An Introduction to Baking
Why bother baking your own cakes? We hope to persuade you. Make your own and not only will you know exactly what has gone into it but it also works out a lot cheaper than a shop-bought cake. What’s more, there’s nothing like a vanilla-scented oven to bring peace and contentment to the home…
Whether you’ve always wanted to bake perfect cakes, or you’re just setting up home, it’s time to stop wondering, and start experimenting! After all, even Famous Cake Bakers like Isabella Beeton didn’t know how to bake when she started writing her cookery book. Every expert cake-baker has to start somewhere.
This feature provides an overview of cake baking – things to remember, what to buy, and good recipes to start with.
Choosing Your Ingredients...
You can read more detail about cake ingredients in our Cake Science Category, but here’s a quick overview.
Eggs and ButterMost professional chefs converted to free-range eggs and organic butter in the last decade, and there’s every reason for this. Free-range and Organic Ingredients don’t just improve life for the farm’s animals; they also vastly improve the flavour and quality of your finished cakes.
FlourFlour has a reasonable shelf life, but year-old self-raising is often the culprit for a sunken cake. Keep plain flour in store, but buy self-raising little and often – if you run out of self-raising, you can substitute plain flour with extra baking powder. Organic is best for obvious reasons – it’s not been chemically treated, and it impacts less on the environment in which it’s grown.
ChocolateWhen cooking with chocolate, look for bars that contain at least 60% cocoa solids, although a recipe will sometimes state 70%. This is because eating chocolate (even the good stuff) is diluted with additional ingredients like milk solids. Follow the professionals, and choose chocolate such as Montgomery More chocolate buttons (Nigella’s favourite), or Valrhona (Nigel Slater’s top recommendation). Alternatively, visit a chocolaterie and choose your own favourite. How to choose? “The secret is in the snap,” says Delia. Great chocolate has a great snap: crisp, definite, and clearly superior.
Hints And Tips for Baking BeginnersUnderstand what makes cakes work, and you’re halfway to expert bakery! Read more on Cake Science in our first section. Here are some hints to bear in mind when making your first cake.
- Half an hour before you start your cake, bring all of the ingredients out of the fridge to come to room temperature. (This is also a good time to make sure you’ve got enough of everything, and that you don’t need to make an emergency shopping trip!) Straight from the fridge, butter will be too hard to beat, and eggs will take longer to whisk.
- When you start preparing your ingredients, switch on the oven. It’s very important to preheat it (unless the recipe says otherwise), because your cake batter will do best if it’s put straight into a hot oven. The initial blast of heat is what makes the air bubbles inside the batter expand quickly, and rise – making the cake tall and fluffy!
- For the same reason, don’t open the oven door until half of the cooking time has passed. During those first few minutes, your cake will be rising, and opening the door could cause it to collapse.
- Lightness is a key ingredient in most cakes. There are some things you can do to achieve a fluffy, light cake, rather than a dull, sunken one… Follow the instructions in your recipe; where it tells you to cream butter and sugar, be sure to do it thoroughly. The mixture becomes paler and paler as you beat in more and more air, which is a good start for your cake.
- Another secret to maximise lightness is to beat your eggs thoroughly before adding them to your cake mix. You want to incorporate additional air, to make up for the air loss when you beat the mixture all together.
- When the time comes to combine your eggs, flour, and butter, use a metal spoon (a wooden spoon is too clumsy) to cut and fold the mixture. Don’t beat – this will destroy all the precious air bubbles.
Where to StartNot with the classic sponge. It looks simple, but it’s one of the toughest cakes to get right. Instead, try an easy recipe like Lemon Cake, Hazelnut Cake, or some Simple Cupcakes. Don’t make a huge shopping trip out of it. Pick a recipe that contains basic ingredients, so that you can get used to creaming butter and sugar, and sift your flour twice (for good measure). Follow the tips above, and you’ll soon pick up confidence.
Don't Be Afraid to ExperimentDon’t panic if your cake sinks, you forget the sugar, or your mum’s fairy cakes don’t rise when you make them. Experimentation is your route to success. Try a new recipe, add extra raising agent, or combine the ingredients differently. You’ll find some trouble-shooting solutions in our Baker’s Guide. Different ovens, ingredients, and techniques will always affect the outcome of your cake. Get used to yours, and you’ll soon find that adapting recipes comes naturally.
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