TIP: If stored carelessly, flour can absorb moisture, affecting the outcome of your Mason jar cookies, cakes, and other baked goods.To keep your flour at its freshest, store it in a clean airtight container, and place the container in a cool place.
Most of the recipes for baked goods in this book call for all-purpose flour, which is a blend of refined hard and soft wheat flours. Choose either bleached or unbleached varieties, as either one will produce delicious results. The difference is only that the latter type has not undergone a bleaching process, and so contains more vitamin E than its bleached counterpart.
Once opened, flour will stay fresh for up to six months. Simply keep it in a clean, airtight container that prevents the product from absorbing any moisture, and store it in a cool place.
Whenever the word "sugar" is used in this book, the recipe calls for granulated white sugar--although you may also use a super-granulated (superfine) sugar, which is a finer grind that is still coarse enough to have easily discernible crystals. White sugar is generally used when you want to enhance sweetness without adding the molasses-like flavor of brown sugar. When baking cookies, it is the sweetener of choice when a crisp cookie is desired.
Store your sugar as you would store flour--in a clean, airtight container kept in a cool place.
TIP: If your brown sugar turns hard, don't panic-and don't toss it out. Just heat the sugar in a microwave oven for twenty to thirty seconds, and it will become soft enough to use with ease.
Brown sugar is simply granulated white sugar that has been coated with a film of molasses, and so is more flavorful than its white counterpart. Unless a specific type is called for in the recipe, you can use either light or dark brown sugar when making your Mason jar treats--the choice is yours. Just be aware that in addition to being darker in color, dark brown sugar has a more pronounced flavor than light.
Because brown sugar is moister than white sugar, when it is used to make cookies, the results will tend to be delightfully chewy. Be aware, though, that the same moisture that makes brown sugar so irresistible also makes it prone to turn hard and lumpy. To keep your purchase from turning into a rock-hard mass, be sure to store it in an airtight container (doubled zip-lock plastic bags are great) and to keep it in a cool place. If the sugar should become hard, however, simply microwave it, uncovered, for twenty to thirty seconds, or until it becomes soft enough to use with ease.
Eggs help provide the structural framework for many baked goods, helping them to rise. For best results when making the recipes in this book, use eggs marked "large" and buy the freshest ones you can find. Then refrigerate them and use them before the expiration date.
TIP: Although you can substitute margarine for the butter in baked goods, never use light butter, light margarine, or diet spreads, as they contain added moisture that will adversely affect the finished products.
For the best flavor and texture, I use only pure sweet (unsalted) butter in my recipes for baked goods. If you prefer, you may substitute margarine for the butter, but don't use light butter, light margarine, or diet spreads, as all of these products contain added moisture that will adversely affect the finished products.
You'll find that the recipes in this book usually express butter amounts in terms of cups (1/2 cup, 1/4 cup, etc.) These amounts are easy to measure, as one stick of butter (1/4 pound) equals 1/2 cup, or eight tablespoons. For many recipes in this book, the ingredients list specifies softened butter. To soften the butter, simply allow it to sit at room temperature for forty-five minutes. However, don't leave it out of the refrigerator too long especially when making cookies. Overly soft butter will result in excessive spreading during the baking process. In fact, butter that is too warm or too cold can actually alter the temperature of the dough, affecting baking times.
Butter can be stored in either the refrigerator or the freezer. Kept in the refrigerator, butter remains fresh for up to two weeks in the freezer, for up to six months.
BAKING SODA AND BAKING POWDER
The majority of Mason jar recipes that require leavening agents contain one or both of two common forms--baking soda and baking powder.
Also called bicarbonate of soda and sodium bicarbonate, baking soda is a naturally occurring substance. When used alone, baking soda has no leavening power. However, when used in a batter that also contains an acidic ingredient, such as molasses or buttermilk, it causes baked goods to rise.
Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda and other ingredients, the most important of which is an acidic compound such as cream of tartar. When this product is mixed in a batter with wet ingredients, leavening occurs. No acidic ingredients are needed, as the acid is already in the powder.
Why do the recipes in this book sometimes use one of these products and sometimes use both? Clearly, when no acidic ingredient is used in the batter, baking powder is the leavening of choice. But other factors may also come into play. For instance, when baking cookies in which lighter-colored puffier varieties are desired, baking powder is most appropriate. And baking soda can be used to lend a somewhat salty flavor to baked products.
Both baking soda and baking powder are inexpensive and readily available. Stored in covered containers, they will remain fresh and potent for up to six months.
TIP: When extracts are called for in recipes, always choose varieties that are labeled "pure." Imitation extracts may save you a few cents, but they are composed of artificial ingredients that often leave a bitter aftertaste.
Many of the baked items in this book are flavored with vanilla extract. In preparing your Mason jar recipes, try to use only extract that is labeled "pure." Imitation extracts are composed of artificial ingredients, and often have a bitter aftertaste. These products can be used, of course, but since a bottle of extract lasts a long time, it makes sense to spend a little more and buy the best.
In a variety of cookie and muffin recipes in THE MASON JAR SOUP-TO-NUTS COOKBOOK, oatmeal is added for its distinctive yet subtle flavor and wonderfully chewy texture. For the most part, I use quick-cooking oats, as I find that they produce the best results. This product will stay fresh for up to six months when stored in a clean airtight container.
TIP: Due to their oil content, nuts are a highly perishable ingredient. Unless you bake often, buy nuts in small amounts and store any leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer.
Many recipes in this book call for a variety of nuts--including walnuts, pecans, and almonds--to add flavor and crunch to baked goods. Feel free to replace one type of nut with another, according to your preferences. However, whenever the recipe specifies almonds, it is suggested that you avoid substituting other nuts simply because almonds have such a special and distinctive flavor--one that cannot be replaced by any other nut.
When toasted nuts are called for in a recipe, I simply place the nuts (shells removed) in a single layer on an ungreased baking sheet, and pop them into a 275°F oven for about fifteen minutes, or until they are crisp and golden brown. It's important to keep an eye on the nuts as they toast, stirring them occasionally to prevent burning. Remove the toasted nuts from the oven and allow them to cool before chopping or crushing according to recipe instructions. Nuts must be cooled completely before they are used in a recipe or added to a Mason gift jar.
The flavor of nuts is carried by their essential oils, which is the same component that makes all nuts perishable. If you buy nuts in shells, they'll stay fresher, as the shells will protect them from air, moisture, heat, and light. In fact, unshelled nuts can be stored for about twice as long as shelled nuts. If the nuts are already shelled, though, place them in an airtight container and keep the container in a cool, dry, dark place for up to two months before using. To increase the nuts' shelf life, place the container in the refrigerator, where they'll stay fresh for up to four months, or in the freezer, where they can remain for up to six months.
TIP: Chocolate chips add flavor, color, and creamy goodness to a variety of baked goods. Avoid using imitation varieties, which, like imitation extracts, do not deliver the best flavor. To insure that your cookies, muffins, and other sweet treats taste as good as they look, use only pure chocolate chips.
Chocolate chips are used to add color, creaminess, and flavor to a number of Mason jar recipes ranging from pancakes and muffins to cookies and breads. You will, of course, get the best results when you opt for the highest-quality product available. I always use the purest chocolate chips--never chips that are labeled "imitation" chocolate. Although a bit more pricey, pure chocolate chips result in a truer chocolate flavor as well as a creamier texture.
If you use only a portion of a bag of chocolate chips, wrap the remaining chips tightly and store in a cool (60°F to 70°F), dry place. If kept in a warm environment, the chocolate may develop pale gray steaks and blotches as the cocoa butter rises to the surface. In damp conditions, chocolate may form tiny gray sugar crystals on the surface. In either case, the chocolate can still be used, but flavor and texture will be slightly affected. Note that because of the milk solids found in both milk and white chocolate, these chips should be stored for no longer than nine months. Dark chocolate, though, can remain fresh for up to ten years when properly stored.
BEANS AND PEAS
TIP: A number of the dried beans called for in the Mason jar soup and stew recipes benefit greatly from presoaking. This step allows beans to slowly absorb the moisture needed to cook evenly, while greatly reducing their cooking time. Furthermore, presoaking aids digestion by breaking down the beans' oligosaccharides-the indigestible sugars that cause gas and bloating.
A number of Mason jar soups include dried legumes--peas and beans. In addition to their flavor and texture, these tasty morsels are nutritional powerhouses. They are fat- and cholesterol-free, and provide healthy amounts of B vitamins, protein, complex carbohydrates, iron, and potassium. Because they are a natural product, packages of dried legumes may contain some that are shriveled or discolored. Before cooking peas or beans, or layering them in the Mason jar, be sure to discard those that are blemished or discolored.
Some of the legumes called for in this book, such as lentils and split peas, cook quickly--within thirty to forty-five minutes. Others, including kidney, navy, and black beans, should be presoaked, which greatly reduces cooking time, and allows the beans to slowly absorb the moisture needed to cook evenly. Presoaking also keeps beans from splitting open or from the having the outside shell fall apart while the middle remains hard. Soaking also helps break down the beans' oligosaccharides (the indigestible sugars that cause gas), aiding in digestion. Although beans may vary in size and shape, they benefit from two basic soaking methods--long-soaking and quick-soaking.
For the long-soaking method, place the beans in a large bowl or pot, and cover them with four times as much boiling water. Soak the beans for eight to twelve hours, or as specified in the recipe. Once soaked, discard the water and rinse with fresh.
When time is a factor, you can use one or two quick-soaking methods. Place the beans in a pot along with four times as much water. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat, and continue to boil for two minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let stand for one hour. You can also presoak beans using your microwave. Simply place the beans in a microwave-safe container, cover with four times the amount of water, and microwave on high power for fifteen minutes, or until the water boils. Remove from the oven, cover, and let soak for one hour.
You may find that some beans refuse to soften. You can soak them for hours and hours, and then simmer them all day long, but they're still rock hard. This is typically characteristic of beans that are very old or ones that have been improperly stored. Beans that are exposed to high temperatures and humidity undergo chemical changes that make them almost impossible to soften. To avoid this, keep dried beans in an airtight container and store in a cool dry place.
From "The Mason Jar Soup to Nuts Cookbook." Copyright 2004 by Lonnette Parks. Used with permission of the publisher, Square One Publishers. All Rights Reserved
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