By Johannah Bryson, author of Lake Effect
Here’s the scene: It’s the holidays and you’d love to make some cookies to take to work, or for friends, or for the kids, or the church coffee hour, or to curl up in a chair with and watch The Bells of St. Mary’s for the 100th time, but you’re too put off by the daunting task of making them. Or, worse yet, you start making them only to find out once you’re halfway through mixing everything that you’re missing a key ingredient. Well, have I got a plan for you!
Mise en place! It’s a French culinary term that simply means “to put in place.” I learned the importance of mise en place when I was a student in culinary school. Ever wonder why Martha and Ina make baking look so simple? It’s because they’ve got a group of culinary fairies in some back room, pre-measuring all their ingredients so all they have to do is dump and go. What if I told you that you too could bake with the ease of a TV chef? Well, with just a bit of pre-planning, you can.
In addition to my writing and culinary business, I work an 8 hr, 5 day a week job. The last thing I feel like doing after being at work all day is to come home and bake. And the last thing I want to do all weekend is to bake. Yet, I do love to bake so how do I solve my dilemma? I take a few moments and pre-measure the ingredients for whatever it is I want to bake.
It sounds simple enough but how many of us really do it? Chances are good you’re either going to need your ingredients at room temperature (cookies, cakes) or ice cold (pie crusts, scones). I learned that by pre-measuring all of my ingredients the night before, I take the work out of baking. Now, all I have to do is dump and mix. Don’t have a dishwasher for bowls? Simplify even more, use paper cups. Just make sure they’ll hold up if you’re putting them in the fridge. You can pre-measure everything from flour, sugar, nuts, eggs, you get the idea. For cookies, you can measure one night, mix the dough up the next night then do the baking the third evening. For cookies I sometimes use a small cookie scoop and line the finished dough up on a parchment lined baking sheet. I freeze the un-cooked dough. Once frozen, I pop them into zip top bags and viola! Cookies anytime you want them. Better than slice and bake to be sure!
As always, ingredients are key. If you’re going to take the time to bake, take the time to use quality, fresh ingredients. Spend the money for real vanilla, and real butter. Make sure your baking soda and baking powders are fresh, use kosher salt instead of iodized, fresh eggs or better yet, local farm fresh eggs. If you bought that cinnamon and ginger last holiday season, toss it and start over. In my area there are several Greek, Oriental, Indian, and Irish markets that offer smaller quantities of spices. Explore and buy from these independent stores who have a high turnover and often offer a better quality spice at a much cheaper price.
Mise en place is the backbone to every well run commercial kitchen. Chefs, sous chefs, and line cooks all know the importance of having their ingredients prepped ahead of time. Need a half an onion, diced for a recipe? Why not dice the entire onion and keep the rest in a zip top bag for later in the week?
Most important of all, take your time. There’s plenty of time to get it done if you’re organized, no need to spend hours on end in the kitchen and certainly no need for a holiday baking breakdown. You can bet Shelby from Lake Effect employs the theory of mise en place to keep her B & B running smoothly. Once you realize the time saving benefits of a little prep work, you will too! Happy Holidays!
Have a cooking or a writing question? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.