If you knew this you'd be baking better

This year, before you step into the kitchen to wield your holiday whisk, consider brushing up on a few kitchen science fundamentals. By Lisa Bell & Nicole Rees

Basics of Holiday Baking
The first thing you must know is that successful baking can be summed up with one simple formula: You have to strike a balance between structure and moisture. Everything else is frosting on the cake. The main ingredients responsible for providing structure are flour and eggs, while sugar and fat contribute and hold moisture. Too much flour in your cookie dough is what results in those sad little hockey pucks. But too little structure-which is to say too much moisture-can make your cake too dense or, worse, a wet, gooey mess. And that's before you tackle light baking, which by definition alters and adjusts this delicate balance.

Here, we offer a collection of healthful recipes developed by a couple of pastry chefs and put through the paces in our Test Kitchen. We've added annotations that explain the basic kitchen science that yields best results. Pick a treat, and step up to your stove with new confidence as you gear up for the sweetest season.

Related: Healthy Holiday Desserts

Walnut Cupcakes with Maple Frosting Recipe
Unlike their full-fat cousins, which get their softness from oil and butter, light cakes rely less on fat and more on sugar and liquids. More sugar minimizes the development of gluten proteins (the primary source of toughness in cakes), but it can also cause excess browning, especially if dairy products are present. Pull the cake from the oven when a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs still clinging to it.

See Recipe: Walnut Cupcakes with Maple Frosting

Recipe calls for: 8 ounces cake flour (about 2 cups).
What to know: Low-gluten flour = tender cake.

Recipe calls for: 3 large egg whites.
What to know: Room-temperature egg-whites are the best.

Recipes calls for: Inserting a wooden pick to the center of baked cupcakes comes out with moist crumbs clinging.
What to know: If over-baked, edges will be too dark and dry.

Recipe calls for: Beating egg whites and hot sugar syrup until stiff peaks form.
What to know: Syrup "cooks eggs" and stabilizes meringue.

Related: Healthy Holiday Kids' Treats

Meringue-Topped Cranberry Curd Tart Recipe
Making perfect pastry depends mostly on how well you coat flour proteins with fat-more difficult in a low-fat recipe. You want to leave small clumps of fat in the dough (here, from vegetable shortening) so they'll melt during cooking and give off steam, creating luscious layers. Meanwhile, we melted the butter so it would coat more than it would in solid form.

See Recipe: Meringue-Topped Cranberry Curd Tart

Recipe calls for: ¼ cup vegetable shortening.
What to know: Shortening creates flaky layers in the crust.

Recipe calls for: Gently drawing flour mixture into butter mixture until moist clumps form.
What to know: Over-working the dough will make it tough.

Recipe calls for: Rolling dough into an 11-inch circle.
What to know: Plastic wrap prevents dough from sticking and falling apart.

Butterscotch Pots de Crème Recipe
Heating a creamy custard over an intense flame can scramble the eggs, and light custards made with milk are even more fragile because milk is less stable than cream. If you add sugar or any acidic ingredients to milk as it heats, it's almost sure to curdle. To keep things smooth and silky, combine sugar, egg yolks, and any flavorings separately, and gradually add hot milk to the mixture so eggs can slowly come up to the proper temperature (also called tempering), stirring the mixture constantly with a whisk.

See Recipe: Butterscotch Pots de Crème

Recipe calls for: 2 large eggs.
What to know: Eggs are the key to creaminess, but only if heated carefully.

Recipe calls for: Heating milk in heavy saucepan to 180° (do not boil).
What to know: If you boil milk, it can curdle.

Recipe calls for: Straining mixture through a fine sieve.
What to know: Remove any lumps for a silky custard.

Recipe calls for: Placing cups in a baking sheet and adding enough water to come halfway up the sides of the cups.
What to know: Water bath cooks gently for smooth results.

Continue Reading: More Holiday Baking Fundamentals

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Photos: Randy Mayor