Ordinarily, bulldozers and cement mixers don't set my heart aflutter; I've always been grateful to have children who prefer the romance of trains over a truck's brawn. With one month to go until we break ground for our new house, though, I find myself looking longingly at every digger that passes by.
But then the nerves hit: What if we haven't designed the house just right? And how can I possibly be sure the kitchen--my most important space--will work for me, and not me for it?
I'm still studying the kitchen plans, but when I need a break, I bake. And all this baking has helped me focus on what stuff I really need, and where.
Even more than cooks, bakers can go (joyously) nuts choosing their equipment. But for all I have, I've realized how little I routinely use. Moreover, what I use most tends to be my least expensive stuff.
If there's one piece of advice I'd give any new baker trying to stock a kitchen, it's this: Ignore Williams-Sonoma. It's tempting, when you get those glossy catalogs, to buy one of everything and believe they will make you the baker you always dreamt of being. But save your money, and go for the basics.
Foremost, bakers need good measuring cups and spoons. A cook can get away with a dash of this and a scoop of that, tasting and correcting as he goes. Bakers can't. After so many years, I now trust myself to put in salt and vanilla without measuring, but nothing else. Sure, we all know of grandmothers who never measure. That can work for biscuits or cobblers, but not for a fancy cake or even many cookies. So invest in heavy metal cups and spoons for dry ingredients, and good plastic cups for liquid ingredients (I like Cambro ones from a restaurant supply store). And keep them segregated! In a pinch, you can use a dry measure for a wet ingredient, but never vice versa. (Because when you scoop flour into a dry measure, for example, you should brush a knife or your finger across the top to level it without packing it down. There's no way in a wet measure to level the flour without packing it.)
Next up, spatulas. Having wasted my money on more than a few, I now buy them only from restaurant supply stores. I've bought spatulas elsewhere that stand up to high heat--but the handle is so flexible that I can't get enough of a grip to scrape out a stiff mixture from a hot pan. I've bought spatulas with sturdy wooden handles that eventually blacken with rot. And I've had plenty simply go snap in the midst of mixing, leaving me with a handful of handle and the fear of plastic chips in the food. Instead, I love the supply stores' rubber spatulas with plastic, fairly stiff handles in both regular and long lengths. They last for years, and they're cheap.
Alongside my abundant spatula collection hang 12 wire whisks--but only three resemble a standard, balloon-style whisk. The others have a whisk head at a 90-degree angle to the handle, meaning they can reach the corners of my pans with ease--perfect when making delicate custard sauces or lemon curd. Mine, from Ikea's Idealisk line, come in three sizes--and I own three of each, to avoid interrupting my baking to wash one. (See www.ikea.com for a photo, though you'd have to drive to Virginia to buy them.)
Below those whisks stands a crock of pastry brushes, from large and stiff to dainty and delicate. I prefer to buy brushes with black bristles (easier to see when one falls out), but again, the cardinal rule is buy cheap, so you feel no guilt on trashing them when the bristles get sticky or icky.
Finally, one of my favorite kitchen tools, and about as simple as they come: my bench knife, also known as a dough scraper. With about a 3-by-6-inch, stainless-steel blade attached to either a stainless or wood handle, this gadget does what its name promises, scraping dough from your rolling board as you mix or roll. Its bottom edge is also sharp enough to slice a stick of butter into small cubes or to cut my rolled dough into individual cinnamon rolls. The stiff blade means it can also help lift a large piece of dough into a pie plate, and it's good for removing cookies from a baking sheet.
My baking drawer doesn't stop there, of course, filled with cookie cutters, ramekins, all manner of offset metal spatulas, pastry bags and tips, and on and on. But all those run a distant second; I could have none of them and still turn out fabulous and pretty desserts with these few tools and some simple substitutions. That doesn't mean you won't want a few more expensive pieces, such as a stand mixer, food processor, and that expensive but fabulous butter-melter, the microwave. How grand, though, to have cheap make you feel this rich.
Cook's notes: Here are a few of the Web sites I like best for ordering basic kitchen supplies: www.bridgekitchenware.com, www.bakerscatalogue.com, www.kitchenetc.com and www.ureco.com (this last is for United Restaurant Equipment, a restaurant supply store on South Saunders Street in Raleigh).
This Danish recipe, adapted from my book Morning Glories, calls for all the utensils mentioned above, but it's easy and relatively quick. It goes about as far from authentic Danish dough as you can get, but I tried to speed up the original without sacrificing too much in flavor or texture. You can also stop at various points in the recipe, to make it more convenient: After you cut the dough in half horizontally, chill it up to a day before continuing, or form the braids, then chill them, covered, as long as overnight before baking. (Baking them straight from the fridge will take longer; if you have time, let them sit out first to warm up a bit.) Note that you can heat sour cream on low power for about 15 seconds in a microwave if you're in a hurry to bring it to room temperature. Look for SAF brand instant yeast in the grocery store, or Fleischmann's instant yeast at warehouse clubs (I buy mine at BJ's). If you buy a large amount, store it in the freezer.
Raspberry-Almond Danish Braids
Makes 2 braids
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons instant yeast, or 1 package very fresh active dry yeast
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, each stick cut into 8 pieces
1 large egg
8 ounces (1 can) almond paste
3/4 cup raspberry preserves, preferably low-sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest, or 1 tablespoon minced lemon verbena leaves
1 egg white
1/4 cup pearl or turbinado sugar (optional)
In a food processor, briefly whiz flour, yeast and salt just to blend. Add butter and cut into flour by pulsing just until mixture resembles very coarse crumbs. (Or, thoroughly whisk together flour, yeast and salt, then cut in butter with a pastry blender or two knives.) Transfer to a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together sour cream and egg; stir into flour mixture just until blended (mixture will appear slightly dry). Cover directly with greased plastic wrap and chill overnight or up to four days.
In a medium bowl, beat almond paste, preserves and lemon zest until very smooth (start on low speed or almond paste will fly everywhere, slowly increase to high speed). Set aside. Whisk egg white for the glaze until frothy; set aside.
On a lightly floured board, roll chilled dough to a 12-by-18-inch rectangle. Fold dough into thirds like a letter, and turn so that closed edge is on your left (like a book). Cut dough in half horizontally; wrap half of dough in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator. Roll remaining half to a 10-by-16-inch rectangle; transfer dough to parchment paper on your work surface. With a short end of dough facing you, spread half the almond paste mixture with a spatula lengthwise down the center third of the dough.
Using a bench knife or paring knife, cut about 12 slanting lines in the dough down each long side of the filling, not cutting completely to the filling. Fold in the resulting strips to cover the filling, alternating strips from left side and right side. Press ends to seal and press gently on braid to straighten, if needed. Slide braid, on its parchment, onto a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush braids with beaten egg white and sprinkle with sugar if desired. Let braids rest (not right next to the oven), lightly covered with a tea towel, for 20 minutes.
Bake braids for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden and crisp. Transfer on the parchment paper to a wire rack to cool slightly before cutting. Wrap any leftovers well in plastic wrap; they may be reheated in a 350-degree oven until crisped and warm, about 5 to 8 minutes.