There is something about the holidays that brings out the domestic god/goddess in all of us and nothing spreads joy like baked treats warm from the oven. But baking is a very particular type of cooking, as much an exact science as it is an art and, as most home bakers can attest to, the potential for disaster is huge. We went to see the little helpers at Butter, our online cake shop, and got their top tips for baking success this festive season.
- Thou shalt clean
A sparkling clean mixing bowl and whisk are essential for whipping egg whites for pavlova or meringue. Even the faintest trace of fat or grease will stop your egg whites from whisking properly and reaching those stiff peaks you need. To be extra sure, we like to rinse ours with lemon juice or vinegar and dry thoroughly.
- Thou shalt get fresh
Dry goods like baking soda, yeast and flour last forever right? Wrong! That baking soda at the back of your fridge from the last time you baked five years ago may well have lost its potency and, if that is the case, you could end up with bakes that do not rise. If you are unsure about the freshness of any of your ingredients, chuck them and start again. When cracking eggs into a mixture, start in a small bowl first (rather than straight into the other ingredients). That way, if one is bad you do not contaminate everything in the bowl and have to start over. For baking soda, you can test it by pouring out a little and adding a splash of vinegar or lemon juice. If the baking soda bubbles and fizzes aggressively, it is still good to use!
- Thou shalt butter
Obviously, we love butter (the clue is in the name). So when a recipe calls for a greased vessel, we do not hold back and neither should you. There is nothing worse than mangling an otherwise beautiful cake just because you did not grease the tin properly. Get the first step right and you will not fall at the final hurdle.
- Thou shalt forsake cheap pans
For the occasional baker, investing in a decent cake tin sounds a bit excessive when you can buy them so cheaply in mom-and-pop shops, but hear us out. If you have ever baked a cake and found that, despite following the recipe meticulously, the results have still been overly browned on the sides but undercooked in the middle – we would bet that your baking tin is dark and thin-sided. Dark coloured tins retain and conduct heat more quickly than their lighter counterparts which often leads to uneven baking and potential burning. Dark coloured sheet trays can still be good when cooking things like pizzas, where a crispy bottom is desirable, but for cookies, we recommend a silicone mat.
- Thou shalt convert
This seems obvious but always convert your recipes before you start; you do not want to be trying to figure out how many grams are in ‘a stick of butter’ on the fly. Also, while American recipes tend to measure ingredients by volume (e.g. a cup of sugar), we recommend getting an electric scale and measuring by weight. It is much more accurate and, when it comes to baking, you really want to remove as much room for error as you can.
- Thou shalt know thy oven
Speaking of removing room for error, despite what the dial reads, the actual temperature of an oven can differ quite wildly, which makes an oven thermometer an (inexpensive) investment. Once you know that the temperature of your oven is correct, stick to these rules: the middle shelf is best for air circulation and, depending on what is baking, we like to rotate the tray 180 degrees at the halfway point. For cookies and pies this should even out any hot spots in your oven so you do not end up with some burned and some underdone in the same batch, but for more delicate cakes resist the urge to peek into the oven at all. Why, you ask? Because the rush of cold air and fluctuation in temperature can cause the cake to collapse.
- Thou shalt not cheat
When everything is going to end up in the same bowl anyway, we know how tempting it is just to throw it all in at once and mix. But trust the science behind your recipe. Adding wet ingredients too soon can leave you with a lumpy batter that does not rise properly. Adding hot things to cold things can cause splitting or curdling. The only shortcut that we take is to skip the sifting. Unless it is a really light, chiffon-type sponge, we do not think this step is necessary.
- Thou shalt use salt
When a recipe calls for such a scant amount of salt (usually a pinch or half a teaspoon), is it really necessary? Afraid so. In baking, salt is not for seasoning but for adding a richer colour to breads and pastries and brightening and balancing sweet ingredients, adding depth of flavour to your pies, cakes and cookies.
Still not feeling ready to tackle this responsibility on your own? Let your Butter fairy godmother take over, with a range of cakes available to order online to help save the day this holiday season.