Useful things to know before baking
I’ve already mentioned a couple of basic things about baking in Mama Molloy’s – The home of home-baking, but here are a few more.
The basics – judging when a cake is baked:
Due to the variation in ovens, mixing equipment, quality of ingredients and methods used by all home-bakers, the same recipe will produce slightly different results for different people. It is therefore good to learn how to judge when a cake is ready to take out of the oven, rather than relying on the time described in a recipe. I never stick to the times stated in any recipes, including my own; I simply use them as a rough guide.
The top of a baked sponge cake should be nicely browned (golden-brown) and should therefore be removed from the oven before it turns dark brown. However, this doesn’t mean that it is fully cooked. If the cake wobbles when gently shook then it is far from done and needs to go back in the oven for at least another ten to fifteen minutes. This will unfortunately also cause the top to go darker, which you certainly don’t want if you have managed to achieve a perfect golden-brown colour. Thankfully, a piece of tin-foil can be placed over the top of the cake to prevent the colour from changing. Make sure the foil covers the whole of the top of the cake and wraps around the top half of the side to prevent it lifting up in the oven (especially fan ovens) and exposing the cake.
The ultimate way of testing when a cake is baked is to insert a sharp knife or skewer into the cake, and if it comes out clean, then the cake is baked. Conventional wisdom is that a cake should be left in the oven until it is fully baked and that regularly opening the oven door to check the cake will affect the final product. However, I do open the door regularly, especially when trying out a new recipe and I am happy to take the cake out to test it two or three times if necessary. Unless I have some magic powers that I am unaware of, my cakes always turn out fine and I’ve certainly had no complaints; conventional wisdom is therefore absolute rubbish. Never be afraid to do something different to what other people tell you; when it comes to baking you have to find out what works best for you and you alone.
The basics – curdling:
Curdling occurs when egg is added to a cake mixture and isn’t absorbed by the butter and sugar, resulting in a separated mess that resembles watery scrambled eggs. Most bakers are desperate to avoid this happening… I, surprisingly, am not. Most of my cake mixes curdle at some point but when the flour is added, the curdling goes away. It really is not a big deal as long as the final cake mix is thoroughly combined. Please do not stress about curdling. On the other hand, if you do like a good stress then to try and avoid curdling, make sure your eggs are at room temperature before you add them and introduce them to the mix slowly. You can also try adding a tablespoon of the flour with each addition of egg.
The basics – science:
Yes, “science”, I know, boring, right? I am doing a biochemistry degree and think that science is boring. Unfortunately, to truly become a talented baker, it does help to understand what is actually going on when you bake. The more you understand, the more able you are to correct mistakes and ultimately produce better results in your quest for perfection.
The key to producing sponge cakes is to get a light and airy cake that has risen well. You therefore need a way of producing air in the cake mixture that then gets trapped as it cooks. This is where eggs come in. Whisking eggs denatures the proteins in the egg whites and applying heat (i.e. being in the oven) denatures the egg yolks. This results in proteins that were effectively balls, opening up and forming long strands that entangle with other proteins. A “mesh” is therefore produced in the cake mixture that is capable of trapping air. If you thoroughly whisk a cake mixture with an electric whisk, you should be able to add air as you denature the proteins. However, more air than can be produced this way is usually required. In comes bicarbonate of soda and baking powder to save the day.
The bicarbonate bit of bicarbonate of soda dissolves in water and reacts with acids to produce carbon dioxide which gets trapped by the protein mesh. So as long as your mix contains an acid such as lemon juice, bicarbonate of soda will give you the rise that you need. If on the other hand there is no acid present, bicarbonate of soda will not work. Baking powder solves this problem as it contains bicarbonate and the acids it needs to react, so when added to water it produces carbon dioxide on its own. Getting the balance of bicarbonate of soda or baking powder right is important, as if you don’t have enough, the cake won’t rise as much, too much and the flavour will be affected.
The basics – preparation:
Even if you are not particularly organised in your day to day life, I do strongly recommend being organised in the kitchen, especially if you are new to baking. Good preparation before baking isn’t essential but it does help prevent you from getting flustered and making mistakes that could ultimately result in your lovely creation ending up in the bin… or being fed to someone you don’t like. If you prefer to just get stuck in, good luck, but at least try and keep your work space clean and tidy as much as possible.
You should always start by reading through the whole recipe so you know exactly what you are making. This also allows you to identify what equipment you need and you can therefore get it out of the cupboards before you start baking. I would also get out all the ingredients that I am going to need at this stage too. Yet more conventional wisdom says that you should get butter and eggs out early so that they can reach room temperature by the time they are needed. In regards to eggs, I do agree with this but with butter, it is unnecessary. Butter can be softened by placing in the microwave for ten to fifteen seconds so that it is still solid (i.e. not melted into a yellow puddle) but is soft to the touch. Preparing butter like this makes creaming butter and sugar together a lot easier.
You may also find it easier to measure out all the ingredients into their correct quantities before you start combining things, but other than that, you are set to go.
I’ve talked a lot about sponge cakes so far as they are the simplest thing to bake for a beginner but most of what I have said also applies to all sorts of baking from cookies to vacherin (three tiers of meringue, not the cheese).
Most recipes for sponge cakes (as an example) have the oven at 180oC but I disagree with this and bake at 160oC. How good your oven is will probably determine what temperature you prefer to bake at.