Baking Club special: your baking questions answered

Date:19-03-2014 08:58:05 read:1

Baking Club special: your baking questions answered

One word keeps recurring in the questions and conundrums you’ve sent in to the Baking Club over the past two years: Help!

Happy accident: 'Gilly cake' was the reuslt of bakinr error Photo: Andrew Crowley

The cry “Help!” says a lot about fear of failure. So I hope some of the answers here in this Baking Club special may bring peace of mind in an area of cooking that can be the most frustrating. What, we wonder when faced with so many TV experts on baking, is really and truly the right way?

I will tell you something that becomes clearer with every week I study and test cookbooks: the greatest advice is that passed on by word of mouth. It is that little hint, the piece of coalface knowledge from an old hand, the snippets that have solved my own problems with baking, as well as every other kind of cooking. These pointers and clues, suggestions and remedies are what make a good baker – and that is why we have devoted these pages to our Baking Clubbers’ Q&As. No doubt the following debate will provoke more responses, and more cries for help…

- Throughout the Telegraph Baking Club’s existence, there is one question that comes up over and over: “If the given temperature in a recipe is 180C, is this for a fan oven, or other type?” asks Annie McVicar. “Burnt cakes again — why can’t recipes take into account the different types of ovens in every kitchen?” grumbles Leonie Kiple. “If most of us have fan ovens why can’t recipes show two temperatures, one being for the fan oven?” says Alan Warner. Many were less polite.

Oven manufacturers take note. The Celsius temperature is what it is. If a recipe works best with that temperature, that is the one to give and if you do not (a) have an oven with a window, (b) take the odd peep or (c) trust visual or sensory tests for doneness (like pressing a cake to check if it is springy, i.e. “done”), buy an accurate oven thermometer because in all my days of baking, I have come across few domestic ovens with thermostats that can be trusted. Why the makers of ovens can’t convene on this and save us all a lot of trouble and money, I do not know.

The definitive (nearly) answer to Annie McVicar’s question is that fan ovens bake faster so set them at about 10C lower than in the recipe, depending (sigh) on your fan oven. Some recipe writers add this to their recipes. Baking Clubbers can petition me to do likewise, but I feel it is giving in to a problem that is not ours.

- Jennie McKenna also brings up a major bakers’ irritant: “Dear Rose, please help answer a question which I am constantly asking myself. As an average, occasional home baker, I have accumulated numerous tins of various shapes and sizes, however nine times out of 10 I do not have the size specified in the recipe. How should one adapt the recipe to fit the tin available? I really do not want to buy any more tins – besides, I’m running out of storage space. I doubt I am the only baker with this dilemma, which I have never seen addressed.”

If you are not baking professionally there is no need to get too het up about this unless there is a huge disparity – more than 2in (5cm) in diameter – between the tin size specified and yours. A cake tin should not be filled more than half full, to prevent overflow, so if your tins are shallow be careful if they are smaller than specified. Look at it this way, there might be more to lick from the bowl.

You can reduce the quantity of batter overall though this is difficult without an even number of eggs.

Using a different tin affects the way the cake bakes. If your tin is larger than that recommended, the cake will of course be shallower, and bake faster. It may also be crisper, so it is a good idea to insulate the tin by wrapping the outside in strip of folded newspaper or greaseproof paper. In smaller tins, cakes bake more slowly.

If you’re really worried, you can make your own tin by stapling a strip of card into a circle, then lining it with two layers of foil. For square and rectangular cakes there are adjustable tins (available from the ever obliging

I tested the volume of six, seven and eight-inch tins, these were the approximate results: 750ml (26fl oz) cake batter fills an 18cm (7in) tin to a 3cm (1¼in) depth, a 20cm (8in) round tin to a 2.5cm (1in) depth, and a 6in tin to a 4.5cm (1¾in) depth.

- From James Wilcockson, a query that may assist those who get a surprise when cracking open an egg. “Concerning sponges, what is the advice regarding the number of eggs used for a two or a three-egg cake when the egg has a double yolk?”

This is a good example why it is best to crack all eggs for baking in a small bowl first. If the yolks have not broken, scoop out the yolks and weigh them. The yolks from a medium egg (53-63g) are one third of the whole weight – average weight 20g. If the cake requires three eggs, use 60g of egg yolk from the doubles, and 120g egg white.

- In the precise world of baking, the odd vague measure creeps in. Redmond O’Brien wrote, “In the Baking Club recipe for drop scones (March 4 2014) you mentioned one of the ingredients as “a nut of butter”. Can you define how much that is, please?”

Apologies, this is a recipe that I have known since childhood, based on one of Constance Spry’s where you will also find pinches of this and other “scant” measures. A nut of butter is a piece the size of a walnut, an approximate heaped teaspoon, or about 15g.

- A fascinating question that, living in lowland Britain, would never have occurred to me: Laura Federico lives, and bakes, up a mountain. “When we moved to our village in Italy, I noticed a difference in the appearance of cakes I have always made, and I have since heard altitude can make a difference. Can you enlighten me?”

It actually does make a difference above 3,000ft. According to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s excellent and scientific Cake Bible, more evaporation takes place at high altitude and cakes may be dry. Not only that, but if there is too much evaporation, there will not be enough moisture to gelatinise the starch in the batter during baking and the structure can be affected, making cakes rise quickly then collapse. She suggests decreasing the sugar content, but if you think this would make the cake less delicious, decrease the baking powder by a quarter and add a little milk. Over 3,500ft you will need to increase the oven temperature by 10C.

- Joan McKenzie has a “soggy top” question. “Help! How can I keep the meringue topping on a lemon meringue pie crisp? I use two tablespoons of caster sugar mixed with two tablespoons of granulated sugar to two egg whites. Half is beaten in and the second half folded in. By the time it is cold the meringue is soggy.”

I find the best way to do this is to turn off the oven five minutes before the end of cooking, and allow the pie to cool in the oven. If it is not a fan oven, turn it off and leave the door open. You may be using too little sugar, so add a further tablespoon of caster sugar at the folding in stage.

- Judith Stevens writes from her home in Spain, looking for a crisp biscuit. “Why are the biscuits I make delicious but never crisp like commercial ones? They also go soft and chewy after a day. When cooked they are no thicker than a commercial biscuit. I follow the recipe and this has happened to ginger biscuits using a Paul Hollywood recipe and a Delia. Help!”

I am in too minds about this, being one who loves a biscuit that is crisp on the edges and a bit chewy in the centre. When it comes to commercial biscuits, the “snap factor” is all about shelf life. I do not know which recipes you are using and bet both taste wonderful, but if you want more crunch try replacing a spoonful of the flour with a more absorbent flour, such as rice flour or potato flour.

- Elizabeth Close wonders about curds: “I have an excellent recipe for cheesecake, which requires cream cheese. Unfortunately, my Waitrose store no longer stocks it. It was suggested to use Philadelphia cream cheese, but this is certainly not the same as the cream cheese I used to buy. What else can I use?”

I make baked cheesecake with a mixture of 50 per cent ricotta, beaten with 50 per cent mascarpone which gives a light but rich cakey texture. I agree that the generic types of “cream cheese” are not quite the lovely rich version of fresh curd cheese it should be. Ocado sells a good traditional cream cheese from France called Paysan Breton, in 150g pots.

- One of the many new fans of sourdough bread writes in despairing of her homemade fermented yeast “starter”. “It smells of – well, let’s NOT go there,” writes Mimi King. “Can I buy some?”

Mimi, you can beg from friends who make one that smells – metaphorically speaking – of roses, but I had a big success with a powdered sourdough bought from Sekowa Special Baking Ferment, £6.49. Bakery Bits is a Devon-based online shop which has become my one-stop shop for all things bread and patisserie-related.

- Sometimes, it is the mistakes we make that surprise us most. Recently, I met a reader after a funeral of a dear friend, Gilly Harris, a cousin by marriage. Many of her friends brought cake to her brother’s house afterwards – and I can’t think anything more comfortingly spot-on. There was an especially good ginger cake with an intriguing sugar crystal base. Sarah Girdlestone, who made it, confessed it was a recipe she often made that had gone wrong. Gone right, more like, I said, asking her to send her recipe to the Baking Club. Some of the best cooks’ accidents (think praline) become classics. Let’s call it Gilly Cake.“This is what I did with my 'cake’,” writes Sarah. “It is a pudding from one of Claire McDonald’s books, normally made with canned pears in pear juice, left out for ease of finger eating. I wonder if using a metal cake tin rather than ovenproof dish made it too hot and crystallised the sugar?”

Gilly Cake

Use an 8in cake tin, greased then lined with baking parchment

For the base of the dish:

55g butter

110g soft brown sugar

For the cake batter:

110g plain flour

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

1 pinch ground cloves

A grating of nutmeg

55g butter, melted

1 large egg, beaten

110g soft light or dark brown sugar

85g golden syrup

120ml milk

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Sieve the flour, bicarbonate of soda and spices into a bowl.

Mix the melted butter with the egg, sugar, treacle and milk then add it to the dry ingredients.

Spread the butter for the base of the cake on the base of the tin then sprinkle the sugar over it evenly.

Spread the cake batter over the surface and bake for 40 minutes until the sponge feels springy.

Leave to cool in the tin then turn out so the base becomes the top.

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