Monday, December 5

What is your weak link?

  I'm sitting here watching my favorite version of A Christmas Carol and eating a juicy clementine so I thought I would type out a few thoughts I had.
Reginald Owen as Scrooge circa 1938
 You know the old saying, "A chain is only as strong as it's weakest link". Well I think that is a great analogy for food as well. The food that you cook and bake will only be as good as the ingredients you use. Now let's be honest, if you have taken the time to cook or bake something homemade you want it to be outstanding. You want to always use the freshest ingredients you can find. These are just a few things you might want to check before that important day arrives and you are standing in the kitchen with the big apron on when you realise your cinnamon does't smell like cinnamon anymore. Don't be caught off guard...Be Prepared I say! I married a Boy Scout by the way.

How to tell if baking powder is still good.
  Baking powder does not last forever. Because it’s sensitive to moisture and humidity, it generally has a shelf life of between six months to one year. Baking powder should be kept in a cool, dry place, such as inside a cabinet, and should be discarded when it is no longer active. However its cousin, baking soda, has an indefinite shelf life. You still might want to change it out every 3 years at least. Baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable. Don't try it. Don't even go there. You will be extremely disappointed if you do.

baking powder
A good test to see if baking powder is still active: spoon 1/2 teaspoon baking powder in to a bowl and pour 1/4 cup of boiling water over it. Right away it should bubble up violently. If it does, it’s still good. If it doesn’t, discard it and buy yourself some fresh baking powder.

Is Sifting Necessary?

Sifting for Devil's Food Cake
I hope that answers the question…
  Of course this is cocoa powder and it does tend to clump. I don't sift absolutely everything, every time. I just sift the things I know tend to clump. Cocoa powder, powdered sugar, granulated sugar, and a few spices. I will sift my flour if the cake I'm making is for a special occasion, sad I know. Usually I "fluff" my flour. You may ask "what is this 'Fluffing of the Flour' you speak of"?  I take a large spoon and aerate my flour by scooping it up, shaking it around and letting it fall like snow. I do this a few times to ensure the flour is no longer compact. ALWAYS spoon your flour into measuring cups...lightly...and level off with a fork. This is one of the biggest mistakes people make when baking and baking is just one big Chemistry experiment. If the ingredients are not measured correctly something will go wrong. You may not blow up your kitchen but your bread may not rise. No one wants to waste time in the kitchen with out THE big finish!

How long do herbs and spices retain their flavor?

  Spices and herbs are aromatic natural products we use to...well for lack of a better word...add spice to our food. Spices are the dried seeds, buds, fruit or flower parts, bark, or roots of plants, usually of tropical origin. Herbs are the leaves, stalks and sometimes the flowers of plants. After they are harvested and dried they do not spoil like perishables, but they will eventually lose their strength of flavor causing your baked goods and dishes to not taste as expected. SO how can you tell if your spices and herbs are still potent enough to flavor your dish or baked goods? Let your nose and eyes make this call! Look at your spices and herbs. Are they still vibrant in color? If they look faded then let your nose be the next indicator on whether or not your spices or herbs are still worth using. The best way to gauge their potencey is to put a bit of the spice or herb in the palm of your hand and crush it, take a whiff with your nose. What do you think? Does it smell like it should? Does it still smells as strong as when you opened it for the first time? If so then you should be okay. If you think it's past it's prime use it for mulling spices, which I LOVE, and go buy yourself some new spices and herbs! You will be glad you did!


Does it matter which salt I use?                
  The three main groups of salt are Kosher, Sea and Table Salt. I use all three in different areas of cooking. When baking I use good old-fashioned Morton's Table Salt. It is more fine than kosher or sea salt therefore it is more likely to be evenly distributed through out your baked item. You don't want a slice of Banana Bread that tastes like salt, that's no good.
(L-R) Sea Salt, Kosher Salt and Table Salt
  Kosher salt is my personal favorite. Yes I am slightly addicted to kosher salt. The last time we went on a cruise the only salt they had to offer was table salt. That's right, I know you're already thinking soon as we docked one of the first things I did was go and find myself some kosher salt! It was heaven. Kosher salt is your general all purpose salt. I use it in ALL of my cooking, except when I'm baking. I keep Morton's Kosher Salt in a small covered bowl right by my stove.  It is always full, ready to be used.  I use my fingers to pick it up and sprinkle on food. I have done this so long I do not like using a salt shaker. I can't tell how much is coming out, it's much easier to control how much salt you are using when you feel it with the tips of your fingers.
  Lastly we come to Sea Salt better known as Fleur de Sel. Sea salt is a luxury to use so use it sparingly. The most expensie sea salt comes in at $42.00 a pound. I bought a 4 oz. container about a year ago. Now this is table salt folks. It has a very mellow flavor, slightly gray and it is larger in grain than kosher salt so it doesn't take a lot to pick up the taste of your food. You don't want to use this salt when you are boiling pasta or making a stew, it should be saved so that your family can enjoy it on steak or homemade caramels and chocolates!* 
  If you buy only "real" extracts and not imitation extracts you will not have a problem with them losing their potency. I have tried them all my friends, all brands and from the ridiculously expensive to the really cheap and I have found McCormick's extracts to be the best by far. This is 22+ years of food competitions talking here. Don't waste your money on Madagascar's Vanilla, it has a slightly smokey bitter taste. You can't go wrong with the McCormick brand they really pack a punch!

  You always want to use All-purpose flour when baking unless your recipe calls for something different. Make sure you are NOT using self-rising flour when the recipe calls for baking powder....that is just one big mess! Yes I have made that mistake. Not twice.

  I'm not sure what else to tell you. Sugars are pretty much the same all around, I do use the Imperial brand though. Just make sure to read your recipe through a few times before you start to cook or bake. It will save you time and heart-ache down the road. It's no fun spending time and money to then find out you forgot to mix the eggs into your pie...not a good thing! Believe me I have done it all and made ALL of the mistakes, but that's how we learn don't we? As parents if we don't let our children try things on their own because we don't want them to get hurt or make a big mistake then how will they learn? It's trial and error, over and over again. That's what I have done for the last 20 odd years. Practicing. Learning. Growning. It's never over and you are never to old to learn something new. So keep trying, keep cooking, keep making mistakes...I assure you someone will eat the mistakes!  If not call me, Greg will eat ANYTHING! Thank goodness God gave him and iron stomach...he's married to me!!
*"Salt is good but if the salt loses it's flavor how will you season it?"
Mark 9:50

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