By Lauren Salkeld, Epicurious.com
We're in the midst of one of the busiest times of year, a period filled with gift shopping, tree decorating, family and friends visiting, hosting, and party going. With all that on our plates, it can be difficult to find time to bake anything and when we do, there really isn't much room for error. One botched batch of cookies and your holiday game plan falls behind. Yes, that might be a little dramatic. Nonetheless, to help ward off future baking mishaps, we've gathered our best pastry-making advice, including expertise from several of our favorite professionals. So, before you pull out the rolling pin or turn on the stand mixer, check out these common baking mistakes and how to fix (or prevent) them.
See also: The Rules of Regifting
Read the Recipe and Measure First
It may seem like the most basic of instructions, but please, please read the recipe through completely before getting started. This essential step helps ensure you have all the necessary ingredients and equipment, and prepares you for what's to come. You don't want to get to the part where tempering chocolate is called for and realize you don't know what that even means. Another smart move is to get all your ingredients measured and ready to be used. The fancy term for this is mise en place, which just means, "put in place." It prevents delays and allows the baking process to happen the way it's supposed to rather than with a 20-minute intermission while you track down your sifter.
Use the Proper Measuring Cup
Gourmet Live editor Kemp Minifie spent decades in Gourmet's test kitchen and remains one of our most trusted sources of baking wisdom. Recently, she wrote about what she calls "the most important baking tip," a simple reminder that liquid and dry ingredients are not measured in the same type of cup. She explains: "For dry ingredients, use metal or plastic nesting cups that allow you to spoon in the ingredient, then level it off with a straight edge, such as a ruler or knife. For liquids, use a clear glass or plastic cup with gradations on the side that allow you to view it at eye level to make sure you are hitting the mark (peering down from above gives you a distorted and inaccurate reading)." While it might seem arbitrary, small differences in quantity can mean "the difference between a delicious, buttery cookie, and a dry, floury one," insists Minifie.
Use Room Temperature Ingredients
Not every recipe explicitly calls for this, but in general, most baking ingredients, especially butter and eggs, perform better at room temperature. To soften butter, cookbook author, pastry instructor, and Epicurious contributor Nick Malgieri recommends leaving it out for several hours. Or, try his quick microwave technique: "Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes, arrange them in a single layer on a microwave-safe plate, then microwave on high for 3 seconds at a time, testing in between, until the butter is softened but not melted." Of course, some recipes, including most pie and tart dough, do call for cold, cubed butter and in those cases, the butter should be good and cold, so cube it first then keep it in the fridge until you're ready to use it.
If you forget to remove the eggs from the fridge, we like this trick from baking guru Rose Levy Beranbaum (author of Epicurious' complete guide to bread baking): In her book, Rose's Heavenly Cakes, Beranbaum advises placing the eggs, still in their shells, in hot water for five minutes.
Related: Easy Holiday Cocktail Party Bites
Move Your Oven Racks and Preheat the Oven
Believe it or not, you can adjust the position of your oven racks and you often should. For instance, most cookie recipes call for the racks to be in the upper and lower third position and for the cookie sheets to be swapped halfway through baking. Taking these simple steps will ensure even browning and prevent burning. If your recipes doesn't specify, bake in the middle of the oven. And, make note of any hot spots, so you can avoid that area or rotate trays to keep pastries from getting too brown or too crisp.
Once your racks are in place, preheat the oven for at least 20 minutes. (If you have a newer oven it very likely will tell you when the oven is sufficiently preheated.) This is especially important for getting cakes (and soufflés) to rise to beautiful lofty heights. One last oven tip: Pick up an inexpensive oven thermometer, so you can make sure the oven is always at the desired temperature.
Many baking recipes involve creaming together butter and sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. During creaming, the sugar is cutting into the butter, introducing air bubbles that aerate the dough; when the dough goes in the oven those bubbles expand in the heat, helping the batter to rise. In other words, this is an important step. Be sure to beat the butter and sugar thoroughly until it looks and feels light and fluffy. You'll know you're on target if the eggs beat in easily. If, when you add the eggs, the mixture starts to fall apart and appear curdled, it wasn't creamed quite long enough. But, there's an easy fix: Add a pinch of flour to the batter and beat until it comes together, then go back to adding eggs.
Use a Food Processor
Making pie dough by hand may be the traditional method but if this isn't working for you, make friends with your food processor. In our Pie Primer, cookbook author Carole Bloom declares her own preference for the processor: "I prefer to use the food processor, because it is quick and easy, and it keeps the ingredients cold." It's also a great way to prevent overworking the dough as it allows you to swiftly pulse the ingredients together. Not convinced? Even Julia Child was known to make tart dough in a food processor and included instructions for it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
For more pointers, consult our complete how-to guides for bread, cake, pie, and gluten-free baking. And, watch our step-by-step videos on making a kid-friendly yule log, a croquembouche, and an easy graham cracker gingerbread house.
Cookies shown above: Sara's Santa's Whiskers.
More from Epicurious.com:
• The Ultimate Christmas Guide from Epicurious
• Mario Batali's Traditional Italian Christmas Eve Dinner
• One-Dish Wonders: Our Favorite Casserole Recipes
• Blue-Ribbon Chicken Recipes
By Lauren Salkeld, Epicurious.com
SUPPER CLUB PICK
My after-school snack was a sacred ritual. I sat on the carpet in my parents' bedroom at a low table, the television turned to "I Dream of Jeannie," and ate a peanut butter and honey sandwich cut into neat squares. I wasn't fussy about crusts. I just loved the sticky pairing of creamy peanut butter with syrupy golden sweetness drizzled from a honey bear in diagonals across the soft white bread. Nothing else--save for maybe apples and peanut butter in a pinch--could have made for as sweet an