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Counter Intelligence: Essentials for baking holiday treats

By April Hamilton
April Hamilton
Imagine the tasty creations you can bake with butter, flour, nuts, dried fruit, lemon peel and chocolate chips.
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!TechniquesPan 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.IngredientsButter: 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.
This is a tall claim, but in my vast experience of brownie tasting and testing, these win -- especially if you factor in the no-fuss recipe! Sprinkle each brownie top with powdered sugar for a snowy look, or use a stencil for an extra-special touch. Makes 16 2-inch squares, or 32 triangles.
1/3 cup butter3/4 cup sugar2 tablespoons water2 cups semisweet chocolate chips, divided2 eggs1 teaspoon vanilla3/4 cup all-purpose flour1/4 teaspoon salt1/4 teaspoon baking soda1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional), preferably toastedHEAT oven to 325°. Grease and flour a 9-inch-square pan.MELT butter, sugar, and water together in a large microwavable glass bowl. Microwave on high for about 1 minute, until butter is melted. Whisk to combine and heat for about 1 minute longer, until bubbling.WHISK in 1 cup chocolate chips and stir until melted. Let cool slightly. Whisk in eggs and vanilla until thoroughly combined.STIR in flour, baking soda, salt, nuts, and remaining 1 cup chocolate chips. Stir until flour is thoroughly incorporated.SPREAD batter in prepared pan, and bake until the top is puffed, shiny, and cracked, about 30 to 35 minutes.COOL completely in pan on rack.CUT into squares and serve.

• • •Did you know? Cutting warm brownies with a plastic knife works like a charm -- no sticky crumbs.April Hamilton has always said, "Cooking is fun!" She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April's husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. April would love to hear from you: Email

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