MEASURING THE INGREDIENTS
Earlier in the chapter, I mentioned the importance of accurately measuring ingredients to achieve successful cooking and baking results (see Basic Kitchen Equipment). In addition to following the basic guidelines presented in that discussion, keep these tips in mind when preparing the recipes in this book.
* There's no need to sift the flour before--or after--measuring it for any of the recipes. But keep in mind that the amount of flour used in baked goods is crucial, so care should be taken to avoid adding more flour than recommended. To keep the flour light and the measurement true, either dip the cup in the flour bin or spoon the flour into the cup before leveling with a straight edge, such as a spatula or knife.
* When measuring butter, soften the butter only until it is malleable enough to be packed into a dry measuring cup. Then level off the top with a straight edge.
* When measuring butter, remember that a 1/4-pound stick equals 1/2 cup, or 8 tablespoons. Usually, the butter wrapper has tablespoons clearly marked, making it easy to measure out the proper amount.
* Measure brown sugar by packing it firmly into a dry measuring cup and leveling it off with a straight edge. When the sugar is turned out of the cup, it should hold its shape.
* When measuring raisins and other soft, chunky ingredients, press them into the measuring cup. When measuring dry, chunky ingredients--chocolate chips and chopped nuts, for instance--spoon the ingredient into the cup, tap the cup against the table to make the ingredients settle, and add more if necessary.
MIXING THE BATTER OR DOUGH
TIP: Although electric mixers can sometimes be used to blend wet and dry ingredients, whenever a dough or batter contains chocolate chips or other chunky ingredients that you want to remain whole, you'll enjoy best results by mixing with a wooden spoon.
Most of the Mason jar cookie and cake recipes require that you cream or blend the butter with one or more of the other ingredients, such as the vanilla extract or the egg. This is an important step because it helps insure the proper ingredient blending of the dough or batter. It also incorporates air into the mixture, enabling your baking soda and baking powder do their work. Although I use a portable mixer to cream the required ingredients, this step can also be performed with a whisk, fork, or a wooden spoon. Just keep mixing or beating until the ingredients are blended according to recipe instructions.
Once the butter mixture has been blended, most recipes will direct you to add the dry ingredients to this mixture. In some cases, the ingredients can be combined with either a wooden spoon or an electric mixer set on low speed. Be aware, though, that when the dry ingredients include chocolate chips or other goodies that might be chopped up by an electric mixer, it's best to use a spoon.
FORMING AND BAKING COOKIES
Some of the Mason jar cookies in this book are drop cookies, meaning that you form the cookies by scooping the dough up with a teaspoon and dropping it onto the baking sheet. Cookie doughs vary in consistency. Some will fall easily from the spoon, while others may need a push from your finger or a second spoon. To make the cookies uniform in size, use a measuring teaspoon rather than the teaspoon from your everyday flatware, and scoop up a heaping teaspoonful.
Cookie dough that needs to be rolled out and cut must be relatively stiff. If the dough seems too soft and sticky, refrigerate it for twenty minutes or so. Then lightly dust the work surface with a little flour, and use a rolling pin to form the dough into a sheet of the correct thickness. If sticking continues to be a problem, you can also dust the rolling pin with a little flour. Don't use too much flour, though, as an excessive amount will result in a tough cookie. After cutting the dough, press the remaining pieces together into a ball. Return the dough to the refrigerator until it is firm enough to roll and cut.
As the cookies are formed--whether "drop" type or "cut"--place them at least two inches apart on your cookie sheet to allow for spreading. It is not necessary to grease the baking sheet unless the recipe specifically directs you to do so. Bake only one cookie sheet at a time, and make sure the sheet is on the middle rack of the oven with at least one inch between the edge of the pan and the oven itself. This will promote proper airflow and even heating.
CHECKING FOR DONENESS OF BAKED GOODS
TIP: Baking times vary from oven to oven, and can even differ because of variations in ingredients. For best results, check your cakes and cookies for doneness at the minimum baking time.
Most cakes, muffins, and breads are finished baking when a toothpick inserted into their center comes out dry. As mentioned earlier, once they are removed from the oven, these piping hot cakes should be allowed to sit for five to ten minutes before they are released from their pans. If removed too soon, the cake may crack or crumble apart.
Baking time for cookies is much shorter than it is for most other baked goods. In most cases, cookies are done when they are slightly browned around the edges. Since baking time and oven temperature affect the cookie's final texture, you may also choose to make adjustments according to your personal preferences. If you want your cookies to be chewy, slightly underbake them. If you want them to be crisp, bake them a little longer. A watchful eye is very important when baking cookies, as they can quickly turn from done to burned.
Keep in mind that most ovens run either a little hotter or a little cooler than the temperature to which they're set, so be aware that you may have to compensate by adjusting either the temperature to which the oven is set or the baking time. (If desired, use an oven thermometer to determine the precise temperature.)
DOUBLING OR HALVING THE RECIPES
Some of the recipes in this book provide instructions for creating quart-sized Mason gift jars, while others are designed for pint-sized containers. The soup and beverage recipes can be easily doubled or halved. However, when it comes to baked goods, successful recipe conversion is often more complicated than simply multiplying or dividing ingredient amounts. Doing so may alter delicate chemical reactions--with possible disastrous results. Because all of the Mason jar recipes have been successfully kitchen tested as they are presented in this book, I recommend preparing them and creating gift jars exactly as instructed.
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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