Cooking and Baking Tips

Don't Be Discouraged by Cooking and Baking Flops

If at first you don't succeed, try again.  This is certainly true when it comes to exploring recipes. Everything does not always come out just right.  Especially your first attempt at something.  Like everything, baking takes practice!  Things often turn out bad for one of two reasons: either the recipe or the execution.  My deceptively beautiful lemon meringue pie (below).

Who remembers the parmesan parsley muffins I made for book club back in October??  I was being really ambitious, so I decided to make two types of muffins--one sweet (sweet potato muffins), and one savory--these awful parmesan parsley muffins.  I'm not sure if the error was in the recipe or the execution, but parsley overwhelmed the muffins.
My most recent catastrophe was much more tragic.  My mom, who is the busiest person I know, had been wanting to make a lemon meringue pie.   It was Christmas day, and I decided to make the pie.  I am certain that it is my execution that doomed this pie.  And the sad part is, it took soooo long, and required several hours to set in the refrigerator.  Everyone's taste buds were anxiously awaiting the  completion of this pie.  The lovely meringue (below).
Where it wrong:  1.  The filling never set.  When I cut into it, the filling had not solidified.  I'm pretty sure that this is because I was not used to the slow-to-heat range I was using at my house.  This could have been easily remedied with an instant-read thermometer.  The filling that never set (below).
2. The meringue on the pie had condensation on it when I took it out of the refrigerator.  This is because it did not completely cool when I first put it in the refrigerator.  Plus, I put it in an air tight container because I did not want the pie to taste like the Christmas feast that was in the refrigerator.
I'm confident that if I attempted this pie again, I would be successful.  Plus, I think the meringue came out beautiful!  It was just so sad when I had to dump the pie in the trash can :(

Keeping a Stocked Pantry

Keep a stocked pantry!
Having a stocked pantry definitely helps me when I feel inspired to bake something. There's nothing worse than wanting to cook or bake something, and having to go to the store to buy the ingredients!
Most baking recipes are a variation of a few simple ingredients--milk, flour, eggs, butter, salt and sugar. The important leavening ingredients (what makes stuff rise) is yeast, baking powder and baking soda (in quick breads), and eggs. I looked in my refrigerator and pantry, and realized that I have so many types of flour, milk, sugar and oil.
 SO, here's what's my pantry!
4 Types of Flour: all-purpose flour (needed for pretty much EVERY baking recipe), wheat flour, corn flour, and Wondra flour. Most "wheat bread" recipes call for a combination of all-purpose flour and wheat flour. Corn flour can be used to make tortillas, and is used in combination with cornmeal to make cornbread. Wondra "quick-mixing" flour is used to thicken sauces. One type of flour that I don't have is semolina flour (used to make pasta). I'll be getting some soon since one of my tart crust recipes calls for it.
4 Types of Milk: skim milk, sour milk, heavy cream, and whipped cream in a can. The skim milk is for my cereal and oatmeal. The sour milk is left over skim milk I didn't get to. Many muffin recipes call for sour milk or buttermilk. If you don't have sour milk OR buttermilk, you can make buttermilk by adding 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar to 1 cup of milk, and let it sit for few minutes until the milk curdles. This all sounds weird, but the sour milk gives muffins a really nice flavor, and the the high oven temperature kills the bad bacteria. I can make whipped cream out of the heavy cream by adding a little powder sugar and vanilla to it, and beating it. I'm not sure why I have the whipped cream in a can.. I prefer to make my own by beating the heavy whipped cream.
4 Types of Oil: Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, Vegetable Oil, Canola Oil, and Unsalted Butter. Different oils burn at different temperatures, so pay attention to what recipes call for. I mostly bake with vegetable oil or butter. I don't have any vegetable shortening, but it's something I need to make pie and tart crusts.
So, those are a few important ingredients needed in all of the baking recipes I've done. Since buying food can be so expensive, I don't buy anything unil I've planned making a specific dish.
Have uncommon types of flour, oil, or milk in your pantry? Post it under the Comments!
**Note: I updated the peanut butter hummus recipe. Add ground cumin, ground corriander, and paprika to really bring out the flavors. And don't forget that adding the right amount of salt is what brings all of the flavors together!

Pairing Red Wine and Chocolate

Red wine and chocolate is currently the "darling" of wine pairing. My roommate was having a red wine/chocolate craving, so we made chocolate souffle and paired it with a red wine. Though the chocolate we used in the souffle was "bittersweet" and had a 60% cacao content, the recipe called for sugar, so the actual souffle was much sweeter than the chocolate.

The amount of sugar in the chocolate is important because the key to a successful red wine/chocolate pairing is that the wine be sweeter than the chocolate. What red wine is sweeter than chocolate? Try a port or a dessert wine.

Just remember: The wine should be sweeter than the chocolate.

If you are eating a bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, try a Merlot. I paired the 2006 vintage of Sterling Vineyard's Merlot with bittersweet chocolate and it was divine! (It was also on sale at my neighborhood grocery store for $10.99).

My absolute favorite port is sold by the V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena, CA. It's "Madeira," solera-made, wood-aged brandy. The solera was actually recently discovered, and is over 120 years old. The after taste of caramel makes this wine especially great if pairing with a chocolate with caramel. You can visit the V. Sattui website at They don't sell their wines to mass distributors, so you'd have to order straight from them (or better yet, go visit their tasting room!)

I ended up pairing the souffle with the Merlot, and it worked out great. Another popular red wine for chocolate pairings is Cabernet Sauvignon.

If you are intimidated by all of this, but you would like to pair a wine with your dessert, you can never go wrong with a sweet sparkling wine (sweet Champagnes are indicated by "demi-sec" or "extra dry"). Be adventurous and try new things--the only way to learn about wine is to drink it ;)

Ingredients 101

To my novice bakers and cooks: I feel responsible to emphasize the importance of following a recipe--especially if it's your first time making something! One of the most important parts of a recipe is the ingredients. Good food comes from good ingredients. Most recipes for baked goods call for unsalted butter. Though you can use salted butter as a substitute, unsalted butter has a better flavor for baking.

Most recipes for baked goods assume that you will be using whole milk. You can almost always substitute it for other types of milk. I've got skim milk in my fridge, so I use skim milk. I've also used rice and soy milk with no problems. It won't taste exactly the same, but it will cut down on the fat and calories in whole milk.

Almost every baked good recipe calls for vanilla extract. I don't use imitation vanilla extract. I use "pure" vanilla extract, but you can probably get away with the imitation vanilla extract.

Some ingredients are NON-negotiable, unless you have a chart with substitutions. Altering any of the following ingredients may cause your baked good not to rise: baking powder, baking soda, and eggs. Also, an ingredient that may be unfamiliar to you may be the key ingredient in the dish (e.g., cilantro in tortilla soup or fresh sage or Marsala wine in chicken marsala).

Lastly, different oils burn at different temperatures. For example, a recipe may call for vegetable oil, but you've only got olive oil. If you are just sauteing something for a short time, it is probably OK to substitute. If something needs to be sauteed for a long time, be sure to use the type of oil that the recipe suggests. Also, the extra virgin olive oil that the pesto calls for is NON-negotiable.

If anyone else has any tips on ingredients, please leave a comment so we can all enjoy!