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whisk it sift it grate it bake it

Bakers, start your mixers.

That is, if you have mixers.

With Halloween behind us, the official holiday baking season has begun, which means people who haven't creamed butter and sugar since last December begin to morph into flour-dusted dervishes.

If only these harried bakers could find their cookie sheets.

Can't find yours? With Thanksgiving just three weeks away, now is a good time to assess your baking equipment.

Toss out the cracked pie plate. Buy a roll of parchment paper. Locate the attachments for your mixer.

The proper equipment is as important to successful baking as recipes and cooking know-how. But the quandary many cooks face is one of riches: with so many products to choose from, how to know which cookie sheet or rolling pin is right for them?

To help separate the necessary from the decorative, we walked the the bulging aisles of Bed Bath & Beyond in St. Petersburg with caterer and cookie-baker Margaret Ann Burtchaell. Burtchaell also teaches cooking classes at Margaret Ann's Catering and Cookies on Fourth Street N.

Gazing at the imposing wall of gadgets, even she was awed by the rows of gadgets and other equipment.

"I am very much into the basics," she says.

Yet her definition of basics probably differs from yours. She has separate measuring cups for dry and wet ingredients. It's likely many home cooks have just one set. (More on the difference later.)

To decide what equipment you'll need for holiday baking, Burtchaell says, you must first know what you are going to make. The recipe instructions will clue you in on the necessary equipment. Why buy a rolling pin if you don't have to? Or how do you expect to chop nuts without a sharp knife?

"I hear a lot of stories from people who get frustrated because a recipe didn't turn out the way they wanted it to," she says. "But then I find out they are using the wrong equipment."

Here are some suggestions from Burtchaell on how to stock your kitchen for holiday baking.

Pans for all reasons. First, make sure you have the correct size pans. Cake batter meant for a 9- by 13-inch pan will overflow in an 8 by 8. Burtchaell is a stickler on this point and even more hot on the subject of the jelly roll pan.

Though jelly roll pans, rectangular with a 1-inch lip, come in many sizes, the 10- by 15-inch pan is the standard. That's the size to use when a recipe calls for a jelly roll pan but doesn't specify size.

"The jelly roll is such an easy cake to make but not when you've used the wrong pan," she says. Use one too big and the cake cracks when rolled; too small results in a thick cake that can't be rolled.

The same is true with muffin tins. There are so many sizes that it's easy to use the wrong one, especially when those labeled "mini" range from { to 1-inch-plus deep. That makes a difference in the final product and in whether you have too much or not enough batter.

The springform pan, with removable bottom, is more forgiving, she says. A 9-inch pan will work for recipes that call for an 8- or 10-inch.

(To remove a cheesecake or tart from the bottom disc, partly freeze, then run a knife underneath, Burtchaell says. Another alternative is to decorate around the base to hide the disc.)

Measure an unmarked baking dish by drawing a ruler or measuring tape across the top, from inside edge to inside edge.

The debate about dark versus light pans always heats up this time of year. And what about glass?

Dark pans retain more heat than light, and are better used for fruit pies or baked goods that need crispness.

Glass baking dishes work well for cakes, pies and fruit desserts, but ceramic should be used for crustless fruit desserts only. Shiny surfaces produce tender crusts, which make them good for breads and cookies.

Some cooks prefer nonstick pans because they are easy to maintain and release baked goods cleanly. However, they warp. If you have warped pans, toss them. They bake unevenly.

Good bakeware isn't necessarily expensive, unless you have to buy a lot at once or are shopping at a high-end store such as Williams-Sonoma. A springform pan is about $10, and a set of two metal pie plates might be as inexpensive as $5. Look for advertised specials in the newspapers, plus comb the kitchenware section of discount stores such as T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. They often stock well-known brand names.

What makes the cookie crumble? Baking sheets and timing may be the two most important elements of cookie-baking success. Think about it. Twelve 1-tablespoon blobs of dough on a thin baking sheet shoved into a hot oven. It's a wonder they ever come out right.

They come out scrumptiously, mostly, when the recipe is correct and correctly followed, and the clock is watched. Another insurance is heavy-gauge, shiny cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.

Popular air-insulated sheets work well, as long as they aren't warped. Burtchaell recommends against thin sheets because they get too hot, or those with dark surfaces. It's easy enough to burn cookies, you don't need any help.

A three-sheet cookie bake set is $20 at Bed Bath & Beyond. You can get individual ones cheaper there and at other places.

Silpat mats, the brand name for silicone-coated fiberglass baking liners, are nonstick, reusable and can be used any time a recipe calls for a greased pan or parchment paper. They work especially well for delicate cookies but at about $20 each, you'll probably only have one. This is problematic if two sheets of cookies are baked at a time.

It's in the mix. Burtchaell prefers heavy, ceramic mixing bowls, but any type will work if they suit the cook. Lighter bowls wobble but can be steadied with a damp dish towel placed underneath. Make sure bowls are big enough for the job.

She swears by her 30-year-old KitchenAid standup mixer, and so do many cooks. The Cadillac of the mixer world is a workhorse, for sure, but it's not cheap. The basic model is about $200. There are other less expensive mixers but none come with the reputation. Handheld electric mixers, which range from about $20 to $70, are also helpful, but don't allow the user to walk away and do something else.

A standup mixer is not a must for baking, but a hand mixer is a good buy. A food processor is helpful for bread doughs and pie crusts. Also, many cookie recipes call for ingredients to be finely ground in a processor. Trust us, a blender is a lousy substitute.

Tool time. In the cooking world, there is a big chasm between home cooks and professional chefs. Nowhere is that more evident than in their choices of utensils. You'll find few plastic mixing or serving spoons or spatulas in a commercial kitchen, unlike in homes. Home cooks buy a lot of plastic because it won't scratch nonstick cookware. That's something else you don't see much of in commercial kitchens.

Burtchaell recommends metal for spatulas and cookie cutters. She says a hard, metal-edge spatula gets under cookies more cleanly than softer plastic spatulas. Also, plastic spatulas that aren't heat-resistant melt on the tips and can gouge cookies. If you want plastic, buy those made with silicone.

(Scraping spatulas are always pliable so that they can hug the edges of bowls and release every bit of their contents. Buy heat-resistant varieties and they can be used to cook with.)

An offset spatula lifts brownies and bar cookies from pans without tearing. Get a metal one. Utensils can be purchased for as little as $1 at dollar stores to $15 each at specialty shops. Find some somewhere in the middle, making sure they are sturdy.

Boxed collections of plastic cookie cutters _ 100 of them! _ are enticing but think before you buy. Will you really use all 100? You might be more satisfied with a few, more expensive, metal cutters. The metal will cut a better edge.

Burtchaell uses paint brushes as pastry brushes. Paint brushes come in more sizes and are less expensive (about 50 cents each instead of $5), she says. You'll need a few brushes if you are making pastry or bread to apply egg washes and glazes. In the It Goes Without Saying Department: Buy new. Brushes used to paint model airplanes or art projects are unsuitable.

There are many types of rolling pins _ wooden, glass, marble, with and without handles _ and our tendency toward one or the other is often influenced by what our mothers and grandmothers used. Burtchaell prefers a long, thick French roller that has no handles. Those with handles, she says, prevent her from accurately judging the thickness of the dough. Plus, she thinks the handles encourage overrolling, which can make dough tough.

"Pastry is all touch; it's all about feeling," she says.

The French dowel roller may take some getting used to, but once mastered, it affords greater control. Rolling pins can be purchased for $25 and less.

Burtchaell recommends a microplaner, that skinny, handheld tool used to grate citrus zest, whole nutmeg, hard cheeses and garlic. It's more versatile than a citrus zester.

A mesh sieve can stand in for a sifter but Burtchaell admits she sifts powdered sugar only for buttercream icing and sometimes cocoa powder when it needs to be evenly incorporated, like in a cake. And that's no matter what the recipes say.

The measure of a kitchen. The precise nature of baking requires that you measure. For a stir-fry or soup, a handful of this or two pinches of that is exacting enough. Not so for baking. Two cups of flour in a cake batter does not mean one or three. It means two.

To measure, you need marked measuring spoons and cups. Stainless steel sets are less than $10.

The standard measurements for spoons are \, { and 1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon. But check before you scoop. Some sets include } and { tablespoon spoons.

Dry ingredients should be measured in metal cups in graduated sizes, usually , \, { and 1 cup. This allows the cook to level off ingredients exactly. A multimeasurement cup, usually glass but sometimes plastic, is best for liquid measurements. The larger cup prevents liquid from sloshing out while adding the ingredient to the mix.

Liquid measuring cups, however, have always been something of a pain. They require the cook to hoist them to eye level to read or to crouch and squint at the little marks. Oxo, the maker of clever, easy-to-use tools, has devised a liquid measuring cup that alleviates hoisting, bending and squinting. The angled measuring cup has a marker built into the inside of the pitcher that allows it to be read by looking down. A set of three is about $20.

Burtchaell doesn't have one yet but thinks the angled measuring cups quite ingenious.

Wow. Even for a professional baker, there is something new under the sun.

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