Pastry chef, cookbook author and teacher Nick Malgieri promises that your upcoming holiday cakes, cookies and pies will turn out perfectly if you following a few common sense rules and some basic tips. “This time of year people turn into production bakers overnight,” he says. If you’re going to double or triple recipes, do the math, he says, don’t wing it. Multiply everything out, double-check it and ask someone else check it. “You can’t afford to waste the time or ingredients, especially this time of year.”
Malgieri, former executive pastry chef at the dearly departed Windows on The World restaurant, which was located at the top of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, has been teaching for thirty years and directs the baking program at New York City’s Institute of Culinary Education. The following recipes and techniques come from his current and tenth cookbook, “Bake! Essential Techniques for Perfect Baking”.
First, he says, make copies of recipes, whether they’re from a book, a magazine, a website or Great Aunt Emily. “You always think you’ll remember where you got something from and you rarely do.” Next, check your pantry. “Don’t assume that that baking powder can contains the three or four tablespoons you’ll need to get you through the holiday season.” Ditto for cinnamon, ginger, cloves, etc.
Pour flour into a bowl or canister before you spoon it into a dry measuring cup. Flour in a sack is so compacted that you end up with up to twenty percent more of it if you scoop directly from the sack, resulting in a dry cake. Use dry measurement cups for dry ingredients. It’s hard to level flour in a wet measuring cup without shaking which compresses the flour.
Forget about omissions and substitutions. If you’re going to make something then make it, says Malgieri. “No. If you don’t like brown sugar, you can’t leave out.” If a cookie recipe calls for a half-pound of butter, no, you can’t use half a stick instead. “You can’t use twenty-five percent less butter and expect the same result. Baking doesn’t work that way.”
The sole function of a timer is to remind you that you’ve got something in the oven. That’s it. It doesn’t tell you when something’s done. “Baking time is really the approximate amount of time it takes something to get done at a certain temperature, and those two things are infinitely variable,” he says. Check for signs of doneness: stick the tip of a knife in cake; see if a pie crust looks done and whether the filling is gently bubbling. If it’s a tin or foil pan check the top rim of the crust; the rim color will match the color of the bottom of the crust.
Always, always, bake filled pies and tarts on the bottom rack so that the crust gets done. Use the middle rack only if baking-off empty pie and tart shells.
Gather all holiday recipes then, delete half of them. “Most people’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs. You don’t want to have Thanksgiving or Christmas twelve days away and have to bake twelve different things. Be realistic,” he says.
A coffee cake or tube cake (i.e. a bundt cake) is great to have on hand, especially for drop-bys. They’re simple to bake, freeze and defrost and they’re an easy add-on. “Even if you’re not having a lot of people, it looks a little austere to have just one dessert one,” he says. Measure your pans with a ruler to make sure that that ten-inch pan is really ten inches. Too small and you’ll have extra batter, too big and your cake may sink.
For any cake that has to be unmolded like a bundt cake, brush the pan with very soft butter, not melted butter; it gives a thicker coating. Coat the inside with dry bread crumbs and tap out excess. “Bread crumbs give better release than flour,” he says. Then lightly sprits with a vegetable cooking spray. “Absolutely nothing will stick.”
To prevent tart shrinkage, don’t roll your dough too thin and do thoroughly chill it before baking, for at least half a day. If you do, the sides of your tart will actually be there when you take it out of the oven.
Reverse cookies sheets half-way through baking to make sure cookies bake evenly. If you know that cookies burn on the lower shelf, use an insulated cookie sheet, or bake on them on two baking pans or cookie sheets.
Pecan and pecan chocolate pie freeze beautifully, he says. “Bake, freeze, defrost, reheat and it will taste as if you’ve just baked it.” Make pie shells ahead of time by lining a pie dish or tin with parchment paper. Cool and place in freezer. When frozen solid, lift the parchment paper, removing the crust from the dish, and put back in the freezer.
Bar cookies and brownies, like his Truffle Brownies, are always good bets. “No one ever turns up his nose at brownies,” laughs Malgieri. Brownies are usually baked in nine-by-thirteen-inch pans and since most people have twelve-by-eighteen-inch pans, he suggests doubling the recipe, thus doubling your yield with zero effort.
Malgieri loves pies for Thanksgiving - apple, pumpkin, pecan pie, and especially sweet potato tarts. Unlike pumpkin, sweet potatoes “taste like something to begin with. It’s such a nice change from pumpkin and doesn’t require nearly as much spice.” He adapted his recipe from one by Leah Chase of New Orleans’ Dooky Chase restaurant.
If you want something that’s impressive and doesn’t take a lot of effort, try a Devil's Food Bombe. Bake devil’s food cake, slice it and line a bowl with plastic wrap. Lay the slices in the bowl and layer with whipped cream; berries are optional. Unmold, slather with whipped cream and sprinkle with chocolate shavings or cake crumbs. “And if you somehow mess it up,” say Malgieri, “spoon into individual servings into bowls, top with a generous dollop of whipped cream and tell your guests it’s a ‘Chocolate Trifle.’”
Devil's Food Bombe
This is an original and amusing presentation for plain old devil’s food cake. It’s sliced vertically and layered in a bowl with whipped cream. You can even sprinkle on a little dark rum and/or a handful of raspberries along the way. After spreading the outside of the unmolded cake with whipped cream, you may press chocolate shavings against the cream or crumble any bits of leftover cake and use them instead.
Makes one 8- to 9-inch dome-shaped cake, depending on the size of the bowl used:
2 layers Devil’s Food Cake
Whipped cream, made with
4 cups cream and 1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark rum for sprinkling, optional
1/2 pint fresh raspberries, optional
Chocolate shavings or fine devil’s food
cake crumbs for finishing
One 1 1/2- to 2-quart round-bottomed bowl, buttered and lined with plastic wrap
1 - Cut the devil’s food layers into 1/4-inch-thick vertical slices.
2 - Line the bowl with a single layer of the slices, patching them together if necessary.
Sprinkle the slices with rum.
3 - Spread a large spoonful of whipped cream on top of the layer.
4 - Trim 2 or 3 cake slices to the diameter of the bottom of the bowl and arrange them
on the cream. Sprinkle with rum and spread with more cream. If you’re using
raspberries, sprinkle a few on each layer.
5 - Repeat, cutting enough cake slices to fit the changing diameter of the bowl as you
build up higher and so that they cover the previous layer of cream, until the bowl
is full. Finish with a layer of cake.
6 - Wrap and chill the bowl at least 4 hours or overnight. If chilling the cake overnight, only whip 3 cups of the cream as in the recipe on page 159 and whip the rest for covering the cake soon before you’re going to serve it.
7 - Place a cardboard or platter on the bowl and invert, then lift off the bowl. If the
cake is stuck, wring out a clean kitchen towel in hot water and place on the bowl.
This will melt the layer of butter between the bowl and the plastic wrap, then you
can lift off the bowl and carefully peel off the plastic.
8 - Spread the outside of the cake with the remaining whipped cream and sprinkle
with chocolate shavings or fine devil’s food cake crumbs.
Serving: Since the cake is tall, it’s difficult to serve even wedges. Use a sharp thin
knife to cut them and use a wide cake server or other spatula to transfer them to plates.
Storage: Tightly wrap leftovers with plastic and refrigerate and plan on serving all of
them within 24 hours for best flavor.
Oil-based devil’s food cake batter:
Using vegetable oil in a cake works well when the batter
contains strong-flavored ingredients that would mask the
flavor of butter. Makes two 9-inch round layers, 2 inches tall:
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate,
cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 cup boiling water (boil, then measure)
1 cup granulated sugar
11/2 cups all-purpose flour (spoon into
a dry-measure cup and level off)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup vegetable oil, such as safflower
1/2 cup sour cream
2 large eggs, at room temperature
11/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Two 9 x 2-inch round cake pans, buttered and the bottoms lined with disks of buttered parchment or wax paper
1 - Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350˚F.
2 - Place the chocolate in a large mixing bowl and pour the hot water over it. Shake the
bowl to make sure all the chocolate is submerged, then let stand for a few minutes
to melt the chocolate.
3 - In a mixing bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, salt, and baking soda and set aside.
4 - Whisk the chocolate and water smooth, then whisk in the brown sugar, oil, sour
cream, eggs, and vanilla one at a time, whisking smooth after each addition.
5 - Whisk in the flour mixture about one third at a time (A). The batter will be
6 - Divide the batter between the prepared pans (B). Bake until risen and firm,
30 to 35 minutes.
7 - Let the cakes stand in the pans for 5 minutes, then unmold to racks, turn right side
up, and cool completely. To finish as a layer cake, see Chapter 15 and use boiled
icing, whipped cream, ganache, or buttercream to fill and cover the cake.
Storage: Wrap and freeze the layers for up to one month if you don’t intend to use
Sweetened whipped cream
Making perfect whipped cream and finishing a cake with it isn’t difficult, but you have to remember a few basic rules: Keep everything cold, and don’t over-whip. Softly whipped cream holds its shape well and doesn’t disintegrate on the outside of a cake.
Makes about 5 cups, enough to fill and finish a 9-inch cake:
3 cups heavy whipping cream, ice cold
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 - About 30 minutes before whipping the cream, chill the mixer bowl and
whisk in the refrigerator. Take out and put the cream, sugar, and vanilla in the bowl and whisk once by hand to mix. Place on the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and whip on medium high until you see traces of the whisk holding in the cream.
2 - Decrease the speed to medium and continue whipping until the cream holds a soft peak on the end of a rubber spatula.
3 - Cover the bowl and chill the cream until you need it. Before using the refrigerated whipped cream, re-whip it briefly by hand to a soft peak again.
From Bake!: Essential Techniques for Perfect Baking (Kyle Books; 2010)