Coffeecake Drops Out of Science Class

September 17th, 2014

There were many responses to my previous post about cookie science. Apparently I’m not the only person who finds this brand of pop science somewhat irritating. In today’s post I ran my own little “science” test.

Blueberry Crumb Coffeecake

I have several sour cream coffeecake recipes, some that are quite similar to each other. I focused on those and compared the recipes. They all have the same ingredients – butter, sugar, eggs, flour, etc. – but the amounts are different; sometimes slightly different and sometimes very different. Although the batter yields are all the same, some start with a pound of butter while some use only one-quarter pound. Leaveners are different, sugar is different, etc. The one constant is that the results are all tender with the texture I expect to find in a coffeecake. Is there anything I can learn without running a real scientific test?

Cake A (round cakes in front). Cake B (9x13 cake in back).

I started with my favorite recipe, below, and baked the recipe twice for a side by side test. Cake A was baked exactly as written. Cake B had several changes and substitutions such as part sour cream and part yogurt. While Cake A had exact flour, I was sloppy with the flour measurement for Cake B and that batter came out too thick. I then poured in amaretto without measuring. Also with Cake B, I stirred in the salt after everything was mixed. (Sorry, accidental part of the planned experiment.)

Cake A

Cake B

What can I conclude from this test? Both cakes came out great and I have written results. But I didn’t learn anything useful that I could state as a fact, since any conclusions would be based on a one-time test. Maybe if I ran it exactly the same way multiple times (using the same brand ingredients, same mix times, bake times, and process, etc.) I would have results to compare and conclusions could be reached. But without real controls it’s impossible to come up with a reliable evaluation.

Unofficial conclusions
Conclusion #1: It’s hard to screw up sour cream coffeecake.
Conclusion #2: If you are a scientist and understand how to conduct legitimate scientific experiments, great. But if you’re a foodie, enjoy your fabulous coffeecake and leave science to professionals.

Sour Cream Coffeecake
Filling, optional

  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup chopped nuts
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon


  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons liquor
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour (18 oz.)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups fresh chopped fruit or berries, optional

1. Heat oven to 350º F. Grease 9×13 pan, or (2) 9” pans, or any variation of smaller pans.
2. If using filling, in small bowl, mix all filling ingredients and set aside.
3. In large bowl, beat butter and sugar, then beat in eggs, sour cream, vanilla, and any liquor. Mix in flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix in fruit, if using.
4. For a fruited coffeecake, spread batter in pans. If you prefer using filling, spread ⅓ of plain batter (about 2 cups) in pan; sprinkle with ⅓ of the filling. Repeat until batter is used.
6. Bake 45-60 minutes (depending upon size of pans) or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool and sprinkle cakes with confectioners’ sugar.

Home-Based Baking at its Best! This recipe works well with fresh, seasonal fruit.

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Cookie Science?

September 10th, 2014


Last year, Tessa Arias, a food blogger, began a fun series about chocolate chip cookies. She wrote The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies, followed by several more posts. Arias is a culinary grad with a personable style. I enjoyed her viewpoint but was rather surprised to read in the Ultimate Cookie Troubleshooting Guide that, “The posts illustrated the science behind cookie baking.”


I am not a food scientist. I am a former bakery owner and have baked thousands of cookies, cakes, brownies, muffins, coffeecakes, breads, rolls, etc. I learned by reading and making the same recipes over and over and over. I write about food but my results are not science.

A basic principle in science: testing must be done numerous times and results must have the ability to be independently reproduced. Where’s the science behind the cookie testing results? While Arias’ posts are fun to read, they are not scientific. Calling a fluff piece “science” is misleading. It attempts to elevate recipe development to a higher status but only succeeds in devaluing the true nature of scientific testing.

I wouldn’t have addressed this issue, but then Anne Miller wrote, The Science Behind Baking the Most Delicious Cookie Ever and referred to food blogger “…Tessa Arias, who writes about cookie science on her site, Handle the Heat.”

Christa Savery Dunn, Baking Outside the Box, an avid writer and recipe developer wrote, “I need to do this experiment myself because I have had different results than some of the ones shown here. What do you think of the science behind this? … I have had brown sugar cookies come out flat and white sugar cookies come out fluffy, so I question that. Also, beating speed and time are not mentioned in this article, and I think that is a major omission.”

Dunn made some excellent observations. And I have more concerns. Does the author use weight or volume measure? If you’ve been hanging around the food/baking world for any length of time you no doubt have heard that weight is accurate and volume is inaccurate with inconsistent results. Volume measure is fine for home bakers, but frowned upon for commercial baking and absolutely unacceptable for scientific results. This blog series gave volume measure for flour, with the caveat, “if you’re interested in the weight…”


In Miller’s piece, a couple of things are right. But there’s a lot wrong, such as “Ooey-gooey: Add 2 cups more flour.” WRONG WRONG WRONG. Adding 2 more cups would be a disaster. Is there no proofreader on duty? Churning out these types of food articles is what happens when food becomes trendy.


We are blurring the lines between science and pseudoscience. But everyone does it so that makes it okay? Unfortunately, Miller’s well written but not-so-scientific article was reposted in Time and again in NPR.

I can certainly see why a food blogger would write about baking chocolate chip cookies. But I’m disappointed with how “science” has evolved. There are similar “science” pieces out there, some good and some not.  But really, please, stop already with this pseudoscience.


Our society worships everything food and everyone wants in. Media stars, marketing personnel, lawyers, English professors, home cooks – far too many people who have no business discussing and writing about food “science” have crossed the line. The food hobby has gone crazy. Enough already.

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Strudels, Sweet or Savory

September 3rd, 2014

Seasonal Plum Strudel

Strudels! Take advantage of this time of year for using seasonal and local produce. For a boost to farmers’ market sales, purchase fresh produce from your local growers.

Strudels are similar to pies: both products are made with a dough and filling. For the crust, use any pie dough. For a sweet filling, use any fresh fruit. For a savory filling, try a mixture of seasoned, par-cooked vegetables.

Peach filling wrapped in oil-based pie dough.

For oil-based pie crust recipe or flaky pie dough recipe.

Savory fillings wrapped in dough and ready to bake or freeze.

Potato chive dinner strudel.

1. Do not use too much filling or it will leak during baking.
2. Place seam side down on parchment or foil-lined baking sheet.
3. Slit dough before baking. It allows steam to escape and makes pre-cut servings.
4. For Hors D’oeuvres, roll dough into thin logs.
5. If filling seems too wet, put strudel in a baking dish.

Home-Based Baking at its Best! If you’re new to strudel and nervous about how they will bake, use a disposable pan when you start making them for sale.

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Cookie Decorating and Marketing Workshop

August 27th, 2014

Last weekend, SweetAmbs and Baking Fix held a cookie decorating and marketing workshop for 12 students. The morning was spent learning flooding, wet-on-wet technique, and  brush embroidery. In the afternoon we talked about marketing our business and selling our cookies.


Amber demonstrated each new technique before students began practicing.


Finished cookies were left to dry on half sheet trays

and the trays were loaded into a cooling rack.





We took a break and ate lunch provided by SweetAmbs. In the afternoon we talked about the marketing aspect of running a cookie business. It’s important to organize your thoughts to begin a marketing plan that fits into your overall business plan. This includes developing a concept and structuring a brand, then identifying your target market while enjoying the market research.

Keep an eye on Amber’s website for more upcoming classes. Baking Fix classes are posted here.

And the latest news: Amber is working on a book! More information after the contract is signed!!

Home-Based Baking at its Best!

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Iggy’s Bread – Bakery Tour & Market Research

August 20th, 2014

Checking out the display cases and asking questions.

If you’re in the food business, bakery tours are a pleasant way to do market research. There’s a lot to be learned from seeing what new products are being sold, how products are displayed, and tours are a great tool for staying up with current trends.

For bakery owners, these tours are a necessity.  If you like food, it’s fun exploration and gastronomic entertainment. Visiting bakeries is one of my favorite activities.

Everywhere I go, I make a point of visiting at least one bakery. On a recent Sunday morning in Boston MA, we went to Iggy’s Bread,  a large wholesale facility with a retail area in front.

Entrance to the retail area for Iggy's Bread.

We found cookies, pastries, tarts, sandwiches, pizza, buns, and granola. So much more than bread!

Everyone gets to choose.



Iggy's sticky buns - the best breakfast pastry, ever!

We bought one each of everything that looked enticing.

Hungry now! We stopped outside to open boxes and dig in.

"Should we go back and get daddy a sticky bun, too?"

Suggestions for an easy and enjoyable bakery tour:
1. Buy one each of everything that looks interesting or different. Ask questions but be considerate of the clerk and other customers.
2. After you get home examine your purchases before digging in. (If you’re too hungry or have kids along, dig in immediately!)
3. Don’t plan on eating your regular lunch or dinner. Sometimes we must sacrifice a meal for market research.
4. You don’t have to eat an entire pastry. Just take a bite or nibble to savor the flavor and texture. Take notes.
5. If you have a lot of treats, wrap up any long shelf-life items. Eat them another day.

Home-Based Baking at its Best! Save your receipts! Bakery tours are a legitimate business necessity.

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Customer Service With a Smile

August 13th, 2014

Customers can always count on excellent service from the Wright folks.

Summers are for farmers’ markets with local and seasonal produce. Many farms also sell value added products such as pies, cookies, and sweetbreads. For the past few years I’ve been purchasing  from Wright’s Farm. And I’ve always been impressed with three things – wonderful customer service, simple yet beautiful displays, and their hand-decorated pie boxes.



Hand-decorated pie boxes.


Last week we visited their farm market.

The market is quite large

and multi-level.

I was privileged to see how they create hand-painted boxes.

I’ve always wondered about the Wright Farm pie boxes. It’s a beautiful touch and surely too time consuming. But as I picked out a triple berry pie, I had a chance to see their streamlined method. With black marker, someone writes in pie names on the flaps and leaves a stack of assorted boxes at the front counter. Then whoever is working colors them in. She did one for me as I watched and in a flash, a stack of boxes were finished.

We bought a still-hot triple berry pie, jar of pickles, and a couple of little zucchini breads for my fall classes.

Home-Based Baking at its Best!

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Seasonal Fruit Pies, FAQ

August 6th, 2014

Two crust pie ready for the oven.

Every summer I receive several pie-related emails similar to this one:

Help! For the third week in a row, my farmers’ market customers are asking when I’ll have pies for sale. I know pies are popular, especially fresh fruit pies, but I can’t seem to make a nice looking pie no matter how much I practice. What can I do?

I know it’s frustrating. Rolling out pie dough can be tricky. My usual answer is to practice, practice, practice! Some bakers are naturals, but it can take other bakers years to make passable looking pies. My next suggestion: make a rustic-style pie.

Blueberry filling shows through the center of a rustic seasonal pie.

Rustic means it’s a sort-of two-crust pie, but instead of a top and bottom crust it’s one large circle which folds over the filling. In the blueberry pie above, the filling shows. In the apple pie below, dough completely covers the filling.

The crust is egg washed and sprinkled with sugar.

Mini-blueberry pies are especially easy to make as rustic pies.

There are some baked goods using fresh fruit that can be a substitute for pie, such as crisps, cobblers, and shortcakes. But honestly, there is no good substitute for pie.

Home-Based Baking at its Best! No factory made fillings here! Customers are counting on the small home-based business to make authentic seasonal fresh fruit pies. Pie dough recipe here.

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Florentine Cookies

July 30th, 2014

Lace-like appearance with chocolate spread over one side.

The classic name for the above cookie is Florentine, but they are also known as Lace Cookies, Brown Buttercrunch Cookies, French Lace Cookies, Tuille, and Oat Laces. The recipe yields a buttery, crisp-tender, flavorful cookie that can be made plain or fancy. These were a regular offering in my bakery. During the holidays I added chopped glaceed red and green cherries.

One teaspoon dough spreads to 4 or 5 inches.

Drizzled with chocolate.

Sprinkled with almonds.

Yield: 2-3 dozen
½ cup butter
½ cup light corn syrup
⅔ cup brown sugar, packed
1 cup old fashioned oats
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup finely chopped walnuts (may use almonds or pecans)
½ cup chopped (candied) cherries, optional, for holiday cookies
1 ¼ cups semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees, line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. In medium saucepan, boil butter, corn syrup and brown sugar. Remove from heat, stir in oats, flour, and vanilla. Add fruits, if using.
3. Drop by teaspoon, three inches apart, on prepared cookie sheets. Do not place too close, they will spread. Bake for 6-8 minutes or until mixture spreads flat, turns golden brown, and bubbles around edge. For a chewier cookie bake one minute less.
4. After cookies cool, spread bottoms with melted chocolate.
5. Store in air-tight container with parchment or waxed paper between layers.

Note: these cookies can be used for Cannoli (form cookies with tube and place seam side down) or bowls (drape over upside down muffin tin or custard cups).

Home-Based Baking at its Best! Customers love these special cookies which can be easily adapted to gluten-free.

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Standard of Identity: Naming Your Product

July 23rd, 2014

In the U.S. there are federal requirements that determine what a food product must contain in order to be marketed under a certain name. Mandatory standards protect the consumer by ensuring that a label accurately reflects the product; for example, that mayonnaise is not an imitation spread, or that ice cream is not a similar, but different, frozen product. These standards are issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency also issues standards of identity. Standards of Identity

But only some food categories are regulated by the government. Meat, dairy products (milk, cheeses, etc), pasta, peanut butter, even white chocolate, all have definitions. The baked goods category, however, has no regulations and no restrictions. That’s why we see faux products such as Blueberry Donuts with no real blueberries (flavoring comes from imitation gum bits) or banana bread made with imitation flavor and no real bananas. No standard of identity also means we can bake cakes and label them breads.

How many of us bake banana cake (high fat, high sugar content) in loaf form so that cake appears as (lower fat, lower sugar) bread?

Is there too much government interference?

Setting federal standards may sound like a lot of over-regulation, but these standards benefit consumers and small businesses by protecting against adulteration and misbranding.

Recently, the honey industry has been in turmoil over this issue. Foreign companies have been selling a sweet golden liquid that has the appearance of honey but is a substandard imitation. The market has been flooded with a misbranded product and domestic honey producers are threatened with unfair competition. Two U.S. senators are working toward the implementation of a national standard of identity for honey.

“New York has some of the nation’s finest honey and hardest working producers,” Senator Gillibrand (NY) said. “To protect consumers and safeguard the integrity of honey products, we must adopt a national standard of identity for honey to prevent unscrupulous importers from flooding the market with misbranded honey products. The lack of regulation is a food safety concern and a bane to our honey producers.”

For more information click here and here.

Home-Based Baking at its Best! No regulation means we must use our own common sense. As small home-based businesses we can handle that, right?

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Cookie Decorating and Marketing Workshop

July 16th, 2014



Visit SweetAmbs for more information and to register

Home-Based Baking at its Best!

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