I’ve been fielding a TON of emails from new readers- which is totally exciting and also really embarrassing because I’ve been such a sloth about updating poor old Bake and Destroy. Most of the e-mails are “I just started baking from scratch” questions- things like, what should I always have in my pantry and how can I do this without spending too much money? People, these questions are exactly how I got started baking and destroying! I love cake, I love making cake, but I don’t have very much time or patience and my attention span has taught me not to invest too much money in any of my hobbies. Remember when I was scrapbooking? Yeah, me either. But I have a few hundred dollars worth of crap that says I was pretty into it for a while. So this one’s for my new readers: a beginner’s manual. Long-time readers, don’t space out on me. I need your help. I’m sure I’m forgetting things, and I’m sure my opinions on where priorities lie are going to differ from yours. Leave comments, help out some new bakers! It wasn’t so long ago you were frosting your cupcakes with a butter knife yourself.
Ok, first let’s talk about money. It’s really easy to spend a fortune on baking and decorating equipment – take it from the girl who’s addicted to Confectionery House’s $4 cupcake papers. Easy, but not necessary. We would all prefer to bake with all organic, locally-grown ingredients, and who doesn’t soak in the bathtub paging through the King Arthur Flour catalog like it’s the latest issue of your dad’s Playboy? But the fact is, if you aren’t charging a premium for your baked goods (meaning you’re baking for friends and family) it’s OK to use whatever flour is on sale and no one’s going to question your choosing Trader Joe’s chocolate chips over some shmancy mail order catalog brand. That being said, in baking, you get out of it what you put in. If you’re putting artificial vanilla and using cut-rate pans you’re going to get crap. So I can think of four key places to spend your money – extracts, spices, pans and produce.
Extracts: No baker should ever be without vanilla. Not vanillin, not artificial vanilla flavoring – just vanilla. It might be tempting to buy the $3 bottle in the grocery store, but resist the urge. This is a key component of your dessert and believe me, it’s money well-spent. Look for pure vanilla and don’t bother with your grocery store unless it happens carry gourmet baking ingredients. Check out places like Penzeys Spices or Sur la Table for affordable quality options. I picked up a trick from Cassie from How to Eat a Cupcake (expert bargain baker if ever there was one) – check out the edible gift isle at discount merchants like TJ Maxx and Marshall’s. Often times they have big bottles of Crushed Vanilla Bean Extract for like, $12. (Almond extract and citrus oils, too.) If you travel, or have parents who do (like I do) ask them to bring you high-quality vanilla if they happen to be headed to somewhere with fabulous vanilla- Madagascar, Mexico, Tahiti, etc.
Keep your standards high on all of your extracts and oils- don’t use artificial unless it’s entirely necessary (I have maple flavoring in my cupboard, for example, because real maple syrup isn’t as potent and it adds more sugar then I want to my recipes.) I’ll get to which extracts you cannot bake without in a bit.
Spices: Here’s another area where it’s tempting to grab whatever you can get at the grocery store, but where you’ll be greatly rewarded for your efforts and extra expense once you taste your wares. Find a spice merchant in your area and buy high-quality baking spices. If you don’t have a local spice merchant, get online and order these things from the best store you can afford. I’m just as bitchy and controlling as Martha, but I don’t have her money, so I top out at Penzey’s. You can still blow your budget here if you really want to, but I’ve found their cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, ginger and other baking spices to be flavorful and well-worth dragging Teno to a place full of things he’s bound to break. They sell whole spices, too, so you can grind them as you need them.
Pans: I by no means have the greatest baking equipment. In fact, I have no clue where I even bought any of the pans I own. But I know I’ve bought some shitty ones because they were cheap and regretted it. This is where I put you in the hands of my readers, because I’m too lazy to do research in this area. When I need a pan I tell Tony what I want, he gets on weird, nerdy forums, does a bunch of comparison shopping online and a few days later, my new pan arrives in the mail. But I will say it’s helpful to have multiples- at least 2 muffin pans, 4 cookie sheets, etc. I’ll get to that later.Produce: OK, I did say that you don’t have to spend a ton on your ingredients, but if your key ingredients involve fresh produce, make sure you’re buying things that are in-season and perfectly ripe. If you’re using zest, buy organic; if you’re baking with nuts, buy them whole and in small quantities so the oils don’t go rancid. People might not notice off-brand sugar, but they’re going to know an old walnut when they bite into it, and they aren’t going to like it.
So now you know what you don’t have to spend a ton of money to bake, but you do have to spend a little. While you have your credit card out, let’s talk about some other things you’re going to want to invest in if you’re going to earn the right to a Cupcake Provocateur apron.
This really depends on what you bake. Me? I make cupcakes, muffins, donuts, cookies, and candy but not too many whole cakes or chocolates. What I consider basic equipment should cover you if you plan on making cookies, cupcakes, muffins and basic cakes. (I’ve added links to products I’ve had good luck with, feel free to talk about your favorites in the comments!)
- Electric hand-held mixer – Good luck making cream cheese frosting without one.
- Whisk– Necessary for delicate mixing, and doubles as a sifter in a pinch.
- Measuring devices– you’ll need cups, spoons, a liquid measure and possibly a measure for sticky stuff like peanut butter. Make sure your set includes a 2/3 cup, 1/4 cup, 1/4 tsp and 1/8 tsp measure.
- Mixing bowls– I have two sets of three with spouts for easy batter-pouring, but I got by with one set of three for the first two years I was baking on a weekly basis.
- Wooden spoons– for mixing, and beating your children. (Not really, unless you want to raise serial killers.)
- Heat-proof rubber spatula– Nothing scrapes a bowl like a rubber spatula, but make it heat-proof in case you also use it to stir your hot ganache.
- Cupcake papers– you can get them on the cheap at your local grocery store. You’ll know you’re really a baker when this is no longer good enough for you and you find yourself explaining $75 charges for a shoebox-sized delivery of cupcake papers to your husband.
- Pans– to start, you should get a muffin pan, some cookie sheets, a 9″ round cake pan, a 9’x11″ sheet cake pan, a 8″ or 9″ square pan, and a wire cooking rack.
- Oven mitts– seems like common sense, yet I know people who do not own them.
- Oven thermometer– Do not trust your oven, it’s a filthy liar and this item will prove it.
- Offset spatula– Makes frosting neat and easy, forget the butter knife.
Not as basic equipment:
This stuff is by no means “advanced” equipment. You won’t find any blow torches or chocolate molds here, but it’s stuff you don’t need right out of the gate. Pick these things up after you’ve been baking long enough to know your buttercream from your swiss meringue.
- Candy thermometer– You need this to make marshmallows, caramel, and any other treats that require cooked sugar.
- Pastry bags and tips– Figure out what you need, realistically. You can always buy more. I bought over 100 tips three years ago and I use about 10 of them. For big, beautiful swirls on cupcakes buy a big open star tip. I get that question a lot- actually, if you see something you love, ask the decorator what tip they used to achieve the look. Unless they’re a total asshole, they’ll tell you. I go back and forth about pastry bags. The lazy pile in me likes disposable, but the bleeding heart in me likes reusable. If you lean toward reusables, pick up one of these bag and bottle dryers, they make drying your pastry bags a lot less annoying.
- Stand mixer– I rarely use my stand mixer, to be perfectly honest. I love it for buttercream, bread making and for whipping marshmallows but I never, ever put my cake batter in there unless the recipe specifically calls for it. It’s way too easy to over-mix your batter and get tough, chewy cakes with a stand mixer. That being said, wanting a stand mixer was the closest thing to penis envy I have ever experienced. I lusted after this heavy piece of machinery- this big, solid, powerful mixer that takes up way too much room on my counter top and tells my house guests “I beat the Christ outta some stuff in this bad mother” until I got one. Then when I got it, I wanted the bigger one. Now that I have the biggest Kitchenaid, with the biggest bowl and the most attachments and horsepower I want a full-on Hobart mixer like we had at Letizia’s. I want the bowl to be so heavy I can’t lift it by myself. I want to be able to lose an arm in there. Some women wish for breast implants, this is my sick and unnecessary desire. (You can get a deal on a refurb on he Kitchenaid website!)
- Sifter– this might be a level one basic, but if you have a whisk that’ll do until you make it out to buy a sifter. Most dry ingredients come pre-sifted these days, but I don’t sift to make sure there aren’t any lumps or rocks in my flour as much as I do to add a little air to the dry ingredients, and to make sure they’re well-incorporated. You also can’t really bake with powdered cocoa unless you sift it, it’s made of lumpy evil.
- More pans- By now you might find yourself wanting to make mini-cupcakes or a cheese cake. Welcome to level two. Pick up a mini muffin pan, a spring form pan, a jelly roll pan and whatever size cake pans you find yourself wanting. Once you’re bored enough, you might move on to donut and canoe pans (for making Twinkie-like items.)
I wrote a blog a while back with some more advice… now get baking! If it was hard to do, someone as pretty as me wouldn’t be any good at it (that was a joke, I hope you knew that before I told you). I believe in you. Of course, I also believe in unicorns, so check your smoke alarms and good luck to you.