A recent order for an un-iced cake from a client who says she is the world's most crap baker has me thinking about people who say that they cannot bake. Now I am willing to believe that some of the skill in baking is just innate - just like some people are naturally better athletes, and some are better artists - I really think there is some gene or something for successful bakers. However, I also am of the firm belief that one can learn to be a competent baker. Not everyone chooses to, but I think everyone is at least capable of baking a decent loaf of bread and a decent chocolate cake. Given that this is a skill which seems to be shrouded in mystery and confusion, I'm offering the following tips to becoming a better baker:
- The first time you make a recipe, READ IT ALL THE WAY TO THE END. All the way. Nothing worse than finding out, 6 hours later, that you need yet another spoonful of this and half cup of that. Or realising you've allowed 2 hours to make it and it needs overnight rising time. Reading the recipe all the way through lets you know what you're in for time and ingredient wise, and also helps you know what to expect, skills-wise, further down the line.
- Once you've read it, gather all the ingredients and check that you actually have these things in the right quantities, PLUS some. Especially true for bread products, you will always need more flour than the recipe requires. I am including equipment here, too - if it says you need a piping bag, don't start the recipe until you've got one.
- Remember that baking is a science. Literally. It's just not like normal cooking where a pinch of this and a pinch of that will get you through. Cake, cookie and bread recipes are actually formulas. It's very hard (especially for a beginning baker) to just add and remove stuff without significantly changing the final result. There are molecular reactions happening with that sugar - which is why swapping all the sugar for Splenda will never, ever work. Swapping wholemeal flour for white flour will also not work unless you adjust the formula, as wholemeal flour requires more liquid to be added.
- Know your ingredients. Yes, there is a difference between baking soda and baking powder. Just because they have the word 'baking' in them does not mean you can interchange them. Couveture and cooking chocolate are not the same. Yeast has an expiry date for a reason. All purpose flour and self raising flour are not the same.
- If you are icing a cake, the easiest way to make it look more professional is to cut the top off so it's level (eat that dome part or make cake balls out of it). Then flip it over and ice the flat bottom. Remember: housewives decorate the tops of cakes, and pastry chefs the bottom. Seriously. Your cake will instantly look better. (No insult meant to housewives, many of whom are fantastic bakers.)
- If you take cookies out of the oven when they are dark brown, that counts (and tastes) as burned. Take them out when golden, not brown.
- Know your oven and never trust the cooking time in a recipe. All ovens are different. Even if someone calibrated them all on the same day at the same time, they would have variations. Some have hot spots. Some just seem 'hotter' than others, and some cook slower. So if a recipe calls for 60 minutes baking time, set your timer for 45 and then check. Don't assume 60 minutes means 60 minutes for all ovens. For yours it might only be 45, for mine it might be 70+ minutes.
- Own decent baking equipment. At bare minimum I think a home baker should own: a plastic spatula or scraper, a roll of silicon paper, a good quality pastry brush, a small selection of good quality baking tins (2-3 round of different sizes, loaf shape, muffin), a decent whisk, a set of measuring cups or a measuring jug, a digital scale which measures to the smallest weight possible and if you can afford it, a good mixer like a Kenwood or Kitchen Aid.
- Ask friends and relatives for no-fail recipes. Don't start our trying to make multi-layered gateaux. You'll make one, it'll take forever, it will turn you off baking. Grab a hold of the scone recipe your Nana has made for ages, or your Mom's choc chip cookies, and bake them. You know what the outcome should be, you know the recipe's formula works, and you are halfway there. You can also call the author and ask for advice if need be.
- Remember that those of us who do it for a living bugger it up, too. (Check out my babka post if you don't believe me.) You can hide a myriad of cosmetic baking sins with some artfully placed icing, some fresh fruit, or a nice bow. You can't, however, hide cajun-blackened butter cake, so don't try. Accept that some things just didn't work and try again.
- You are in control of the process, especially when it comes to an oven. If you find your cake is burning on the top, but liquidy at the bottom, DO something about it. Don't just keep everything going and hope it will somehow fix itself. Take the cake out and lower the oven shelf it's on. Put a piece of foil over the top to prevent more burning - whatever, just don't stand there.
- Practice, practice, practice. Substitutions are possible in baking, but what can be substituted can only be learned after you've been doing this for a while. Practicing also helps you to know your oven better, get more familiar with your equipment, and feel more comfortable with the whole process in the first place.
- Measure everything - remember? It's a science, these are formulas, and if you bugger it up you'll get a lab full of purple smoke rather than a dense, fudge-y brownie. Too much flour in a cookie will keep it from spreading. Too little and it will spread to far. See what I mean? Measure. It's time consuming, but it's worth it.
- Clean up as you go. If you've got some 'hands free' time in a recipe, use it to wash and put away what you're done with, or put away ingredients you no longer need. One of the worst parts about baking is being faced with a filthy kitchen when you're done. Do it as you go and then when the cake is ready, you have more time to enjoy it and less time spent in front of the sink.
- Keep a well-stocked pantry, so that not every baking experience must start with a trip to the supermarket. Flour, unsalted butter, baking soda, sugar, vanilla...you'll come up with your own list of 'always haves' but make sure you stick to it. Mine always includes my favourite flavours - like cinnamon.
One final piece of advice: Life is way to short to eat crappy cake.