Archive for September, 2015

Apple Pie, FAQ

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

This pie was the best ever - flaky and flavorful.

Pile apples high with at least two varieties, use fresh spices, and taste filling before baking.

Consumers love pie! But baking pie seems to be problematic for many people. I am totally sympathetic to the pie-challenged, since pie making was not always my favorite baking activity. But practice definitely results in better pies. Over the years I’ve learned a few tips for making wonderful tasty and flaky apple pie:

About Apples
Sadly, I’ve found that recommendations for best baking apples were not always accurate.  I learned early in my bakery career there was inconsistency in those lists. My biggest irritation was piling a mountain of apples into the crust for making a mile-high apple pie; but then occasionally the apples baked down to mush while the pie crust stayed nice and tall. I solved the problem by using a mixed variety of 3 kinds of apples and from then on my apple fillings were always excellent.

Last week for home use, I bought two kinds of apples.  There are so many new varieties I wanted to try, I just picked ones that looked good to my hungry eyes. The pie was for family so I wasn’t concerned about customer complaints. It wasn’t until the next day when I was slicing those apples that I checked several internet lists and the two kinds I had purchased were both said to be “mush” in baking. Damn. I briefly considered making a strudel which would surely hide the problem, but I decided to make a pie and cut the slices thicker. Success! The “mush” prone thicker apples held up just fine. (I haven’t replicated this procedure but I would try it again the next few times I make apple pie. If you inadvertently buy apples that may not hold up in baking, and try this method, please email to let me know your results.)

Apple Pie Tips: 1. Use at least two varieties of apples.  2. Cut apples into both slices and smaller chunks. The smaller pieces fill in the crevices. 3. Most recipes don’t have enough flavor. After mixing your filling, taste it and see how you like the taste. Older spices tend to lose flavor so feel free to add more spice (and more sugar).

About Pie Dough
Recently I’ve been involved with a pie crust project which means lots of pie baking. As I researched the subject, I came across foodie/scientists, foodie blogs, and their “science of cooking” which is a misnomer (here’s one of the many articles I found.) Proper scientific methods include repetition to achieve repeated similar results. Unfortunately, many foodie/scientists jump to conclusions, write with authority, and create ever more myths. I am not a food scientist. I can only share what I have learned from practical application and baking thousands of pies (sometimes grudgingly) throughout my career.

Pie Dough Tips: 1. For many years I used ice cold water but on several occasions there was no ice water when it needed to be added to the mixer. My practical experience taught me that results for using ice water vs cold tap water were the same. Now I use cold tap water. (Warm water will soften the fat too much.) 2. I like a wetter dough which = softer dough, and easier to roll out. 3. I read all about the science of using vodka (actually any alcohol works, it depends upon the flavor and color you’re looking for) so I’ve been experimenting with using vodka for part of the water. To reduce the number of variables, my current pie project is only using vodka. 4. In family focus groups (taste and texture tests) I’ve learned that while butter is nice, an all-vegetable shortening and vodka makes for a flaky crust and a delicious taste.

Not a scientific study: Three year olds don't always like weird pie foods, top left, but five year olds will eat their own piece plus their brother's.

I still often use my part butter crust recipe, but below is a variation that results in consistently excellent pie.

yield: enough for two double crust pies
5 cups all-purpose flour (approx. 1¼#) plus extra for rolling
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups vegetable shortening (1#)
¾ cup cold water (or use part vodka, part water)

1. Have your filling ready, and set aside.
2. Pan spray baking tins and preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
3. In a large bowl, lightly mix flour and salt, then cut in shortening. When mixture looks fine-grained, drizzle in water/vodka and mix into a ball. Knead lightly, then separate into four pieces, two slightly larger. Use at once or wrap and chill for one hour or up to five days.
4. Don’t worry about working fast – take the time you need. Roll out larger pieces of dough and place in lightly greased pie pans. Trim any dough hanging more than ¼” over the edge. Add filling, roll out top crust, and place over filling. Gently roll edge of top and bottom crust together and press down to seal. Flute edges, or not, in any way you want. Vent top of each pie. If you wish, pie tops can be brushed with water, milk, butter, or beaten egg. You can also sprinkle with sugar. Or just leave plain.
5. Place pie pans on a cookie sheet with a large piece of parchment or aluminum foil under each pan. Bake in preheated 375° oven 45-60 minutes. Pies are done when juice has bubbled out for a few minutes.
6. Let pies cool at least two hours before cutting. To freeze, cool to room temperature then wrap well and place in freezer.

Home-Based Baking at its Best! If you have a home-based food business and do not make pies, consider adding this product line to your offerings. With the trend toward home-made, seasonal, and local, your customers would appreciate purchasing fresh pies any time of year.

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Bakery Tour, La Cascia’s Bakery & Deli

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Congratulations, 35 years in business! Wonderful products, terrific customer service. I can see why they are still thriving.

I’m in love!! I visited La Cascia’s Bakery & Deli in Burlington, MA. This excellent bakery, located in a small shopping strip off a neighborhood road, has a deceptively unawesome storefront. But wow! A real Italian bakery with high standards for their products and their customer service.


La Cascia's has a long refrigerated case

and a shorter dry case for butter cookies.

The display trays were clean, neat, and beckoning. Everything looked delicious.

Fresh breads and rolls are on shelves behind the counter.

Clockwise from bottom left: carrot cake, walnut sweetbun, blueberry pocket, lemon mini-pocket, almond paste cookies.

My only disappointment was not finding product signs or prices. But the sales clerks were cheerful, friendly, and knowledgable – the best customer service I’ve had in a long time.

If you live anywhere near this old-fashioned scratch bakery, please stop by. I highly (highly) recommend the almond cookie varieties.

Home-Based Baking at its Best! Visiting bakeries for product ideas is part of your market research. Enjoy this aspect of running a business!

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Cookies! Do You Make Cookies?

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

Variations of the same basic sugar cookie recipe.

October is National Cookie Month. Regardless of what you think about national food holidays, from a marketing standpoint it’s always smart to take advantage of anything that promotes your products.

A few of the best-selling cookies: chocolate chip, sugar, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, snickerdoodle, shortbread, and brownie cookies. When deciding the type and flavor of cookies, keep in mind some practical issues such as shelf life, packaging, storage, and handling.

Chocolate chip cookies, always a winner.

I suggest you keep a few basic flavors in your repertoire, then rotate other flavor(s) weekly or monthly. Have at least one cookie that is non-dairy and can be eaten by vegans. Be aware of your market. Sizing can vary depending upon venue – make large handheld cookies or small ones sold in packages. And having too many similar varieties (chocolate chip and chocolate chip with walnuts, for instance) can be counter-productive. You don’t have to make both; unless you’re selling at a very busy marketplace, customers may buy one or the other which leaves you with unsold cookies.

Think about your current recipes and how they can be adapted for change.

Sugar cookies sandwiched together with jam and dipped in chocolate and sprinkles.

Double chocolate cookies. Instead of adding chocolate chips to the recipe, these have chips melted and added as a topping.

Raisins and walnuts added to a basic sugar cookie recipe. Cranberries or other dried fruits are good alternatives.

Think twice before following business advice from unreliable experts. Selling Homemade Cookies: Tip #2

“Any burnt cookies should not be sold.  You can throw them away, eat them with your family, or give them away as free samples. You could also donate them to a food bank or food collection if you are into helping people. Plus, then you can say that you donate food. It’s a good advertising campaign.”

Yup, it’s a good advertising campaign if you want to be known for burned cookies.

Home-Based Baking at its Best! For National Cookie Month, be prepared with signs. If you have a home-based food business, this is the perfect opportunity to highlight that your cookies are all-scratch and homemade, not “home-style.”

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Baking FAQ: Gas vs Electric

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

I often receive questions about which heat source, gas or electric, is best for baking. I always respond that it’s whatever is most comfortable for you, and gives you the best results. It comes down to personal preference and what makes you happier.

For me, it’s using gas. I grew up and learned to bake using gas ovens, so that’s my preference. But over the years as I’ve moved to different areas of the US, I’ve had to use electric ovens, too. After my initial shock and annoyance with each oven, I learned how to tweak settings for optimum results. My experiences in commercial kitchens were the same.

I recently moved and once again found myself with an electric oven. Drat!

In my new kitchen, I rolled out a top and bottom crust for blueberry pie.

Unbaked pie, crimped and vented.

This pie started on the bottom shelf, then was moved to the top for the last twenty minutes.

Look at my results: a beautiful golden crust.

Online, too, I often see this question posted in forums and on Facebook. Both sides respond, the pro-electric and the pro-gas camps, and they almost always have answers with anecdotes to prove their point. I don’t doubt the veracity of the negative stories, but I believe their replies have more to do with individual ovens and quirks, than with the overall category of heat source. (As bakers, we can be very opinionated people.)

Home-Based Baking at its Best! The best heat source for your baking business, is the one that makes you feel most comfortable.

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Shelf Life, FAQ

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Uh, oh. My last bakery visit was disappointing. My purchases were less than acceptable. The culprit was shelf life: the taste and texture of old. They have now lost a customer. I will never return and never recommend this bakery.

Baked goods from my last bakery tour.

There are a few things that will hurt your business. At the top of the list is selling products past their shelf life. You don’t have to make everything fresh every day, since some products last longer than others. Biscotti and granola, for instance, can remain fresh for several months. Some muffins, however, will only last a day or two.

It’s important to know how long each of your products can remain fresh. This entails testing every recipe as part of your recipe and product development. Once you have determined the shelf life of each product, it’s important to act on this knowledge. Keep track of sales and which products are no longer fresh.

Apple and lemon bars, rear left, had soggy crusts and gummy fillings. Cupcake frosting had an unpleasant flavor from sitting too long in the display case. Raspberry on eclair was gummy, whipped cream was crusty, shell was soggy. Black and white cookie was soft, but also the same unpleasant old flavor.

This bakery used a color coding system. As you can see in the cookie below, a sticker was placed on the bottom of the paper cup.

Color coding is a common way to keep track of shelf life, but follow-through is necessary.

Home-Based Baking at its Best! It’s hard to lose money by not selling products, but in the long run it hurts more to lose business by chasing away customers.

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