Sarah Kieffer talks cold-weather baking in the Star Tribune’s new monthly column

Dear readers, welcome to my first official baking column in the Star Tribune! I’m honored to write here and grateful that you’re reading. I have been writing cookbooks and cooking professionally for over 20 years, and during that time I have gained knowledge, tips and tricks that I would like to share with you to help you with your baking, and perhaps be even in life in general.

At the outset, I would like to admit that most of my knowledge was hard-earned, through mistakes. We live in an age where images of perfection are omnipresent, and often we feel inadequate when our attempts at baking (or anything) aren’t perfect. It’s often said that comparison is the thief of joy, and I’ve often felt second rate in my own culinary journey.

Maybe we were reaching middle age, but reaching this sacred milestone in life was a turning point in my inner monologue. All of these simple human errors made collectively over the years have not been synonymous with failure. Times I didn’t read a recipe before starting, didn’t have ingredients at room temperature, overcooked cakes, forgot to properly line a Bundt pan, and substituted ingredients that didn’t work, all of this helped guide me in my future baking endeavors. These mistakes add up to progress, growth and experience. Yes, I had to go back and redo a recipe, and sometimes I made the same mistake multiple times, but seeing my mistakes and taking the time to consciously resolve them brought me understanding, and often a new way to see a recipe – and the science and art of baking.

Over the years, many readers have contacted me via email, my website, or Instagram with questions and frustrations. Many people have started conversations by saying something like, “I don’t know how to cook; I’m always wrong. » My main goal for this column is to help you both ways: answer many common questions and encourage those who have given up on baking to try again. If you’ve been cooking for a long time, some of these topics may seem simple or obvious, but I also hope to provide you with some unusual tips and ideas that will be new to you.

Since we’re still firmly in the winter months, I wanted to start by talking about baking in winter and how it can affect your ingredients. I’ve lived in Minnesota, with over 40 winters under my belt, and although this particular winter has been mild, we’re usually buried in snow, covered in scarves and sweaters and dreaming of green and spring. Cold weather can lead to changes in both our cooking equipment and baking ingredients, something I learned firsthand when I began recipe testing full time while writing cookbooks . After talking with local bakers and readers over the years, I’ve realized that often items are overlooked when we start baking.

Colder weather makes our kitchens cooler and drier, and even with the thermostat set to room temperature (70 degrees), rooms can still fluctuate a bit, especially in older homes. Even though our furnaces are working overtime to keep our homes at an ideal temperature, many nooks and crannies end up getting cold regardless. Currently I have several cabinets along an exterior wall that FREEZE when I open them to remove ingredients and mixing bowls. This, in turn, makes the ingredients I put in it below room temperature.

Which ingredients are most affected by cold kitchens?

Butter and eggs have the most to lose in a recipe if they are too cold. Often these two ingredients will be called “room temperature” and we usually take them out of the fridge before cooking to let them soften and warm up. I’ve found that bakers often forget to take into account that when their kitchen is very cold, it takes much longer to make. Then, once the butter and eggs are the right temperature, they can be thrown into a cold mixing bowl, which will cool them again. Butter that is too cold can make the creaming process take longer than normal or prevent the butter and sugar from creaming properly. When eggs are too cold, they won’t emulsify properly, resulting in dough clumps.

On the other hand, dry ingredients may be stored in a warmer space than usual (due to an oven running all winter), such as in a cupboard near an air vent, this which can also cause problems. Flour especially needs to be treated with care: dry heat can cause it to lose some essential moisture and dry it out, which will affect its role in the recipe.

What are some helpful tips to make sure our ingredients and equipment are ready to cook?

Reading the recipe before you begin and making sure your ingredients are at the correct temperature is a good place to start. The butter and eggs can sit until they come to room temperature, but if you need to speed things up, you can put the eggs in a bowl of warm water until they are at room temperature. I will put some butter in the microwave to soften it – but please note this can be tricky! I heat my butter stick(s) over low heat for 10 seconds, then stop and flip them. I repeat this until they are just softened, checking after each turn.

Store the flour in an airtight container. Flour retains moisture, so storing it in an airtight container helps in both winter and summer and keeps it fresh longer.

Mixing bowls can be heated gently; I place mine near the oven while it preheats, checking until it is no longer cool to the touch. (But remember, we don’t want it to be hot either.)

It’s also essential to make sure your oven is preheated before baking. Since the ovens are made of metal, they may take longer to heat properly in winter. It’s helpful to use an oven thermometer to check the internal temperature (many home ovens are not properly calibrated) and this will help you gauge when your oven is at the right temperature.

After all this talk about cold weather, I included a lemon cake recipe to cheer us up (although maybe 70 degrees last weekend already did that). This cake is bright and delicious, and a great way to try out all these tips.

Lemon snack cake

Makes 1 (8-inch) cake, or 12 to 16 servings.

This lemon cake is adapted from the lemon bread in my cookbook, “100 Morning Treats.” I modified it a bit so that it baked beautifully as a snack cake. This cake is both dense and moist and is best the day after baking. I like to wrap it in plastic once it has cooled and the frosting has set, then refrigerate it overnight. I eat it cold, but at room temperature it’s also delicious. A 9-inch square pan can also be used here, but the cake will be thinner and you will need to check the cake sooner to see if it is done. By Sarah Kieffer.

For the cake:

• 1 3/4 tsp. (250 g) all-purpose flour

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 1 C. baking powder

• 1/4 tsp. baking soda

• 1 1/2 cups. (300 g) granulated sugar

• 1 tbsp. lemon zest

• 3 oz. (85 g) cream cheese, at room temperature

• 1/2 cup. (112 g) vegetable or canola oil

• 3 large eggs, at room temperature

• 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

• 1/4 t. (60 g) fresh lemon juice

For the icing:

• 2 to 4 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

• Pinch of salt

• 1 1/2 cups. (180 g) powdered sugar


For the cake: Place an oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8 x 8 inch square pan and line it with a sheet of parchment paper.

In a small bowl, combine flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. In a medium bowl, combine the sugar and lemon zest and use your fingers to rub the zest into the sugar until it is evenly distributed and fragrant.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese on low speed until smooth. Add the granulated sugar and zest to the bowl and beat until the mixture is fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and, with the mixer still on low, add the oil and beat until well combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing about 30 seconds after each addition and scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl. Add the vanilla and mix until well combined. On low speed, add half of the flour mixture, followed by the lemon juice, then the remaining flour mixture, beating after each addition until well combined. Remove the mixer bowl and give the dough a few more turns with a spatula to make sure the ingredients have been incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake until a wooden skewer or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 32 to 45 minutes. Move the pan to a rack and let the cake cool in the pan. While the cake is cooling, prepare the frosting.

For the icing: In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons lemon juice, the melted butter, and a pinch of salt until smooth. Add the caster sugar and mix, then whisk until smooth and free of lumps. Add more lemon juice, 1 tablespoon at a time, to thin frosting to desired consistency; the frosting should be thick but pourable. When the cake is just warm to the touch, pour the frosting over the cake in the pan and let sit until the frosting is set. Remove the cake from the pan. Cut into squares and serve. This cake is best the day after making it and can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for up to 3 days.

Sarah Kieffer is a Minnesota baker, cookbook author, and creator of the vanilla pod blog. Follow her on Instagram at @sarah_kieffer.

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