CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Break out the mixer and dust off those cookie sheets. School is out and the kids are looking for some fun. Beckon them to the kitchen.
It is a happy coincidence that when you need an extra hand with holiday baking, the elves have arrived and they are ready to help.
Now to get started: Thankfully most grocery stores have a special holiday baking section where you can find what you need all in one place. Add some fresh citrus, butter and eggs and you're good to go.
I have compiled a list of baking essentials -- no cake mix necessary. Heat your oven, gather your helpers and let the fun begin!
Pan prep: I almost always line my cookie sheets with parchment paper. It keeps cookies from sticking and makes cleanup a little easier.
For cake pans, I spray with Baker's Joy, a spray that is oil combined with flour -- found in the baking aisle. For brownie pans, I line the pan with foil, first shaping the foil to fit the pan with excess for overhang.
Melting butter: Unwrap the desired amount of butter and place in a microwavable bowl (typically glass/Pyrex) and microwave at short intervals until almost melted. Swirl around gently to melt the last little piece that remains. Depending on the microwave and the amount of butter, it can take 10 seconds or up to 1 or 2 minutes. Keep a close eye on the melting butter.
Creaming butter: Always use butter that's at room temperature. Let the butter sit out for a little while to soften -- the amount of time varies, depending on the temperature of the room. You want to be able to press your fingers into it, leaving a slight indentation. If you are in a huge hurry, it's best to cut the butter into small pieces to help it warm up more quickly. If you must, you can put it in the microwave for just a few seconds, but too many seconds will begin melting the butter.
Measuring flour: Use the "spoon and sweep" method: "Fluff" the flour to loosen, then spoon it into the appropriate measuring cup to overflowing, then sweep off the excess with a straightedge.
Butter: I usually bake with Land O'Lakes. Occasionally I will splurge on European butters.
Chocolate: Imported bittersweet is my favorite for baking (and eating). Recently, I have been using Holl's -- available locally!
Cocoa: Scharffenberger is absolutely unbeatable -- so complex! Hershey's will do in a pinch (actually, Scharffenberger was purchased by Hershey's!).
Eggs: Most recipes use "large" eggs, unless otherwise specified. I like organic eggs.
Flour: My baking cupboard is stocked with many types of flour: all-purpose unbleached, bread flour for breads and pizza dough, cake flour (Softasilk or Swansdown) for cakes or recipes where a lighter texture is desired; whole-wheat flour to supplement white flour in breads, pizza dough and pancakes.
Salt: Table salt is fine for most baked goods. I also like sea salt and kosher salt, but their coarse textures can make accurate measuring difficult.
Sugar: Granulated, light brown and dark brown (Domino or Dixie Crystals); confectioner's/powdered sugar; turbinado sugar.
Vanilla extract: I always use pure vanilla extract; never imitation.
Best. Brownies. Ever.