Sunday, July 25, 2010

10 Tips to Baking on a Budget - Gourmet Style

This weekend, my husband and I decided to "tour" a local upscale market and see if they had anything interesting on offer. Boy, were we in for a shock! A 10 oz. pkg. of simple, chocolate chip cookies was selling for $4.39. Yep, not kidding. I couldn't make up prices that ridiculous. But, I also couldn't pay prices that ridiculous either. I may not have walked away with a small package of over-priced sweets and confections, but I did leave with some great ideas and a few tips for anyone looking to bake beautiful concoctions on a shoe-string.

1. Play up the presentation. We saw adorable mini-brownies that had been baked in a mini-muffin tin, dust with powdered sugar, and cost over $7 for a dozen and a half. I bet your average brownie mix could yield at least 2 dozen and all your ingredients cost less than $3. That's more than a 65% savings. We also saw cookies topped with chips, instead of stirring them into the batter. I'd probably go 50-50: stir in half and use the over half of the chips (nuts, etc.) for topping. Bringing goodies to a function? Bag cookies in small, cellophane bags tied off with curling ribbon, bring a loaf presliced on a pretty plate, or wrap a few biscotti in a coffee mug. Grab small items from clearance sales, dollar stores, and garage sales and offer your goodies as a hostess gift, too!

2. Flavor combinations. Everyone has their favorite flavor combinations - from chocolate and caramel, to white chocolate macadamian nut, to lemon almond. Want a different flavor of muffin? Use a favorite pie or cookie flavor combo and you'll have a new family favorite in no time. I saw dessert breads for $7.49 a loaf in my favorite muffin flavors (cranberry orange or lemon almond). Looks like I have a new recipe just waiting to be created.

3. Bringing back tea time. Yes, that's right - more people are opting for finger foods reminiscent of what you'd serve at tea time. Mini-scones, anyone? A dozen mini-scone wedges (in orange cranberry, again) for $6.99. Hmmm...after having learned to make scones earlier this year, I don't think I'd ever pay for them again - let alone at that price. Not a scone fan? Bake a sweet bread in mini-loaf pans and serve the lovely, little slices. I saw 10 slices of a raspberry swirl mini-loaf selling for $5.49.

4. It's all about size. I noticed that mini- is all the rage. From mini-muffins, mini brownies, mini scones, and mini-bagels - pound per pound, people are paying a hefty premium for less - more than 20% more on average. Mini-treats are easy to do at home - mini cookies are a snap, mini scones (just cut the dough in half, then form the discs and cut into wedges), mini muffins and more - with very little equipment required. For the cost of a pkg. of mini-muffins, you can buy a mini-muffin tin (or two).

5. Convenience is key. Keeping basic baking staples on hand will save you a fortune: from the delicious traps that most bakeries are, and the expense of having to get there. I already have flour, sugar, eggs, baking soda/powder, flavors and extracts, spices, and some nuts, a few dried fruits, and chips on hand. With simple things like that, I can make most of what I saw at that bakery. Don't worry about the expense of cookbooks - there are thousands of websites and blogs (including this one) that give great tips, recipes, and ideas - for free.

6. Planning ahead. You can make and freeze/refrigerate cookie dough. If you have the inredients to spare, you save time and a little cash by making a double batch. It's less dishes to wash later on, saving on water, dish soap, and it doesn't take you much longer to make a double batch versus a single batch.

7. Experiment. This is the time of year that many local fruits are in season. My favorite discovery this year has been the versatile, bountiful peach. I've made peach almond bars and muffins that were huge favorites among fmaily, friends, and coworkers. Best part is: I'm saving a bundle - the peaches were the cheapest in-season fruit that week and I needed to bake for a few get-togethers anyway.

8. Imitation is the finest form of flattery. Love the look of those bluebery pies in the window? Make your own version of it! Many ideas of mine come from the delicious inspiration of cookbooks, bakeries, and are built around what I have on hand. Not enough blueberries for a full pie? Make a mixed berry pie. Don't have a lot of berries hanging around? Try a blueberry loaf, bluebery buckle, blueberry scones, or blueberry muffins. Love the flavor of that chocolate cherry cake - make a cookie version.

9. Speak up. Don't be afraid to ask someone for their recipe for a dessert you like, either. In all my years, I've never had someone say they couldn't possibly share a recipe. Also, I've always shared a recipe when asked for it. That's partially how this blog came about. I wanted to keep all my recipes in one central location and people would often ask for a particular recipe when I would be at a function. Now, all I have to do (if I don't have the recipe with me), is refer them here with the recipe title.

10. Build on what you already know. For years, I was the cookie queen. Then, on a lark - I decided to try my hand at bars. Next thing you know, I'm bold enough to take on biscotti - and I've never looked back. Once in a while, I still get a bit nervous trying a type of dish I've never made, but if you challenge yourself just once a month - by the end of the year - you'll have added a dozen new dishes (that you can make variations of) to your repertiore.

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