Bread-Baking Kitchen Hacks to Save Money: When to Bake from Scratch or Use a Mix

Reader Contribution by Wendy Akin
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Welcome back to the frugal baking series. In Part 1, we discovered low- or no-cost replacements for expensive kitchen gadgets, and in Part 2, we looked at ways to save on special baking ingredients. Now let’s take on those mixes.

There are mixes on the grocer’s shelf and in catalogs for all kinds of cakes and cookies, puddings and sauces. Before you invest so many dollars, check to see what you have to add and what is actually in the mix. A mix for a cake generally has flour, salt, baking powder, maybe spices and flavorings. You add butter or oil and eggs. You still have to beat and mix and bake. What did you really save?

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep an inexpensive box of cake mix in the pantry for the night your child announces at dinner, “Mom, I have to take cupcakes to school tomorrow.”  Unless you happen to have a dozen all frosted in the freezer, this could be a rescue. If you like to bake cakes often, practice making a few basics that appeal to you. Seek out method recipes in cookbooks or maybe find a book for cakes.

What to do with a failed batch of fudge? It just won’t set, no matter how long you beat it. First, buy a better thermometer; you probably didn’t cook it to a full soft ball temperature. See Part 1 about thermometers.

Next freeze the fudge in a container for another day another use. Next time you make a cake that needs chocolate, use about half the failed fudge for the best-ever filling. It’s very rich so you’ll want a regular light butter cream frosting for the top. I loved this in a chocolate spice cake.

So-called pastries and coffeecakes, cinnamon buns and all in the grocery are so disappointing and always so over-priced. They never seem to be fresh and the dough is so ordinary. Making your own really delicious sticky buns, raisin snails or even pannetone is a snap and a major saving with this method for fresh, out-of-the-oven treats.

I never find time to make full puff pastry. It’s one thing I will buy, though I wait for the beginning of the holiday season when pure butter puff imported from France is available at Trader Joe’s; last year it was only $4-per-pound package, so several came home to my freezer. Look in your local store for  puff made with butter.

Rough puff pastry is quite another story. It’s fun, you make it in the food processor and you can turn out pastries that morning. You can use it in most any recipe for full puff, though it is a bit of a cheat. However, this is the way pastry is made in Denmark and all over Europe.

When Danish pastry is apt to be disappointing unless it’s priced at $2 or more per small pastry, it really pays to make your own. It’s fun, it’s easy.

Now, on to several recipes that have saved me from relying on mixes time and again.

Baking Popovers from Scratch

A mix for popovers that you have to add the eggs and milk to? You’ll still need to follow directions to mix the batter, grease and heat the pan, and bake them for 35 to 40 minutes. What else is in popovers? Well, flour and salt.

Yields 6 to 8 popovers

Ingredients:

Butter to grease the pan
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour

Directions:

Note: Start an hour and 15 minutes or more ahead of when you want the popovers ready. Yes, you can bake these in a toaster oven just fine.  I do. Double the recipe if you have two muffin pans and need a lot of popovers for a crowd.

1. Mix popover batter in a 4-cup measuring cup. In the measuring cup, beat the eggs well with a small whisk, check the level and add the milk to make 1 cup more. I had just under 4 ounces of beaten eggs, so carefully poured milk to just under 12 ounces. Add the salt and then the flour. Whisk well to fully mix in the flour. The batter will be as thin as pancake batter.

2. Rest the batter for at least a half hour. Refrigerate if you will wait one hour or more before you bake. Whisk the batter from time to time while it rests.

3. Grease a muffin pan with butter very generously (do not use pan spray – it burns) and put it into the oven while you preheat to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. When the oven is up to heat and the pan is hot, open the oven and pull out the pan, close the door.  Carefully and quickly pour the batter into the cups, filling about 3/4 full. Quick, back into the oven. Do not open the oven to peek. Set the timer for 15 minutes. After the 15 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees and continue to bake another 20 minutes. Check for doneness by removing one popover to see that the sides are firm. If underdone, the popovers will collapse from the bottom. Give them a few more minutes if needed to be firm.

4. Serve popovers hot from the oven with a little good butter or jam and enjoy the $4.00 you just saved. Don’t make popovers ahead, they don’t hold well. Eat them hot.

If that was fun for you, try adding about 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese to your next batter.  

Yorkshire pudding? Use the same batter. Pour it into a hot pan with either hot beef fat, olive oil or butter. Bake just the same as popovers. A fun little supper my mother used to make back in the 1940s when Dad was out of town: pigs in a blanket. Put some little breakfast sausages into a 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake them in the 450-degree oven until almost done and the pan is really hot. Pour the popover/Yorkshire batter over the sausages and quickly pop back into the oven. Same baking times. This would be a nice breakfast meal, too.

Easy Biscuits from Scratch

Biscuit mix is generally inexpensive and it is handy, but the brands often have an odd flavor — a giveaway that the mix was used and, really, you still have to add milk, mix, form and bake. We won’t even go into the canned biscuits that aren’t really biscuits. So, make biscuits from scratch. It’s actually just as easy and you can use better flour, organic if you prefer. If you like to bake biscuits often, you can stir up your own mix by adding baking powder and salt in proportionate amounts and keep your mix in a separate canister ready to go. What I like so much about this recipe is that you don’t have to cut in the butter or lard. Just skip that task and go on to the next.

Yields six to nine biscuits

Ingredients:

• 2 cups all purpose flour
• 1 Tablespoon baking powder
• 1/2 tsp sea salt
• 1 – 1/2 cups whipping cream – divided use

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Mix the baking powder and salt into the flour or use just the 2 cups of self-rising flour. Stir in the cream, holding back some for the tops. Mix only until the flour is taken up. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, flatten it and fold it over on itself a couple times. Use a light touch with biscuits; don’t really knead, just fold over.

3. Pat the dough out into a rough 8-inch square, about 3/4-inch thick. Cut it into 6 or 9 squares. Biscuits can be square. Cutting rounds wastes dough. Push the corners of the squares in if you must have round, but I kind like the rough rustic look that says these did not come from a can.

4. Put the biscuits on a baking sheet greased or lined with parchment or nonstick foil. Gently brush the tops of the biscuits with the cream you held back. Rest a couple minutes and brush again with the remaining cream. Bake the biscuits in the preheated oven about 12 to 15 minutes until a lovely dark golden brown.

Biscuits split open better with a fork, same as English muffins. You can also make English muffins for a whole lot less than $2.50 or $3 for only 6 muffins.

Martha’s Pastry Cream Recipe

I once spent several dollars on a mix to make pastry cream, or as they casually refer to it on the television cooking shows: Crème Pat. The descriptions I’d read of the terror of curdling eggs and proper chilling had me reluctant to try.  Well, the mix was so awful I chucked the whole mess in the garbage. Not money well spent. Then, on the Martha Bakes PBS show, I watched her brilliantly stir up a perfect batch of Crème Pat, no nerves, no curdled eggs. Here is her success method. I figure even with premium organic eggs, milk and butter, it’s a big saving, plus you know what good, fresh organic ingredients are in your Crème Pat.

Yields 2 ½ cups of pastry cream

Ingredients:

• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1/4 cup non-GMO cornstarch
• Pinch of sea salt
• 2 cups whole milk
• 4 large egg yolks
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• Optional 1/2 teaspoon almond extract if desired
• Optional teaspoon of espresso powder stirred into the sugar makes coffee flavor
• Optional tablespoon cocoa stirred into the sugar for chocolate
• Optional citrus zest flavor, peppermint, rum. Endless choices

Directions:

1. Whisk together sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan. Whisk together milk and egg yolks in a 4-cup measuring cup. Add milk mixture to the saucepan, along with the butter. Cook, whisking, over medium heat until mixture comes to a simmer. Whisk while the mixture cooks; not frantically, but use a whisk to stir all over the pot, into the sides and across the center. I use a figure eight pattern and that does the trick. Continue to cook and whisk until it comes to a boil. Let boil one minute. Remove from the heat and add vanilla and/or other extracts.

2. Strain pastry cream through a finemesh sieve into a bowl. Just in case there’s a tiny lump. Push the crème through with a rubber spatula and scrape off what’s on the bottom of the sieve. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto the surface of the pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming.

3. Refrigerate until chilled, at least two hours or up to two days. Just before using, whisk until smooth.

Save the egg whites for meringue kisses, sponge cake, a soufflé, or pie toppings. They freeze well for a month or more.

Basic Pie Crust (Patè Brisee) for a Two-Crust Pie

I wouldn’t use a store bought refrigerated pie crust for anything other than pumpkin pie that always has a soggy bottom.  They aren’t very good and they are expensive.  Save 50% or more and have a good crust.  It is so simple to make buttery, flaky pie crust, especially if you have a food processor.  Make several batches and keep it in the freezer.  Put flattened balls to make a single crust in sandwich bags and put them all in a zipper freezer bag.  It is a joy to know the crust is ready to go and will defrost in the time you slice up some fruit for pie. Roll the dough cold on a generously floured board.  

Ingredients:

• 2 – 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
• 2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, ice cold
• 5 to 6 tablespoons ice water

Note: You can replace some of the butter with lard if you like.

Directions using a food processor:

The directions seem long, but just read through and then start. It all takes about 2 minutes. You’ll work fast.

1. Fill a glass with ice water. It must be ice cold. Pie crust is made cold.

2. Put the flour and salt into the bowl, give a pulse or two.

3. Cut the sticks of butter in half lengthwise. Turn it over a quarter turn and cut in half again so the butter is cut in quarters. I use a bench knife for this because it cuts straight down. Now, cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes. Make sure the butter is still ice cold.  If it has warmed at all put it in the freezer for a few minutes.

Start dropping the butter into the processor. Drop some, give one pulse, drop some more and again so the butter isn’t all in one place in the flour. Now, pulse several times, looking to see the butter distributed but in pieces about the size of a pea.

4. Now, add the water, same as the butter, a tbsp in, one pulse, another and another. Add water only until the dough comes together.

5. Turn the dough out onto a cutting board. Use the heel of your hand to smoosh it across the board. Use your bench knife to bring it back together. Repeat. You should see discreet pieces of butter smeared through the flour. If you’re making a pie now, chill the dough until it’s cold again, then roll out for your pie today.

6. There are several different pie crusts you can make; some use sugar and egg. You can also choose to add ground nuts or grated cheese to a dough. Cheese pie crust is excellent with an apple pie. Use a very dry cheddar, grated or cheese powder. Ground almonds or pecans in the dough complement peach. I figure if I’m going to make this mess, make several batches, it’s no more mess.

When you clean up, remember dough dissolves in cold water. If you try to wash up with hot water, it’s harder.  Use dish detergent and cold water and soak.

Sweet Crust Recipe (Pasta Frolla) for Two Crusts

This crust is most often used in Italian sweet pies. American or French Pate Sucree uses half the sugar and just one whole egg.

 Ingredients:

• 2 – 1/2 cups all purpose flour
• 1 cup cane sugar
• grated zest of 1/2 a lemon
• 2 sticks ice cold butter
• 2 large egg yolks

Directions:

Follow the directions above, using the egg yolks as the liquid and just adding them in all at once, then adding a tablespoon or two of ice cold water only if needed to bring the dough together. This dough is easy to manage, very forgiving. Keep it cold.

Speaking of Italian sweet pies and we mentioned soggy bottoms (horrors!), Lidia Bastianich has a trick for that. After you lay your crust into the pie plate, add a generous layer of  bread crumbs. It soaks up the excess moisture and tastes fine saturated with the pie filling. Don’t mix the crumbs into the filling, use just as a bottom layer.

Consider using your homemade crusts to make rustic galettes, fruit or savory, for nearly instant pies. You can cut up fruit or just use preserves you’ve made.


Wendy Akin is a happy to share her years of traditional skills knowledge. Over the years, she’s earned many state fair ribbons for pickles, relishes, preserves and special condiments, and even a few for breads. Read all of Wendy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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