It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

2013 Archives

A whole new look, or, going mobile

I'm certain I last redesigned the site ten years ago, because I remember Tobi, our first exchange student, telling me he preferred the all-blue design because it was more "homey." I haven't touched much since then. Using my phone to look up recipes on the site while I baked, I knew exactly how bad that experience was, and knew I had to change it by Christmas of this year.

The error

Right now, the archives are still in the old style. I'm battling Moveable Type over that.

The Advent calendar will switch to the new look for the 2013 calendar. The calendars from 2007 through 2012 will not be re-designed, because that's a ton of work (6 years x 24 days = 144 pages to hand-redesign).

The content

After 2011's Advent calendar of baking tips, I've wanted to re-write the hints page and make it into a full sub-section on how to bake, with lists of what you truly need to start baking, and the easiest to master skills. Other sections would cover specific topics, like baking for anyone with allergies and not killing them or how to make a wedding cake without going insane.

The near-five-year-old essay is off the front page, which now has the six most recent things -- recipes, disasters, essays, reviews -- on the site. Basically, it's a pretty RSS feed.

Over the holidays, I hope to re-work the whole shopping section (six years out of date) and the Christmas links section (perhaps only four years out of date).

The tech

The site is using bootstrap for responsive design because I wanted to use something at home that I also used at work, and I couldn't get the other framework we use to do what I want. Of course, without the help of freelance designer Lauren Hallden-Abberton, I couldn't have gotten Bootstrap working either.

Color Scheme Designer 3 came to the rescue when it came time to pick colors for the site. Only later did I realize that those are the colors of the kitchen (the walls are green, with dark red, turquoise and cobalt accents).

The plurality of the content on the site are the recipes -- 101 recipes in the original measurements, and an equal number converted to or from metric. For years, they've been stored in XML to make converting in and out of the metric system easier. Jeni Tennison's book Beginning XSLT 2.0 from Novice to Professional was invaluable eight years ago to convert the XML into HTML.

For styling, the site uses LESS, because that's what bootstrap uses, and it's damn easy. If you've done any CSS work, and have frequently wanted to just assign everything "main heading color," now you can. This should have been available ten years ago.

Equipment: don't buy what you won't use

Every cooking and baking web site lists (usually in time for a gift-giving holiday like Christmas, Mother's Day, Valentines Day or Arbor Day — hey, it has a Charlie Brown special!) "25 Must-Have Tools" or "10 Appliances You Can't Live Without!" Let's cut to the chase. There are few things that every baker must have. What you bake and how often determines what you need.


Below are the absolute basic equipment every baker must have. Note how short a list it is! Stay away from the high-end, national equipment chains that supply trophy kitchens. When you start baking, you need only a few items — measuring cups, spoons, mixing bowls, a mixer, a scraper, pans, potholders, and a timer.

Measuring cups

One set of cups in 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 and 1 cup measures for dry ingredients, and a pyrex 1- or 2-cup measure for liquids. Odd sizes like 1/8, 2/3 and 3/4 cup can sometimes be found. I like my Oxo cups; they are sturdy and have easy-to-read measurements.

Measuring spoons

One set of spoons in 1/4, 1/2 and 1 teaspoon (tsp or t), and 1 tablespoon (Tbs or T). Some sets also have odd sizes like 1/8 teaspoon and 1/2 tablespoon. Three teaspoons are one tablespoon, so 1 1/2 teaspoons are 1/2 tablespoon. The Oxo measuring spoons have the same virtues as their measuring cups: sturdy and easy to read. However, the round bowls don't fit into some spice jars, and narrow spoons work better.


They're not just for mixing any more! In addition to a three-quart bowl and two-quart bowl for mixing, smaller bowls for holding pre-measured ingredients, cracking eggs, holding cookie decorations. As lovely as a graduated set of nesting mixing bowls from 1/4 cup to 4 quarts is, cereal bowls and coffee cups (not mugs) do just as well.


Technically, you could do it the way your great-grandmother did, and beat everything by hand with a wooden spoon. This could be as simple as an egg-beater from the hardware store, which is capable of creaming butter and whipping egg whites. The Oxo brand has a nice, smooth action. More likely, you'll pick up a three- or five-speed hand mixer, which is even better at creaming and whipping. A hand mixer is not powerful enough for bread dough, and some cookie doughs need to be finished with hand folding.


While not necessary, a silicone spatula mixes, folds, beats and gets the last bits of pancake batter onto the griddle. There are mini-srapers and large spoon-ulas, but starting out, a mid-sized spatula gives the most bang for the buck. Silicone lasts longer than rubber, and can be used on hot pans without making a gooey mess.


It all depends on what you want to bake. In general, your pans should be shiny (because dark colors absorb more heat and lead to burning) and heavy weight (to transfer heat more easily). Pyrex is a bad choice except for a pie plate (nine to ten inches), because the food will burn too easily. Insulated cookie sheets were the hot thing a decade ago, but bakers have cooled in their appreciation of late. If you have two of anything (two cake pans, two cookie sheets) they should be identical, so that baking times are identical. Some things are most useful in twos: cake pans (nine inch diameter is a good, generic size), cookie sheets, muffin/cupcake tins, small loaf pans.


Ovens are hot.


I almost forgot to include a timer in this list, which is fitting considering how often I forget to set the timer. A clock works, but doesn't grab your attention when you get sucked into blogs. The timer on a cell phone or computer works, but it's much cheaper to replace a plastic timer than a cell phone.


When you know you like to bake and you've got some skills, then it's time to expand those "basic" tools. Much of what you'll use depends on what you bake. What follows are tools that, if not used every time I bake, I use often.

Parchment paper

Parchment paper is so darn useful it should almost go into the basic tool section. Not even meringues will stick to it. It's paper and can be trimmed to fit any flat-bottomed pan. It stands up to multiple bakings and can be re-used for sheet after sheet of cookies.

Extras, extras, extras

Personally, I find a second (and third, and fourth) set of measuring cups and spoons very handy, along with extra bowls and spatulas (see below for that). When baking more than one recipe at a time (say, Christmas cookies), it's much easier to grab a clean measuring teaspoon or mixing bowl instead of running to the sink to wash something off. Secondly, if you worry about cross-contamination of allergens — and everything is an allergen — you'll often use three half-teaspoon measures in one recipe. Anything you find yourself washing mid-baking is worthwhile to have a spare of.


Not just for whipping cream and egg whites, whisks are the best tool for thoroughly mixing ingredients, either thinner batters or even dry ingredients to eliminate clumps of baking powder, cocoa or brown sugar. Whisks are even useful in cooking, for salad dressings and sauces.


Older recipes say to sift flour with other ingredients to combine them, but whisking is better at combining. Sieves, on the other hand, are also good at getting the lumps out of cocoa and brown sugar, and draining pasta.

Good knives

Even baking requires knife work; make your life easier and buy good knives. For performance to price oomph, check out Victorinox's plastic-handled knives; they had a good review in _Cook's Illustrated_ and I've been using mine for decades. While baking I use: a fourteen-inch serrated knife to "torte" cakes, that is, cut a cake into layers; a ten-inch wide-serrated blade to slice breads and cakes; a chef's knife to chop ingredients and halve lemons and oranges for juicing; and a paring knife to slice apples and cut out pits from stone fruits.


Expand your spatula collection beyond the all-purpose medium size. As much as possible, stick with silicon blades and handles that can go through the dishwasher. Get a smaller size for getting into jars (get that last sticky bit into that one-quarter cup measure), a larger "spoonula" for scraping out large blobs of whipped cream or egg whites, and a Viennese spatula for folding and frosting.

Pastry cutter

If you make pie crust, scones, biscuits or anything with butter "cut in" to flour, the easiest way is with the pastry cutter. I like the wire kind, because it gets into the corners better.

Rolling pin

Either a French rolling pin without handles, or a large-diameter pin that will keep your knuckles from dragging in the dough. Wooden, because at a large enough diameter, marble will be insanely heavy.


When your friends think you are hard-core, then it's time for tools that are investments: the stand mixer, a scale, silpat sheets, small containers to freeze leftover egg yolks, whites and lemon juice. Do you need them? Not like you need an oven, but they make baking easier.


By now you've been baking for years, and while the cheap things you bought when first starting out might still work, buying better equipment will make baking easier and more efficient. After 15 years of baking, I replaced all my baking pans with identical, shiny, heavy aluminum pans from Chicago Metallic: two large loaf pans, two cupcake pans, three rimmed baking sheets. I kept my heavy Wilton cake pans size 5 to 12 inches. I also stopped using my Oster blender which had such a bad design that it could not blend, and got a Kitchen Aid three speed blender.

Stand Mixer

The biggest upgrade is the stand mixer. In Europe, with those nice 220 Volt outlets, a hand mixer can power through kneading bread dough or making a batch of Springerle. In America, with our 120 Volt outlets, hand mixers can't cut it for a double batch of cookie dough. (Some stand mixers can't cut it either.) If you make large batches of bread, or wedding cakes, or Springerle and Pfeffernüsse, or bake every day, then consider a stand mixer. I have the (now discontinued) 4.5-quart Kitchen Aid, with the more powerful motor. It's 21 years old. I've considered upgrading, but it meets my needs, and it was a present from my now-husband — the best present I've ever gotten.


My first scale was bought solely to bake from my German aunts' recipes, because the rest of the world bakes by weight. When I give American cookbooks to German friends and family, I also give a set of American measuring cups and spoons. I find measuring by weight so much easier that I'll even do the math in my head for flour, sugar and cocoa if the recipe doesn't specify. Most people are not that geeky, but if you have many baking books with measurements by weight and you liked the measuring part of high school chemistry, go for it.


Does the same thing as parchment paper, but you don't throw it out. And, you can't cut it to size. On the other hand, you buy one silpat per baking sheet, and you don't run out of pan liners halfway through the Christmas cookies. At this point, I must say that I do not own a Silpat, I own what the Germans call Dauerbackfolie (more-or-less: long-lasting baking film/foil), which had the same purpose, is flexible enough to be rolled into a tube, can be cut, and costs less.

Freeze your leftovers

As much as I try to balance making meringue cookies with making anything that calls for just yolks, I often have leftover whites, or yolks, or citrus zest or citrus juice. I hate throwing out anything I expect to have a use for later. My solution is a dozen half-cup and quarter-cup (4 and 2 fluid ounce) plastic container that I can freeze. To be honest, there is usually both a container of yolks and a container of whites in my freezer. You can't defrost the egg yolks or whites in the microwave. The yolks will solidify in freezing. Professionals avoid this by adding sugar; I just use them in cakes or cookies, where the texture won't be apparent. But it's great to pull out nearly as many frozen whites from the freezer as I'll need for the Haselnussbrötchen or forgotten cookies.

Food processor

At least half of my Christmas baking uses ground nuts. In America, you just can't buy ground nuts easily, unless you shop on line. Knee deep in the Christmas baking and suddenly short a bag of pecans, I don't have two days to wait for someone to ship me some ground nuts. Whole nuts also last longer, and are more versatile. Essentially, my food processor exists to grind nuts. It's good for other things too, like grinding chocolate, making pie crust, grinding meat, and taking up space. For grating I prefer the box grater. For thin slicing I prefer my slicer. For soups and milkshakes I prefer the blender.

Zester and reamer

While a fork can juice one lemon or lime effectively, a reamer or juicer is more efficient. Plastic is the least effective material for a reamer. My grandmother's glass reamer still has a nice edge on the ridges that does a good job of scraping and bursting the pulp. The Amco brand citrus presses are supposed to be very quick and extract a lot of juice; a cocktail expert friend uses one for his parties. If you prefer lemon or orange zest to extract, you'll also want a zester that can finely shave citrus peel. As cliched as it is, the Microplane works very, very well and makes fine zest. Other zesters are designed to make a longer, thicker zest. They take a lot of hand strength and time. And don't confuse that with the part used to cut a "twist" of peel for a cocktail. Mmmmmm. Cocktails.

Flavor combinations

The classic flavor combinations appear again and again in baking: cinnamon-rasin, mint-chocolate, "pumpkin spice." So ubiquitous are they, they show up even in supermarket brand flavored coffees (perhaps not the cinnamon raisin). There are many other classic combinations that can easily dress up any plain recipe, like scones, oatmeal cookies, sugar cookies, spritz cookies, and layer cakes or cupcake.

Chocolate-orange: Not always one of my favorite combinations, I've grown to like it more in recent years. Try the chocolate-orange lebkuchen

Chocolate-cherry: This can be more than just sickly sweet chocolate-covered cherries. Schwarzwalderkirschkuchen might be the next best know example of this flavor combination. It's lovely in cookies with chocolate chips and dried cherries. It the primary flavor of Dettinger Schokoladekirschkuchen

Chocolate-cinnamon: This often called "Mexican" chocolate, which over-simplifies Mexican cuisine and flavors. That said, it is still delightful. Try it in hot cocoamandelbrotscones

Chocolate-clove: Nick Malgieri's recipe for XXXX was my first introduction to this flavor combination, and it's equally delicious in hot cocoachocolate-orange lebkuchen.

Chocolate hazelnut: Nutella! Who doesn't like nutella? You can recreate it with the hazelnut variation of mandelbrot, or by dipping Haselnussbroetchen in chocolate.

Chocolate coffee: Often referred to as mocha, it originated as name of a Yemeni port for which a local coffee was named, and only later became associated with the chocolate-coffee pairing (The Penguin Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, ed.). Found in chocolate rollmokka.

Cherry-almond: Cherries and almonds are related plants, which might explain this unexpected (to me) pairing. For almond flavor I prefer ground or whole nuts to extract, but use what you have on hand. In cakes, jarred cherries work well. For drier items like scones, use dried cherries. Taste for yourself in Dettinger Schokoladekirschkuchensconesalmond Stollen with added dried cherries

Lemon-ginger: Wonderfully bright flavors I first encountered in a cookie in a Chinese fusion cookbook. That recipe was the only thing I've kept from it. Found in my son's favorite scones and Pfeffern¨sse.

Cranberry-orange: If you make your own cranberry sauce for the holidays, you'll have often seen this orange paired with cranberry. Another scone staple.

Mixed spice: Sometimes, I just want a plain spice muffin or cookie, without the trouble of adding pumpkin or apple or raisins or what-have-you. Cinnamon is the main ingredient of most spice mixtures. For German Lebkuchen, cloves are always present. American pumpkin and apple pie spice both include nutmeg. I prefer to measure each spice individually, to get the flavor I want. Try any Lebkuchen recipeSpeculaaspumpkin breadmolasses spice spritzPfeffern¨ssefruitcakehot apple ciderGl¨hwein

Chocolate and red wine: You get yourself a bit of nice chocolate and a glass of nice red wine ("nice" is however you define it). Take a nibble of chocolate, a sip of wine, a nibble of chocolate. No recipe needed

Mission statement

If you follow me on twitter (check out that link there in the bottom right of the page), you might remember that I am trying to find a mission statement for the site. Prompted by this statement

... to create an open community where business professionals can establish their thought leadership, increase exposure for their business/organization, and network with others.

quoted in an article by Mac technology pundit the Macalope, I remembered that I'd never made a mission statement for and immediately started tweeting some options. The following statement candidates are currently under review:

Mark Jason Dominus ‏(@mjdominus) suggested "To maximize shareholder value through commitment to exceptional service in the oven-baked food product domain."

Craig Perelman (@blackfog) suggested "Should just go with a nice, simple: 'Half-Baked.'"

"Empowering our bakers to create healthy, home-made junk food."

"Setting things on fire since 1992!" Less a mission statement than a statement of fact perhaps.

"Enabling you to hide in the kitchen with your mixer while ignoring reality." (This one was approved by my friend, Hot Water Bath.)

"Christmas and sugar all the time!!!" Something my eight-year-old son can get behind.

"Our goal is to make every kitchen covered in a fine dusting of flour by the end of the day."

"Sugar not so bad in moderation, but you should probably go for a walk after that slice." Demonizing food is tiresome.

"Bake more cookies!"

"Eat more cake!" More my personal mission statement than the site's.

And if you want the real reason I started the site all those years ago: "The most useful information I have to put on the web."


To my mind, real cooks can improvise. Given a fridge with nothing but open cat food cans, wilted vegetables and what we will kindly call a "science experiment," a real cook can produce a gourmet dinner better than dining out.

I cannot do this. I work from a recipe to cook everything. Even cooking chili or puttanesca sauce, both of which we eat nearly weekly in the fall and winter, the recipe runs through my mind as I chop and measure and stir.

Baking brooks no experimentation: change the ratio of flour - fat - liquid - sugar - leavening too far, and you get something completely different, if not a total failure. Underneath the flavors that change with fashion, there is an unchanging support of basic baking.

And yet, in August, I managed to improvise at least two recipes that I'll share with you:

Honey-shallot dressing for arugula or other bitter greens

We had a large "box" of arugula from the supermarket. Without any poppy seeds for a sweet dressing to balance the bitterness, my subconscious supplied a honey-shallot combo I'd undoubtedly read on a menu somewhere. A near-to-end-of-life diced avocado was an unexpectedly delicious addition. All measurements are approximate.

  • 1 Tbs finely-chopped shallots, about 1 medium
  • 1 Tbs honey
  • 2 Tbs oil
  • 1 Tbs red wine vinegar

In a small, microwave-safe bowl, heat the honey and shallots together for a minute (originally, this was to melt the crystalized honey, but it also softens the shallots). Whisk in oil and vinegar. Season to taste.

Cole slaw

As a child, cole slaw was one of the few vegetables I would eat (tomatoes and carrots were the others; years passed before I tried potato salad). Of course, the cole slaw had to be the family slaw, nothing from a deli or at someone else's house; potato salad gave me the same problem once I finally tried it. This calls for half a small head of cabbage, because that's still enough for eight people, unless you want to eat cole slaw all week.

For years, my mother has had to adjust the slaw dressing until this summer, when I seem to have gotten the ratio right. Again, all measurements are approximate.

Finally, there is a correct tool for shredding that cabbage. It's called a Höbel, and will slice the cabbage only a millimeter thick.


  • Half a small head of white cabbage, finely shredded
  • 2 medium carrots, shredded


  • 1/4 c. mayonnaise
  • 1/4 c. cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp celery seed

Whisk dressing ingredients together, pour over cabbage and carrots, toss. Let sit for at least two hours.

It's ok to hate to cook

As much as foodies complain about their friends on fad diets ("It's nothing but hay and chocolate milk! I've been on it for three hours and I feel fabulous!"), they have an enormous blind spot when it comes to cooking at home.

Specifically, foodies don't understand that not everyone likes too cook, that, in fact, some people hate cooking.

There is the wonder that anyone would serve chicken nuggets to their children (because the kid will eat it without an argument), that they eat fast food (fast, cheap, filling, pushes all the sugar-salt-fat buttons in the brain), that a cooking show based around pre-made everything can be popular (isn't that better than fast food?).

One brave woman has come forth to explain why she doesn't cook, and never will:

"I undercook the chicken, burn the casseroles, and lose interest within five minutes of starting."

That's Jen, from Cake Wrecks. Who hasn't been reading Cake Wrecks since nearly the beginning? It's part of my Friday mornings: Cute Overload, e-mail, check the to-do list, do something, resist reading Cake Wrecks, finally give in. It makes every amateur baker feel like a pro. My cheese cake cracked, but I have never baked and decorated anything that looks like a penis.

And, as interesting as she finds wrecked cakes, and for all the hours she can devote to culling photographs and writing pithy captions, actual cooking is boring.

The pro foodie world seems to continuously discuss how to get people who don't cook to want to cook. Theories abound, ranging from the cardinal sins of the foodie world (loving junk food), to not knowing better, to no time or money. (I have big problem with this discussion being held by people who have the time, skills and interest in devoting a good chunk of their day to cooking. Much like anyone else would have a problem with my theories on why most people don't like math. I love math; I cannot understand why people don't like it.)

My own answers have been rather sarcastic.

Not liking to cook is not a sin, and it does not make you a bad person, no matter what two professional food writers on assignment say to a New York Times reporter.

Everyone should eat healthy food every day, and home-cooked food can be healthier. Of course, there are lots of things everyone should do, every day, and no one does everything they should. Life is pain, princess — no, wait, life is choices and compromises. Some people choose not to cook. Instead, they choose to blog or exercise or spend time with their children or even sit on the couch and watch TV.

And that's OK.

Jen, thank you, for reminding us foodies that some people just don't like to cook. (You should read the rest of Jen's Epbot site. She has a passion for steampunk, and has completed lots of really great projects.)

Tiffin, Tashan, Palace of Asia

I love America, and big-city America, for all the cuisines available. Sure, you can't find everything, and food gets Americanized, if only because some ingredients just aren't available. Philly and its suburbs have been blessed with many good Indian restaurants. Palace of Asia is in the Best Western Hotel just off the Turnpike entrance. Not where you would expect to find good food, let alone good Indian food. However, it was and is the best traditional Indian food I've eaten in the city. Service can be slow, but the food more than makes up for it. Tiffin is a chain in and around Philly. They are not quite Palace of Asia, but they deliver. Tashan is owned by the Tiffin chain, but specializes in modern Indian cuisine. It could be called "fusion," if you thought only American or European chefs experimented with food. The menu is overwhelmingly long and varied. I cheated by choosing the three-course set price menu, which limited my options. My friend chose from the menu. The meals are intended to be shared "small plates."

Lego cake

A very special friend had a "LegoLand" party for his seventh birthday. As usual, my gift was a chocolate-chocolate cake: two layers of Dorie Greenspan's buttermilk chocolate party cake (from Baking: From My Home to Yours) and standard American decorator chocolate icing. This cake is dead simple and quite delicious (even better with whipped ganache icing), but it needed to be special, and it needed to be Lego.

The "cake made of Lego" illusion is a very easy to create.

I used five colors left over from other projects: red, yellow, green, purple and white. I kneaded a two-inch diameter ball of each color, then ran it through my pasta machine, down to setting three. At this point, I use the past machine more for fondant than I do for pasta. It will be thinner than used for covering a cake; it's a good thickness for detail work.

Using the ribbon roller/cutter from the Wilton fondant class kit (which you can buy on line without taking the class), I made two half-inch wide strips of each color. This is actually a bit taller than the real bricks, but there is no one-eighth inch spacer and I didn't have time to gerry-rig something. These cuts were free hand, and not perfectly straight, but the "bricks" were easily straightened out after being cut to the proper size.

[Lego cake: 'bricks' made of fondant laid out to attach to cake, with cake partly covered in bricks, copyright 2013, Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved]

Using real two-, three-, four-, six- and eight-dot long bricks, I cut at least two of each size from each color with a paring knife. The knife cut more cleanly and straighter than the plastic roller used for freehand cutting. Cut two "bricks" of the same size at the same time for more efficient brick manufacture. Cover the the cut fondant with a damp paper towel.

The cake was baked, crumb-coated and frozen the weekend before. For the next cake, I would give the full, final coat of icing before applying the bricks just to have more icing on the fondant pieces. They fondant adhered well to the crumb coat.

Starting from the bottom, with the longer bricks, I applied them carefully to the cake, straightening the edges as much as possible. As you can see in the close-up below, the edges were not overly square and didn't always match up perfectly. A damp paper towel was very useful in wiping off stray icing from my fingers and the white (always the white) bricks. After putting on a row of bricks, careful smoothing helped the bricks to stick to the cake and form a flatter surface. The upper layers used the smaller bricks.

[Lego cake: Close-up of fondant 'bricks,' copyright 2013, Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved]

The pyramid shape worked well, looking fairly realistic for a construction zone. A rectangle would have worked as well. Every kid wanted some bricks on their slice, and more of the cake should have been covered in bricks. It's not like there weren't enough bricks to go around the cake. The bricks went all the way to the top so that the top icing would push over the edge and mask it.

Once the fondant was on the cake, I iced the top, making sure the top icing spilled over. For the sides, I started at one end of the brickwork, and iced around the sides to the other end of brickwork, making sure the icing overlapped the fondant. Piped shell borders made this look like a normal cake from the front.

[Lego cake: chocolate icing spread over fondant 'bricks', copyright 2013, Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved]

For the finishing touch, we used two Lego construction workers. The one with the wheelbarrow is bringing more icing. (We bought the birthday boy a new Lego set; if this had been for my son, his existing construction workers would have gone through the dishwasher.)

The cake would also work with the chef mini-figure, and perhaps some "construction zone" tape made from ribbons of yellow fondant. That's the next birthday.

[Lego cake: Finished cake, with Lego construction figures 'plastering' over brick with icing, copyright 2013, Susan J. Talbutt, all rights reserved]

Great Food Fast

The thing about newborns is that although they might look and act like, and even be, mostly unmoving blobs of near humanity, they take a lot of time, attention and effort. I was spectacularly unsuited to a newborn (this eight-year-old thing is great, though), and particularly frustrated that I had no time to cook or garden, although I was home all day for three months. Martha Stewart's Everyday Food magazine got me through many a dinner.

Now Great Food Fast gets me through a week's menu planning. It's one of two recipe collections, along with Fresh Food Fast, published before the magazine ceased publication last year. Flipping through Great Food's recipes for the season inspires me to know what to cook those last straggling, unplanned days of every week.

Great Food Fast is the perfect resource for low-stress, after-work meals: recipes are quick, usually taking half an hour or perhaps an hour of sitting in the oven; ingredient lists are pantry staples like soy sauce, chicken broth, herbs; following the seasonal organization of the book keeps menus from getting boring and makes it easier to use fresh ingredients; the results are tasty enough for company.

About half the recipes are main dishes, some vegetarian (Greek salad, spinach salad, risotto with zucchini and peas) but most are meat based (chicken breasts in mustard cream sauce, rigatoni with sausage and onions, salmon, farfalle, peas and mint,). The remaining recipes are side dishes (cucumber-radish slaw), appetizers (asparagus-gruyere tart) and desserts, and a small section on basics, like poaching chicken and vinaigrettes. They are all simple, tasty, and modern.

Even now, looking up recipes for this review, I see new dishes I want to make.

Great Food is for any cook who doesn't have the time or confidence for elaborate meals, but still wants a dish they'll want to cook again.

Cool things I've seen via twitter

Interesting articles I've run across on Twitter:

Hervé This' Chocolate Mousse: I have so many friends who can't eat dairy and love chocolate. I cannot wait to try this recipe on them. Who's Hervé This? you ask. Apparently the chemist who invented the term molecular gastronomy. Cooking is just applied chemistry, after all. Applied, delicious chemistry. (via Cooks & Books & Recipes)

Couldn't be Parve: These are not dairy substitute recipes, these are recipes that need no dairy. (via Sarah Melamed)

In Defense of Pretentious Hipster Douchebaggery, Culinary Edition: Who doesn't like to laugh at hipsters? Even hipsters like to laugh at hipsters. Greta Christina makes a great point: the stereotypical hipster obsession with "artisinal" and small batch is preserving a lot of great food in the face of economy-of-scale homogenization, and making it possible for more people to eat really great food. (via Melissa McEwan)

How to cook with cardamom: Cardamom is my favorite spice. There are never enough baked goods with cardamom. These flavor combinations listed here (cardamom and almond, cardamom and apricot) should make some delicious scones. (via Heather Atwood)

Steak Shows Its Muscle: If you can make it through the description of "the very finest, perfectly velvety, unctuous steak I'd ever tasted" — bull's blood, there's a fascinating history of steak and it's place in the American diet. I'm not convinced many (any?) vegetarians would agree fresh blood is "the only steak a vegetarian could ethically eat." (via Melissa McEwan)

Anything but scrambled eggs: how I learned to cook at 78: Really, a tribute to his late wife, with digressions into his children and grandchildren. Touching. (via Heather Atwood)

Food is now the ultimate class signifier: Poverty is neither a sin nor a crime. Dignity is a human right. This critique of the UK's consideration of food stamps applies equally well to the US program. (via Historical Recipes)

Confessions of a Kitchen Gadgets Collector: Confession: I've met Barbara Haber, and she is awesome. She balances perfectly between discarding unused equipment and finding space for those odd single-taskers that make life and cooking so much easier. You will pry my waffle maker from my cold, dead hands.

The handmade bread was available all over New York City, and it wasn't a rarefied delicacy. Everyone knew what it was and took it for granted.

Confession: I am a terrible bread baker. Or, I was, until I too found the secret of no-knead bread. Another confession: Anyone talking about no-knead bread sounds like they've joined a multi-level marketing scam.

But no-knead bread is really and truly that easy to make, although it requires more than five minutes of time. The five minutes of the title refers to the time one is actively mixing and then forming the loaves. It doesn't count the two hours of for the autolyse reaction to "knead" the dough, or the time for the dough to rise and bake.

Artisinal Bread (sorry, "artisan" is a noun, the adjective is "artisinal.") starts with a multi-pages long description of the basic recipe and technique. It's exactly what anyone who can't bake a good loaf needs, and is worth at least half the cost of the book.

The remaining 180-odd pages are variations on the recipe, like rye bread and pizza dough, and even sweet breads, like sticky buns, chocolate-cherry bread and, my favorite, panettone. The recipes are for multiple loaves and are designed to be left for hours or days in the refrigerator before baking. The yeast keeps growing, but very slowly; the slow yeast growth is what gives the leaner breads their excellent flavor.

One step not included in the recipes that I have found particularly successful is not to bake with a pan of water to simulate a professional steam oven, but to back in a cast-iron casserole or Dutch oven, starting with the lid on, and removing after about half the baking time has elapsed. The loaf provides its own steam, generating that beautiful crust. It can be hard to get the sticky dough to dro in properly; I've sacrificed looks for taste.

I also haven't found the recommended baker's peel to be necessary, having made do with a well-floured, rimless cookie sheet.

If you are afraid to bake bread, or even just want a varied collection of bread recipes, this is the book for you.

Murder most fowl

Authors mentioned in the "Murder Most Fowl" Panel at the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference, 2013

New York Times reviewer Marilyn Stasio's comment: "I read so many of these for you! I read dozens." Most of these were her recommendations. These are not all "foodie" detectives (who are market with an asterisk *); food often plays a central role in the developing the character or setting the scene.

Authors Patricia King and Julia Pomeroy were also on the panel and discussed how they used food in their novels. This list came mainly from Marilyn Stasio, but also from the other panel members and the audience. It was a very fun panel.

  • Aaron Elkins
  • Louise Perry
  • Katherine Hall Page
  • Donna Leon
  • Magdalen Nabb

  • Martin Walker

  • Peter Mayle

  • Joanna Fluke *

  • Ann B. Ross *

  • Michael Connelly
  • Anthony Bourdain (yes that Bourdain)

  • Virginia Rich *

  • Nan and Ivan Lyons: Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe

  • Rex Stout, especially Too Many Cooks
  • Charlotte Murray Russell

  • Robert B. Parker (defining his relationship with Susan)

  • Dick Francis: Proof, and with Felix Francis Dead Heat

  • I'll add Janet Evanovich, whose Stephanie Plum can't cook and eats fast
    food or at her mother's.

Many thanks to the Roger Smith Hotel Cookbook Conference for a wonderful weekend!

Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman

Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking made me want to quit my job and just make stock and salmon mousseline for the rest of my life. I do actually like my job, but Ruhlman makes cooking sound easy and simple (and make no mistake, simple is not the same as easy — biking 50 miles is simple, just keep pedaling). But Ratio does two things to make cooking and baking easier: it really does simplify basic recipes for bread, pasta and sausage down to the bare bones, and thus helps the cook to understand the chemistry of the cooking, and be confident in building on this base. Ruhlman has a mission to free bakers and cooks from doggedly following recipes without knowing what can be changed and what can't. Half the ratios are baking, and half are for cooking, like making emulsions and stock. Ratios might seem modern, but to my mind they are quite old fashioned; we all have an image of the grandmother who cooked and baked by handfuls and pinches. She knew her ratios so well she needed no scale or measuring cup. Ratios have saved my Stollen. It was realizing the liquid to flour ratio for the original almond stollen recipe was far out of whack that enabled me to bake an edible loaf. The book has also rescued my stock: less water, more vegetables. Who knew it could be so simple? And Ruhlman's goal is to make recipes so simple to understand that more people to whip up a their own dressing or bread. One caveat I have for Rhulman's book is that he forgets that not everyone has the time to whip up a batch of stock after roasting a chicken. In other words, not everyone is a freelancer working at home. Some of us finish dinner, bathe the kids, and collapse directly into bed ourselves. But, if you can ignore the occasional blind spot for time, it's an excellent book.

Do you need a scale to bake?

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: probably not.

Did your grandmother bake with a scale? No! My grandmother was the best baker I know, and she never used a scale. Well, outside of her time living in Germany, and when her recipes that called for four pounds of flour, but other than that, she always measured in cups.

Perhaps this needs an even longer answer.

[Italian spoon balance scale. Photo copyright 2011, all rights reserved]

Professional baker, teacher and cookbook author Nick Malgieri has famously refused to included weight measurements in his books because most home bakers don't have a scale and measure by cups. Professional baker, teacher and cookbook author Rose Levy Berenbaum always includes measurements by cups, ounces and grams. She also included a table of volume to weight conversions for many baking ingredients; I use these tables to convert my American measurements into metric, and vice versa.

Much of the world measures dry ingredients, such as flour and nuts, by weight, because it's more accurate. Personally, I find it easier to bake by weight, and wouldn't mind if the rest of the US woke up one morning and replaced every measuring cups with a scale. And switched to the metric system.

Scales are straightforward. Set a bowl onto the scale, reset it to 0 (called zeroing out or taring), then spoon in or slowly pour the ingredient into the bowl. To add the next ingredient, zero out and add the next ingredient. The bowl can be anything, even the food processor work bowl with the un-ground nuts measured directly. Although a digital scale makes it easy to obsess over every gram or fraction of an ounce, my personal tolerance is within two to five grams. There is something very satisfying about casually dropping in a partial stick of butter or handful of chocolate pieces and hitting the exact weight called for.

The accuracy comes from the density of the ingredients. A cup of sifted flour is less dense and weighs less than a cup of flour straight from the bag (about 4 ounces compared to 5); therefore, recipes are very specific about sifting before or after measuring. Sifting and then measuring is so inconvenient that I'd rather do the math and measure 3/4 cup unsifted flour instead of 1 cup of sifted flour. When measuring by weight, you can measure first and sift later; the 4 ounces of sifted flour will weigh the same after it's sifted.

How you measure with a cup also affects how much flour or what have you goes into the cup. That's why most cookbooks have a section about how to measure. The usual methods are dip and sweep (hard to do with a small bag of corn meal) and spoon and sweep (put a piece of wax paper down to catch the excess); dip and sweep gets more flour into the cup. Often, home cooks use the dip and press or dip and shake methods, which gets even more flour into the cup. Because cooking and baking is about the ratio of each ingredient to another, too much of any ingredient can throw the recipe off.

[My first scale, a mechanical scale that weighs to within 10 grams, 5 if you can estimate well. Photo copyright 2011, all rights reserved]

Scales help with portioning. Bread rolls and loves are more uniform if you can weigh the full batch of dough and weigh each loaf or roll to get consistent sizes.

Scales don't need to be washed either, because all ingredients are weighed in a bowl or on wax paper. One tool replaces four (or more, if you own multiple sets of dry measures). The one tool does cost more than the other four.

Kitchen scales are not accurate enough for measuring less than a tablespoon of most dry ingredients. German and British recipes still specify teaspoons and tablespoons for small amounts ingredients like salt and baking powder. Recipes for professionals will measure even these small amounts by weight. This is why I have a scientific scale that can measure to 0.1 gram. I use it only for baking from cookbooks written for professional chefs, where everything, even the baking powder, is measured by weight. When measuring 3 grams of something, being off by a gram is quite a lot, really.

However, even the cheapest scale on Amazon is still twice the price of a set of measuring cups, and you'll still need a liquid measuring cup and set of measuring spoons. They take up more space. The more accurate digital scales need batteries or an outlet.

[Laboratory scale, able to weigh to within 0.1 grams. Photo copyright 2011, all rights reserved]

The big question is, will it make you a better baker?

Maybe. If your biggest problem is measuring dry ingredients accurately. But then it would seem that learning to measure accurately (dip and sweep! dip and sweep!) is just as effective and cheaper.

You need a scale if you bake from recipes that measure by weight, either grams or ounces. These would be:

  • Professional bakers, making six layers of cake in a 20-quart mixer that stands on the floor.
  • Non-Americans, baking from non-American recipes, living in countries where every kitchen has a scale.
  • American amateurs who bake from professional or non-American recipes.
  • Anyone overly concerned with exactitude.
  • Bakers practicing for the eventual conversion to the metric system.

If you like baking with cups and tablespoons, there's no reason to stop, unless you turn pro or move to Europe. Owning a scale won't make you a better baker. Using a scale can help you understand the ratios that underlie all baking. Reading Shirley Corriher's Bakewise or Mark Ruhlman's Ratio will help even more.

I have many scales: an Italian balance scale shaped like a ladle that can measure up to 200 grams; my first scale, mechanical and turquoise plastic, bought in Germany to bake my aunt's recipes; the sleek electric model I bought when we renovated the kitchen and is the main one I use; and a very accurate scale for use in laboratories. I also have four sets of measuring cups and four sets of measuring spoons.

"There is a reason that the word cookie follows Christmas with such inevitability. After all, what would Christmas be without Christmas cookied? Nothing represents the spirit of loving, nurturing, and giving more than a homemade cookie."

For years, I avoided this cookbook. It was "too popular." Too frequently, I've found myself out of synch with popular taste. I don't get Cheers or Seinfeld. Red velvet cake seems overrated. I've heard enough of bacon to last a lifetime. I held off buying Rose's Christmas Cookies for a decade. I've no idea what finally impelled me to buy it, but I'm glad I did. Probably The Cake Bible convinced me. Berenbaum deserves her reputation as one of America's leading bakers and cookbook authors.

The recipes range from the simple, like spritz, through the very ambitious, like Swiss-Italian mocha meringues, made by pouring melted sugar into stiffly-beaten egg whites, and a gingerbread model of Notre Dame Cathedral, with ten pages of blueprints alone. "Hardcore," my husband commented.

Rose's Christmas Cookies is a beautiful book to read. In addition to a full-page, full color photograph of each cookie. (And the cathedral. Holy wow.) She introduces each recipe with a few paragraphs with how the cookie and recipe came into her life. I have literally spent hours just paging through and planning what to bake for the season.

In general , the recpies work. Berenbaum writes for bakers with at least basic skills (like creaming and measuring). As with all her books, measurements are giving in usual cups and teaspoons, and also in ounces and grams. However, the ingerdents are not listed in the otdrer in which they are used, which I find an odd oversight; when whisking the dry ingredients together, it's easy to overlook one if the butter and vanilla is between the salt and the flour. The book is divided into Christmas social occasions, like "for Open House" and "for Holiday Dinner Parties," that I can't quite understand, although the "Kids" and "Mantelpiece" categories are clear enough.

Additionally, there are her usual detailed sections on ingredients and equipment, and sections for storing and packaging cookis. Each recipe includes hints and tips.

    You can follow me @ChristmasBaking on Twitter.

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