Perfection is lots of little things done well
If you live in Australia and you're thinking you've heard that quotation recently, chances are you watched this year's Masterchef episode featuring Marco Pierre White. He said this to the contestants a number of times, and I guess it kind of stuck with me too...
In all of my work, I strive for perfection. A perfectionist at heart, I always feel there is room for improvement, and I have no qualms about admitting that. I believe it will result in a better end product - which is good for my business, and good for my customers!
So here are some little things that I have learnt along the way about baking (more specifically, baking cakes and cupcakes).. they may be simple, but they all add up in the end.
1. Choose quality ingredients... and choose them wisely.
Quality ingredients like premium butter and high quality chocolate make for superb baked goods, but let's not forget about the simple egg. They might all look the same, but they're not. Unfortunately, most eggs in Australia are produced by caged battery farm hens. So choose wisely, and choose free range eggs! I use only free range eggs in all of my baking. It's the humane choice, and many of my customers say the tastier one too!
2. The oven - always give your oven at least 20 minutes to preheat, and place the cake in the centre of the middle rack. The will help ensure even cooking.
3. Start with all of your ingredients at room temperature. Obviously this isn't an issue with the dry ingredients like flour and sugar, but you'll need to take out your eggs, milk and butter well in advance. Softened butter creams beautifully, and that combined with everything else at room temperature will ensure your ingredients blend together really smoothly. Plus, eggs used at room temperature will give your cake more 'lift'.
4. Adapting pan sizes. Do you get frustrated when a recipe calls for a square/round tin and you've only got the opposite? Don't be! There's a knack to figuring out the equivalence. If a recipe calls for an 8 inch square tin, you can use a 9 inch round tin instead (so for square to round, add an inch). And if a recipe calls for an 8 inch round you can use a 7 inch square tin instead (so for round to square, deduct an inch). This is given the pan sizes are of the same depth, of course.
5. Is it done yet? Don't entirely rely on the cooking times in the recipe you are following. Allow for variations from oven to oven, as well as slight variations in tin sizes, and so on. A rough way to check if your cake is cooked is to touch the top (with care of course - it's hot). If it springs back to the touch, chances are it's either done or very close to it. To be sure though, a skewer test is the best check. Poke a thin metal skewer into the centre of the cake. If it comes out clean it's done.
6. Economise where possible. Why waste time and money where you needn't. Next time you finish a block of butter, fold up the wrapper and keep it in the fridge - they are ideal for greasing tins! And if a recipe calls for buttermilk, don't rush out and buy a carton - it's easy to make yourself! For 75ml buttermilk combine 10ml of white vinegar and 65ml whole milk in a small bowl and leave it for 5 minutes - voila :) Those are just a couple of my tips - but I'm sure you have a few up your own sleeve already!
7. Patience is golden. When you take a cake out of the oven. and it looks and smells divine.. put it on a rack, and give it at least minutes before you turn it out. Hot cake is very unstable, and is far more likely to split, break and be ruined if you try and turn it out hot! And while we're on the topic of patience.. always wait for your cake to cool completely before icing it - especially if you're using cream cheese, whipped cream or buttercream. If it is even mildly warm, the icing will alas melt :(
8. To crust or not to crust. Ah, that is the question... Want a crust? Leave your cake to cool on the wire rack uncovered. Don't want one? Leave it too cool on the wire rack with a clean cotton tea towel draped over it. You'll be left with a softer top and sides, and (in my experience) a slightly moister cake!
9. Clean as you go. Booo - yes I know it's the boring part of baking, but it's necessary.. Just think - if you clean as you go, when you're all done you'll be able to sit down with a nice cuppa and a slice of whatever it is you've made without having to worry about a sink full of dirty dishes! The way I work is - as soon as the cake is in the oven I wash everything up and wipe the bench down. Then if I'm decorating the cake later my work area is ready. Also - I like to wash my cake tins as soon as I turn the cake out of them. They're much easier to wash when they're warm and before they crust up. Plus - then you can stick the tin back in the warm oven to dry upside down.
10. Short supplies - avoid last minute dashes to the shops with these tips. Get into the habit of keeping a carton of UHT whole milk in the cupboard. If you've run out of self-raising flour, don't panic. For each cup of plain flour, add two teaspoons of baking powder. Alternatively, you can add half a teaspoon of baking powder and half a teaspoon of bicarbonate soda. Finally, if you're all out of chocolate chips simply chop up come chocolate (this is now my preference!).
So there you have it... my top 10 baking tips in a single post! What are you tips and tricks when it comes to baking? I would love to hear yours, dear readers!