Cakewalk: Simple fixes for baking problems
This article was originally published in December 2013
Holiday baking can be stressful if you’ve had past failures, but there are simple tricks that can prevent numerous problems or easily salvage less than perfect goodies.
Dryness most commonly results from imprecise measurements. Most recipes will specify a measuring method. This is the method that was used during recipe testing, so it pays to use it! The most common technique uses a spoon to gently fill a measuring cup and level off the cup with the spoon’s handle. A kitchen scale allows you to precisely weigh rather than measure, but you can get great results without one.
With cupcakes, muffins, quick bread or cake, cool them in their pans for just a few minutes. If you leave them in the pan, the trapped steam leads to toughness.
Over- or under-baking
Many ovens run at least 25° F off, and even that variation makes a difference. Before baking, pop in an oven thermometer and preheat to 350° F, then note the actual temperature for adjustment. Also note how long it takes your oven to preheat — it can take anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes.
Cookies should have set, golden brown edges. Their middles are a matter of recipe and personal preference, but at minimum, there should be only a slight indentation if touched gently with your finger. Always use a cake tester or toothpick to check the center of quick bread; a lovely crust can look done when it isn’t. A few crumbs are OK; any sign of sticky batter means it needs more time. Slightly overcooked? Brush on a coat of Orange Simple Syrup, wrap, and let the cake sit at room temperature overnight. The cake will tenderize as the syrup saturates it. If your cheesecake or brownies aren’t quite set, slice as best you can and freeze the individual pieces. They’re delicious served partially thawed and drizzled with chocolate sauce.
Overflowing or not rising
Fresh leaveners can make all the difference. Dissolve a teaspoon of baking soda in 2 tablespoons of water combined with 1 tablespoon of white vinegar. It should fizz nicely. For baking powder, dissolve a teaspoon in 3 tablespoons of warm (not cold) water. The water should cloud with numerous tiny bubbles. It’s time for a fresh supply if nothing happens.
Quick breads, unfrosted cakes and unfilled cookies freeze beautifully. Cylindrical tubs prevent cookie breakage, while loaves can either be sliced and tucked into plastic bags or wrapped well and frozen whole. Cookies just need to be brought to room temperature on the counter, but with bread slices, warm them up in oven (wrap them in foil, and set the temperature to 300° F; it takes about 15 minutes).