I want to say thanks to Jennifer Field for taking the time to answer these questions! I thought my readers would like a little "spice." :) Happy reading!
What do you think about vanilla imitation extract? I always prefer to use natural, but why imitation, why not the real thing (extract)? I am not a fan of imitation anything, pretty much. Imitation vanilla is made from vanillin which is contained in wood and I believe is extracted as part of the wood milling process. I guess it stands to reason--we oak wine to give it some buttery, vanilla flavor notes, but when the real thing is available why not just use it? The less processed, the better. The only time I can think of to use imitation vanilla would be price, but still, I'd probably just buy a cheaper "real" vanilla extract--or maybe even make my own with some bulk beans and a cheap bottle of vodka.
What is your advice be for people who’s cookies for some reason come out as thin sheets? This used to happen to me, but not anymore. I would say to chill the dough and also to make sure to bake on cool sheets. If you have to reuse a baking sheet, run it under cold water to cool it down quickly, dry it off and then place your dough. If you have a cookie that likes to spread a lot and you don't want it to, you can even bake the cookies straight from frozen.
In your opinion, how can you make baking healthy by having it still taste the same? I like to use ½ cup whole wheat flour (it doesn’t really change the taste), what about you? When doing what I call "substitution baking," I don't think you can ever get the flavor/texture to be dead on accurate when subbing whole grains for refined grains. But, having said that, there is no reason not to do it and end up with something tasty in its own way. I do some slight substitutions such as using organic sugar in place of bright white refined sugar. Subbing in a portion of whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour (or even white whole wheat. King Arthur makes that, and it's very nice) for all purpose or bread flour is never a bad idea, but I'm not sure how much it really does for you, health-wise. If you're subbing in 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour, or 2-ish oz, and the cake serves 10 people, you're looking at 1/5 oz whole wheat flour per serving, which is probably of negligible health benefit.
How old were you when you started baking? As a kid, I used to watch my mom bake, but I don't really recall that I did a lot of helping. Just watching. I think I baked my first cakes at 13-14 maybe. I got really interested in baking and the science behind it after college, and that's when I started to collect and voraciously read cookbooks and experiment with the most complex recipes I could find!
What do people usually order, cakes, cookies, pies etc.? I don't bake for the public. I have done some wedding cakes and birthday cakes, and I do volunteer for Birthday Cakes 4 Free, making 1-2 cakes a month. If I ever do decide to start baking for the public, my business model would revolve around my "Van Halen Pound Cake." :)
If your cake is too moist, how do you ice it? It would depend on why it's too moist. If it's because I used too much fat accidentally, I'd refrigerate or even freeze it before icing. Then, I'd apply a thin crumb coat, stick it back in the fridge to set up, and then ice from there. If the cake were too moist because I added too much syrup to it (like with a genoise), I'd probably use lint-free towels and press down very gently on the layers to soak some of the syrup back out of the cake. Then, I'd refrigerate/freeze, crumb coat and finish coat as above.
Can you decorate a cake with cream cheese icing? Yes, I do it all the time. I don't use 100% cream cheese as it seems to get too soft on its own. I use 50% butter/50% cream cheese and watch the consistency closely to make sure I can pipe it.
What is your advice for people who want to be better bakers? My biggest piece of advice is to learn all about ingredients and how they function/what purpose they serve. That's followed very closely by learning and understanding the mixing methods necessary to get your ingredients to do what you want them to. When you know what ingredients do and how to make them do what you want, it becomes easier to trouble shoot. Cake not moist enough? Maybe add a bit more sugar/fat. Not enough structure? Sub AP flour for cake flour; add an extra egg white. Not browning? More fat/more sugar. Not rising high enough? Evenly distribute your leavenings in your flour before adding. Make sure leavening isn't expired. Cream butter and sugar together much longer. And so on.
Do you like to use food coloring for red velvet cake? Food coloring--especially red--is kind of gross. I don't make a lot of red velvet cakes, but at the restaurant we did and I did use food coloring. If I were going for a traditional red velvet (bright red), I might try to find a natural alternative--beet juice, maybe. If I was more after the flavor than the color, I'd probably just leave out the coloring and add a bit extra liquid to make up for its absence.
How can one ensure that their baked good is cooking evenly? You have to know your oven--where the hot and cold spots are, and if the thermostat is accurate. A cheap oven thermometer is a good investment. Usually the most consistent heat is right in the middle of the oven, so I try to bake on that rack as much as possible. If I notice that something is browning more in front than in the back, I'll rotate the pan. If I have to bake on two racks, I'll switch positions halfway through. Bottom line, you can't just set the oven and walk away. You need to keep peeking through the window and checking on progress. Then, you can make adjustments as necessary.
Which baked good is your personal favorite? Hmmm, I think I'm going to have to go with pound cake. Not glamorous, but when made correctly, there's just nothing like it! Of course, I am also a fan of pie... =)
And finally, what do you think the most important thing to learn in cooking/baking is? For both cooking and baking, the answer to the question about my advice for bakers holds true here. Ingredient function, mixing methods--and cooking methods. For example, it's not enough to know that you have to saute something. You have to know *how* to saute something.