Thank you to everyone who participated in yesterday's online bake sale to benefit the victims of Hurricane Sandy. You are generous souls, and you will be rewarded with some yummy treats. The powers that be at A Half Baked Life will be in touch about payment details, and then I will be in touch with those who bought my items to coordinate preferences and timing. If you did not succeed in winning an item, consider making a small donation anyway to the United Way's fund (you can do this using the button on the bake sale's main page). It's a very good cause.
When I was in college, I joined a sorority that had a very nice house with a well-equipped kitchen. Money was tight, and that kitchen was a godsend, as it allowed me to economize a little on food. My repertoire at the time included such sophisticated dishes as ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese from a box, and the occasional pan of Duncan Hines brownies.
I remember that one of my sorority sisters baked an apple pie one day. Looking back, it was just a simple, plain apple pie, nothing flashy or exceptional about it, but I was mightily impressed. I had never made a pie in my life, and that crust - wow. I asked her, wide-eyed, "How did you DO that?"
Now, this particular young woman was a sweet, kind person, patient and virtuous. But she looked at me like I was the biggest idiot she had ever met. "It's a pie," she said. "You know. You roll out the dough and bake it."
I mumbled something like, "Oh. I'm not much of a baker," and I left it at that.
I think it's fair to say, at this point in my life, that I've become a fairly experienced baker. It's an activity that I enjoy when I'm in the mood for it. My three teenagers and my gourmand husband are the most appreciative recipients of baked goods ever to walk this planet. Sometimes, when I talk to people who do not bake but wish they could, or who are very new to the activity, they ask for advice. Here are the things I would tell a beginning baker.
1. The first thing my mother ever sewed was an 18th-century-style dress for the Bicentennial celebration in our town in 1976. She locked herself in her room for a week and did not come out until she had a perfect gown, hoopskirt and all. This is how I learned to curse. My point? Baking is not too different from sewing. Start with a good, simple recipe, something you and the people you love enjoy eating. Don't let the first thing you bake be a seven-tiered wedding cake the night before the nuptials.
2. Read the recipe carefully before you begin. Some recipes mention a special piece of equipment or an unusual step at the very end. If you haven't read the whole recipe, you might find yourself up to your elbows in batter before you realize you don't have the right size pan or the right kind of sugar.
3. Don't confuse baking powder with baking soda, or salted butter with unsalted butter, or vanilla extract with mint extract. Read the ingredient list carefully.
4. Give yourself plenty of time. Figure out how long it will take, and allow yourself the time needed. Rushing will compromise your results.
5. Measure carefully. This is a common mistake that beginners make. "One cup of flour" means a level cup, not a heaping mound. Don't try to eyeball things, at least not in the beginning. If you are dedicating an afternoon to making cookies, give yourself a chance for success and don't mess it up by being careless.
6. Follow the directions to the letter, at least the first few times. Most published and family recipes have been tested many, many times. If it tells you to sift the flour, sift the flour. And there's probably a reason why they want you to beat the eggs before adding them. Just do it.
7. Don't get hung up on fancy equipment. Martha Stewart pretty much taught me to make pies and tarts, so I hate to badmouth her, but some of her cookbooks can leave you with the impression that you won't be able to produce a tasty pumpkin pie unless you own an industrial-size KitchenAid mixer and a collection of vintage tin pie plates in every possible circumference. Those are wonderful things to have. But consider buying a 9" ceramic pie plate and a Hamilton Beach handheld mixer at the supermarket. I promise, they will work just fine.
8. Also, speaking of equipment, here's a great rule to follow: if a piece of equipment is designed for just one type of food, you almost certainly don't need it. When's the last time you dug out the fondue pot, the crepe pan, the panini press, the silly George Forman thing? I own a "slider" pan. It makes teeny tiny little hamburgers. It takes up space in my cabinet, but I never use it. You can make teeny tiny hamburgers in a regular frying pan.
9. Be kind to yourself. Do not make yourself crazy if your results aren't perfect. There are very few mistakes you'll make that will actually render your creation inedible. Like knitting or playing the piano, being a good baker takes practice. If the little stars you cut out for the crust of your pie look like little octopi, so what? I bet they're yummy anyway.
10. Finally, patronize your local bakery. Just about every community in the developed world has at least one bake shop run by someone who knows what he or she is doing. Get to know your local baker. Make friends. Ask questions. Entrust him or her with your more complicated projects (like that wedding cake).
What advice did I leave out? What would you say to someone who is new to an activity that you're good at?