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Wednesday, September 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Food

The Seattle Times cooking school: Quick breads

Seattle Times home economist

Quick breads are leavened with baking powder or soda instead of yeast, so they don't require a rising time, and they're a snap to put together. Sounds simple enough, right?

Too often, though, they turn out heavy and doughy in the center, or have tops marked by a sinking crater, looking like Mount St. Helens on a clear day. But the solutions to these problems are simple as the breads themselves.

If your zucchini bread sinks in the middle, it's usually because there is too much liquid in proportion to the dry ingredients. Try squeezing excess liquid from the zucchini between several changes of paper towels. For the same reason, be sure to measure mashed bananas for bread carefully. (If your banana bread is too delicate in flavor, try buying the most overripe bananas you can find. They will have more flavor.)

Sinkage could also be a problem of too little leavening, or leavening that is too old. First check the date on the package and discard any product that has gone past that date. Then make sure the leavening is still active by combining 1 teaspoon baking powder with 1/3 cup hot (not boiling) water. If it bubbles immediately, it can be counted on to rise during baking.

If a batter or dough using baking soda and powder is left too long on the kitchen counter before baking, the leavening will be activated. As soon as the batter is mixed, put it into the preheated oven to get the initial leavening boost from heat.

There are two types of quick breads: batters such as muffins and breads, and doughs such as scones and biscuits. And as with all bakery products, beginning with accurate measurements is key.

To measure dry ingredients such as flour and granulated sugar, spoon the ingredient lightly into a dry-measure cup and level the top with the straight side of a knife. Don't tap the cup on a counter to even the top, which will pack the ingredient down and alter the measurement. Teaspoon and tablespoon measurements should also be leveled off.

Often, a recipe using an ingredient such as brown sugar will call for it being firmly packed. Why? Its texture is coarser than a fine, granulated sugar, and air pockets will form that should be eliminated with packing.

Sweet loaves:

• Grease only the bottom of the pans. Much like an angel-food cake, the batters for quick breads need a surface to cling to so they will rise evenly, producing a rounded top.

• Overhandling the batter will produce a tough texture. Try mixing quick batters by hand instead of machine. If a machine is used, mix on the lowest setting just until the dry ingredients are incorporated. Then stir in ingredients such as nuts, coconut and dried fruits by hand.

• Place sweet loaves in a preheated 350-degree oven and set the timer for 50 minutes. Test by inserting a long skewer into the center, which should come out clean. If it doesn't, or if you see a bit of wet dough at the top, continue baking 5 to 10 minutes longer. The finished bread should have a domed top with a fraction of shrinkage from the sides of the pan. Don't be alarmed by a crack down the center. It's characteristic of a good loaf, created by steam escaping through a thinner crust and just the right amount of expansion during baking.

• Let the loaves cool in the pans 10 to 15 minutes before removing.

Muffins:

• These batters are easily overworked, becoming tough and chewy quickly. A large mixing bowl and heavy wooden spoon are the tools of choice. Combine the dry ingredients with the moist by giving the batter a few brisk turns with the spoon. If blended to a cakelike batter, the muffins will have that same texture.

• Paper liners can be used to line the cups, or they can be greased with a touch of butter. But a light mist of cooking spray will almost guarantee easy removal. Fill the cups three-fourths full. Overfilling will result in spillovers, baking the batter to the top of the pan and yielding oddly shaped muffins. The best have rounded, bumpy tops and moist centers.

• Remove from the oven and let rest in the pan for no more than 2 minutes — any longer and the bottoms will become soggy. Then run a thin knife around the edges of the cups to loosen the sides and unmold.

• If your muffins have a coarse, crumbly texture, there may be too much fat in proportion to other ingredients in the recipe. Try cutting it back by a tablespoon or two.

• Whereas yeast breads are at their best eaten the day they are baked, quick breads will be better the day after, as long as they are well wrapped. Both muffins and loaves can be double-wrapped and frozen up to 2 months.

Scones:

• Like a good pie crust, the fat used in scones should be chilled and cut into the dry ingredients.

• Again, overhandling is the biggest problem, so once the dough is mixed, scoop it onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently no more than five times to pull it together. Then, shape by patting the dough into a rough circle and cutting into wedges, or simply drop onto an ungreased baking sheet or parchment-paper-lined sheet.

• Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for about 12 minutes. Scones should be tender with a lightly browned top.

Biscuits:

• Unlike yeast doughs, in which kneading can be an endurance test, these doughs should be kneaded lightly, using a gentle touch, for less than a minute. (Drop biscuits have a coarser texture and are not kneaded at all.)

• A biscuit should rise to twice its original height, and the crust should be evenly browned. For crustier biscuits, place them at least one inch apart on an ungreased or parchment-lined baking sheet. For softer biscuits, place them in an ungreased cake pan so they touch. Bake in a preheated 425-degree oven for about 15 minutes. Serve them hot, straight from the oven.

Sources: "The Fannie Farmer Baking Book" by Marion Cunningham (Alfred A. Knopf, 1984); "Baking for Dummies" by Emily Nolan (Hungry Minds, 2002).

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