Cheap And Easy Baking

By DiAnne Crown

September 17, 2010 7 min read

A scrumptious dessert finishes any holiday party with a flourish. But chocolate, nuts and candied fruits are expensive, and any takeout treat worth buying costs even more. Here are five tips for delicious desserts that won't break your budget.

--Bake instead of buy. King Arthur Flour offers cost comparisons online for bought versus baked treats. For example, the company calculates that it costs $3.19 to make one batch of its "Magic in the Middles" chocolate and peanut butter cookies, or 12 cents per cookie, compared with 42 cents per cookie for a leading brand's packaged peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies. Visit http://www.KingArthurFlour.com for comparisons, recipes and timesaving ideas.

--For the best flavor and nutrition value for your dollar, buy high-quality basic ingredients, e.g., flour, sugar, eggs and butter. Even the plainest cookie will melt in your mouth.

--Avoid recipes with high proportions of chocolate and nuts, especially almonds. Substitute jam fillings; sprinkle ground nuts; reduce chocolate chips by half.

--Buy and bake in bulk. Make one large batch of dry cookie or cake mix ingredients that can be used as a base for a variety of recipes. Freeze leftover mix. For these basic recipes and variations, visit http://www.TasteOfHome.com.

--Buy box cake mixes on sale. Add a few ingredients and voil?! Cookies for pennies.

"I love cake mixes," says caterer and perennial Illinois State Fair winner Lana Benedict. The basic recipe: To 1 box cake mix, add 2 eggs, 1 stick of melted butter or margarine and 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Mix well. Add any other ingredients, and mix. Drop by spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 F for 10 to 12 minutes for delicious chewy cookies.

Try these variations, or create your own: butter pecan cake mix plus 1/2 to 3/4 cup of chopped pecans; chocolate cake mix plus 3/4 cup of raspberry chips or 1/2 cup of mini chocolate chips and 1/2 cup of chopped nuts; lemon cake mix sprinkled with powdered sugar when the cookies have cooled slightly; white or French vanilla cake mix plus 1 teaspoon of almond extract, 1/2 cup of coconut, 1/2 cup of chopped pecans and 1/2 to 3/4 cup of well-drained crushed pineapple; German chocolate mix plus 1/2 to 3/4 cup of toffee chips; carrot or spice cake mix plus 1/2 cup of coconut and 1/2 cup of chopped nuts.

To make a beautiful spread of cookies for a buffet, Benedict says, buy several different mixes when they're on sale for about 79 cents. Each will make approximately three dozen cookies. At $8 or so per pound, the pecans for one batch of cookies cost about 67 cents per dozen.

Box mixes save money and time, especially for the occasional cook, who may not have fresh ingredients on the shelf. "For someone who doesn't bake often but wants something to bring to a dinner, potluck, office party or sick friend," Benedict says, "all the things you need -- flour, baking powder, baking soda -- are already in the mix."

Benedict also dresses up cakes with cake mixes. To an angel food cake mix, add 1 can of crushed pineapple, and be ready to dump quickly into an angel food cake pan. It will start rising immediately. Bake. After the cake has cooled, glaze it with powdered sugar and milk or water, and top it with chopped pecans and coconut. "It's moist and good," Benedict says.

Stir together 1 chocolate cake mix, 1 can of cherry pie filling and 2 eggs; pour into a 9-by-13-inch pan, and bake for about 40 minutes. Sprinkle it with powdered sugar when it's cool.

Here are two quick and economical cookie recipes from King Arthur Flour for your yuletide entertaining:

SCOTTISH SHORTBREAD

Makes 6 to 8 pieces

A traditional festive cookie, often served for the new year. The amount of flour can vary from 1 1/2 to 3 cups. The Scots generally prefer their shortbread with the lesser amount of sugar and the greater amount of flour.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter at room temperature

1/2 to 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt, rounded

1 1/2 to 3 cups King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cream the softened butter with the sugar. Add salt and flour, working these ingredients into a soft dough by hand or with a food processor. Press the dough into a round 9- or 10-inch pie plate, and score the dough by cutting halfway through to divide the shortbread into 6 or 8 pie-shaped pieces.

Bake until firm and barely golden, 1/2 to 1 hour, depending on the amounts of your ingredients. After removing from the oven, dust with confectioners' sugar and cool before removing from pan.

THUMBPRINTS

Makes about 65 cookies

These cookies are a bit like tiny fruit tarts. After you've become acquainted with these ingredients, have a thumbprint party and provide your guests, both small and large, with a variety of fillings and ingredients to roll the cookie dough in. They are fun to make with children but elegant enough to serve for tea.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

2 eggs, separated

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 to 3 cups King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup finely chopped nuts or coconut

Raspberry preserves, pineapple preserves, icing

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugars until very light. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla. Blend the salt into 2 1/2 cups of flour; if the dough seems too sticky, add just enough more flour to make it workable.

Cover and chill the dough for about 1 hour. While the dough chills, cover the egg whites and leave them out of the refrigerator to warm up to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Beat the egg whites until they're foamy. Roll pieces of dough into 1-inch balls. Dip the balls into the egg whites, and roll them in chopped nuts or coconut.

Place them about 2 inches apart on lightly greased cookie sheets. Make a thumbprint in the center of each cookie.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove them from the pan, and allow them to cool. Fill the indentations with jam, icing or preserves, raspberry for the nut cookie and pineapple for the coconut.

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