It’s pretty easy to fall into a baking rut. There’s the classic chocolate chip cookie, or maybe your kids have a home-baked favorite that you’ve made a thousand times. Once you get a recipe down, it sometimes feels easier to just go with what you know. But many bakers find that getting creative in the kitchen can be rewarding – literally.
Commercial and artisan bakers recently got together to test their mettle in creating deliciously unique recipes that incorporated raisins in new and different ways. They were competing in the America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest, put on by the California Raisin Marketing Board. The contest brought in a crowd of distinguished bakers from across the country to create and showcase their prized loaves that included stand-outs such as Cardamom Pecan Raisin Bread, Honey Nut Raisin Bread and California Gold Rush Bread. While these creations were produced by the hands of the pros, they can certainly serve as mouth-watering inspiration for your next baking adventure at home.
The grand prize winner in the artisan category was Larry Lobe of Dawn Food Products in Phoenix. Lobe took top honors for his Sicilian Raisin Bread. His baking advice for everyone, from beginners to advanced home chefs, is to “use the finest ingredients possible.” Look for natural, healthy products to incorporate into your creations, from trusted sources – whether it is dried fruit, spices or chocolate, you can find high-quality options at most grocery stores today.
As most kitchen enthusiasts know, the art of baking is not the same as the improvisational nature of cooking. As Lobe notes, it is a science, and he points out that it is essential to follow baking guidelines such as baker’s percentages. Even though you need to keep the practical side of baking in mind, Lobe urges home bakers to take some chances. “Always be creative and come up with new and exciting ideas,” he says.
Lobe also notes the importance of having a willing taste-test team. This is what he calls his “secret weapon” – something that most moms will easily find right at home.
But you can also look to friends and family, too. “My neighbors know I’m a baker and can easily find their way to my house, so I get a lot of constructive criticism around the neighborhood.”
There are a few characteristics that Lobe says he shares with other successful bakers. One is persistence – there will always be a less-than-perfect loaf or batch, but it’s important to look at it as a lesson for improving the next one. The other is a dedication to looking for quality ingredients. If you start out with strong ingredients, you’ll be better equipped to really make a superior product.
Look for high-quality flour and butter, and if you can find them, farm-fresh eggs, and then add to those basics with the best flavor enhancers you can find. Fresh, not stale, spices add dynamic scents and tastes (grind your own if you have the time) and California Raisins pack a sweet punch of flavor and have great nutritional value, too. For great recipe ideas that will be a big hit in your house, go to www.LoveYourRaisins.com.
Try applying Lobe’s tried-and-true tips to the tasty, family pleasing recipe below. These unique muffins are easy-to-make and are great for breakfast or any time of day.
Savory Cheddar Muffins
Yield: 12 muffins
2 cups all purpose flour
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 cup butter or shortening
1 egg, beaten
1 cup milk
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
2/3 cup California Raisins
Sift the flour with the baking powder, salt and paprika. Cut in butter until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Stir in remaining ingredients until just moistened. Spoon into well-greased muffin pans. Bake at 425 degrees F for 25 minutes.