9 Sexy Ingredients to Make Your Baking Spectacular
By Regan Daley
author of In the Sweet Kitchen
1. Real vanilla – bean or extract: Yes, it does make that much of a difference, especially in a simple recipe like a pound cake where it is the primary flavouring. Real vanilla is one of the most precious liquids on earth. It is made by hand-pollinating the vanilla planifolia orchid on the one night a year it opens; harvesting the resulting beans, alternately sweating and sun-drying them, fermenting them, and using them to make a potent, heady extract. The artificial stuff is made from wood pulp. Wood. Pulp.
2. Fantastic chocolate: There has never been a time when the average baker has access to so much outstanding chocolate. And each one is as unique as fine wines: some are distinctly fruity, others earthy, still others have overtones of coffee or spice. Any recipe that relies heavily on chocolate – brownies, chocolate mousse, flourless chocolate cake – can be a perfect opportunity to explore the gourmet chocolate section at the local market or fine food shop. And if cost is a factor, try combining two or three different chocolates of varying prices in the same recipe. I do this often, and finds it adds a depth and complexity to the flavour of the finished dessert. Plus, who doesn't love an excuse to try great chocolate?
3. White chocolate: I know, we just covered chocolate. But most of the time, in baking, 'chocolate' means semisweet, bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate. White chocolate is not properly chocolate at all, since it contains none of the cocoa liquor or cocoa solids that gives dark chocolate its characteristic colour and flavour. But it is a close cousin, made from the rich cocoa butter combined with sugar, milk solids and vanilla. Most of us probably have pale memories of waxy white chocolate in the dubious shapes of bunnies and eggs, but real, high quality white chocolate is incomparable. Try using it in place of dark chocolate in recipes that call for the chocolate to remain relatively intact: as chunks in cookies, or grated into an angel food cake. It makes silky rich icings and is wonderful melted and drizzled over cookies, cupcakes and truffles. I especially like the flavour of white chocolate with mint, with dried fruits, tropical fruits, and with all sorts of berries.
4. Really great nuts: I adore baking with nuts. They do double and triple duty in most cases: they add flavour, richness, tenderness, even colour to everything from cakes and cookies to tart pastry and ice creams. The secret is that they absolutely HAVE to be fresh. The other secret is that just because you bought them yesterday doesn't mean they're fresh. Many stores, especially those with low turnover, stock stale or even rancid nuts. Try a few before buying, or buy from somewhere you know moves their stock through quickly. It makes a magnificent difference.
5. Great butter! For baking, I prefer unsalted butter, and most good recipes specify it. There are a couple of reasons for this: firstly, using unsalted butter allows you to control the amount of salt in your recipe. This in turn affects all sorts of things from crust colour and texture, to flavour. Secondly, salting butter preserves it, making salted butter a good choice for sitting out on the counter for a week, but not great in a shortbread recipe where the fresher the butter the better. Unsalted butter is also called sweet butter, and it is: it's lovely mild, creamy flavour is gentler but perfect for baking. Many gourmet and specialty food stores now carry a variety of domestic and imported “gourmet” butters: try! Explore! They're gorgeous on a piece of fresh bread, but they can also do wonders for a good butter cookie recipe.
6. Local fruit: Farmer's market, Saturday morning. You can actually smell the strawberries, or peaches, or the floral scent of fresh apples. Don't be limited by what a recipe calls for, or what your big-box supermarket has in stock. Get out and see what's growing and ripe in your own part of the world. Start with ingredients this good, and the less you do to them the better. Instant triumph, and you can take the credit.
7. Booze. It has been brought to my attention that a good many of my recipes call for alcohol in one form or another. Far from being a sign that I have a problem, this is because there is a huge wealth of luscious and intense flavours available to the baker through liqueurs, spirits, and even wine and beer. In most recipes, the alcohol is evaporated with baking or cooking, and all that is left is a complex flavour, adding depth and often sweetness to everything from cakes to custards to compotes. I prefer to use most alcoholic ingredients as supporting flavours: a coffee liqueur used to enhance the chocolate in a dark mousse; a rich stout rounding out the nutty flavour of oatmeal in a moist cake. Don't let your sense of propriety keep you from seeing the contents of your liquor cabinet as fair game as far as your baking goes; after all, most liqueurs are sweet enough to be dessert already!
8. Great dried fruit: I am not a fan of candied fruit. I avoid glacéed cherries whenever possible, and think commercially available candied fruit is mostly toxic. It certainly taste like it. Dried fruit, on the other hand, is a whole other story. Drying fruit not only intensifies its flavour, it changes it, making it often more caramelly, toffee-like, and sweeter. Nowadays, you can get practically any kind of dried fruit at your local bulk or natural food store: pears, apples, peaches, all manner of berries, even pineapple and mango. They're a far cry from good old currants and raisins, though there are some gorgeous types of these out there too! Best of all, they're all pretty much interchangeable in many recipes. Don't like prunes? Try fat, luscious Medjool dates. Hate fruitcake? Try it made with dried peaches, pears, pistachios and a good shot of Bourbon. Add handfuls of chopped dried fruit to cake batters, cookie doughs, ice cream custards, even butter tarts. Once you start exploring, you'll find yourself reaching for them over and over. The fact that they're terrifically good for you is a complete bonus.
9. Instant espresso powder: I know, it sounds so inauthentic, doesn't it? But as much as I'm all about a fantastic cup of coffee, when it comes to baking, the powder is brilliant. Find a good brand, one that specifies espresso, not just coffee; Italian groceries are a good source. When reconstituted with a very small amount of hot water, the resulting thick liquid can be used to flavour a wide range of recipes, from batters and doughs, to icings and custards. The powder can also be added dry to meringues and angel food cake batters, adding a pretty flecked appearance and a lovely warm coffee flavour.
Regan Daley worked for several years as a pastry chef in some of Toronto's most prominent restaurants, including the celebrated Avalon (named by Gourmet magazine as one of the best in North America), where her elegant and original dessert creations, such as Valrhona Molten Chocolate Cakes, quickly become household words. She now conducts dessert and pastry-making seminars and is a contributing editor for President's Choice Magazine. She lives in Toronto with her husband and their two sons.
This has been a guest special article by one of my baking gurus, Regan Daley, who just happens to be local! If you haven't discovered her yet, her definitive baking book - In the Sweet Kitchen - is now available in paperback. That means you can pick it up and still have enough leftover for some sexy baking ingredients!