While reading on The Pioneer Woman website today, (if you don't know about PW yet, you are missing out. Go read about her life on the prairie as soon as possible....after you finish reading this humble entry, of course.) I discovered that she and I share a love of Nielsen Massey Madagascan vanilla paste. This sparked an idea...what other ingredients do I have in my kitchen that take my cooking to a whole new level? Here are some of my Manna Cakes approved, tried-and-true kitchen staples.
1) Saigon cinnamon. I add cinnamon to a host of dishes and baked goods, and recently discovered the magic of Saigon cinnamon. Up until the holidays last year, I always thought the basic cinnamon in the grocery was good enough. In fact, I would often buy the bulk "value" cinnamon at the store, re-filling my spice jar as I went. I bought the bottle above in November, and as you can see, it has served me quite well. There are many good brands that use Saigon cinnamon, but please please try some. The scent alone tells you this cinnamon is different from run-of-the-mill varieties, and the taste is seriously like cinnamon in hi-def when all you've known your whole life is an antenna. And for dishes where cinnamon is the star, like cinnamon rolls, scones, and cookies, spending the extra dollar per jar of cinnamon is well worth it.
2) King Arthur bread flour. It's long been the gold standard of professional bakers and grannies alike, and for good reason. If you want perfect crispy homemade pizza crusts and bread that is chewy on the outside and tender on the inside, look no further than King Arthur. It's a little more expensive than the bread flours produced by other popular brands, but if you want great bread every time, go with King Arthur. And don't forget to sift!
3) Fleur de Sel. Translated as "flower of salt," this is one of the most clean, pure tasting salts available. I've rhapsodized about fleur de sel before, and I'll gladly do it again. A jar is pricey (about $15 for the jar I bought), but a year's worth of fairly regular use has only made a small dent in the jar. Don't use it to salt water for pasta or in your baking; instead, sprinkle on steamed veggies, chocolate truffles, seared steaks, or anything that could use a savory crunch. Because of its large grains and the pure taste, you definitely don't need as much fleur de sel to brighten up your dish as standard table salt.
4) California Olive Ranch extra virgin olive oil. Working for a Fortune 50 grocery retailer has its advantages, one of which is getting samples from vendors. Several months ago a few bottles of California Olive Ranch EVOO ended up on my desk, and I've been in love ever since. It smells and tastes so fresh, with none of the off-putting peppery aftertaste or even rancidity of other brands. I use it for searing meats, sauteing asparagus, and I even found an olive oil cake that showcases the nice flavor of this oil.5) Nielsen Massey vanilla bean paste....the real black gold. I found this gem on Amazon last fall after reading about Nielsen Massey vanillas on a website. I've never been quite talented at slicing vanilla beans lengthwise and scraping out all of those tiny seeds, and this product takes all that hassle away. It measures teaspoon for teaspoon with vanilla extract, is supremely smooth and aromatic, and you get the added benefit of all those pretty little flecks of vanilla seeds. Like the cinnamon I mentioned above, I use this paste for baked goods where vanilla is the star. Just this week I added a tablespoon to my cream cheese frosting for cinnamon rolls, and I use it for sugar cookies, vanilla wafers, and vanilla cake.
6) Cane sugar. There is plenty of debate over cane sugar versus beet sugar for baking, and I have to side with cane sugar. Don't be fooled--unless the package clearly states "cane sugar," it likely came from beets. The same also goes for brown sugar; cheaper brands will use a white beet sugar and basically coat it with a molasses additive. Yuck. I don't necessarily notice a major difference between beet and cane white granulated sugar in my cookies and cakes (I guess my palate isn't refined enough!), but I do notice that beet sugar caramelizes differently during candy making. Therefore, when I embark on my labor-of-love caramel-making mission, I don't take any chances. Cane sugar it is.
7) Black pepper grinder. Nothing fancy here, but the inside of my spice cabinet has not seen a tin of ground black pepper in years. Not only does this nifty little grinder let me select the size of my grind (large and crunchy, thank you very much!), but it guarantees every dish will have a fresh, well, peppery, flavor. With a grinder you'll never be disappointed by heat and time reducing the potency of the pepper, and therefore you'll end up using less.