The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


March 5, 2014

Cheryle Finley: Read instructions to avoid baking failures

CARTHAGE, Mo. — One of my favorite things to do is bake. I love the smell as the cake, muffins or cookies are nearing the end of their time in the oven and have a difficult time waiting for them to cool enough for consumption.

But, sometimes, the end product is less than perfect, and I honestly don't give much thought to the cause of the imperfection, other than to know I did something wrong. One exception is cake. Give me a cake mix, and I can give you a near-perfect cake every time. That was not always the case. The one change? I now follow the directions regarding mixing, which isn't easy for me because it requires patience.

The directions usually call for mixing 30 seconds on low then two minutes on medium. I used to mix what seemed like a minute, so it was probably just 30 seconds total. When I started following the directions, more or less by setting the timer, my cakes ended up being much better and more consistent.

While I was under-mixing, and that's bad, it's just as important to not over-mix. offers some tips for proper mixing.

Pancake batter should be mixed just until almost all the clumps disappear. In this case, a not-so-smooth batter is fine. Mixing up a batch of muffins? Once the liquid and dry ingredients have been combined, stir by hand, not mixer, for just a few seconds. Too much stirring will result in dry, tough muffins. For pie crust, too much mixing will cause the crust to be tough, and too little mixing will not evenly distribute the shortening into the flour, resulting in dry and greasy spots. It's a fine line I don't often try to walk.

Over-mixing or over-kneading bread dough activate the gluten and causes a tough end product. Knead until the dough is smooth and holds together nicely in a ball. For sweet breads, the dough will be slightly sticky and will need three to five minutes of kneading. For non-sweet breads, six to eight minutes of kneading will give you a dough that is slightly firm to the touch. Using whole-wheat flour? The dough will be sticky but don't add more flour. Instead, put a little oil on your hands to make handling it easier.

One recipe instruction many of us don't complete properly is to cream some of the ingredients. When the recipe calls for creaming the butter and sugar, that is the time to mix and mix and then mix some more. Since the flour hasn't been added yet, you don't risk over-mixing. You want the sugar crystals to cut into the butter and create air pockets that will help the baked good rise in the oven. Have you ever added the eggs to the creamed mixture and it looked curdled? You didn't do enough mixing, but this can be remedied by adding a little flour to the mixture to make it come together. Once you've added the flour, over-mixing at this point will result in a tough cookie. Once you've mixed up cookie dough, and it seems just right, here's a tip that's difficult for me to follow: Let the dough sit in the fridge for at least 6 hours and up to 36 hours before baking. I'm always anxious to get those cookies baked, but you would be surprised by what a little patience can bring when you bake cookies. One of my favorite cookie dough mixing tips is to be sure to hand mix the chocolate and any nuts you may be adding. Not doing that was one of my very first baking mistakes, many years ago. One session with mutilated chips and bent beaters is all it takes to learn that lesson.

Baking requires more precise measuring than cooking, so be sure to take the time to measure ingredients accurately. Use quality ingredients, such as pure vanilla extract, instead of imitations. Getting to know your oven is important, too, as the directions for baking times are suggestions and baking time and temperature depends on individual ovens. It's a completely different outcome if I bake with my convection setting and time using the regular oven setting and time. Again, one time was all it took for me to learn that lesson, and I had to start this process all over when I got a new oven. I hope these tips help you enjoy baking as much as I do.

Be sure to get your tickets early for the Taste of Home show on April 5, because they are sure to sell out quickly. I'm always excited about these shows, but especially this time -- my new cookbook will be available. I can't wait to see what it looks like!

From, I'm sharing a chocolate chip recipe that has pudding in the mix. If you like a soft cookie, this is for you. The pudding makes the cookie soft and cake-like. There's no need to chill this dough as it will be just fine if baked when mixed. I'm always looking for different side dishes, and the eggplant recipe from certainly is different. I think it makes a great side dish, but it's also a tasty dip. Notice it calls for one squeeze of lemon juice, not the juice from one lemon. The potato recipe from "Rotisserie Chickens to the Rescue" is a perfect one-dish meal. Top with a fried egg, and it's hard to beat this for breakfast, brunch or dinner. Have a great week and happy eating.


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