Disclaimer: I am no professionally-trained chef and will never claim to be. I've gone to the school of "practice makes perfect" with lots of extracurricular Food Network and reading. I've screwed up recipes, and you will, too. Just ask my parents about the stuffed red onions. Not pretty and bland-tasting at best. You must to be willing to make mistakes, figure out why what happened actually happened, and give it another go. Recipes you see here are often made at least three times and frequently, over 20 times. Everyone cooks/bakes differently, and their kitchens, ovens, ingredients, and interpretations of recipes are different, too. I just try to give the most detailed instructions and give tips that usually aren't included in most recipes. (My cookbooks look like textbooks with dates and tons of notes in the margins... oh and tons of butter, sugar, and chocolate marks.)
1. "Do I need an electric mixer? Can I do things by hand instead?"
Teeeeeeeeechnically, yes, you can do without an electric mixer. Many folks before us did it, but be prepared to put in a lot of extra work, as most recipes assume you have even the most basic mixer. So, let me answer that again. Yes, you need an electric mixer if you want to make your life a heck of a lot easier. I know I harp about my stand mixer all the time (hello, I celebrated my one year anniversary with the thing by using it to make cookise), but they are expensive and unless you will use it often, it's probably not worth the money for you. Instead, you can find very capable and inexpensive models in stores like Target, Wal-mart and Macy's. I just coached a friend through buying her first one at a Target, and she found there are models for as little as $15. Rival, Oster, Hamilton Beach, Proctor Silex, Cuisinart, Kitchenaid -- these are all great models. Just make sure they come with two metal beaters and you'll be good to go.
2. "I swear you use parchment paper in almost every recipe. Is it totally necessary?"
No, it's not necessary. But, for more delicate cookies, as seen in the sugar cookie post, parchment paper will enable you to just remove the whole sheet of paper and transfer to a cooling rack until the cookies become firmer and easier to handle. I know, I know, I didn't use paper for my chocolate gingersnaps... that's because I actually ran out (ha!). But, gingersnaps are much firmer cookies and can be easily removed with a metal spatula without fear of breaking. If I had to pick one product that I wouldn't make without the use of parchment paper, it'd have to be layer cakes. Nothing bums me out more than unmolding a gorgeous yellow cake only to have half of the bottom stick to the pan. Important note: Wax paper is NOT an appropriate substitute for parchment paper. Wax paper will melt in the oven and I'm sure cause many more problems... I'm not about to find out the hard way. Parchment paper is available in the baking section of most grocery stores, not in the wax paper/tin foil/plastic wrap section like you might think. Also, a great more permanent solution would be the Sil-pat.
I'll say that the art of cutting something, be it an onion, bell pepper, or even tomato, is learned through much practice and observation. Ina Garten showed me how to cut a bell pepper, some chick on PBS showed me the best way to cut a tomato, and Giada DeLaurentiis was the person I first noticed chopping an onion with such ease. Since I can't find a video of her online, I'll see what I can find instead. First tip -- a sharp knife so you are actually cutting the onion, not crushing it. Alright, here is a quick clip. I should note that this is how to dice an onion. For strings or rings, a different technique applies. Hope this helps!
4. "How do I make a softer, puffier, doughier cookie? Just decrease the baking time?"
For a quick fix, yes, bake it for a shorter amount of time. But eventually, the cookie will cool and dry out a bit. I tell people this all the time and, I'm pretty sure they think I'm just being dramatic, but I have two recipes for chocolate chip cookies and two for sugar cookies: one makes a thin, crisp cookie, and the other is for a chewy and soft version. There is a difference in ingredients, with two primary examples. First, a recipe for a thinner cookie will most likely include egg whites and not just whole eggs. The reason behind this is that the egg white actually dries out the cookie and puffs up much less than the yolk. Second, a crisper cookie will have more granulated sugar than brown sugar, since brown sugar (sugar + molasses) will create a chewier cookie. In fact, Alton Brown of Good Eats fame has a great episode about these differences, check it out if you're lucky! I'll do some posts on this in the future, so just wait!
That's all for now. Thanks so much for the questions -- keep them coming. Happy cooking!