Q. What should I keep available so I can whip something sweet up at the last minute?
A. Here are essential items you need for almost all baked goods. You want to keep them up to date and stored against insects and moisture.
1. All-purpose flour. I try to always have King Arthur's Sir Galahad, as it is good for cakes, crusts and bread. It is closest to Type 45 flour that we use in school. You can sometimes find it at a large grocery, but you can order it from www.Kingarthurflour.com.
2. Bread flour. I knowwwww I just said I use Sir Galahad for bread, but I prefer to use bread flour. (Sometimes I run out of bread flour, you know? That's when I switch back to my Sir G.) All-purpose flour is a blend of hard and soft wheat and has about 10-12 percent gluten. Gluten is the protein in flour that binds it together and causes it to rise. Your bread may be a bit flatter and not hold its shape as well during baking, especially if it is baking free form, if you use all-purpose flour. Bread flour has 12-14 percent protein. (gluten) Therefore, your bread will have more strands of protein connecting within, so it will maintain a reliable shape and rise well. As you see, there is not a huge difference, so if you run out of bread flour, don't despair. Some people add more all-purpose flour to compensate for the lack of protein, but this has never worked for me. Don't use bread flour for anything other than bread. It would make a horribly dense cake!
3. Cake flour. Cake flour is lighter, causing the miette, or crumb, of your cake to be smaller and more delicate. If you plan on using fondant to cover your cake, cake flour is not the one to reach for. But if you are frosting your cake with buttercream or even cream cheese, cake flour is fantastic. When I was learning to bake as a child, we only used cake flour. Now most cakes recipes use all-purpose. The newer recipes have either been adapted to be more user-friendly, or the cookbook writers are not fine bakers. I am not sure which one it is. If a recipe calls for cake flour and you don't have any, you can subtract 2 tablespoons from each cup and it will be better, but it is not the same. Cake flour has only 7-9 percent gluten, and this lends a finer, lighter cake. This is info you cake aficionados will remember forever.
4. Baking soda. Please write the date you buy it on the package. It does not last forever. In fact, replace it every six months for best results.
5. Baking powder. See above.
6. Morton's salt. I know Ina Garten uses kosher salt in baking, but do not do this. You do not want to bite into a grain of salt when you are eating a delicate linzer tart. Save that kosher salt for cooking.
7. Vanilla extract. Make sure it is real, for gosh sake's.
8. Almond extract.
9. Crisco. I almost choked writing this word, but now and then, you need it. Crisco lasts forever.
10. Vegetable oil.
11. Chocolate chips. You know why.
12. Nuts. Pecans, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts — pick two of these and keep them well wrapped in your freezer. You need them all the time in baking.
13. White sugar.
14. Light brown sugar. Sometimes, you will need dark brown sugar, but not nearly as often. The shelf life of brown sugar is short, so that is why I don't recommend keeping dark brown sugar on hand unless it is a big baking season for you. To extend this type of sugar, place a piece of bread in your package. Or keep it in its package and place that in a plastic bag or container. If you open up your brown sugar and it is hard as a rock, try microwaving it a bit. If this doesn't work, nothing will. You may be wondering what the heck is brown sugar, anyway? It is sugar with molasses in it. Dark brown sugar simply has more molasses. So you really cannot skip brown sugar in a recipe. I know; I've tried it. My cookies were just missing something. It adds a smooth undertone to your sweetness. So keep it on hand.
15. Cocoa. Don't buy Dutch processed, though. Hershey's is fine.
16. Unsalted butter in your fridge.
17. Sour cream or yogurt in your fridge. You can really use these interchangeably. OK, OK, sour cream has that little sour bite that yogurt does not, but in a pinch, you can switch them.
18. Cinnamon, preferably Vietnamese cinnamon.
Extras, if you have the space
1. Pastry flour
2. Karo syrup, both light and dark.
3. Honey, preferably local.
4. Molasses during baking season.
5. Food coloring for those pretty cookies!
6. Meringue powder for those who don't like to use egg whites for royal icing.
6. Buttermilk powder for those (many) times you want to bake something that calls for buttermilk and you don't have any. Our grocery is a 15-minute drive away and I cringe every time I am minus one tiny ingredient to bake what I want to. (Cringe being a gentle word here. My family might use another word.) Buttermilk powder has saved me many times. You simply add it in with the dry ingredients, and then add a cup of water (instead of the buttermilk) or whatever amount your recipe calls for. Voila! Yes, your product will miss the bite buttermilk lends, but it is real darn close. Tom and Padma would notice, but Tom, Dick and Harry probably will not.
Laura Wilson, owner of La Dolce Vita in Roanoke, is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef. She answers questions in The News-Sentinel every other Tuesday. Have a question for Laura? Submit it to clarson@news- sentinel.com or call 461-8284. We’ll pass on questions to Laura. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.