Baking can be a puzzling task. As such an exact science, just one slightly off element can produce disastrous results. Here are a few things to avoid learned from my more embarrassing baking snafus:
1. Not maintaining oven temperature
It took about three days of living in my current apartment to realize my oven is an evil demon sent from hell. The oven decides temperature it wants to be at, usually ranging about 25 to 50 degrees off the mark depending on the day, often producing burnt or unevenly baked desserts. An oven thermometer is one of the best gadgets a budding baker can purchase. And above all, stop opening the oven door to peek.
2. Not working with properly prepared ingredients
I've found out the hard way that room-temperature butter does not mean you can get away with tossing it in the microwave. In cookies, this causes the pancake effect, as the butter melts and spreads before the cookie is set. If a recipe calls for cold ingredients, make sure you refrigerate everything or risk that delicious flakiness that makes pastry so amazing. Also, this may seem like a no-brainer, but check the expiration date on your ingredients. I once went a few months with expired baking soda and wondered why nothing rose.[jump]
This can be tempting with all the cool gadgets out there, but all this will produce is a tough crumb. Feel free to make sure your butter and sugar are nicely creamed together, but once the flour goes in, be precise. I now under-mix batter and dough with an electric mixer and then do a few turns with a spatula so as not to overexcite those toughening glutens.
4. Not starting off with a cool pan
No matter how many times I tell myself I won't do this, I always leave the pan I am about to use on top of the stove. It seems innocent enough and a great way to utilize all surfaces of a tiny kitchen, but what you are really doing is setting the stage for potential disasters. This can melt room temperature butter in cookies, producing results discussed in No. 2, or bring up the temperature of cold pastry ingredients slightly, resulting in less steam when they hit the oven and, thus, less flakiness.
5. Halving recipes
Some recipes just aren't meant to halved or quartered. I have gotten away with this a few times, but for chemical reasons I just don't understand, other times, disaster struck. If you are making dough, simply make the whole giant batch and freeze what you don't want to bake off now. This works particularly well for cookie dough frozen in a log shape, as it creates your very own convenient slice-and-bake cookies. For cake batters, well, make the whole thing, and then you can have your cake and eat it too.