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).
Cooking and Baking Tips
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 www.vsattui.com. 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 ;)
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!