Real baking know-how

Real baking know-how

By
Hayley McKee
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743793466
Photographer
Tara Pearce, Tim Hillier

Most of what I know about cake making I learned from pizza. Throughout my school years, I worked at pizza joints and patisseries. The French pastry chefs showed me what a tightly run kitchen looked like, and the pizza chefs taught me all about flavour ratios.

My biggest lesson came from my time at Golden Pizza in the sleepy hills of Kalamunda, Western Australia. It was run by an old Italian dad. I was shown that quality toppings should be respected and arranged with care. I was taught not to skimp on the edges and to make every bite count.

Every time I create a new baked concoction I have this message in mind. Each wedge of cake, just like a good wedge of pizza, needs to have a satisfying balance of flavours – never too much of one ingredient to make it overpowering and never too little of another to make it redundant. This is the core of my baking style – flavourpacked treats that aren’t loaded with empty gestures.

Cakes and other sweet treats are made with an event or someone special in mind (even if that person is you), so I really believe in stripping out the mystery and science of baking and letting it be a messy, honest experience that is fun, not stressful. I’m going to walk you through all my nuggets of know-how to help take the fear out of baking. Be bold in the kitchen and hold on to your sense of humour. Here’s how.

The baker's toolkit (spatulas matter)

Okay, first up you need to have a baker’s toolkit. Nothing fancy, just the real essentials to get you baking with results. Open your kitchen drawer and survey your gadgets. If your spatula has seen better days, treat yourself to a new one. Ditto your whisk and measuring cups. As soon as you have a functioning batch of utensils you’ll notice that you start baking more and more. And the more you bake, the better you get.

The following are what you need for a functioning, humble kitchen. Just like the natural ingredients I’m drawn to, nothing included here is overly pricey or fancy; these are just the core items you need to line you up for baking success.

Electric oven I have spent many years picking rental homes purely based on their ovens. Your oven is clearly your biggest ally in baking well-risen cakes, and I always choose electric models over gas. Generally, gas ovens keep all the heat in the back and don’t circulate the hot air for an even bake. If you do have a gas oven, factor in time to carefully rotate your baked goods halfway through the baking time.

Stand mixer Buying your first stand mixer is a rite of passage for any serious home baker. It’s an investment that marks your commitment and enthusiasm, and it will help you cut time and corners in whisking, kneading and beating. I use a KitchenAid stand mixer but also a Breville. The KitchenAid is a warrior and has endured years of beating monsterloads of cookie dough. My Breville is my new friend. It has a downlight so I can see what’s going on in the shadowy corners of the mixing bowl, the bowl itself is glass so I can see all the ingredients have combined evenly, and it has a nifty timer, so I know exactly how long I’ve been creaming my butter. All these add-ons are luxurious for a die-hard baker.

Hand-held mixer If you can’t invest in a stand mixer, just use an electric hand-held mixer instead. Confession: when I first started my business that’s all I had. I was churning out cupcake orders like a maniac, often with a mixer turned to full throttle in each hand. I’d burn out so many of them, but they were all I could use until the business got on its feet. In short, hand-held mixers can do the trick but it’ll just take longer, and you’ll need to be more diligent in ensuring your batters and doughs reach the right texture.

Blender or food processor Whether it’s a hand-held blender, food processor or a high-speed blender like a NutriBullet, you’ll need something to blur your flavours together.

Juicer When experimenting with vegetable-based recipes I always lean on my juicer (not literally). It is a vital friend for creating the liquid components that get used in caramels, cake soaks and syrups. I like juicers with an extra-wide chute for cramming whole beetroots into.

Steamer Steaming vegetables and fruits helps to retain the colour and flavour of the produce better than boiling and tends to be quicker than roasting. I like to use the simple bamboo steamers that are widely available in Asian supermarkets.

Saucepan You’ll need at least one deep, heavy-based saucepan to make curds, custards and other fillings.

Oven thermometer This is a cheap-as-chips addition to your kitchen that will keep you on track for cake heroics. If you love to cook, chances are your oven well worn; even though you think you have the right temperature, often the door seals aren’t tight enough, or the flames aren’t as strong as they should be. Pop a thermometer in the oven and you’ll be 100 per cent assured that you’re baking at the right setting and getting the best results.

Sugar thermometer While you’re in the thermometer aisle, pick up one of these guys – they’re a must-have for hitting the mark making caramels and syrups, crystallising flowers and candying vegetables. I like the old-school glass thermometers that cost next to nothing; they seem to be more reliable than the electronic ones.

Electronic scales Retro scales look great on a shelf, but they are not your friend in cake land. Electronic scales are the most accurate. No ifs or buts.

Measuring equipment A cup is not your favourite coffee mug. A tablespoon is not your average cutlery tablespoon. Measuring cups and spoons will help you tell the difference.

Salad spinner A simple gadget to dry washed herbs and flowers.

Whisk Hand whisking still has value. It’s ideal for delivering a light touch on meringues, creams and custards and for folding together dry ingredients.

Spatulas For years, I never really understood the majesty of a spatula, always seeing them as an unnecessary invention. I was wrong. These rubber babes are the only way to scrape your bowls to perfection. While this may sound like a small thing, without it you might not combine your ingredients correctly and that’s where fallen cakes or peaked, cracked cakes happen. Love your spatulas. I have thin, pliable ones with long handles to get into the awkward spots. I also rely on small metal spatulas to even out poured batters and ice cakes to a smooth finish.

Knives A paring knife is very helpful for peeling and prepping your vegetables and trimming your herbs and flowers. Invest in a longer knife and use it to razor off the tops of cakes and cleanly shape brownies and slices. Don’t use a serrated one for this – it will drag along the cooked cake layers and cause a mess. Keep your knives in good condition with a knife sharpener.

Fine-mesh sieve I like to use a fine-mesh sieve for making smallbatch purées – it’s nice to do this by hand rather than getting the food processor out every time you need to make a paste.

Microplane This little tool will finely shave citrus zest and spices, or mince ginger to an easily incorporated consistency.

Mandoline For paper-thin vegetable slices, use a mandoline. It will give an elegant look to your decorations and creates the perfect thickness for crunchy dehydrated or oven-roasted root vegetables.

Aluminium cake tins, muffin tins and trays Aluminium gives you a faster, more even bake than regular coated tins and trays. I prefer them to silicone moulds too, which I don’t entirely trust to not get my bake stuck in the edges. For the most stress-free bake, lined aluminium cake tins, muffin tins and trays are your safest bet.

Wire rack An essential for cooling your cakes, cookies and brownies without giving them soggy bottoms.

Cake decorating turntable Just like a potter’s wheel, this item helps you spin and smooth. It makes silky icing appear effortless, and is essential for giving your cakes that clean iced finish. The spinning motion is a very hypnotic end to an afternoon of baking.

Bench scraper and dustpan Avoid using a wet cloth to scrape away sticky dough, flour or icing sugar. You will only make things worse. Allocate a dustpan and brush for worktop surfaces and buy a metal bench scraper to clean up in a jiffy.

Airtight containers Essential for storing your baked goods once you’ve made them. Plus, even if you’re an occasional baker, you’ll want to ensure all your ingredients remain fresh and ready to whip out when your next baking mood strikes. Don’t use elastic bands or pegs to seal your dry goods. Keep them in a snug bubble in containers. Label them. Feel organised.

Cake walk

Now you have your basic toolkit in place, let’s bake. My heart belongs to cakes, so I’m going to take you through my methods for doing all things cake-related. I’m completely self-taught, so my knowledge is practical and my tips are tried and tested over ten years of baking mishaps and successes. I’ve done the failing for you, so you don’t have to.

Pick your recipe Read it all the way through. Baking meltdowns happen when you think you’re flying through the method only to realise you’ve forgotten a crucial step. Read the steps carefully and jot down your own notes alongside it if you have to. Some of my most-loved cookbooks have my scribbles and question marks against recipes. It makes the experience even more meaningful when you return to the recipe, and your notes take you back to your first attempt (which was hopefully successful).

Keep it clean Yawn. Bear with me though! You’ve set aside time to bake an A-class indulgence, you’ve prepped all the fresh ingredients and you’ve promised yourself to follow the recipe through this time – now, please, don’t forget to clean as you go. There’s nothing worse than feeling on top of the world for getting a cake in the oven only to step back and survey the kitchen insanity you’ve created, so chip off the cleaning in little chunks. Wear an apron, wash dishes as you go and put ingredients away after you use them. If you learn how to whisk and fold in a calm environment it’ll make you want to bake more and more. And the more you bake, the better the baker you become.

Use room-temperature eggs, milk and butter Cold ingredients can seize up batters and create an uneven bake. Get these ingredients to room temperature before you begin anything else.

Preheat your oven Essential, obviously.

Start creaming your butter Most baking recipes start with creaming the butter together with the sugar and flavourings, a step that helps to create air bubbles and is a sure bet for giving your bakes a light texture. Because it takes at least 6–10 minutes to get the mixture nice and fluffy I like to get on with this creaming before any other prepping, including lining the tins and measuring out the other ingredients.

Eyes on the beater All the good stuff always gets caught in the beater. After each session of mixing, pick off the flavourful ingredients from the beaters and return them to the main batter. While you’re there, scrape down the sides of the bowl for anything the beaters haven’t picked up.

Line your cake tin Don’t even think about skipping this; greasing alone just doesn’t cut it. I like to coat my tins with a mild-flavoured spray-on oil and then line them with baking paper. Line the sides of your tin first, then cut out the paper base slightly larger than the tin diameter. That way, when you push the base into the tin it helps hold down the paper on the sides and seals off any sneaky gaps. There’s now no chance of your cake sticking to the tin and turning into a lumpy mess when you flip it out.

Get your rising agents in early Try to drop your baking powder and bicarbonate of soda into your batter right after the stage in the recipe where you add the eggs. This gives your cake a head start for absorbing the rising agents and the longer those babies are mingling in your batter, the more chance you have of an even rise.

Measure and whisk your dry ingredients I don’t sift any flours because I can’t tell the difference between a sifted and unsifted cake. When I read Christina Tosi from Momofuku Milk Bar felt the same way, my mind was set. I do, however, lightly whisk my flour together with my other dry ingredients, like cocoa, to give them a head start in the mixing bowl.

Fill your tin three-quarters high This varies depending on how high your tins are, and most professional bakers recommend filling tins halfway, but I lean on the side of generous. It’s a real drag when you spend time creating a beautiful cake but don’t fill the tins enough, so your finished cake looks flat and mean.

Don’t splash the sides Pour your batter into the tin slowly and carefully, and smooth it over with a spatula so it’s level. Remove any licks of batter from the sides because they’ll burn and keep your cake from rising.

Weigh your tins If you’re making a layer cake, give yourself a hand and measure each tin to ensure they have the same amount of batter in them. This will mean each layer will bake to similar heights. This trick is essential for layer cakes with scraped-back icing, where you can’t hide any errors.

Get even Place your cake tin in the centre of the oven for the best airflow, bake for the allocated time and try not to open the oven door to sneak a peek, as opening the door can release warm air and ruin delicate cakes.

Test your cake by nudging the centre If he bounces back, he’s ready for you. Now, insert a thin skewer into the centre of the cake and check that it comes out clean with a few moist crumbs. You don’t want the crumbs to be wet because that means the centre is gooey, and you don’t want the crumbs to be dry as that means the cake is overcooked.

Cool then flip Once the cake is out of the oven, leave it to cool for five minutes. Gently run a metal spatula or butter knife around the rim of the tin to unhinge any crusty bits, then take a clean tea towel and place it over the top of the warm cake. Place your palm gently over the tea towel, channel your inner Harlem Globetrotter and spread your fingers out really wide, then flip that tin with confidence and give it a little wiggle to set the cake free. Pop the cake onto a wire rack to cool down completely.

Trim With a very sharp knife, pierce the side of your cooled cake at the point that has the lowest height. Insert the knife smoothly and rotate the cake with your other hand to make an even top. Trimmed cake layers give you a flat surface to fill and ice, and make each cut cake slice look tidy and pretty.

Ice I like to go easy on icing. The cake is the hero and the topping is a sidekick. Italian meringue buttercream and caramel ganaches are my VIP toppings, but a good old icing sugar buttercream is always easy to flavour with new twists. To avoid an explosion of icing sugar when you beat the ingredients together, mix them by hand first before turning the mixer on. Cover the edge of the bowl with a tea towel to avoid any extra spills. I like to beat the icing slow and low at first then crank it to high speed for around six minutes, or until it’s super fluffy.

Freezing is A-OK Once your cake is cooled, give it a little chill time in the freezer before icing. Your icing will go on smooth and clean, and you’ll be able to skip the old-fashioned crumb coating method, which can be time-consuming and messy as hell. (For the uninitiated, crumb coating is when you seal the edges of the fresh, cooled cake with a super thin layer of icing before a second coating is applied, and then the actual icing layer.)

Make it pretty I like to keep things free-form and organic, so all my decorations are either edible or rambling garden florals. For me, robust flavours need pared-back icing and a bounty of earthy decorations. Scrapedback edges and straight-backed cakes are my trademark looks.

Share Okay, you can totally burrow away on your own and eat your cake in solitude but, for me, the biggest pleasure is to serve up a huge slice of cake to one of your people. Cakes have the incredible capacity to bring excitement to any dinner table, so plonk your cake down in the middle and enjoy the reaction it brings.

Store in an airtight container This is ideal for cakes without any icing. The container will keep your cake moist and perfect for nibbling on whenever a munchie moment hits. For iced cakes, store them in the fridge until the icing sets, then cover them with plastic wrap to avoid any fridge smells penetrating. I keep my cakes for no more than four days after baking.

PS (tips and troubleshooting)

Naturally, I love creating all kinds of baked goods, not just cakes. Over the years I’ve discovered a bevy of tidbits and lessons to help with troubleshooting in the kitchen.

Cookies will spread It will make you sad, but if your cookie dreams have been shattered because they’ve unravelled into a puddle of dough, there is still hope. While the cookies are still warm from the oven, use a cookie cutter to punch out shapes in the soft dough. Allow them to cool and set. No one will ever know you cheated.

DIY self-raising flour Bought the wrong flour? Grab 150 g (5½ oz/1 cup) of plain (all-purpose) flour and whisk it together with 2 teaspoons of baking powder and use it as a substitute for the equivalent quantity of selfraising flour.

DIY buttermilk For a tangy home-made buttermilk, whisk a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice (or white vinegar) into every 250 ml (8½ floz/1 cup) of full-cream milk.

Pass the salt I like to use kosher salt or fine sea salt flakes for my baking. They’re not as sharp as table salt and absorb more subtly into the batter.

Use your extras If 24 cookies seems like too much for one household (never), then most cookie recipes can be rolled into logs and wrapped in plastic wrap for freezing. Cut off a round of frozen dough and bake them one by one as each hunger pang hits.

Bake your pies in glass dishes It’s a cool way to check that the underside of your pie is browned and cooked.

Fight funky odours Keep a cup of bicarbonate of soda at the back of your fridge or freezer to absorb that refrigerated smell and prevent any odours from penetrating your baked darlings.

Measure it out

• This book uses 15 ml (½ floz) tablespoons; cooks with 20 ml (¾ floz) tablespoons should be scant with their tablespoon measurements. • Metric cup measurements are used, i.e. 250 ml (8½ floz) for 1 cup; in the US a cup is 237 ml (8 floz), so American cooks should be generous with their cup measurements; in the UK, a cup is 284 ml (9½ floz), so British cooks should be scant with their cup measurements. • All eggs used in the recipes are 70 g (2½ oz), organic and room temperature unless otherwise specified. Milk should be full fat unless otherwise specified. • Ovens should be preheated to the temperatures specified. If using a fan-forced oven, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for adjusting the time and temperature.

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