How to Cream Butter and Sugar (Video!)

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Scene: {Daybreak} Your kitchen. You’re preparing to bake.

Ready to bake!

You’ve cleaned off that old KitchenAid that you got as a gift. Because you’re You, you even turned it on to make sure that it still works after all this time.

You’ve checked the recipe *generally* to make sure that you have everything that you need.

You’ve gathered your ingredients and prepared your mise en place. Your oven is set, your pans are prepped, and you’re ready to be a TOTAL KITCHEN BOSS.

You’re feeling good. You’re ready to start.

“Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.”

**Record scratch. Freeze frame.**

Beloved, if you have no idea what that means, you’re in the right place today. In this post, we are getting to the nitty gritty of what it truly means to cream butter and sugar using a stand mixer. This term appears constantly in baking recipes, and it’s confusing for so many people.

Creaming butter and sugar is also critical to the success of a recipe, so it’s super important that you get on the good foot with this technique. Otherwise, you can set yourself up to fail before you even start.

Let’s go!

In this Post:

TL;DR: I’m Just Here for the Video

For those of you who are visual learners (or if you’re just in the mood to dance), I cover this subject very briefly in this two-minute video. Feel free to take a look and then come back here to fill in your learning!

For even more specifics, Family, keep reading!

What Does it Mean to Cream Butter and Sugar and Why is it Necessary?

Creaming is simply the act of combining granulated sugar and fat (usually butter, but sometimes cream cheese, shortening, or a mixture of fats) until the mixture is lighter in color, increases in volume, and the granulated sugar crystals are not as grainy. A finished creamed butter should look cloud-like and should feel silky, luscious, and ever so slightly grainy.

As I just mentioned, there are several different types of fat that you can use for creaming. In this post, I’ll discuss butter, but this creaming method can be used interchangeably for each type of fat.

This process is hugely important for baking recipes. You see, when you cream butter and sugar together, you’re manually whipping air into your baked goods. This air works with your leavening to create rise!

If your cakes have a tendency not to rise, dear reader, read on! Proper creaming changes everything and it’s the first recommendation that I make when someone comes to me with this specific problem.

Ingredient Rules

First, and this can’t be overstated: PLEASE DON’T USE COLD FAT. In order for maximum creaming effectiveness, the butter needs to be truly soft. Cold butter won’t combine well with granulated sugar, the sugar won’t blend at all, you will tax your mixer, and you will never arrive at the Texture Town destination that you seek.

You should be able to make an indention in your butter with the side a spatula or your finger.

To soften butter, the best method is to put it on your countertop…and leave it there. How long you leave it there depends on a couple of factors: 1) the room temperature (my kitchen is usually between 72°F and 75°F), 2) the butterfat content of your butter (I typically use Kerrygold or Finlandia); and 3) the size of the butter that you’re working with (I always cube my butter before letting it sit on the countertop to help it soften even faster).

Room temp matters for obvious reasons; the higher the temperature of your kitchen, the faster the melt and the quicker you can get to the fun part. The butterfat content matters because higher butterfat butters will melt faster than lower-butterfat butters. For more on this, check out my post on butter! The size of the butter plays into this as well; the smaller the chunks, the faster it starts to melt.

Under the conditions that I described above, I’m usually ready to get baking in about 45 minutes to an hour (the cubing really moves things along). For low butterfat butters, unless your kitchen is very warm, I would not recommend moving onto the next phase for at least 90 minutes or more.

In order to get baking, you should be able to press a butter knife or the tip of your finger into the butter and make a good indention.

While it might be tempting to speed up this process in a microwave, it’s highly ill-advised because the butter will likely soften unevenly, with some spots that are properly softened and other spots completely melted.

The next thing to consider about your ingredients is that you cannot use confectioner’s sugar for this task. You need the solid sugar granules to create air pockets in the butter and to increase the volume of your butter. Confectioner’s sugar, with the consistency of powder, cannot do this. It’s a good start for buttercream though!

Finally, while some recipes will tell you to “mix on high speed”, that’s truly unnecessary. In a KitchenAid stand mixer with properly prepped ingredients, you’ll have a great creamed butter in 3-5 minutes on medium speed (somewhere between speeds 4 and 5). Don’t tax your mixer for butter and sugar! Save that for the double pizza dough recipes!

Tools Needed

There are three different methods for creaming butter, and they each require different tools:

  • The Stand Mixer Method: You’ll need a stand mixer, the mixing bowl for that mixer (they lock into place so it’s important to have the bowl that’s meant for that specific mixer), your ingredients, and a rubber spatula.
  • The Hand Mixer Method: You’ll need a hand mixer, a mixing bowl, your ingredients, and a rubber spatula.
  • Mixing by Hand: You’ll need a wooden spoon, a fork, a mixing bowl, your ingredients, and, you guessed it, a rubber spatula.

In this specific post, we’ll cover creaming butter and sugar using a stand mixer. The others shall follow shortly!

Technique for Creaming Butter

Once your butter is nice and soft, you’re ready to go. Start by adding just the butter to your stand mixer’s bowl and mix on low/medium speed (between speeds 2-3) for about two minutes. I find that this helps the butter get to a consistent temperature and texture throughout, and makes for a better finished product.

Next, with your mixer on low speed, slowly add the sugar. At this stage, the mixture will have the look and feel of wet sand.

Great. Now I want to go to the beach.

Once the sugar is completely added, you can gradually increase your speed until you reach a medium speed (between speeds 4 & 5 on your mixer). At about the 1-2 minute mark, use your rubber spatula to get all in that bowl and scrape the whole thing. I mean it! Everything! Scrape the mixture off the rim, sides and bottom of the bowl and send it all back to the action.

At this point, the mixture will be a tiny bit smoother and a tiny bit lighter in color. You’re not done yet.

Turn the mixer back on medium speed and let it go for another 1-2 minutes. If you watch the butter and sugar at this stage, you can actually see it start to loosen, grow in volume, and get noticeably lighter in color.

Yes. I have done this.

You’ll notice that it looks like there’s much more of it in the bowl; this isn’t true! You’re still working with the same amount, but this is aeration happening before your very eyes. And it’s amazingly cool.

Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Time to check your work with your rubber spatula.

The Finished Product!

Your finished, creamed butter should be roughly two shades lighter than the butter that you started with, and it should be at least 3-5 times the volume of what you started with. Also, texture-wise, you’ll notice that the grains of sugar aren’t as hard and pronounced as they once were. That’s because they’ve started to dissolve during this process!

The completed, creamed butter should look kind of like this:

If you’re here, great! Time to give your mixing bowl one last good scrape and move on the “incorporating your eggs” part of the festivities. If not, don’t worry. Mix on low/medium speed for one-minute intervals until you’re there. You don’t want to go too long because you could actually end up over-creaming your butter and NOBODY WANTS THAT.

Just FYI: over-creamed butter is white, grainy, and greasy. This makes a good spread for toast or bagels, but it won’t do its job in your baked goods.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoy this tutorial and that it’s helpful for you on your baking journey. Remember, you’ll get better with practice so keep on baking! You’ll develop a feel for all of it, including creaming butter and sugar.

Got any lingering questions? Leave them in the comments section below!

Until next time. — Shani ❤️

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How to Scale Recipes Like a Professional

Home » Featured Recipes » baking 101

Hello BwB Family! Today we’re getting into a more intermediate baking technique. If you’ve read the food scale post and the post about how to measure ingredients, you’re more than ready!

In this post, we’re talking about scaling recipes. Scaling a recipe simply means that you are adjusting the recipe to make more or less than the recipe originally intended. Here, we will mainly discuss scaling recipes up to increase the yield, but there are some great tips for scaling recipes down as well!

Need six dozen cookies for a school bake sale and your chocolate chip cookie recipe only makes two dozen? You’ll scale your recipe up.

Want to make six cupcakes for you and your partner but your recipe yields eighteen? You’ll scale the recipe down.

With the right tools and a little patience, you’ll be scaling recipes like a pro in no time!

Let’s go!

In this Post:

Excited? Me too!

Why Scale a Recipe?

There are LOTS of real-world uses for this baking knowledge. Let’s talk about why I scale recipes in my kitchen.

First, for my custom bakery, I often have to scale recipes to make more than the original yield. For example, I have one red velvet cake recipe and I can make a one-tier cake or a four tier cake with that recipe. For those of you with aspirations of starting your own bakery in the future, the ability to scale recipes will be extremely useful for you.

Next, when I have large family gatherings (pre-COVID Y’all 😳), I have to scale cookie recipes to keep up with the demand and I STILL fail every time. They disappear right from the cooling rack. I still bake massive cookie quantities to keep my skills sharp for the holidays.

And who among us hasn’t received the request for Teacher Appreciation Day muffins the night before (or the morning of)? This skill is extremely useful in that situation.

It’s also useful for small batch baking! If you only need a dozen, there’s no need to waste ingredients making two dozen. For people working with mini stand mixers, it’s sometimes necessary to scale down recipes in order to ensure proper mixing. I’ll explain more in the section entitled “Check your Volume”, below.

Tools Needed to Scale a Recipe

There are really only four things that you need in order to scale a recipe:

1. A Good Recipe (preferably written in Metric units).

If a recipe as written is a winner, then it should be a winner when it’s scaled! Metric units are smaller than Imperial units, which means that recipe proportions are much more exact in Metric measurements. Since ingredient proportions are crucial (not an overstatement) in baking, it’s best to work with the most exact measurement units available when you’re changing ingredient amounts. That’s Metric!

2. A Digital Kitchen Scale.

Family, I beg of you. If you’ve said “I need to get a digital kitchen scale” since you’ve started reading this blog, and you haven’t done it yet, please do it now.

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter.

A digital kitchen scale will instantly make you more confident and consistent in your baking. And frankly, a digital kitchen scale is the only way to be able to accurately and confidently scale recipes, since using volume measurements will almost always lead to inconsistent and unintended results. This is true for the original yield of any recipe, but it is even more true for a scaled recipe.

3. Correctly Sized Bowls, Cake Pans, Etc.

Take a good, hard look at that pretty stand mixer on the corner of your countertop. The mixing bowl on that thing has a limit to how much it can hold. One of the many ways that scaling can go wrong is if your mixing bowls cannot accommodate the amount of batter or dough that you are trying to to make. This is particularly important when you’re scaling recipes up (to make more than the original recipe amount). I’ve made this mistake plenty of times, and it’s extremely frustrating.

The point is that there is a limit to how much you can scale recipes up or down, and some of it depends on how large your equipment is. While that sounds slightly inappropriate, it is very true.

4. A Pencil and a Calculator.

Friends, this is a package deal. You see, in order to properly scale a recipe, you need to sit down before you take out ingredients and do the math. I mean, write down on paper exactly how much of each ingredient you need in your scaled recipe, and whether you need to make any adjustments to the procedures of the recipe because of the increased or decreased ingredient amounts.

This few minutes will get your mind right for the bake.

First Step: Math Class

We’re onto the nitty gritty of scaling recipes. Let’s talk about the steps. I’ll use a snickerdoodle cookie recipe that yields two dozen as my reference point here, since those are my favorites and I could frankly talk about those all day.

First, look at the original yield amount of the recipe (in our example, two dozen). Figure out whether the recipe, as written, will suit your needs. In other words, before you even go down this road, it’s best to figure out if you truly need to go down this road. Is there another snickerdoodle recipe that you like that will get you the number of cookies that you need? Or is this recipe your one true snickerdoodle love? If so, and if the recipe as written doesn’t meet your needs, then read on!

Second, figure out exactly how much more (or less) you need proportionally. If the original two dozen in this recipe is not sufficient, and if you know that you need six dozen, then you know that you need to increase the recipe by three times. If the original two dozen in this recipe is too many, and you only want to make eighteen cookies, then you know that you need to decrease the recipe by 25 percent. In the first example, that means that every ingredient in the recipe needs to be multiplied by three. In the second example, that means that every ingredient in the recipe needs to be multiplied by .75.

*Note: Don’t forget to check out the “General Rules for Scaling” section, below. At a certain point, scaling recipes is not advisable. I’ll tell you more about that in that section!*

The last step is to do the math! Literally! I mostly write my scaled recipe amounts right on the original recipe, but a clean sheet of paper works just as well for this task.

My Dad used to always get on my case about double checking my math homework. Same energy here. I catch many math mistakes this way when I’m scaling. I’d rather catch them beforehand than after my cake falls in the center.

Next: onto the mixing!

Check Your Volume!

This has absolutely nothing to do with the volume of your music. Turn UP and have a blast! I firmly believe that you have to be in the right, fun mindset in order for anything to turn out properly anyway.

When I say check your volume, I mean to check the volume of your mixing bowls and bakeware. I covered volume in detail in my post about how to measure ingredients, but to refresh: volume is the amount of space that something takes in a container.

So, in this context, volume means the amount of space that a batter or dough take up in a mixing bowl, or the amount of finished batter in your cake pans and muffin pans. This is particularly important for those of you who are scaling recipes up. That extra batter or dough has to go somewhere and you don’t want that somewhere to be all over your countertop or the bottom of your oven.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

This photo, while beautiful, is an excellent example of “right-sizing” a mixing bowl. At first glance, you’d think that the bowl was too larage for the job. But using this larger bowl gives the artist (yes, bakers are artists) an opportunity to properly mix the dough without risking overspill. This bowl will also give this dough the opporutnity to rise!

My Rules for Mixing Bowls

Mixing bowls come in tons of sizes. In my own kitchen, I have mostly 5-quart bowls for my stand mixer, but I have bowls from 2-cups to 8-quarts. If I’m using my stand mixer, my rule of thumb about scaling a recipe up is that I will scale up to the point where my bowl is 75% full with cake/cupcake/muffin batter, and no more than 50-60% full with cookie or bread dough. If I’m using a hand mixer, a wooden spoon, or a Danish dough hook, my very-unscientific-method is to use the bowl that I think is too ridiculously big for the task.

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

The reasons for this are three-fold:

  • As a recipe comes together (particularly one that uses the creaming method), it increases in volume. Making sure that there’s extra empty space at the top of my bowl helps to contain ingredients and avoid splatter;
  • With too much batter or dough in a mixing bowl, you cannot properly mix the ingredients. So you’ll inevitably end up with unmixed butter and sugar in your cake batter or raw, unmixed flour in your bread or cookie dough. This is because every bowl and mixer has a limit for how much batter or dough it can handle. If you exceed that amount, then it becomes impossible to properly mix whatever you’re making; and
  • Too much batter or dough in your mixing bowl will tax your mixer motor. Whether that mixer is a stand mixer, a hand mixer, or your arm, there’s a limit to how much you can expect of the motor. I learned this lesson the very hard way with a KitchenAid stand mixer and cried for DAYS.

There are a few different ways to figure out how much volume your mixing bowl can handle. The first (and easiest) is to check the manual! For stand mixers, you’ll often find the actual volume maximums for a specific mixer model right there!

For example, for KitchenAid in particular, you’ll see how many dozens of cookies a stand mixer can handle, as well as the maximum number of cups/grams of flour each model can handle. This is a great resource because it comes directly from the manufacturer’s testing, and you can rely on those volume measurements when you’re trying to see if your scaled cookie dough will work in your mixer.

Another way to control the volume amount of a batter or dough is to set an absolute cutoff for how much flour you’re willing to put into a specifically-sized mixing bowl. For example, in my 5-quart stand mixer bowl, I’ve established that any recipe involving more than seven cups of all-purpose flour (896 grams) is a no-go. And, honestly, after multiple experiences of wearing flour, I tend not to go above that amount anyway for a single batch.

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

The way to figure out your personal volume limits is to practice! The best bakers are those who can have fun with themselves.

Sometimes, messes will be made. For example, I learned after many tries that I cannot double my lemon pound cake recipe in my stand mixer, even though on paper I should easily be able to do so. Despite the fact that the doubled recipe only calls for six cups (768 grams) of flour, all of the other volume-boosting ingredients (creamed butter and sugar, eggs, baking soda) puff that batter up like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and I ALWAYS end up removing it from the stand mixer and finishing it by hand. I learned this by practicing!

My Rules for Bakeware

I’m having a vivid memory of oven overspill from overfilled cake pans. ::shudders:: THE HORROR, Y’ALL…

If you scale a recipe up, it’s very important that you have enough bakeware on hand to handle the additional load. This is particularly important for cake, cupcake and muffin batters. Because the leavening will cause the cake to rise in the oven, it’s still important that the pan only be filled about halfway. So, you need more pans!

Wilton has a super helpful guide for figuring out how many cups of batter can fit into a specific-sized pan. You can find it here! For the ambitious among us, then, the question becomes: do you have enough oven space for all this cake?

General Rules for Scaling

The temptation to scale recipes can be overwhelming. I get it. Why make a two tier cake when you can make four? Why make two dozen cookies when you can make nine? But in addition to the volume issues that could arise (as well as the burned-out mixer motors), here are some other rules of thumb that I’ve developed over the years:

  • It is almost always okay to double a baking recipe. I’ve done this with a number of recipes, with nearly 100% success. You can even sometimes triple a recipe (I usually only do this with cupcake and cookie recipes, but there is one pizza dough recipe that this works for as well–all other bread recipes are a NO). But I draw the line there. Though on paper it should work, quadrupling a recipe is usually fraught with leavening issues that will impact the taste and texture of your finished product. If you need a recipe that produces huge batches, and if your recipe doesn’t yield what you need, it’s best to find another recipe. If you find yourself making huge batches all the time, my all-time-favorite resource is The Professional Pastry Chef: Fundamentals of Baking and Pastry by Bo Friberg. The recipes in that book are scaled for bakery production. You will not encounter leavening issues there and you’ll find professional techniques that will only enhance your baking!
  • The same logic goes for reducing a baking recipe. It’s almost always safe to halve a recipe; you can even usually cut it by 2/3rds. However, once you get the the point where you’re trying to quarter a recipe, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the leavening won’t be enough. Time to find another small batch recipe!
  • I recommend scaling a recipe that you’re already familiar with. If you’ve made it successfully before you scale it, you’ll know exactly what you’re expecting in the finished recipe; if something goes wrong, you’ll be more likely to pinpoint the error. I know that this is not always possible though!
  • You don’t always need to scale a recipe! It is safer (though more time consuming) to bake in batches. So, instead of doubling a recipe, you can always make the recipe once, then clean your workspace and make it again!
  • Scaling a recipe might impact bake time of your baked goods. Check this Wilton chart to see general guidance on recommended bake times, especially if you change the size of your baking pans when you’re scaling.

Go forth and scale! Most importantly, have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously. Baking is a path to discovery, and there will be bumps along the way.

As a visual, I’m including a gallery of recipes I’ve scaled recently! Please enjoy and I’ll see you next time!

While you’re here, consider joining my email list so that you get fresh baking tips while they’re hot!

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Sunday Session #8: All-In-one Chocolate Cake

Home » Featured Recipes » baking 101

Friends.

Today, I’m going to admit to y’all that I am a complete and utter fool for my husband and children. If I might…

This past Saturday, my husband told me that our dear friend Bernie had a birthday coming up. I was prepping something totally different for my Sunday Session at the time.

Bernie’s birthday was on Monday.

So of course I wanted to bake a cake for Bernie’s birthday. On Monday.

“What kind of cake does he like?” I asked. I got raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders in response.

“What kind of cake would you like to take?” I tried, hoping for something more than raised eyebrows. I got the raised eyebrows and only the raised eyebrows.

“I’m just the delivery guy,” he finally responded.

I adore Bernie, so I decided to follow my spirit on this one. My spirit chose this double chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream, garnished with chocolate chips. I finished it 6:40 on Monday morning.

Want to see some techniques so that you can replicate them in your own kitchen? Let’s go!

Techniques Featured:

  • All-in-One Cake Technique
  • Crumb Coat Technique

In this Post:

The Setup

As usual, I began my baking session by gathering ingredients and prepping my mise en place. If you’re looking for immediate transformation from non-baker to baker, prep your mise en place first! You can read much more about it here, but the TL;DR version is that prepping your ingredients beforehand will make you a more confident, controlled baker in one shot.

Here’s my mise!

For this cake, I modified the technique in Ina Garten’s Beatty’s Chocolate Cake Recipe by omitting my stand mixer. I also opted for natural cocoa powder when I made this cake. The original, as written, is an exceptional cake and I highly recommend it for beginning bakers.

While the recipe doesn’t specify whether to use natural cocoa powder or Dutched cocoa powder, I used natural cocoa powder since there is more baking soda than baking powder in the recipe. Want to know the difference between baking powder and baking soda, and why I chose natural cocoa powder for this recipe? Take a look here!

Onto technique!

The All-in-One Technique

“All-in-one” is exactly as it sounds. For this technique, you whisk the combined wet ingredients from one bowl into the combined dry ingredients in another bowl and mix until combined. This technique usually makes a more dense, moist (I know) cake than the creaming method. But, with chocolate cake, dense and rich is it.

For more about the best bowls for a home bakers kitchen, and why I chose glass bowls for this chocolate cake, take a peek here!

The original recipe requires a mixer to get everything combined. But Family, one of my favorite things to do on Sunday morning is mix batters and doughs by hand when possible. The sweet repetition of kneading dough or the simple satisfaction of folding fruit into a muffin batter while I’m listening to Sam Cooke just feels good to me. So, a good all-in-one cake on Sunday makes my heart happy, whether it’s for a friend or my family’s Sunday dinner.

For this recipe, I used my whisk to thoroughly combine the dry ingredients in my biggest glass bowl. Then, in a medium-sized bowl, I thoroughly combined the buttermilk, eggs (you need extra large, or 112 grams of eggs for this recipe), and oil with the same whisk. I then added the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and gently stirred only until I couldn’t see any more streaks of dry ingredients.

Finally, I carefully added the hot coffee and stirred gently until it was just combined. You’ll know when it’s done because it will be a luscious, velvety brown.

Once the batter was done, I prepped two 8″ cake pans and divided the batter evenly, using my digital kitchen scale and a ladle. If you’d like to see how I prep my pans, take a look at this video at the :35 second mark.

The Bake

Once prepped, I popped the two cakes into into a 350° oven. I checked them at the 37-minute mark using an instant read thermometer, and let them bake for about three minutes more. Once they hit 210° in the center, they were ready!

After they were done, I let the cakes sit in their pans for about 30 minutes, and then inverted them onto cooling racks. For more on this technique, check out the “Three Tips for Amazing Cakes” video above at the 3:08 mark. In the meantime, here are the baked cakes, fresh from the oven.

The Crumb Coat

Beloveds, a crumb coat is a thin layer of buttercream that you add while building a cake. The purpose of a a crumb coat is two-fold:

  • Like the name suggests, a crumb coat catches any crumbs that might come loose when you’re frosting. If you want a finished frosting without bits of cake in it, then a crumb coat is key.
  • A crumb coat helps stabilize the structure of your cake (to a point…a thick three-tier still needs help). For normal cakes out of a normal home kitchen, kept at a normal room temperature, a crumb coat helps keep the cake level and prevents the cake layers from sliding around.

I wanted a clean buttercream on the cake, so I froze the cakes overnight and took them out first thing in the morning. When I’m not going to frost a cake right away, I wrap the cake layers in kitchen wrap, freezer paper, and freezer bags and then pop them into the freezer for anywhere from an hour to overnight.

These cakes stayed overnight because I WAS TIRED on Sunday evening and I didn’t want to commit an act of violence against them.

So, I woke up before the rooster on Monday and got right to it.

For a detailed explanation about how to crumb coat a cake, the “Three Tips for Amazing Cake” YouTube video at the 5:11 mark is GOLD. For the one-minute TL;DR version (with music!), take a look at this actual footage of me crumb coating this cake.

Sound on if you want to shimmy with me.

After crumb coating the cake, I popped it into the refrigerator to set for about fifteen minutes. With the buttercream on top, I didn’t worry about the cake drying out. The longer the crumb-coated cake stays in the fridge, the more stable the cake will be. You can leave a crumb-coated cake in the fridge overnight with absolutely no issues. But since I was short on time, the fifteen minute set up was all I could do.

It was enough though!

Finishing Touches

After letting the cake set, I did the final touches. For this cake, that meant another layer of buttercream and a dark chocolate ganache topping.

I honestly could have stopped here, but because this was for Bernie I wanted a finished cake, I pressed on and did some buttercream swirls on top, a border at the bottom, and garnished it with some chocolate chips.

So here’s the final product:

Happy birthday to one of the dearest men we know. Happy birthday, Bernie, and cheers to many more.

I hope you enjoyed this Sunday Session! See you next time and don’t forget to subscribe for the latest and greatest content!

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The Science of Sugar (And My Favorite Sugars for Baking!)

Home » Featured Recipes » baking 101

Hi Friends! Have you ever looked at sugar–I mean, really looked at it–and wondered what it is? Have you ever wondered why you need to use so much of it in your baked goods, if its only purpose is to make things sweet?

Spoiler alert: it’s not just there to make things sweet!

Want to know more? Read on!

In This Post:

Where Do We Get Sugar?

I bet that many of you are familiar with the fact that sugar comes from sugarcane. Sugarcane is a type of thick, fibrous grass that grows up to 20 feet tall. The inside of that fibrous grass contains sucrose, which is the essential element for any kind of sugar, from granulated sugar to natural sugar to sanding sugar.

Sugar cane. Photo by mbpogue form PxHere

In the United States, sugarcane is typically grown in parts of Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Hawaii.

Some of you might also know that sugar can also come from sugar beets! As in, beets the vegetable.

So, sugar is a vegetable. You’re welcome.

{Sadly, sugar is not a vegetable}

Sugar beets are grown in parts of Wyoming, California, Colorado, Montana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Minnesota.

Cane sugar and beet sugar are nearly identical in their makeup, and there’s no difference in taste or texture. In fact, depending on which brand you buy, you might already be using them interchangeably in your kitchen! Popular brands of cane sugar are Domino, C&H, and Sugar in the Raw. Popular brands of beet sugar are GW and Pioneer.

Both sugar beets and sugarcane are inedible when they’re raw (although sucking on sugarcane is a popular pasttime). Sugar from both of these sources has to be refined into its final form. By the time they reach that final form, one is indistinguishable from the other!

Sugar’s Impact on Baking: It’s Not Just About the Sweetness!

It’s common to believe that sugar only impacts the sweetness level in your baked goods.

While that’s a common belief, it’s not quite accurate. It is true that sugar impacts the sweetness level of your baked goods, but it also impacts so much more! For instance:

  • Sugar helps baked goods retain moisture. This happens because sugar bonds with liquid in the recipe and retains that liquid. That bond helps keep baked good more moist (I know) for a longer period of time, increasing the shelf life of your baked goods! You can also brush simple syrup (sugar + water) on cakes to help with this as well!
  • Sugar keeps your baked goods from getting too tough. Remember when we talked about how gluten bonds form when flour meets water? Well, sugar weakens that bond just a bit and gives your baked goods a more tender crumb (texture). So, instead of a cake that has the structure of a loaf of bread, sugar helps you make cake that has the structure of…cake.
Photo Credit: Begin with Butter
  • Sugar + fat = air! Sugar aids in the leavening process for baked goods that use the creaming method. When you combine sugar and fat (usually butter or vegetable shortening) at high speed for about 3-5 minutes, the friction creates little pockets of air for your leavening to get nice and cozy in. Without sugar, this reaction cannot happen.
  • Sugar carmelizes and helps your baked goods brown. The amount of sugar impacts how beautifully golden brown your baked goods will get. This is a matter of taste, but if you like your pound cakes to be a deep golden color, then sugar is going to play a huge part!
Photo Credit: Begin with Butter
  • Sugar helps stabilize egg whites. Whipping egg whites for pancakes? Need them to stay stiff for a few more minutes? Add a little bit of sugar to help keep those egg whites stable and firm so that they don’t flop while you’re starting breakfast bacon. To do this, add a couple of teaspoons of superfine sugar to two egg whites after about a minute of beating. The result will be a more glossy, stable egg white! Note: this is the technique (but not the recipe) for making meringue! So look at you and your fancy skills!
  • Sugar feeds yeast. In your bread recipes, yeast needs sugar and liquid to activate. Without sugar, yeast cannot reach its full potential. And don’t we want our ingredients to flourish?
  • Sugar slows things down. Have you ever wondered why the eggs in your custards and curds don’t immediately scramble when you add them? The sugar in those custards and curds slows down the cooking (or “coagulation”) process of those eggs, allowing them to blend slowly and avoid scrambling. You still have to add those eggs slowly though! It’s all about the “temper”ament! (Couldn’t help myself.)

Common Types of Sugar for Home Baking

Friends. There are so many types of sugar. It’s not just about granulated sugar any more! Keep in mind, these are the sugars that I keep in my kitchen. As you go on your baking journey, you’ll find your own favorites!

White Sugars

First, there is granulated sugar. It’s the most common form of sugar that’s used in home baking recipes. If a recipe doesn’t specifically say to use another sugar, then granulated sugar is the way to go. When a recipe calls for you to cream butter and sugar together, granulated sugar mixes into the butter and actually increases the volume of the butter. Hello there, air!

There’s also confectioner’s sugar (also known as powdered sugar or icing sugar), which is common in the United States for buttercream (frosting) and dusting.

You might know that confectioner’s sugar is finer than granulated sugar and mixed with a kiss of corn starch, but did you know that there are levels of confectioner’s sugar?

I know. It’s mind blowing.

Confectioner’s sugar comes in 6x, 10x, and 12x versions. The most common form of confectioner’s sugar that’s on grocery store shelves is 10x sugar. The others can be hard to come by unless you’re a commercial baker (or you have a hookup at a restaurant supply store).

Don’t worry! For home baking, 10x sugar is perfect!

The last kind of white sugar that I keep on hand in my kitchen is sanding sugar. This is a decorating sugar that adds crunchy texture and a touch of shine to whatever you’re baking. Whether it’s extra crunch on the top of a cupcake or a finishing touch for a pie or some cookies, this sugar adds that professional-looking pop that makes your treats a treat to look at.

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

::Brown Sugars Have Entered The Chat::

My absolute favorite sugars on earth are the ones that have a bit of molasses left in them. I say “left in” because molasses is a naturally-occurring part of sugar that is stripped during the production process.

Photo Credit: Begin with Butter

That’s right; molasses is a byproduct! For granulated sugar, it’s stripped completely from the product. For turbinado (or demerara sugar), a tiny bit of molasses remains.

For light brown sugar and dark brown sugar, the molasses is partially stripped and then added back. For muscovado sugar, it’s not stripped at all. The more molasses you find in the sugar, the higher the moisture content in your baked goods and the more rich molasses flavor you’ll get.

Why do I care about molasses? Molasses adds moisture to baked goods, which gives that extra chewy texture to your chocolate chip cookies and gingerbread. And, of course, there’s that rich molasses flavor…and the smell…

::blissful eye roll::

Wrap Up

Sugar impacts so much more than just the sweetness of your baked goods. As you gain confidence in the kitchen and start developing your own recipes, you’ll want to take advantage of every benefit that sugar has to offer when you create your own showstopping desserts. Now you have the know-how to do just that!

I hope you found this helpful and look forward to seeing your beautiful creations!

Epilogue: A Note About the History of Sugarcane

Sugarcane grows in the more tropical regions of the United States, South America, and the Caribbean. It requires back-breaking labor for planting, harvesting, and production.

In the antebellum world, much of this dangerous labor was performed by enslaved people under oppressive and dangerous conditions. Even after chattel slavery ended, people of African descent were disproportionately represented among sugarcane laborers.

As a black woman and a baker, the history of sugar production saddens me. I still feel a deep connection the the souls in my own family who toiled for cotton, soybeans, and tobacco in Virginia; I would never discount the experiences of those who toiled and died on sugarcane plantations for this crop by ignoring this history.

It is a present thought in my mind all the time; I can only hope that those ancestors are resting peacefully and that they are proud of the freedom we have now. I hope my choice–to live in this space and honor their recipes in a new way–makes them proud. I hope that I am making the most of the freedom that they longed for, and that I am showing honor for their sacrifice by shedding light on the truth.

✌🏾 ❤️ 🍞 🧁

Until next time!


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Sunday Session #7: Techniques for The Best Cinnamon Rolls

Home » Featured Recipes » baking 101

When I say that I love all of the ooey, gooey calories from a good cinnamon roll? Y’all. It’s seriously not right that these things exist on earth with us.

It’s also not right that I now have the ability to make just about any cinnamon roll that my heart might desire. And that knowledge, Family, has made me quite a menace in the kitchen when it comes to breakfast pastries in general.

It’s all in the name of…ahem…science.

But cinnamon rolls? CINNAMON ROLLS?! They own me. I will never admit the insane number of cinnamon roll recipes I’ve tried over the years, but suffice it to say…there have been quite a few of them.

Cinnamon rolls almost always start with brioche dough. It’s the perfectly rich, buttery, eggy base for all of that cinnamon sugar, packed into a gorgeous rolled breakfast pasty.

Kinda like this:

Swirls…..

Today, Friends, you’re coming on a cinnamon roll journey with me. Put on your stretchy pants and come with me to learn the techniques that I use to make perfect cinnamon rolls every time. I adapted this recipe from Ambitious Kitchen (I scaled it to make enough for a 9×13 pan), but the techniques are universal and will work with your favorite recipe as well!

In this Post:

Looking for a specific tip or technique? Use the hyperlinks to easily navigate this article!

The Prep

If you’ve spent some time on this site, you know that I always, always, always encourage you to fully prep your ingredients beforehand. This technique, known as mise en place, will keep you from running around like a chicken with its head cut off and will generally make you feel more calm and confident while you bake.

That wisdom is especially true with this dough.

Here’s my mise!

The Yeast

If you read my recent post about the basics of yeast, you know that, no matter the yeast I’m using, I always proof (or prove or bloom) the yeast that I’m using. In this recipe, I proofed the yeast in a warm milk bath (I aim for 110˚F-115˚F) and a half teaspoon of natural sugar. Because the milk has natural sugar in it (lactose), I cut the amount of sugar that I added for the proofing process. Too much sugar will actually kill yeast.

Guess there is such thing as “too much of a good thing.” 💁🏾‍♀️

While it might not be this puffy, bloomed, live yeast will dome at the top of the liquid. If it’s flat or you don’t see bubbles, your yeast is either dead or over-proofed.

And it’s not even remotely the point to overfeed yeast!

When the yeast mixture was done, I added that mixture to the eggs and sugar in the bowl of my stand mixer. Brioche is a sticky dough, so it’s best for beginners to use a mixer if they have one available to avoid adding too much flour.

Making the Dough

Once all of those ingredients were in the mixer, I reserved (or removed) a half cup of the flour from my bowl with a dry measuring cup and set it aside. The rest of the flour (and all of the salt) got added to the mixing bowl for the initial mix.

Then I just…let it go. I turned my stand mixer to “stir” to get everything combined, then set it to setting “2” and let it work for about five minutes without adding any additional flour. It started off shaggy and rough, and eventually got to the smooth and sticky phase you see here:

This what brioche dough looks like when the gluten is really starting to form. It’s combined and smooth, but not quite finished kneading. Good thing I set aside some flour!

Why do I do this, you ask? Sometimes, variables like air temperature, humidity, or even the moisture level of your flour can impact the amount of flour that you need for your recipe. I’ve found that if you immediately add the entire amount of flour that the recipe calls for, you’ll usually end up with over-floured bread. But that’s a baking science nerd post for another day.

(I literally cannot wait to bring you that bread making content though)

After about five minutes of kneading, I ended up adding more flour, one tablespoon at a time. I added each tablespoon, then let it fully incorporate and work for about a minute before adding the next. After the fifth addition, I just…let it go for about another four minutes.

It’s important to let each tablespoon of flour incorporate and work into the dough before adding more flour. You see, the physical motion of kneading is just as important as flour when it comes to gluten development. So you want to give the kneading process a chance to work before adding more flour.

Taking Shape

After letting the dough mix for those last four minutes, it was time to test the dough! I was looking for a tacky but smooth dough. Note: when a recipe says that a bread dough should “clear the sides” of the bowl, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the dough should clear the bottom of the bowl as well. Mine looked like this:

Enriched doughs can be super tricky Fam! By the time you add enough flour to have these doughs clear the bottom and sides of the bowl, it’s going to be over-floured and likely ruined. These doughs should be just a touch tacky on the outside when you finish, and they might be downright sticky on the dough hook when they’re done.

That’s perfect.

With this one, I sprayed my hands with cooking spray, removed the dough from the bowl and dough hook, and shaped it into a ball so that it could rise for an hour.

The Fun Part!

Onto the filling! While that perfect dough was nestled in its resting bowl, I prepped the filling.

Y’all. Cinnamon roll filling has a very potent smell. It’s…the cinnamon.

The recipe calls for light or dark brown sugar. As a rule, I prefer the extra scrumptiousness of dark brown sugar. It’s the extra molasses for me.

The dough finished right at the one hour mark, and what do you know, the stickiness was completely gone. It worked itself out during the resting time.

No stickiness detected.

I unrolled my silicone pastry mat (this one, which I love but which I don’t get paid to advertise), prepped my surface with the tiniest bit of flour, and rolled the dough to just shy of 1/2 inch thickness.

Next, I brushed on a layer of mostly melted butter…and then had a BALL with the cinnamon/brown sugar mixture. Pro tip: make sure to press the cinnamon sugar into the dough!

The absolute most satisfying moment of cinnamon roll production is the actual rolling of the cinnamon…roll. I adore that little *pinch* at the end to make sure that it’s sealed properly.

Remember to leave about an inch of space at the edges of the dough so that you can get the dough to stick to itself!

Next, came the cutting. I aimed for 1.5 inches per roll, to ensure that they baked evenly:

Then I placed them in my prepped pan, with enough room around them for their final rise (about 30 minutes):

While they rested, I turned on my oven to 350˚F. A few minutes before the cinnamon rolls were ready to go into the oven, I double-checked my cheapie oven thermometer to make sure that the oven was actually at the right temperature.

And oh did they rise! As you can see, the dough got nice and puffy during that thirty minute rest period.

Onto the ovens!

The Bake

I may or may not have actually watched these bake for half of their baking time.

Okay. I totally did watch these cinnamon rolls for several minutes of their 22-minute baking time. But it was so satisfying.

Once they came out, they looked…like…this…

The Big Finish

What is a cinnamon roll without cream cheese frosting?

Incomplete. It’s incomplete. While the cinnamon rolls were baking, I got started on the luscious goodness that is the frosting.

Pro tip: cold cream cheese + powdered sugar = LUMPS. You can completely avoid this by letting the cream cheese come to room temperature before starting your frosting.

I put the butter and cream cheese in the bowl of my stand mixer and blended them with the whisk attachment until they were completely smooth. If your cream cheese is cold, this is harder to do, but it’s doable! It just takes longer to get smooth.

Once the butter and cream cheese were blended and smooth, I added half of the powdered sugar and the vanilla and mixed on low speed until the mixture was incorporated and smooth. Once it was incorporated, I added the second half of the powdered sugar and mixed for another minute or so on low/medium speed.

Then, I did this:

These were SO delicious. The dough was just dreamy, and the cinnamon sugar had the perfect balance. My family devoured most of these in one sitting, and when I left them unguarded on the counter, the rest of them disappeared.

Only the dirty baking dish remained.

This recipe was accessible and fun and it’s definitely one that I’ll keep in my repertoire for the future. Dare I say, this one is in strong contention to be selected for Christmas brunch!

I hope you enjoyed this post! Let me know how these techniques worked for you in the comments below!

Until next time! ❤️


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