Learn to bake in 5 easy recipes

The poet Emily Dickinson was an avid baker, and, on the back of a recipe card for coconut cake, she wrote these opening lines:

The Things that never can come back, are several —

Childhood — some forms of Hope — the Dead —

But while her gifts as a poet are clear here, she expresses the opposite of what baking can do. A birthday cake brings back the joy of childhood, maybe even raises hope, and baking beloved recipes from the deceased resurrects memories of them.

Even if the goal isn’t reclaiming what’s lost, the simple act of baking can conjure unexpected delight. When you’re preparing a meal and starting with salmon and potatoes, you end up with cooked salmon and potatoes. But when you’re baking, you start with a slew of powders, golden butter and an egg, and you end up with crackly-edged, chewy blondies.

If you’re a beginner in the kitchen, baking is an ideal entry point. Unlike cooking, there’s no pressure to make food that’s meant to sustain, no urgency from step to step. You can go at your pace, and the process can even feel relaxing. These five foolproof recipes are the best place to start: They require only a handful of tools and ingredients — and no experience. They welcome other seasonings and flavors, and guarantee something tasty. Make them all to learn the basics of baking, or try any one that appeals to you. Not only are they easy, but they also offer the satisfaction of dessert and the wonder at having made it yourself.

Baking Supplies for Beginners

Baking supplies for beginners. You don’t have to invest in an expensive electric mixer, stacks of pans or a kitchen scale — just a few items can get you started. Food styled by Monica Pierini. (Joseph De Leo, The New York Times)

To make all five of these recipes, you need only:

— A sheet pan

— An ovenproof skillet

— An 8-inch square cake pan

— Two bowls

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— A whisk

— A silicone spatula

— A set of dry measuring cups

— A set of dry measuring spoons

Start with just a handful of tools.

You don’t have to invest in an expensive electric mixer, stacks of pans or a kitchen scale. Danielle Sepsy, the chef and owner of the Hungry Gnome Bakery, remembers a childhood of standing on a stool next to her grandmother Rosemarie Marullo, who scooped flour with a coffee cup. Sepsy doesn’t recommend trying this at home and uses a scale at her bakery, but said, “If you have trusty measuring cups on hand, you’re OK.”

In fact, you can use dry measuring cups for liquids even though it’s a little tricky to not spill with them. (Liquid measuring cups don’t work for measuring dry ingredients, though.)

Shop for basic ingredients.

Baked goods can incorporate everything from chiles to miso, but their foundation requires only a small group of essentials. Baking can be traced back to ancient civilizations, but the sweets here come from the style that spread from Europe to America and the world, built on flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, salt, butter or oil, and, usually, eggs. Often, other dairy products or flavorings like vanilla extract and cocoa powder are used, and sometimes, not all of the basics are even necessary.

Bask in the precision.

Baking can be perceived as stressful because it requires following a recipe, but that’s what can make it feel calming. “I actually have a lot of anxiety, and I started baking because it gave me a sense of control,” Sepsy said. “If you follow the recipe exactly, it’ll result in exactly what you want.” Even though she now weighs ingredients to run her professional kitchen, she uses regular measuring cups at home because it makes baking “more stress-free and fun.”

For simple baked goods like these, it’s fine if you end up adding a little too much flour or don’t beat the eggs enough. As long as you’re mixing and baking sugar, fat and starches as described in the instructions, you’re going to end up with something delicious.

Yes, you can personalize baking recipes.

Some cooks don’t like baking because there doesn’t seem to be room for improvisation without risking a failure in the oven. Don’t mess with the base formula for the batter or dough, but do customize seasonings that don’t affect baking chemistry. Stir in different spices like cardamom or ras el hanout and add your choice of toppings or mix-ins. When making fruit desserts, use what’s in season (and on sale).

Birthday Cake Blondies

Birthday cake blondies. Think of these as a starter birthday cake to make for friends — or yourself. Food styled by Monica Pierini. (Joseph De Leo, The New York Times)

By Genevieve Ko

Think of these as a starter birthday cake to make for friends — they travel well and feel like a party wherever you’re handing them out. Despite the sheet of sprinkles coating the top, these blondies aren’t cloyingly sweet. The batter has just enough brown sugar for a gentle butterscotch richness and a good hit of salt. Toasted at the edges and chewy in the center, these bars also have tiny crackles of caramelized sprinkles throughout.

Yield: One 8-inch pan (9 to 12 servings)

Total time: 35 minutes, plus cooling

Ingredients

Butter, for greasing the pan
1 cup/130 grams all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 cup/189 grams lightly packed light or dark brown sugar
1/2 cup/113 grams unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup sprinkles, plus more for the top (see Tip)

Preparation

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the center. Rub a pat of butter all over an 8-inch square baking pan.

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl.

3. With a flexible spatula, stir the brown sugar and butter in a large bowl until smooth. Add the egg and vanilla, and stir vigorously until smooth again. Add the flour mixture and stir gently just until no floury streaks remain, then stir in 1/4 cup/40 grams sprinkles.

4. Spread the batter in the buttered pan into an even layer. Scatter sprinkles all over the top.

5. Bake until golden brown and starting to pull away from the edges of the pan, about 25 minutes. Cool completely in the pan on a rack. Cut into squares or rectangles. The blondies will keep in an airtight container for up to 3 days at room temperature and 3 months in the freezer.

Tips

You can make these with any sprinkles you like. Shiny rainbow sprinkles may melt into the batter or bleed their color a bit on top, but should hold up. Matte sprinkles stay intact in the heat of the oven.

One-Bowl Chocolate Cake

One-bowl chocolate cake. You need only one bowl to mix the batter for this cake and can use it again to whip up a creamy two-ingredient frosting if you want. Food styled by Monica Pierini. (Joseph De Leo, The New York Times)

By Genevieve Ko

Fluffy and tender, this chocolate cake comes together quickly in one bowl. It’s a friendly little birthday cake with its dead simple frosting (or a really great snack without). A blend of oil and buttermilk or yogurt keeps the crumb moist, as does a nice pour of hot tea. Oolong gives the cake a floral aroma, while using coffee instead highlights the cocoa’s bittersweetness. Plain hot water gives this an old-fashioned chocolate cake flavor. The two-ingredient frosting – essentially cream and chocolate melted together, then cooled until thick enough to swoop and swirl – can be made in the same bowl used for the cake batter. You can sprinkle flaky salt, chopped toasted nuts or sprinkles on top too. But, frosted or not, this cake welcomes coffee, tea or ice cream.

Yield: One 8-inch cake (9 to 12 servings)

Total time: 2 hours, mainly cooling

Ingredients

For the Cake:

Canola or vegetable oil, for greasing the pan
1 1/4 cups/163 grams all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups/250 grams sugar
1/2 cup/54 grams unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup/189 grams buttermilk or plain full-fat yogurt
1/4 cup/60 grams canola or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup hot oolong or black tea, hot coffee or hot water

For the Frosting (optional):

1 (4-ounce) bar bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
1/2 cup/125 grams heavy cream

Preparation

1. Make the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Rub oil all over an 8-inch square cake pan.

2. Whisk the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Add the eggs, buttermilk, oil and vanilla, and stir with the whisk until smooth. It will be thick at this point; gently smack the whisk against the bowl to release any batter stuck inside.

3. Add the hot tea and whisk until very smooth. Switch to a flexible spatula and scrape all of the batter into the pan.

4. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few tiny crumbs, about 45 minutes. Cool completely in the pan on a rack.

5. If you’re making the frosting, start it as soon as the cake comes out of the oven: Use the same bowl you used for the batter, washing it if you want. Combine the chocolate and cream in the bowl and microwave for 30 seconds. Stir well, then microwave for 15 seconds and stir until smooth. If some chocolate remains solid, zap for 10 more seconds and stir.

6. If you don’t have a microwave or microwave-safe bowl, set the bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water and stir until smooth.

7. Let the chocolate cream cool, stirring now and then, until thickened to the consistency of soft frosting. (This may take up to an hour.) Plop it all over the cake, even if it’s still a touch warm, and use a flexible spatula or a large spoon to swoop and swirl it to cover the top. Cut into pieces and serve.

Vegan Banana Bread

Vegan banana bread. The batter goes into a skillet, which ensures that it bakes through evenly (and quickly), and looks to overripe bananas, a common egg substitute, to bind the dry ingredients. Food styled by Monica Pierini. (Joseph De Leo, The New York Times)

By Genevieve Ko

If you’ve never tried to bake anything before, this is a great place to start. (You don’t even need a cake pan!) And if you’re an expert in the kitchen, you’ll be delighted with this quick bread that’s as tender as cake. Overripe bananas not only deliver their deep sweetness, but also bind together the batter made from pantry ingredients. With neither dairy nor eggs, this treat tastes like the purest form of banana bread and also ends up being vegan. You can skip the crunchy topping or swap in your favorite nuts, or black or white sesame seeds. You also can stir a cup of mini chocolate chips or finely chopped chocolate into the batter before baking to take this from breakfast treat to dessert.

Yield: One 9- or 10-inch cake (8 to 12 servings)

Total time: 1 1/4 hours, plus cooling

Ingredients

Canola or vegetable oil, for greasing the pan
1 1/2 cups/194 grams all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 1/2 cups/276 grams mashed very ripe bananas (from 3 to 4)
1/2 cup/100 grams sugar
1/2 cup/100 grams canola or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped pecans or roasted salted peanuts (optional)

Preparation

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Rub oil inside a 9- or 10-inch ovenproof skillet.

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.

3. Whisk the bananas and sugar in a large bowl until the bananas have completely broken down. Whisk in the oil and vanilla until smooth. Add the flour mixture and switch to a flexible spatula to stir until smooth.

4. Scrape and spread the batter into the skillet. Sprinkle the top with nuts, if you’d like.

5. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool completely in the skillet on a rack. The banana bread will keep, wrapped well, for up to 3 days at room temperature and up to 3 months in the freezer.

Fruit Crumble

Fruit crumble. Whether you throw in a little more fruit or skimp a little on the nuts, you’re going to end up with a vibrant yet warm dessert of jammy fruit and crunchy crumble. Food styled by Monica Pierini. (Joseph De Leo, The New York Times)

By Genevieve Ko

The buttery blend of oats and nuts in this easy, warm dessert stays nubby and crunchy while baking over the juicy fruit. (It also happens to be gluten-free.) A chai spice blend is especially nice in the mix, but other sweet-leaning spices like cinnamon and cardamom taste just as good. Any blend of fruit works, and keeping the peel on apples, pears and stone fruit not only streamlines the preparation but also adds a pleasant chewiness. If you want to go all berry, stick with fresh options; frozen fruit ends up too wet. (Thawed frozen berries work just fine with a mix of sturdy fresh apples and pears, though.) You don’t have to serve a warm bowl of this crumble with ice cream, but you probably want that creaminess swirling into the jammy fruit.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Total time: 1 1/4 hours, plus cooling

Ingredients

For the Crumble:

1 1/2 cups/154 grams instant oats (see Tip)
3/4 cup/150 grams sugar
1/2 cup/56 grams chopped pecans or walnuts
1 teaspoon chai spice or ground cinnamon (see Tip)
1 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 cup/114 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the Fruit:

2 pounds fruit, such as berries, pears, apples, peaches, plums or a combination
1/2 cup/100 grams sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch or flour (see Tip)
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Preparation

1. Prepare the crumble: Heat oven to 375 degrees with a rack in the center.

2. Mix the oats, sugar, nuts, chai spice and salt in a medium bowl. Cut the butter into cubes the size of dice and toss in. Use your fingers to smush the butter into the dry ingredients until no yellow bits remain and the blend forms clumps. Refrigerate uncovered while you prepare the fruit (or covered for up to 3 days).

3. Prepare the fruit: If you’re using big fruit, scrub it well, then cut into 1/2-inch pieces, about the same size as small blackberries or big blueberries. Throw out any pits, seeds or stems.

4. In a large bowl, mix the sugar and cornstarch. Add all the fruit, then the lemon juice and stir until well mixed. Scrape the fruit and any juices into a 9- or 10-inch ovenproof skillet and spread evenly.

5. Scatter the chilled crumble mixture evenly over the fruit, breaking any large clumps into smaller pebbles. Place the skillet on a sheet pan to catch any dripping fruit juices.

6. Bake until the fruit is bubbling, the liquid has thickened and the top is nicely browned, about 45 minutes. If the crumble darkens too much before the fruit mixture is thick, place a sheet of foil loosely on top. Cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Tips

If you want to make this gluten-free, be sure to use gluten-free oats and cornstarch.

You can also use a spice blend, such as apple pie spice or pumpkin spice, or a savory blend, like baharat.

Chunky Chocolate Cookies

Chunky chocolate cookies. For these airy yet fudgy disks, you can switch-up the mix-ins with your favorite salty-sweet combination. Food styled by Monica Pierini. (Joseph De Leo, The New York Times)

By Genevieve Ko

Crisp at the edges and soft in the center, this chocolate cookie is lumpy with hooks of broken pretzels and melty chocolate chips. Built on a foundation of beating an egg with sugar until pale and full of tiny bubbles, it combines all the satisfying richness of a brownie with an almost airy lightness. Baking soda also helps lift the dense, dark dough in the oven. Once out, the craggy rounds deliver the irresistible pair of salty crunch and creamy sweetness in the tender, chocolaty cookie. You can switch-up the mix-ins with whatever you like: chocolate chunks, peanut butter chips, toffee bits, nuts or a combination. Just use a cup total for this amount of dough. And do consider keeping the pretzels no matter what else you throw in. Those little hits of salt turn perfectly good cookies into great ones.

Yield: 18 cookies

Total time: 25 minutes, plus cooling

Ingredients

3/4 cup/98 grams all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 large egg
3/4 cup/150 grams sugar
1/2 cup/114 grams unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup/45 grams natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup/100 grams chocolate chips
1/2 cup/24 grams coarsely broken mini pretzels

Preparation

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the center. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

2. Whisk the flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl.

3. Whisk the egg and sugar in a large bowl until pale yellow and thick, about 1 minute. Add the butter and cocoa, and whisk until smooth.

4. Switch to a flexible spatula and gently stir in the flour mixture until no streaks of flour remain. Stir in the chocolate chips and pretzels.

5. Using a dinner spoon, scoop 18 equal mounds of dough onto the pan, using another spoon or your finger to push the dough off the spoon. Space the mounds a few inches apart.

6. Bake until the tops of the cookies crack and just lose their shine, 8 to 10 minutes. Don’t overbake. Cool on the pan. You can eat them hot, but they’re better if they’ve cooled to at least warm. Once at room temperature, they’ll keep for up to 3 days in an airtight container.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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