As much as I love being a baking maven and batting my eyes coquettishly when someone asks me how my treats come out so delicious (okay, I don't do that, but I really wanted to use the word "coquettishly"), I feel it is my duty as a cruelty-free baker to share my knowledge and expertise beyond the simple exchange of recipes. There's more to creating tasty tasty wonderment than just following a list of ingredients and steps. Baking is a science, yes, but more importantly it's a craft.
And so, dear reader, I have decided to share the most vital secrets of my baking success in the hope that you, too, will fill your home with the tantalizing smells, lively textures, and scintillating flavors of vegan baking bliss.
In order to bake well in the Sylvan School of Culinary Awesomeness, you must observe the proper rituals. Apparel and accouterments are of utmost importance. Your baking garb should include:
1 - A bandana, which you will wear around your hair, preferably printed with skulls, which you wear ironically. Ponytails are adequate, but a bandana will keep both hair and sweat off your face so you don't accidentally wipe your forehead with a handful of cookie dough. In the absence of skulls a heart-print bandana may be substituted, but it, too, must be worn with suitable irony.
2 - A beat up top that shows off any tattoos you may have.
3 - Pants. Please do not bake naked. A 400 degree metal oven rack to the thigh is no one's friend. At the very least invest in a long apron, which is cute and can lead to naughty kitchen shenanigans if you're into that sort of thing. (In case of shenanigans, do not leave anything boiling on the stove.)
4 - A clean dish towel, tucked into the waistband of your pants for wiping up spills and drying off wet things. You can try wearing it slung over your shoulder like they do in cheffing school, but it's just going to fall off and annoy you. For extra credit, stick an oven mitt in your pocket for easy access. If you use it to wipe up something off the floor, leave it there, please, and get a clean one.
5 - Remove jewelry from hands and wrists. Not only is cake batter hard to get out of the nooks and crannies of a pentacle, nobody wants to bite down on your Pagan bling in the middle of a cupcake. This is also why it's best to bake without fake fingernails.
Ritual paraphernalia in addition to the standard cooking equipment:
1- A huge glass of ice water, as baking is thirsty work. Be sure to refill it frequently, and take breaks often during a baking marathon. The heat and activity can be draining, especially if you tend to taste and nibble all those sugary treats as you work.
2- A squirt bottle of room-temperature water with which you will attempt to keep the cats off the counter.
3 - Suitable ritual music. Suggestions: P!nk, Joan Jett, Brandi Carlile, the Gipsy Kings, or possibly a mix of gloriously awful 80s pop. Above all, don't bake while listening to sad music. Baking is magic, and like all magic, your thoughts and emotions influence the outcome. The atmosphere you bake in should reflect how you hope people will feel eating your treats: try to foster happiness, love, and fellowship. The idea is to encourage, not to force, but offering food to those you love is a form of love, so save the emo tunes for a rainy day.
4 - Your recipes. For best results use a cookbook protector; one that props the book up so you can see it more easily is ideal. If you work from a personal cookbook invest in page protectors, as there is no way in hell you're going to keep your recipe clean. The best cookbooks are those spattered with batter and smudged with fudge.
5 - An oven thermometer. Ovens are dirty liars. They're as reliable as a bipolar squirrel. Even an expensive oven may veer off temp as it cycles. A thermometer is a five-dollar investment that will save you a lot of tears.
Additional Advice from the Trenches:
1 - The secret to stress-free baking is mise en place, also known as having your shit together before you start. Set out all the ingredients you need and put them away one by one as you use them; that way if you forget to add the flour, you'll know before the cake comes out soup.
2 - Pinch bowls are useful for pre-mixing spices, whisking up egg replacer, and keeping last-minute ingredients at hand until they're needed.
3 - If you're measuring something thick or viscous like peanut butter or molasses, spray your measuring cups with nonstick spray before you start.
4 - Sifters suck. Screw sifters. Either run your dry ingredients for a second or two in the food processor, or do what I do and use mixing bowls with lids. Combine the dry stuff in a bowl, lid it, and shake the holy crap out of it until everything is aerated and evenly distributed. Tap the lid a few times before removing it so it doesn't poof all over you.
5 - Clean as you go, especially if you're making more than one recipe. If you live in an apartment where counter space is at a premium this is doubly important, because one second you've got a clean kitchen and the next every surface is covered in dirty dishes.
6 - Write in your cookbooks. I take a pencil and jot down a quick note when I try a new recipe, so next time I'll know if it turned out well, if I made any substitutions, or if there are any errors. You'd be surprised how many mistakes end up in the print version of a book. Some cookbook authors have sections for errata on their websites or on their forums; if a recipe comes out wrong, try to find out if anyone online had the same experience. It might not be you.
7 - Replace your baking powder if you don't use it within six months. Baking powder is a combination of acids and a base (as in, cream of tartar and baking soda) with cornstarch added; the chemical reaction between the acid and base creates CO2, which is how it leavens baked goods. Once you open it, it loses its leavening power more quickly than baking soda alone. I harp on this because I've had old baking powder kill more than one batch of yummies.
8 - Speaking of science-y stuff, invest in a copy of Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for More Food. It's a textbook on the chemical and physical reactions in baking and the basic techniques that define different baked goods; even if you're not a fan of Alton Brown, this book is incredibly informative and gives you a good understanding of how baking works.
9 - For the love of all that's holy, do not bake while drunk. Just because Julia Child could do it doesn't mean we all can.
Questions, comments? Go forth and bake!