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One day as I was looking at my collection of well loved and well used recipes it occurred to me that there was much more knowledge needed than just written words for anyone else to produce items like these. I started thinking about all the nuances I have developed in my 20 plus years of baking. I feel that uniformity is an essential quality of great baking. There is a cartoon hanging in my bakery that bears the hilarious message, "Greetings from Merle's Restaurant, Mmm Mmm Good Eating Nearly Every Time". Every time I look at that cartoon I become increasingly grateful that over the years I have developed strategies to remove the uncertainty factor from my products. My customers expect and get the best EVERY time.

tiny cheesecake with a fresh raspberry on top

image of a petits four
Before beginning to bake, read unfamiliar recipes all the way through. Check to see if you will be asked to divide any ingredients that are listed. Example: You may find that you need to save a portion of the 2 cups of sugar called for until the end of the baking procedure when you are asked to sprinkle it on top of your finished item. If you don't catch this in time you will wind up with an overly sweet item and a decision whether to add even more sugar to finish the item as the recipe suggests. I often make notes right on my recipes especially if there are things I need to remember or watch out for.
image of a petits four Make back up copies of your most used and loved recipes. Put them somewhere safe.
image of a petits four

When I double a recipe I do so right in the left margin of my original recipe using a different color of ink. When I triple or further enlarge a recipe I do it using a completely new recipe card. I clip all of the resulting cards for one recipe together. As an example, I write "3x, or 4x Chocolate Chip Cookies" in large letters across the top of the card. This makes it an easy shuffle when I am looking for the proper amount of what I would like to prepare. I also include any notes I might need regarding the increase in the size of the recipe. I don't refile my recipes until the baking is over. I still have them handy in case I think of something that should be noted for the next time.

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tiny cheesecake with a fresh raspberry on top
Let's Bake!!!
image of a petits four When buying cookie sheets look for the roomiest sheets that your oven can accomodate. Make sure that the sheets are not so large that they touch the sides of your oven. I like sheets with three raised edges and one straight side. They are made this way so that you can easily slide the baked and slightly firmed up cookies onto a cooling rack. During times of heavy production it is such a smooth process to just tilt the sheet a little and gently push the cookies off the straight side with a wide spatula.
image of a petits four For successful production of rolled and cut cookies as well as other lovely items such as pie crusts, a pastry cloth and rolling pin cover are invaluable. I am always surprised that many people have never used them because they don't know that they exist. This is a funny little story that my mother, who was a superb baker recounted:

My parents discussed buying a condo in Florida. My mother was very excited about the fact that they were able to stay at the prospective place on the beach for a few weeks to see if they liked it enough to buy it. The test run, she explained to me would really be effortless because she was told that the condo was fully equipped and furnished with anything someone would possibly need. Upon my parent's return I was anxious to hear about their experience. I can still see my mother's face and remember her amazement. "We were told that everything would be there! The woman at the real estate office looked at me like I was crazy when I told her that I couldn't find the rolling pin and pastry cloth!" My parents never bought that condo and my mother continued to bake lovely pies in her East Amherst, New York home for some years after that.

I agree with my late mother. These are essential baking tools. (As far as being essential supplies for a relaxing holiday at the beach, well... that is a somewhat different matter.) The pastry cloth and rolling pin covers are generally sold as a set. Extra rolling pin covers are sold separately because the old ones which are made out of streachy woven cotton fabric often get worn out from use before the canvas pastry cloth does. The pastry cloth as it is dusted with flour becomes a seasoned, non-stick surface on which to roll dough using the least amount of extra flour. Once you get the hang of it you will be amazed at how easy it is to handle pastry with no tearing at all. Too much flour ruins both the taste and the texture of baked goods. The dough that you end up rolling to make the last of your cookie batch should feel as pliable and moist as the dough that you started out with. Scrape excess flour from the pastry cloth, shake out the rolling pin cover and store them in a plastic bag. Don't wash them after every use. Let them become nicely seasoned. Wash only when they look like they need it and use COLD water. Air dry the duo and they will last for a long time. I make my own large pastry cloths. I located a firm that sells as one of its many products, unsized natural cotton duck by the yard. (This company is a great resource for unsized natural fabrics...some are very wide.)

image of a petits four One of my favorite tools used with a pastry cloth to loosen the rolled dough is a VERY wide spatula made of thin, flexible metal. I have had mine for many years and use it to lift whole sheets of bar cookies from 11 x 17" pans too. I have seen recent versions of this great spatula advertised at a number of culinary supply sites . It is about 10" wide.
image of a petits four Many cookies can be mixed and refrigerated one day and then baked the next. Some, though not all cookie dough may actually be frozen for up to a couple of months once it is tightly wrapped in cling film and then in tin foil. Try this with your favorite recipes.
image of a petits four In order to get lovely round cookies from slice and bake type recipes I freeze assembled rolls of cookies until quite firm. I then remove them from the freezer and roll them on a flat surface as they defrost a little until a nice round shape is achieved. Trying to roll soft cookie dough into perfectly round cylinders just doesn't work!
image of a petits four Baking time can be affected by the number of cookies on each sheet or the number of sheets in the oven at one time. If two very full cookie sheets will cause the cookies placed closest to the edges of the sheets to spread excessively and brown very quickly while the cookies in the middle of the sheets remain underbaked try reducing the number of cookies on each sheet to leave more room for the air to circulate around each cookie. You can also try reducing the number of sheets in the oven at one time. Place a single sheet on the middle oven rack rather than closer to the top or bottom. I always envision my sheets of cookies as if they are guests at a party. Is the room a comfortable size for the number of guests it holds or are they standing on top of each other, unable to breathe and very uncomfortable?
image of a petits four

It is easy and fun to make custom cookie cutters. The custom cookies on the Maryelizabeth's edibleart site are all made from one of a kind cutters. You can often obtain strips of aluminum or copper flashing about 1" wide from a roofing company. These businesses have all kinds of neat metal bending equipment so it might even be possible to have one edge of the strip bent over so it feels more comfortable to your hand especially if you are making lots of cookies. In this case you will have to have some way of joining the ends of the shape together. I have some cutters that are held together with little pop rivets, some with electrical tape and some have been soldered together. If you don't use strips of flashing another solution is simply to buy the largest metal cookie cutters you can find that are round or some other simple shape. Simple pre-made shapes will give you a nice flowing area to work with as you bend the metal into your design. Do keep in mind that the more intricate the shape the smaller the actual cookie becomes. I tell people that if they want to make a detailed design such as a snowflake, for example, why not start with a cookie that is a less detailed snowflake type shape, but do all the real design work with icing and other decorations. This way there are no delicate pieces that could break and the cookie eaters will get "the most bang for their buck" after having admired the lovely designs.

image of a petits four When the cookies are finished baking, remove them from the hot sheets at once unless the recipe calls for them to stay in the pan until completely cooled. Bar cookies are an example of cookies that should be completely cooled before you do any finishing work on them. If you leave cookies on hot baking sheets they will continue to bake. Even though the cookies don't look burned they may become very dried out and lose their delicate, delicious quality. Roomy cooling racks or pastry boards are essential.
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tiny cheesecake with a fresh raspberry on top

Finishing touches

image of a petits four One of the most exciting things about the baking process is, of course, the final result. One of the ways of customizing cookies is to decorate with colored sugar and icing. The colored sugar adds a lovely twinkle and is surprisingly easy to make. Bakery supply houses carry a type of granulated sugar called "medium" granulated. It is much coarser than regular granulated sugar and full of sparkle. Put any amount of this sugar in a see through plastic bag and add a little cake decorator's paste coloring. Tie the top of the bag securely. Start out sparingly because it takes a few minutes of mushing the sugar around in the bag for the color to really spread. It is better to be conservative at this point. Once the color is evenly distributed through the sugar spread it in a thin layer on a baking sheet and air dry it throughly before using it or storing it. I like to rub the newly colored sugar with a a paper towel to remove any excess color and polish it up a little. This will also help get rid of the tendency of the colored sugar to bleed when the colored sugar is applied to wet icing or exposed to humid conditions.
image of a petits four

I have to admit it... one of my least favorite baking tasks is cutting bar cookies into uniform pieces. I hated winding up with my last row so skinny that I couldn't sell it or wouldn't dare serve it ( and I am forced to eat it all myself... That's not good!) Here's how I cut even pieces no matter what dimensions my slab of bar cookies might be. Cut a piece of string the length of the longest side of the slab of baked cookies. Divide the piece of string in half and place it at the top of the cookie slab with one end of the string at the edge and one end one toward the middle. Make a little mark at the end of the halved string at the middle of the slab. Move the string down to the bottom edge of the cookie slab and again, make a little mark at the middle end of the string. Connect the marks and you have two equal halves, right? Now, divide the same string in half again, and repeat the marking procedure to obtain quarters. Repeat this procedure as many times as you wish. Now repeat this same process on the short side of the slab so you now have lines dividing the slab the opposite way and you will end up with all of the bars equally marked. If necessary, refrigerate the cookie slab briefly to firm up any softened icing. When you cut the cookies you will have lovely uniform bars with neat edges. You won't have any rejects to gobble up though... that's good.... right?

frosting script saying happy baking

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