Baking is not the same thing as cooking.
In its purest sense, baking is both alchemical and magical in nature – meaning that it is a scientific process of transformation which relies on precise chemical interactions at certain temperatures in order to work. (Proper incantations may assist as well!)
Cooking, on the other hand, is a process of creating something edible and tasty out of what you have to hand.
They are very different skill sets, and require a different attutude.
Until I realised this, my baking was rather indifferent, largely because I had a cook’s disdain for following a recipe.
Let me tell you, when you are baking, the recipe is fundamental.
Because unless all the ingredients combine in exactly the right way, you don’t get a cake, you get a soggy, inedible mess.
If you get the temperature wrong, your biscuits (cookies) will be burnt on the outside and raw in the middle.
So here are some tips for making your baking better.
1. Follow the recipe to the letter – there is a difference between dark and milk chocolate, between wheaten cornflour and cornflour made from maize. There is a difference between the different grades of sugar. Substituting ingredients will affect the result.
2. Measure precisely, and check your measurements – there is a significant difference between an American cup measure and a UK cup measure. If you got your recipe off the internet, it’s worth checking just what measurement standard you are supposed to be using.
3. While it’s a pain to wait until the butter softens enough to cream the butter and sugar, it makes a significant difference to the moistness of the cake or biscuit (cookie). I used to just melt the butter and add it to the sugar, but this makes for a very dry result.
4. Get to know your oven. The best ovens I have found for baking are small electric ovens. You need to be able to turn the fan force (if you have it) off, so that the outside of whatever you are baking doesn’t dry out too quickly. Slow heat is usually better for baking than quick heat, but you do need to pre heat the oven, so that bubbles in the mixture form and set quickly to create a good rise.
All ovens have their own peculiarities – mine is significantly hotter at the top than the bottom, and slightly hotter at the back. When you know this, you can set it up to take advantage of the different heat zones. That’s why ovens always have slide out shelves, so you can rearrange the configuration.
5. If things are burning, try setting your oven a little lower than the recipe calls for.
6. Keep an eye on your baking. The difference between burnt and golden brown can be a matter of minutes. That’s why commercial ovens have very loud timer bells. If you are likely to get distracted, set the oven timer for 5 minutes and go and look again.
7. When baking cakes, look through the window, don’t open the door until the last part of the time required. Opening the door at a critical stage can cause all the heat to rush out of the oven, and a collapsed cake. This is especially so with the infamous sponge cake which will collapse with a even strong vibration – but sponge cake is advanced baking witchery that I will leave until I no longer have a teenager. Start with something easier.
8. Creams and icing are all very well in cool weather, but completely useless in our tropical climate. Dust icing sugar on top instead, serve with ice cream and save yourself the hassle.
9. Your cake won’t look like the ones on Pinterest. Nevertheless, small children will be impressed by those premade sugar shapes in the form of animals etc, and chocolate letters spelling out their name. Much easier than icing and a piping bag.
Adults will be happy with sugar flowers in a pleasing pattern. If all else fails, get some novelty candles on sticks.
10. No matter what it looks or tastes like, home-made is way better than store bought in terms of nasty additives, and in terms of effort made.
11. Experiment with different things on days it doesn’t matter, and stick to tried and true recipes on the days it does.
12. Practice really does make perfect, and the more you bake the better you will get.
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