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Baker’s dozen: 13 basic must-haves for every kitchen

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Peeking into a baker’s pantry is a lot like peeping into someone’s refrigerator — it yields a glimpse of their individuality and personality.

I poked through my own pantry for must-have items and polled other home bakers and local pastry chefs to compile a baker’s dozen of items we just can’t live — I mean bake — without.

Truly telling is what the baker holds most dear. Is it a certain ingredient, a tool, a decoration?

EXTRACTS

When it comes to flavoring cakes, cookies and frosting, high-quality extracts can pack a punch of flavor. Look for pure extracts, which generally are made from natural essential oils or spices and alcohol.

Star Kay White’s Orange Blossom Water ($5.99 for 2 ounces) is one of my favorite extracts; I use it in orange cake and orange buttercream recipes. It bolsters the citrus flavor and imparts a slight floral note. Cookware stores such as Sur La Table carry a wide selection of pure extracts, as do select grocery stores.

WHIPPED CREAM

Albert Kutternig, head pastry chef and owner of Konditorei Austrian Bakery Cafe in Davis, Calif., lists fresh whipped cream as his essential baking item.

Many of the bakery’s confections use whipped cream in place of buttercream, which Kutternig said tastes “old-fashioned.”

“A lot of people love (buttercream), but whipped cream is so much lighter in flavor and lighter in taste,” he said.

DARK CHOCOLATE

The difference between a decadent, Hail Mary-worthy brownie and a brownie that’s easily resisted? High-quality dark chocolate.

It’s worth cutting a few corners in other areas (buying flour, sugar, butter and eggs in bulk at warehouse stores) to afford cacao products from acclaimed chocolatiers like E. Guittard and Scharffen Berger. Bittersweet chocolate yields a rich chocolate flavor. Look for chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids.

BAKING CUPS

A cute baking liner can turn even the plainest little cupcake into a dessert (or breakfast) worth celebrating. The Web site Intotheoven.com offers an array of fabulous designs, such as zebra stripes and pink polka dots, which sell for about $5.99 for 100 liners.

ALMOND AND OAT FLOUR

Jodie Chavious, pastry chef at Taylor’s Market and Kitchen and Mason’s Restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., substitutes almond or oat flour for all-purpose flour in some of her sumptuous sweets.

“They have a better flavor, texture and can turn a normal chocolate chip cookie into something much more tasty,” she said.

Chavious makes her own flours by grinding up the almonds or old-fashioned rolled oats in a blender.

PIPING BAGS AND TIPS

Spreading frosting with a knife is so passe. By using a piping bag and a decorating tip, you can adorn that cake or cupcake with an elegant swirl of frosting.

Piping bags and tips can be found at party, craft or baking supply stores, such as Michaels or Sur La Table. A 10-pack of piping bags runs about $6.50, and large decorating tips are about $2 each.

LOCAL FRUIT IN SEASON

An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but a fresh apple pie will make the folks you adore clamor for more.

Locally grown fruit in season can add nutrients to dessert and tantalize the tastebuds.

VINTAGE TOOLS

Sometimes a beloved old kitchen utensil or gadget is the secret ingredient. For Linda Gonzales, senior online editor for The Sacramento Bee and baking goddess, it’s her husband’s grandmother’s biscuit cutter and 5-cup Bromwell’s Measuring Sifter. “They’re a little banged up, but they work great,” she said.

Check antiques stores, online sellers and even thrift stores for vintage kitchen tools.

SUGAR FLOWERS

All the clever prettiness, none of the work. Sugar flowers, made from royal icing or gum paste, can turn a cake into a work of art.

INSURANCE

No, not the homeowners’ kind (though that may be a good idea if you’re an accident-prone baker). Silpat baking mats and parchment paper are perhaps a baker’s best method to prevent sticking. Silpat nonstick mats, made of fiberglass and silicone, can be used atop cookie sheets and are heat-resistant up to 482 degrees. They’re a bit of an investment up front, about $19.99, but they virtually eliminate the possibility of cookies decorated with charred bottoms.

PASTRY CREAM

Louise Maestretti, pastry chef at Tower Cafe in Sacramento, lists pastry cream as her must-have ingredient due to its versatility.

“I can use it to fill a cake or a fresh fruit tart,” she said. “It can be baked into things as well.”

Maestretti uses vanilla bean to flavor her pastry cream but says chocolate or different liqueurs also can be used as flavoring.

MINI CHOCOLATE CHIPS

Nestle Toll House Mini Morsels can always be found in Bee copy editor Kathy Morrison’s cupboard. Morrison has chosen syndicated food articles and recipes for The Bee’s food section for more than two years. “You can put them in anything, and they won’t sink,” she said. Morrison adds the tiny semi-sweet chips to zucchini bread, coffee cakes and the banana muffin recipe she’s been using for more than 20 years.

CARRIERS

You spent hours carefully crafting your confections. How are you going to transport them?

It was love at first sight when I spotted Progressive International’s Collapsible Cupcake and Cake Carrier ($29.99) atop a shelf at Sur La Table recently. The domed carrier holds 24 cupcakes, and the inserts can be removed if a cake is the desired dessert.

The best part? The dome collapses down to about 5 inches tall to make for easy storage.

Bakery boxes are also a great, inexpensive way to take cakes, pies and cupcakes to school, work or parties. They also eliminate worry over leaving behind a valuable carrier.

Boxes are available at some party and baking supply stores.

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