Recently I have had two separate requests to teach someone how to bake. I actually intend to do it, but getting these two requests in a short period of time suggests to me that many people are still intimidated by the belief that there is something unusually difficult about baking.
I used to believe something else that is often said: that a good cook never makes a dish the same way every time. I don't believe that any longer, though, because I have heard great chefs remind us that when you go to a restaurant and taste something delicious, you want to find it again the next time you go there, right? So there really isn't that much latitude in really good cooking, or at least that is what I have come to believe.
The real discipline in making pastries is exact measurements--using a leveling instrument like a metal spatula to level cups and spoons before adding into the ingredients. You can sling in all the sugar you want, but if your cake comes out with a hard, crunchy top of melted sugar it can only be because you weren't exact and put in too much. Too much oil can seep right out of your cake into a paper plate, which can draw unwanted attention to what you brought to the potluck, so follow the exact-measurement rule and ignore any television chefs you see who get careless.
You may think that chefs like Emeril or Giada are throwing ingredients around with reckless abandon, but these are people who could cook in their sleep--they have so much experience and knowledge that they can eyeball their ingredients. That doesn't mean that I would get overconfident and try it myself.
I have also had the personal experience of fooling with recipes for years, and then going back to the original version and been surprised. When I got my Heirloom Recipes from my mother, I went back to several things that I remember from my childhood, following the recipes, and I discovered that some of my improvisations were not nearly as good as what I recovered with her recipes.
The procedure for baking quick breads, cakes and cookies is basically the same every time. Your first tool to have if you possibly can is a stand mixer. I do realize that they are pricey, but the difference they make in how you work in your kitchen is priceless. Imagine having your hands free at least 50% of your time making baked goods!
What you will do is place your sugar and butter in the stand mixer, turn it on to Speed 2 or Medium Low, and cream them together. This is a crucial step in attaining volume, especially in cakes. After about five minutes, add the egg(s) one at a time and allow each one to be thoroughly incorporated before adding the next. In the rare cases in which you use oil rather than butter, the result will not be as fluffy, but go ahead and follow the basic method.
While this is going on, whisk all your dry ingredients together in a separate mixing bowl. Keep your milk or buttermilk (I only use milk because I dislike the buttermilk texture) aside in a measuring cup for the final mixing.
When your wet ingredients are perfectly combined, you turn the mixer down to its lowest speed and add the dry ingredients alternately with the milk (or water) in thirds.
The reason you work at your lowest speed is to prevent over mixing, as in when you have seen cupcakes with little tunnels in them. Those tunnels were formed when the gluten in the all-purpose flour activated and trapped the leavening gases from the eggs or baking powder/soda, and the little bubbles worked their way to the surface in large groups that formed the tunnels. What would be perfect in a loaf of bread is a serious defect in a cake; when cut, the interior of a cake should be like velvet.
Personally, even when I used to make cake mixes long ago, I quit mixing them for the 2-3 minutes that the boxes specified. I added the water and whatever else and mixed them up only until everything was thoroughly combined because I suspected that I would get tunnels in my own cupcakes, which I had seen. It was my mother who explained to me about over beating, by the way.
Now, there is indeed another procedure for making bread, but the good news is that if you want to make my Big Six bread, it could hardly be easier than the cake method--but surprise--it is easier! You would think so, actually, considering that bread in its various forms is as old as human civilization. I mean, if it were hard to make and didn't always turn out well, it wouldn't be the Staff of Life.
So you get out your trusty stand mixer and fit it with your dough hook(s). My Kitchen Aid, which I bought at Costco in Tucson, located on Speedway near Grant, has only one large dough hook but I have seen mixers that come with two.
The next thing you do is take the mixer's large bowl and place all the dry bread ingredients in it, such as yeast, flour, salt, sugar and, in my case, baker's powdered milk. Then you whisk them together dry to combine all the ingredients, and attach it to your mixer.
Measure out your warm water and oil and turn the mixer on to Low speed. Add first the oil and then the water, staying light on the water. All you want is for the dough to pull together and clean the sides of the bowl. This stage of mixing is called a lump.
When you have your lump of dough, you remove it from the mixer and place it in a container to rise. You can use another mixing bowl or some other vessel, and you place it aside to double in volume.
When the dough has completed its first rising, you turn it out to a clean work surface and deflate it by pressing down with your hands, and form it into a loaf or a ball or a baguette or whatever your have in mind. It rises another 45 minutes to double in volume again and you bake it.
Always follow specific directions for a given recipe, such as putting a bowl of water in the oven to encourage a baguette's crispy crust, but don't change the basic bread or cake method. Personally I don't care what the various recipes say about where to add the spices or chocolate or cocoa or whatever--it's dry ingredients together in one bowl and the sugar plus wet ingredients in the mixer.
You can see by the way sugar is treated that it actually amounts to a wet ingredient, which is what I learned from Chef Alton Brown, who always uses this method unless he is doing something unusual like meringue cookies or coconut macaroons. This is the secret to baking, really--and that's all there is to it. Make your measurements exact, keep the wet/dry method at all times and stay away from long or high-speed mixing. You will never have anything less than perfection.