Falling temperatures outside and the appearance of cool-weather seasonal produce at the market send many of us straight to the kitchen, rummaging through the cookbooks for beloved recipes and pulling out our favorite mixing bowls in preparation for baking delicious, aromatic cakes, pies, and muffins.

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For a baker, there are few things as satisfying as watching a stately three-layer cake being whittled down to crumbs because everyone went back for second helpings. On the flip side, though, nothing is quite as frustrating as spending time and pouring love over a dessert only to find the caramel sauce was too hard or the cinnamon had lost its zing.

Over the years our Test Kitchen staff has compiled quite a collection of helpful tips to ensure baking success and ease in the kitchen. Here are a few that might help you in the coming weeks. For some of you, these ideas may appear to be common sense, but for a novice baker, a tip could mean the difference between a culinary success or failure!

To prevent meringue from weeping, be sure to spread it on the pie while the filling is still hot; anchor it to the edge of the pastry to seal and keep it from shrinking. Bake the pie immediately, and afterwards, cool it away from drafts.

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Need buttermilk for this poundcake but can't run out to the store? Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice or white vinegar to enough milk to make 1 cup. (Use a liquid measuring cup.) Stir well, and let stand 5 minutes before using. When the milk curdles, it's ready to use.

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| Credit: Iain Bagwell

Many recipes, such as this Cranberry Apple Pie, call for toasted pecans. Go ahead and toast more nuts than you need at the moment and freeze in quality containers; you will be a step ahead next time your recipe calls for toasted pecans. This same tip holds true for toasted coconut, too.

Be careful not to overmix muffins. If you stir the batter until all the lumps are smooth, the muffins will be tough and have pointed tops. For tender muffins stir the batter just enough to moisten the dry ingredients, and no more.

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Check your spices for freshness. Store ground spices in airtight containers in a cool, dark, dry place for about 1 year. If properly stored, whole spices will usually keep up to 5 years. Arrange your spices in a cabinet or rack in alphabetical order so that you can always put your hand on what you need right away, and also see what is missing. Our Test Kitchen staff stores seldom-used spices in the freezer in moisture-proof containers.

More tips will be posted in the coming weeks, but I want to hear from you. Do you have any shortcuts, tricks or tips for successful baking?

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