Historically, only a chosen few have great ideas that come to fruition. A nameless few had the same idea, but left it hanging on the tree. Has this happened to you? It’s happened to me – and more than once. Think of it this way: some people have a date with destiny. I catch destiny speeding off with the girl who puts out.
Take that holiday season, the one I spent baking a forest of buche noels. I piped hundreds of meringue mushrooms too, each one lovingly dirtied with cocoa, earthy and sweet. They delighted me, and when they seemed to delight the masses, I lined berry baskets with gingham, piled in faux shrooms, then cellophaned and ribboned the whole thing. I called them Champignons-Something-Or-Other and slapped a wildly Frenchified sticker on top. When a gourmet sales pal declared them fabulous, I raced up to Chicago’s Fancy Food Show with sugared mushrooms and dollar signs in my eyes.
I bounced into the aisles with a purse full of samples and a song in my heart, but one of the first booths we saw stopped me cold. People lined up, clamoring and craning for…meringues. Meringue mushrooms, to be exact, charm-ready and packaged. Clunky, I thought, but they were ready to go, first in a place where first topped best. I narrowed my eyes at the now-copycat stuff in my bag, now just sugar fungus, and saw torn wrapping and meringue crumbs on my keys. What would be next?
Well. All kinds of bright stabs would be next, including a long-time favorite almost, Ooh La La! I’m a Pastry Chef. That was a book idea: sharing tips and tricks from the bakery world to make people appear almost pro. Why, and I mean why, Ooh La La? Because it’s silly French, and at the time – in truth, maybe still – my ideas held a wide range of glaring to obvious. I planned outlines, notes and a vividly detailed Paris book tour, but soon walked into Borders and found, in rapid succession, one book after another offering the exact same thing. Except they were…already books.
I like to believe that nothing is ever a total loss, and thus I’m certain that the gods send you already-ideas for a purpose. If Ooh La La! wasn’t destined for the shelf, perhaps its tips and tricks – obvious to me, but that’s my middle name – might be useful to you. It doesn’t matter if you’re an occasional baker or a perpetually flour-faced nut; adapt to these five essentials and your kitchen ideas will rise, elevating everything you make to (almost) pro status.
My iron-based Ateco is seventeen years old. In equipment years that’s a baby – and these babies will last a lifetime. Use a turntable stand and all frosting secrets will be revealed; with a little spin and the right spatula, below, you will learn – smooth or swirly – how to properly ice a cake.
Offset Metal Spatula
Think of an offset metal spatula as the diplomat in your kitchen: there’s nothing it can’t smooth out. You can use it to spread buttercream, layer preserves, swirl pastry cream in tart shells. It’s the right tool for thick batters like brownie, banana bread and pound cake. My favorite metal spatula trick: for a glossy buttercream finish, heat the spatula blade under very hot water, then quickly smooth the top of your cake.
Yes, with a little practice, you and a pastry bag can pipe shells and ropes and spirals – even roses – and all sorts of frosted goodies on your newly enhanced cakes. But the pastry bag is no one-trick pony – it can also swirl pastry cream onto sponge cake, above, or pipe sweet potatoes into rosettes; portion jam into tartlets; it can pipe a hundred macaron halves for fifty perfect bites. Once you get the squeeze of it, you’ll wonder how you lived without it.
“I know I should use it,” said my mom, “but I don’t.” Granted, parchment paper is a luxury, and a bit wasteful – if you’re not buying in bulk, those grocery-store tubes seem awfully small for the price. Still, every baker should have one box around, enough to protect delicate spritz cookies, to evenly brown your layer cake, to line your lemon bars. Advanced but essential for the serious baker: learn to cut and shape parchment triangles into mini paper cones, perfect for writing with melted chocolate, striping cookies with royal icing, applying dots of jam. Become one with parchment, and all those little finishes will make a huge dessert difference.
Graduated Round Cookie Cutters
I don’t list knives here, because if you like to cook, you probably already have the one good big and the one good small knife you need. Knives do the work of slicing, chopping, even layering – but for a truly creative arsenal, you’ll want a good-quality set of graduated cutters. The most important thing you’ll never hear about cutters? They’re called cookie cutters but are not just for cookies. Bake a sheet of brownies and turn them into hearts. Cut circles of maple fudge, stamp square pound cake petit fours, shape your carrot cake, your polenta, your scones. The leftover middle bits? I believe we call those snacks.
Growing up, we had exactly one round, fluted cutter – I know some families used an upside-down glass – so personally, I can never get enough shapes. You can move on later to delightful squares and endlessly useful hearts, but start by investing in a set of graduated rounds. They’ll give all your desserts a polished, no-you-did-not-make-that look, leaving them thinking that clearly, you’re (almost) a pro.
The Five Essentials meet: brownies baked on parchment, cut into hearts, offset spatula-glazed and piped with tiny pastry bag roses. The cake stand? It doubled as lazy susan, serving brownie bits in the round.