Cristina Ferrare
You can smell it in the air! Everyone has started baking for the holidays.

I don't like to bake. It's a discipline, and it involves science—yes, it does! I flunked chemistry. So it came as no surprise to me that when I tried my hand at baking it was a disaster.

I have spent years and years trying to make desserts. My cookies were always either too dry, too soft, not baked through or they completely melted together in the oven to form one giant cookie that I told my family was a cookie pizza!

My cakes always were sunken, so I used gobs and gobs of frosting to fill up the hole. Pies were watery and runny and the crust soggy. Cream puff pastries came out so hard I could have used them for candle holders. My brownies were always so dry and hard around the edges I had to use a cleaver to loosen them.

I always start with the best intentions, and every time I started a new "project" (that's what I called it because it's so difficult for me), I swore that this time I would be successful and my beautiful creations would look like pictures from a magazine. It never worked! What was I doing wrong?

Well, we could start with the fact that I don't have a sweet tooth and I'm not a dessert eater. I would rather have a sandwich for dessert than a piece of cake. So my lack of enthusiasm could be one reason. I'm the type of cook who never measures anything—I just eye it, and the palm of my hand is my measuring cup, so maybe that's not a good thing when you bake.

The other reason may be that I'm impatient and I don't have time to wait for things to whip up with stiff peaks, fold in gently, wait for butter and eggs to get to room temperature, add eggs one at a time until blended and separate egg yolks from egg whites. I also don't want to figure out the difference between self-rising flour, cake flour, all-purpose flour, a cup of sifted flour as opposed to one cup of flour sifted (I still have to stop and think about that one), proofing, rising or waiting for a cake to cool before you frost it.

I frosted a cake while it was still warm once. After I finished my masterpiece, I placed the cake on the counter and watched, in what seemed like slow motion, as the top portion of the cake began to slide and fall to the floor, breaking into sections. The dogs came running (there are three) from nowhere to surround the broken morsels and started to devour it like a pack of wolves. I had to get into the fray because it was a chocolate cake and dogs can't eat chocolate. It can make them deathly sick and, in some cases, can be fatal! After that debacle, I decided I needed to face my fear of measuring cups. I was going to take a baking class. Not just any baking class, but a professional baking class—the kind that gives you a certificate and a chef's jacket with your name embroidered on it when you have completed the course!

It was in the summer, so I asked my daughter Arianna if she would like to join me since she actually loves to bake and is quite good at it. It would be something I knew she would enjoy, plus it was a great mother-daughter bonding experience.

I was on a mission. I was surprised (no, I wasn't) the very first day to learn all the things that I had been doing since I was a kid were all wrong, starting with the simple task of measuring flour. Normally, I would dig my measuring cup into the flour canister, level it off and plop it in the bowl. I found out that the correct way to do it was not to dig into the flour with the measuring cup like a shovel, but to use a tablespoon to lift the flour and gently shake it into the cup until full and then level it off. Do not tap it on the counter and don't pack it. Evidently, too much flour will end up doing things to your cake that will result in frustration and failure! So true.

Our baking instructor told us the importance of purchasing a food scale for accurate measurements in ounces. That freaked me out because it took me right back to grammar school when you had to figure out how many cups make a quart, how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon, how many ounces are in a pound. Arianna told me to calm down because there wasn't going to be a test!

Get Cristina's baking tips
Warm Pear Streusel Pie with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream recipe
Our baking instructor gave us these helpful hints that really pay off:
  • Bring the butter and eggs to room temperature. The reason: Cold eggs added to cold butter will result in holes and pockets caused by tiny lumps after the butter has melted while baking. The cake won't rise as much, and you are left with a denser cake. You need the butter and eggs to emulsify so air can be beaten into the batter resulting in a moist, fluffy and light cake! Remember: Preheat your oven and place the baking rack on the middle shelf of the oven before you start baking. If you forget to preheat your oven, you might as well make your batter again. The moment the wet ingredients meet the dry, a chemical action starts to happen immediately from the leveling agents (baking soda and baking powder).
  • If you don't get it into the oven right away, your cake won't rise properly and you will not be happy with the results. Wait at least 10 to 15 minutes after the oven has reached the desired temperature before you put anything in the oven to bake.
  • If you are making a cake or cupcakes, make sure you grease and flour the pans first before you make the batter.
  • Have all of the ingredients measured, sifted and lined up before you start to bake.
  • I found out the crater in my cakes was the result of the leavening agents such as baking powder and baking soda. Improperly measured leavening agents can result in the cakes rising too high in the oven. Air bubbles then burst, causing the sinkhole.
  • Make sure to change out the baking soda and baking powder because they lose their effectiveness over time. Stop using the ones you have had for three years on your shelf (that would be me), and, oh yes, don't use the one in the refrigerator that you have been using to freshen the air in there (that would be me too)! I change my baking soda every six months. I change the one in the fridge at the same time.
  • Always place anything you are baking in the middle rack of your oven for even, all-around heat.
  • Do not use the convection oven to bake.
  • Remember, baking is chemistry and there is a science to it. Follow the instructions to the letter and stay calm. You don't have to turn in a term paper, and there is no test to be graded. 
Having applied my newfound information and finding out that baking can be fun (except for the cleanup and getting whipped cream off the ceiling), I have been successful in my new attempts at baking. I have to say I've made some pretty impressive desserts! Oh yes, and my pastry chef's jacket with my name on it looks great!

In the meantime, I'd like to share with you my recipe for Warm Pear Streusel Pie with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.

Sending "A Big Bowl of Love" from the oven!


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