After Pastry School – Tools of the Trade

Building a well-equipped home pastry kitchen takes time, space and money.  Three things that are in limited supply for most of us. The best strategy is to shop smart (Amazon, Overstock, department store sales) and really think about what you need before you buy.  It’s wonderful to have a beautiful 10 inch cake pan, but only if you’re actually going to make 10 inch cakes on a regular basis. Otherwise you are going to have spent your money unwisely and will have to find storage space, which you won’t have.  You can also ask for, and hope to receive, some of the more expensive pieces (stand mixer, food processor, immersion blender, etc.) as gifts. This is one of those rare situations where weddings, showers and milestone birthdays can be quite helpful.  I have met fellow bakers that have found serviceable stand mixers on Craig’s List but I’m not a fan of used; whether books, clothes, cars or appliances I want new.  The way most people treat their things and keep their homes doesn’t make me want to inherit their poorly maintained, sketchy stuff.  But, to each their own.  You gotta do what you gotta do to become properly outfitted.

The one thing I think is the most important is a good stand mixer.  In fact, I believe it’s so important I have two, a 5 quart and a 7 quart, both Kitchen Aid brand.   I love them both, differently, yet equally.  Sam bought me the 5 quart Artisan for our first married Christmas in 1999 and the 7 quart was a corporate job funded purchase a couple of years ago, something I “had” to have to make brioche.  As the little white guy is getting older and gets tired (hot to the touch and making strangling noises) it’s nice to have the newer, more powerful big red for doughs and meringues.  I use the stand mixer for everything – cookies, bread, cakes, frosting, creams.  Most recipes will include instructions on how to do things by hand or with a hand held mixer and you can go that route, but I personally don’t think the results will be half as good and it can be a tremendously frustrating process.  A stand mixer is a big investment, but a worthwhile one.

The other big purchase is the food processor.  My Cusinart workhorse is 15 years old, a Christmas gift from Mom, and I find it important for both pastry and savory cooking.  On the pastry side I use it for pie/tart/bar crusts, scones and fine chopping tasks.  On the savory side it’s key for sauces, dressings and chopping.  There are many tasks for which you can substitute a stand mixer, blender or immersion blender for the food processor, if you’re limited in funds or space, but I like it so much for pie and tarts crusts that it’s a must have for me.  The smaller, hand held immersion blender has made the traditional blender obsolete in my kitchen (except for smoothies and frozen summer beverages) and the whip attachment is amazing, no more lugging out the stand mixer for a couple of cups of boozy whip cream for pie or ice cream.

Also pictured below is my pastry school scale and my recipe/notes book.  Almost all professional bakers and pastry chefs use weight versus volume measurements.  It’s more accurate and so much easier.  The scales are inexpensive and take up little space.  Buy one.  My fabulous little hot pink Kate Spade notebook was a parting gift from my boss at Sofra.  I’m using it to keep track of all my recipes, once they’re tested, retested and finalized, and some of the tips and tricks I learned at school and in professional pastry kitchens.  I wish I had been taking notes and keeping successful recipes in a central place throughout my baking adventures over the years.  If you bake or cook, start a notebook, start now.  No apps, programs or spreadsheets for this old-school girl.  I like to hand write, have it portable and private.  In the wise words of Gandalf, “keep it secret, keep it safe”.  And of course, eat cake for breakfast!

Even if you don’t have the bigger appliances you can still cook and bake quite well at home. Most of the basics will be in almost every kitchen and don’t have to be expensive or fancy, unless you want them to be.  In that case, enjoy your splurge shopping at Crate & Barrel, Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table and Pottery Barn.  A set of stainless mixing bowls, some sturdy glass liquid measuring cups and a few wooden spoons along with a couple of nice sauce pans, a sharp chef’s knife, tongs, a peeler and absorbent dish towels are what I would consider the “prep” equipment.

Then there are the smaller items such as whisks, strainers/sifters, spatulas and scoops. The scoops may seem like an indulgence and kitchen drawer hogs, but they ensure consistent cookies, cupcakes, muffins, truffles and biscuits.  I lived without them for years and I have no idea how.  Larger off set spatulas, kitchen scissors, a ruler and juicer aren’t used in every project but often enough to earn their space in the drawer.

For my smallest and most key items I decided to buy a kitchen drawer organizer and keep it right on the counter, between the mixers and the oven.  We had these tools easily accessible in a bin on the baker’s table at Sofra, adapting this at home has been life changing, keeping my  white drawer fronts clean and my swearing to a minimum. Measuring spoons & cups, bench knife, bowl scraper, grater, off set spatulas and measuring tape.  I also like to have a small timer, my new oven chirps softly.  When I’m multitasking I need to be screamed at.  This little guy does the job, attaches to metal and can clip to an apron.

Now that your batter or dough is mixed, you’ll need to bake it.  Yes, you will need pans of all shapes and sizes. No they will not fit nicely into your cabinets.  They will likely live in your coat closet and/or under your bed but you need them.  Sheets pans (in two sizes), a glass 9 x 13 and 8 x 8 along with a metal 9 x 9, a nice solid 8″ cake pan, a 9″ spring form and some disposable pie tins and loaf pans will enable you to make most any recipe.  Aside from the pans pictured I also have muffin tins, mini muffin tins, a round tart pan with removable bottom, a 10′ cake pan, two 8″ cake rings, a popover pan, several glass pie plates, a tin pie plate, a glass 7 x 11 and several dark non-stick loaf and cake pans that I no longer use.  The non-stick rusts and the edges cook too fast.  On my wish list is two 6″ cake pans, another 8″ cake pan, min tart pans and a couple of rectangular tart pans.  I’m very happy that my “have” list is much longer than my wish list, finally.

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The last must haves in my kitchen are good plastic wrap (this brand is almost as good as food service grade and available at Stop & Shop), freezer storage bags, parchment paper and heavy duty hand cream for my sore, dry, cracked hands.  After all there is no kitchen support staff at home, all the dishes are yours to do.

So what else is in my kitchen that’s not pictured?  A couple of aprons, a green paring knife, my pastry school kit and a small, but growing collection of cake decorating supplies.  I used to enjoy cute, stylish aprons, but they get stained and die a slow death over dozens of washes.  The sturdy ones from school are practical but not photogenic.  My paring knife is a tool I use to cut, chop, open flour/sugar bags and do pretty much everything else.  I was introduced to these knives during my internship at Flour Bakery and they are perfect for pastry chefs and bakers.  The school kit hangs conveniently on our rolling kitchen island and gets taken out from time to time for involved projects or when I need my candy/fry thermometer. The cake decorating supplies will someday get their own post, once I’m a bit happier with my decorating skills.  There’s improvement, now I pursue consistency.

I would love to hear from others on what’s in their kitchen that they can’t live without. What did I miss? I usually don’t do gadgets, but I could be convinced if anyone knows of any time or space savers.  Let me know in the comments.

EVENING UPDATE – How could I have forgotten?!?!?

No handles, solid wood, don’t wash just wipe clean.

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