mind.

                                                                                                        I am sure there are better books out there but this one is very good, especially for the newbie.

                                                                                                        1. I have been looking at coconut cake recipes. Most are some form of white cakes but many (40%) are yellow cake based. I am basing this on whether they used primarily egg whites (white cake) in the cake or whole eggs or egg yolks (yellow cake). Hopefully, I'm not wrong on that assumption.

                                                                                                          Do you folks think a coconut layer cake should be white or yellow? I tend to think white although I suspect a yellow cake would taste better.

                                                                                                          5 Replies
                                                                                                          1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                                            Based upon the fact that I do not like the texture of Angel Food Cake I would say that it should be a cake that uses whole eggs.

                                                                                                            1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                                              I made Nick Malgieri's coconut cake from his Modern Baker book. It is a yellow cake, and it is the best one I have ever made. My husband is not a cake guy, but he does like coconut cake, so I've been making them for years. I made this one in November for his birthday, and in March for a dinner we have every year that includes a very well-known chef. He asked to take some home. I doubled NM's recipe and used 3 9 inch pans since the one I made in November was a bit to thin (it was a single recipe calling for 2 9 inch pans -- if I were to make a single recipe again I would use 8 inch pans). I filled it with lime curd and frosted it with the flour icing. It was fabulous. NM's recipe calls for both coconut milk and coconut in the batter, so it is a very coconutty tasting recipe.

                                                                                                              1. re: roxlet

                                                                                                                I wish coconut were more popular at home, I'd love to make that. Maybe when we go see his mother.

                                                                                                                1. re: roxlet

                                                                                                                  I have seen several recipes where they add coconut cream and or milk to the recipe.

                                                                                                                  The lime curd is an interesting thought. I have seen one with lemon curd. Baking911 has a coconut cake with pineapple curd. That sounds interesting.

                                                                                                                  Here is a link to an article where Malgieri shares four cake recipes. One of them is a Coconut Raspberry cake.


                                                                                                                  1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                                                    That coconut raspberry cake seems to be mis-named! It looks like a lemon cake to me with raspberry jam filling and coconut frosting! It sounds fabulous.

                                                                                                              2. I'm going to make a black forest cake using a specialty cake pan. It is called the Duncan Hines Tiara desserts pan by Baker's Secret. You can see a picture of one at this link.

                                                                                                                Anyway, I have always used canned cherry pie filling and it was fine but can I make something better? I would rather not end up with cherries that have a pinkish gray color like my mothers old canned cherries. Do any of you have any suggestions?

                                                                                                                By the way, the Tiara pan is pretty neat to easily make a fancy cake. It only holds about 2 cups of batter. Once the cake is done and cool I seal it with a dark chocolate genache so the filling doesn't make the cake soggy. I use vanilla mousse instead of stabilized whipped cream.

                                                                                                                I was also thinking about making a yellow cake in this pan and filling it with glazed strawberries and stabilized whipped cream or vanilla mousse. Sort of like strawberry short cake.

                                                                                                                6 Replies
                                                                                                                1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                                                  Some markets have frozen sour cherries - I get them in the Davenport, IA Hy Vee when we go visit family. Check the freezer cases.

                                                                                                                  1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                                    Then just make a glaze with cherry juice, sugar and cornstarch?

                                                                                                                    1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                                                      Yes, or arrowroot, potato, or tapioca starch for even clearer results. You can get them easily in Asian markets. They can be substituted 1:1 for cornstarch, pretty much - make a slurry and stop when you get as it thick as you want.
                                                                                                                      Those frozen sour cherries are delicious - we like to eat them plain, just barely starting to thaw.

                                                                                                                      1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                                        I was thinking about using instant clearjel. It is a cornstarch base but it leaves the sauce transparent and shiny. Commercial bakers use it for pie fillings.

                                                                                                                        As far as true Kirschwasser is concerned, I find it way too strong. I discovered that with my truffles. I use a De Kuyper's cherry brandy.

                                                                                                                  2. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                                                                    Good idea to forego the pie filling. You have a couple good choices. You can use canned or frozen cherries, add sugar to taste, an optional tablespoon of Kirschwasser or cherry brandy, and some water, bring to a boil and add the cornstarch/water slurry to desired thickness. If the filling is "grayish" and not to your liking you can add a few drops of red food coloring.

                                                                                                                    Another thing I do with Black Forest Cake cherries is simply macerate them in some sugar and Kirsch and use them that way, without thickening them.

                                                                                                                    1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                                                                                                      The latter way sounds very nice to me.

                                                                                                                  3. When creaming butter and sugar, does it make any difference whether you use granulated or superfine sugar? In short, does the size of the sugar grain make a difference?

                                                                                                                    1. I know… I am a tech geek.

                                                                                                                      I am trying to develop a method for estimating how many cups of batter I would get in various cake recipes. It seems to me that I need to know the answers to the following questions to do so.

                                                                                                                      If you know the answer to any of these questions, I would appreciate an answer. If I don’t get definitive answers to any of these questions, I will find out through experimentation and let you know the answers.

                                                                                                                      1 cup of water mixed with 1 cup of flour makes how many cups of batter?

                                                                                                                      1 cup of sugar dissolved into 1 cup of water makes how many cups of syrup?

                                                                                                                      4 ounces by weight of whole eggs equals how many liquid ounces?

                                                                                                                      1 ounce by weight of egg yolk equals how many liquid ounces?

                                                                                                                      1 ounce by weight of egg white equals how many liquid ounces?

                                                                                                                      2 liquid ounces of egg whites makes how many liquid ounces of whipped eggs (stiff peaks)?

                                                                                                                      1 cup sugar and 1/2 cup butter properly creamed makes how many cups? Basically how much does it expand?

                                                                                                                      1. Dessert is an area where you don't have to do everything to be good at it. A lot of people have one or two 'specialties' and wow everyone without ever making anything different. What would you like to start with? Pick a recipe, and practice, practice, practice. When you're really good at that item, pick something different. Desserts can always be modified to suit what you've got on hand.

                                                                                                                        1. The answer is the same as for the question, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

                                                                                                                          In case you're too young to know the answer to that one, it's "Practice. Lots of practice."