Thursday, December 3, 2015

Basic cooking skills, part 3: Quick breads

[Basic Cooking Skills parts 1 and 2 are here and here, respectively.]

Few things make you look more competent in the kitchen than the ability to bake bread, and few breads are easier to make than quick breads -- that is, breads leavened with agents other than traditional yeast. (Honestly, yeast bread isn't as difficult to make as you might think, but it does take some time -- so if you're looking for close-to-instant gratification, quick breads are the way to go.)

A general note on baking: You can fiddle-fart around with most types of recipes, eyeballing measurements or altering ingredients, and usually you'll still create an edible result. Baking, however, is a subtler kind of alchemy. If you want your baked goods to come out looking and tasting right, you should follow the recipe closely, measure accurately, and bake at the proper temperature and for the right amount of time. Otherwise you run the risk of baking up a batch of hockey pucks, and nobody wants that (except possibly the Vancouver Canucks).

You will need some or all of the following:
  1. a source of clean potable water.
  2. a cookie sheet.
  3. a clean table or kitchen counter.
  4. a mixing bowl.
  5. a set of measuring spoons.
  6. a set of measuring cups.
  7. a knife or other cutting tool.
  8. a whisk or fork.
  9. a biscuit cutter or drinking glass. 
  10. a nonstick griddle or heavy-bottomed pan.
  11. a loaf pan.
  12. an 8" square glass baking dish.
  13. a spatula for cooking.
  14. an oven thermometer.
  15. a kitchen timer.
  16. a stove/oven combination.
  17. an oven glove or hotpad.
  18. a serving bowl.
  19. wax paper and aluminum foil.

Before you begin

A friend of mine used to be solidly convinced that she couldn't bake -- until she moved to a new house. Suddenly all her baked goods started coming out perfectly! The difference: she moved from an apartment with a temperamental, crappy old oven to a house with an oven that actually came up to the right temperature.

Oven temperatures vary a lot, and remember what I just wrote about baking at the proper temperature? Right, so you're going to want an oven thermometer to see what your oven is really doing. Get one of the dial-face thermometers, since it's more reliable. Start with a cold oven, put the oven rack into the middle position and stick your oven thermometer right in the center (or let it hang from the center, if it's a hanging type). Close the door, set your oven to the temperature suggested by your recipe, and let it heat for about 20 minutes (some ovens will beep to let you know they've come up to full heat). Quickly open the door and check the thermometer reading against the temperature. Does your oven run hot? Adjust the temperature down, wait a bit, and check again. Too cold? Bump the temps up a few notches. Trust your thermometer; it will tell you what's really going on in there. Our current oven runs on the cool side, so until we can convince the landlord to get it recalibrated, we have a cheat sheet posted next to the oven that reminds us how many degrees we need to turn it up to get the right temps for baking.


American-style biscuits are little baked quick-breadlets that are closely related to scones. The keys to making light, flaky biscuits are to do most of the mixing before you add the liquid, and not to maul the dough around too much after that -- messing around too much with biscuit dough makes your biscuits tough and hard. Since this is the first actual recipe I've posted, I'm going to go into what might seem like exhaustive detail about ingredients and measuring and blending and so forth. Don't be intimidated. You can do this.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus a little more for kneading the dough
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup shortening
  • ¾ cup milk
[About the ingredients: All-purpose flour is the kind you can buy in paper (or, more rarely, fabric) sacks at nearly every supermarket; keep it in a cool dry place when you're not using it. Baking powder is NOT the same thing as baking soda; it usually comes in a cylindrical container, and examples of North American brands include Rumford, Calumet and Clabber Girl. Salt is your basic table salt. Shortening can be either a hydrogenated vegetable oil such as Crisco or a naturally solid shortening such as lard (and don't be scared of lard; it's probably better for you than Crisco). Milk is usually fresh cow's milk, although in this particular recipe you can substitute a non-dairy milk such as almond milk and it'll turn out fine.]

Wash your hands. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. (Check it with the oven thermometer to make sure it's accurate.) While it's heating up, you can do the following:

Grab your mixing bowl, a one-cup measuring cup and a level kitchen knife. Dip the cup into the flour until it's overfull, then use the flat section of the kitchen knife to scrape the excess off the top. You want a nice, level cup of flour. Pour this level cup into the mixing bowl, then repeat the process for the second cup. Don't put the flour away just yet; you're going to need it. Now grab your measuring spoons and the baking powder. You're going to use the one teaspoon measure. One by one, scoop up and level off three teaspoons of baking powder, adding them to the mixing bowl. Put the baking powder away. Get the salt, and scoop up/level off a teaspoon of salt, then add it to the bowl. Put the salt away. Now mix together all the dry ingredients in the bowl (you can use a spoon or your hand or even your elbow) until they're well combined.

To make this next step a little easier, you can take the half-cup measuring cup and run it under hot water until the cup starts to feel warm, but it isn't necessary. Pack the shortening into the half-cup measure until it's full, then scrape it out into the bowl. Put the shortening away. Use the knife (two knives are better, and a pastry blender is even better if you happen to have one) to cut the shortening into tiny pieces, gently combining it with the dry ingredients until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs.

Clean out the half-cup measuring cup and grab the quarter-cup measuring cup. Get the milk, carefully pour it into the half-cup measure until it's full, and dump the half-cup of milk into the mixing bowl. Now carefully pour milk into the quarter-cup measure until it's full, and dump that in the bowl too. Put the milk away. Gently stir in the milk, just until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl.

Now for some fun. On a clean, flat, washable surface like a counter or table, sprinkle out a handful of flour. Grab the soft dough out of the bowl and lay it out on the floured surface. Put a little flour on your hands so the dough doesn't stick, and knead the dough 10 times (fold the dough over on itself and flatten it down with the heels of your hands). Remember, DON'T KEEP MAULING IT AROUND.

Gently pat out the biscuit dough with your fingers until it's about 1/2 inch thick. Grab your biscuit cutter or drinking glass, dip it into the flour so the dough won't stick to it, shake off the excess and start cutting out biscuits from the dough (pro tip: cut the biscuits as close together as you possibly can and you won't have to re-roll the dough). Get out your cookie sheet and place the cut biscuits on it, giving them a little room to expand as they bake.

Check the oven thermometer. If the temperature looks right, use your oven glove or hotpad to remove the thermometer. Slide the cookie sheet with the biscuits on it into the oven and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the biscuits just start to get golden brown (set your timer for 10 minutes and check to see what they're doing after that). Once they look about right, use the oven glove to remove the cookie sheet full of golden-brown biscuits and set it on a heatproof surface. Open one biscuit (carefully; it's hot) and taste it to see if the batch is cooked through; if it looks and tastes good, use your hotpad to remove the biscuits from the cookie sheet to a serving bowl. Serve immediately with butter, jam or honey. (Now put the flour away, and wash up after yourself.)

You can easily fancy these up by adding goodies to the biscuit dough (savory biscuit variations: half a cup of grated cheese, or several tablespoons of finely minced scallions or chives, or small amounts of dried herbs, or a half-teaspoon of curry powder). But the first time you make them, just follow the basic recipe and see what they're like.


Pancakes are almost the ultimate breakfast food (since the coveted first-place spot goes to BACON), quick to cook and delicious. You may think that pancakes are hard to make, or that they take too much time to prepare. Ha! Let me show you how to put a batch of these together on a lazy weekend, then freeze the rest for instant gratification breakfasts on busy mornings.

  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons oil, plus a bit more for cooking
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
Wash your hands. Crack the egg, open it up, and pour its gooey contents into a mixing bowl. Throw the shell away. (If you accidentally got any bits of shell in the bowl, fish them out and throw them away.) Use a whisk or fork to scramble up the egg until the yellow and clear stuff are thoroughly mixed together. Add the milk and oil and whisk again, then add the dry ingredients (measure them the same as in the other recipe -- dip, level, pour) and mix the batter until it's just blended together (pancake batter doesn't need to be super smooth).

Set your stove burner to medium to medium-high heat; after you've done a few pancake batches you'll figure out which is the perfect heat to cook the pancakes just right. Put the griddle or pan on the stove and let it heat up for a minute (you can check it with the water test to see if it's hot enough). Once it's hot, add a small amount of oil to the griddle and gently swirl it around to cover the bottom.

The first pancake is a test run to see if the griddle is at the right temperature, so let it cook all by itself. Scoop up about 1/3 cup of batter (you can use a measuring cup if you want to be precise) and pour it onto the hot griddle. The batter should spread out a bit. Keep an eye on the pancake, but don't poke at it or otherwise mess around with it. You'll know it's time to flip the pancake when two things happen: 1) the edges of the pancake start to look "dry" compared to the rest of the batter, and 2) bubbles start to pop and form holes on the top of the pancake. Grab your spatula, slide it under your pancake and gently flip it over. What you're hoping to see is a nice golden brown color on the flipped pancake. Even if it's a little darker brown than golden, it's still fine to eat, though you may want to adjust the temperature down for additional pancakes.

You don't need to keep the flipped pancake on the griddle very long -- just enough to brown the bottom (you can lift the pancake with the spatula to check). Don't let the pancake get cold -- once it's done, slide the spatula under that pancake, move it to a serving plate, drizzle it with your topping of choice and SCARF IT DOWN! (Oh, and take the griddle off the heat if you aren't going to make more pancakes immediately.)

Ideas for toppings: melted butter or coconut oil, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, chocolate syrup, peanut butter, fresh fruit, fruit jam (lingonberry jam is particularly fantastic), or you can go the savory route and make yourself a pancake sandwich with sliced ham and cheese.

This particular recipe makes about 10 standard-sized pancakes, but most of us can't eat that many in one go. So after making a few pancakes on a lazy morning, you may get full fast and be tempted to tip the rest of the pancake batter down the sink. DO NOT DO THIS. If you have a freezer, some wax paper and some aluminum foil, you can make Instant Gratification Pancakes. How's this work? I'mma tell ya how!

When you're all fulla pancake-y goodness, don't put the griddle away just yet. Keep cooking pancakes until you're out of batter. Set the finished pancakes on a clean plate, but don't put any toppings on them and don't stack them on top of each other. You want these pancakes to cool down, and they'll cool faster if they're separated.

Once the pancakes are cool enough to handle, tear off a section of wax paper big enough to cover a pancake, and put it on the top of the first pancake. Stack a second pancake on top of this one and top it with another sheet of wax paper. Continue until all the pancakes are stacked and separated by sheets of wax paper. Then tear off enough aluminum foil to wrap them all together (tightly, but not compressed) and make a foil-covered tower of pancakes. Stick that thing in the freezer. Because the pancakes are separated by wax paper, they won't stick to each other as they freeze. Pancakes frozen like this will stay high quality for 2 months.

Now on busy mornings when you want pancakes for breakfast, just find the foil tower you created, peel it open and pull out a pancake or two, tossing the wax paper as you do. (Wrap up what you aren't going to use and stick it back in the freezer for another day.) You can toast your frozen pancakes like bread, or nuke them for a minute or two in a microwave. Ta-daa, hot pancakes!


I promised I'd teach you to make cornbread, didn't I? Well, here we go. Possibly the best thing to accompany a bean dish -- not only do they taste good together, but beans and cornbread constitute a complete protein.

  • 1 cup milk
  • ¼ cup butter, melted
  • 1 egg
  • 1¼ cups cornmeal
  • 1 cup flour
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • a little shortening for greasing the dish
Wash your hands. Make sure the oven rack is in the center of the oven, then preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grab your 8" square glass baking dish and grease it with shortening (one easy way to do this is to cover your hand with a plastic sandwich bag and wipe the shortening around the sides and bottom of the dish; when you're done, toss the sandwich bag).

In a large mixing bowl, crack and whisk up an egg, then add milk and butter and beat them together. Stir in all the remaining ingredients at once, and mix just until the flour is moist (the batter will be lumpy, but that's OK). Pour the batter into the prepared dish and slide it into the preheated oven.

Bake the cornbread 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean. Cut into squares and eat with gusto and many happy noises. Also eat with beans.

Pumpkin Bread

In the autumn, pumpkins and other squashes are cheap. But in North America, you can buy canned pumpkin purée pretty much any time of the year, and this is one of the best ways to use it. So go get your pumpkin on!

  • 1½ cups sugar (or half sugar and half molasses)
  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1⅔ cups flour
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon each cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves (or use 1½ teaspoons pumpkin pie spice)
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup oil
  • 1 cup pumpkin purée
  • a little shortening for greasing the pan
Wash your hands. Make sure the oven rack is in the center of the oven, then preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a mixing bowl, mix together dry ingredients (and/or molasses, if you're using it). In another bowl, crack and scramble the eggs, mix them together with the oil and pumpkin purée, then add the wet ingredients to the dry stuff in the first bowl and stir to combine well.

Grease your loaf pan with shortening and dust it with flour (put a little flour into the bottom of the pan, roll it around the sides and bottom until all the shortening is coated with flour, and toss the excess), so the loaf doesn't stick to the pan. Pour the batter into the loaf pan, making sure the batter extends all the way to the corners, and slide the pan into the preheated oven.

Bake the loaf 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. When it's done, remove it from the oven (turn the oven off) and let it cool in the pan about 10 minutes before you gently remove it and let it finish cooling. OK, if you can't resist sawing off a still-warm hunk of pumpkin bread and inhaling it with butter, I won't tell anyone.

There are lots of other quick breads to try out, but these should get you started. And especially if you get good at making pumpkin bread, you are on your way to being able to bake goodies for Christmas, which means people will LOVE you. Enjoy!