The last one is the most important.
Baking is both an art and a science. The science is all about chemical reactions, physical properties of ingredients, proper measuring techniques, and order of tasks. It can be learned. If you are willing to spend some time with good recipes and follow the instructions, you can bake.
But what if you want to take your current basic baking to the next level? Whatever level you are starting at, there is always room for improvement. Even if your total baking experience is slicing store-bought cookie dough or adding eggs and water and oil to a boxed mix, there are some things that professional pastry chefs and passionate home bakers know that can be your secret weapons when it comes to great bakes. And I’m going to spill the secrets, because the more good baking there is in the world, the better life is for everyone.
Now, there are a lot of baking resources that focus on the science part. They remind you to read recipes thoroughly ahead of time, do your measuring properly, pay attention to details like sifting or softening. This is not that article. This is that article and I highly recommend you read it. Also this one.
Nope, this is the article that focuses on the art part, which for me, as much as I love a sprinkle, isn’t about decoration. It is about FLAVOR. The magic of a great baked good or dessert is one-hundred percent about the flavor. A collapsed soufflé is still delicious. The slice of pie that didn’t come out of the pan in one piece, scrumptious. That cupcake that tumped over in the box and got it’s frosting all smooshed? Still yummy. As long as they start delicious, they end delicious. So, what do those in the know swear by when it comes to flavor?
Not chemical crap, but basic flavors that make other flavors taste more like themselves. You might, for example, have seen recipes for meatloaf or meatballs that call for Worcestershire sauce. And you might have thought, what is an anchovy-based sauce doing in my meatloaf/ball? But what we know is that Worcestershire is an umami bomb, it enhances the natural meatiness of your ground meat to amp up the flavor. So, it isn’t in the mix to make your meatloaf fishy, it is there to make it meatier.
This is genius of which I speak. So here are the go-to items and how to best employ them!
Instant Espresso Powder
Not to be confused with espresso grind coffee, this was designed as an instant espresso product to be mixed with hot water for a quick intense cuppa. But bakers love it because, coffee? Make chocolate things taste chocolatey-er. So, adding from a pinch to a teaspoon of this stuff to any chocolate dessert ramps up the chocolate and doesn’t add coffee flavor, just a more complex chocolate experience. Try it in your next brownie, cake, frosting or pudding. Mix it in with your dry ingredients and taste the difference.
A hint of lemon can do for any fruit flavor exactly what espresso powder does for chocolate, make it intensify the fruitiness. The tartness also balances the sweetness that is inherent in fruit and gives a rounder flavor. A little goes a long way here, lemon can be aggressive, so start with a little bit and add more if you need it. There are three ways to incorporate lemon into a dish. Zest, which gives pure lemon intensity but no liquid. This is great for things like pie filling where you are trying to limit the excess liquid, or baked goods where the texture of the zest won’t be noticed, like cookies. Lemon juice, which is less intense than zest, but sourer, is great for things like jams where you are using a lot of sugar. And lemon paste, which is a slightly sweeter but still lemon-intense product is a great addition to batters for cakes or cupcakes, frostings or fillings.
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Nutmeg is so much more than an ingredient in Christmas cookies. The subtle spice is often used to enhance cream-based savory sauces like béchamel or mornay, it was my grandmother’s special something in creamed spinach, and I don’t make mac and cheese without it. So, it stands to reason that creamy desserts are also helped along with a scant pinch, especially if the main flavor is vanilla. Nothing makes vanilla taste more like vanilla than a teensy bit of fresh nutmeg. And by fresh, I mean a whole nutmeg given a swipe or two across a microplane grater. Pre-ground nutmeg can be a little musty. Add three or four scrapes to your next rice pudding, bread pudding, pudding pudding, crème bruleé, if your first thought about a vanilla forward dessert is “creamy,” give it a little nutmeg.
Cinnamon does for caramel desserts what nutmeg does for vanilla and espresso powder does for chocolate. Makes it even more caramel than caramel without. Again, judiciousness is the key, you want to enhance not go full potpourri. Start with little teeny pinches, you can always add more.
Almond is to coffee as coffee is to chocolate. Just adds that extra thing that boosts the coffeeosity. Whether it is a coffee frosting, or a coffee ice cream, or a coffee flavored cookie, even a quarter to half teaspoon of almond extract will give it a little sparkle. Again, judge amounts based on the volume of whatever you are adding it to and go slow. Not that coffee/almond is a bad combination—ask anyone who has ever eaten Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream.
White pepper is a genius ingredient in anything that is flavored with ginger or spice or molasses or all three. If you are making gingerbread cake or molasses cookies, or a homemade take on those famous Airplane snack speculoos or even Grandma Evelyn’s fruitcake, a few fine fresh grinds of white pepper (see Nutmeg vis a vis “fresh”) will add a depth to the spiciness with some background floral notes that are just extra.
Finally, the most important secret weapon, because you should use it in every dessert no matter what the flavor profile. Salt. Yes, salt. I know many of you have been looking at that pinch of salt in dessert recipes for years and thinking WTF? But salt balances sweet. So just like the flavors above are working to enhance various specific flavors, salt enhances ALL THE FLAVORS. If you take nothing away from this whole article other than salting your desserts, I will feel like I have done a great service to you and the people who eat your sweets. Whether it is a sprinkle of flaky salt on top of a cookie or brownie to really hit an in-your-face salty/sweet thing, or just adding that pinch of kosher salt to a batter or frosting or custard to make sure that balance is in play, please make sure that you are using salt. Unless a dessert recipe says “don’t use salt and this is why…” just add it in there. Trust me.
You are now armed with a full palette of new flavors to take your baking to the next level. Go forth, read all your recipes carefully, measure your ingredients properly, and add that little something extra and make some delicious.