Food & Drink

Proper tools make baking a piece of cake

Strawberry shortcake topped with a dollop of whipped cream is a delectable creation.
Strawberry shortcake topped with a dollop of whipped cream is a delectable creation. MCT

Tools are important. Whether you’re a carpenter, scientist, farmer or engineer, success depends on having the right gear for the job.

Baking is no different.

We’re not talking about a kitchen full of complicated equipment, or the need to take out a bank loan. But like reaching for a screwdriver and knowing that you have both a standard and a Phillips in your toolbox, specific tools help ensure success.

We’ve compiled a list of the tools we find essential to having a happy and successful baking experience, whether you’re buying for yourself, need a wedding or shower gift for a budding baker or are helping someone start out on her own with kitchen essentials.

We’re highlighting the basics, given that some cooking stores and websites either can inspire that “kid in a candy store” impulse — or simply are intimidating.

For those who have been baking for a while, we’ve also drawn up a list of tools that will raise your game. Snipping the corner from a plastic bag full of frosting will work, but using an actual pastry bag gives you more control. Plus, you feel like a pro.

Once you’ve assembled a solid toolbox, building your skills will be … wait for it … a piece of cake.

We have included a recipe for Strawberry Shortcake that will put some of those tools to work.

For novice bakers

Measuring cups for dry ingredients: Enable you to level off ingredients at the rim for accurate amounts. Remember to never pack down your flour; spoon it in and level it off.

Measuring cup for liquid ingredients: The lowered measuring marks let you measure without sloshing. Set cup on a flat surface and stoop so you can see the line at eye level.

Measuring spoons: Never underestimate the value of accuracy. Leave your soup spoons for soup.

Bench knife/scraper: A real workhorse for scooping up ingredients, dividing dough, scraping up scraps; you'll find more uses.

Whisk: Great for thoroughly mixing by hand, and doubles as a sifter when fluffing and combining dry ingredients.

Metal nesting bowls: Can’t break them, and they also conduct heat and cold more efficiently.

Spoon-shaped heatproof spatula: Great for stirring hot mixtures, and the spoon shape comes in handy for filling muffin tins.

9-by-13-inch pan: The classic pan for brownies, cakes, bars, egg stratas.

Wire cooling rack: Lets air circulate beneath your baked goods as they cool to keep them from becoming soggy.

Heavy-gauge metal sheet pan: Thin pans heighten the risk of burned cookies; sturdy pans conduct heat more evenly.

Parchment paper: Takes the place of greasing pans with shortening or spray oil, and also helps keep cleanup to a minimum.

Hand mixer: Elbow grease only goes so far; essential for whipping cream, egg whites and more.

Cookie/biscuit cutters: They’re easy to use and you can collect a variety of shapes and sizes. A standard set of biscuit cutters comes in 2- and 3-inch diameters.

For advanced bakers

Kitchen scale: Pros swear by measuring ingredients by weight (not volume) for accuracy and also consistency.

Stand mixer: It’s an investment, but various attachments save time and energy; enables you to use both hands for tasks such as adding hot syrup to a mixture.

Rolling pin/rolling mat: If pies are your passion, you’d want these on the basic list. But they’re great for rolled and cut cookies and more.

Pie tins: If pies are your passion.

Springform pan: A necessity for a classic cheesecake.

Pastry blender: Easier than using two knives for cutting butter into flour. Treat yourself.

Infrared or insta-read thermometer: Easier than the clip-on thermometers to gauge the temps of oil or sugar syrup. Helps ensure breads are baked through. A guideline: basic loaves to 190 degrees; enriched with eggs or butter, 200 degrees; no-knead bread recipes, 210 degrees.

Silicone pastry brush: Handy for brushing doughs with milk or beaten egg, and silicone eliminates the chance of a stray bristle.

Microplane zester: Super-sharp grates are perfect for zesting citrus, or hard cheeses.

Pastry bag and tips: Gives you more consistent results and the different tips are great for decorative frosting or other uses.

Offset spatula: That bend in the blade makes frosting layer cakes so much easier.

Tube pan with removable bottom: The only thing for a classic angel-food cake, but also for coffee cakes or pull-apart monkey breads.

Strawberry Shortcake

BERRIES:

8 cups strawberries, hulled

6 tablespoons granulated sugar

SHORTCAKES:

2 cups flour

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed

1 tablespoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons unsalted cold butter, cut in 1/2-inch pieces

2/3 cup half-and-half, plus extra for brushing

1 egg

Sparkling sugar (granulated will work, too)

TOPPING:

2 cups heavy whipping cream

2 to 3 tablespoons powdered sugar, to taste

To prepare berries: Slice the berries and sprinkle with 6 tablespoons granulated sugar. Let berries sit at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and berries are juicy, about 30 minutes.

To make shortcake: Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place rack in middle position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, brown sugar, baking powder and salt.

Add cold butter pieces, working them into the flour with a pastry cutter, or your fingers, until the mixture resembles cornmeal and no large lumps of butter remain.

In a small bowl, whisk together half-and-half and egg. Stir into flour mixture until dough comes together in a sticky mass.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead lightly until it comes together, about 30 seconds. Dust the counter with a bit more flour, then pat dough into a rectangle about 1/2-inch thick. Cut 6 rounds with a floured 3-inch biscuit cutter, pressing straight down — twisting can seal the layers, leading to a dense shortcake — then place them upside-down on a baking sheet (helps ensure the highest rise).

No biscuit cutter? You also can cut squares with a knife.

Gather the scraps, knead briefly, and cut out 2 more shortcakes.

Brush each round with some half-and-half, then sprinkle with sparkling sugar.

Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until just golden. Let cool on wire rack.

To assemble: Combine cream with powdered sugar and whip until stiff. With a serrated knife, slice each shortcake in half and lay the bottom on individual serving plates. Spoon a portion of fruit over each bottom, top with a dollop of whipped cream, then cap with the shortcake tops. Serve immediately.

Note: Extra shortcakes may be frozen; to reheat, place frozen on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes.

Makes 8 (with no whipped cream), each has 329 calories, 12 grams fat, 167 mg sodium, 51 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 54 mg cholesterol, 4 grams fiber. Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 fruit, 2 bread/starch, 1/2 other carb, 2 1/2 fat.

Adapted slightly from “The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book”

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