Community recipe books generally include a few pages of Hints aimed at troubleshooting baking problems or dealing with a wide range of household crises. Their tone is that of neighbourly sharing of wisdom – often acquired in trying domestic circumstances. And so in keeping with the spirit of these books and the excellent women who produced them, here are a few baking hints that may be of use to you. I can vouch for them all.
Room temperature ingredients
In the 'Getting Ready' section of many of these recipes you will read the instruction to soften the butter and bring the eggs to room temperature. This is essential, not optional, if you want the results of your baking to live up to your expectations. Here is how I do it.
- Butter – I measure out the butter, cut it into thin slices and put it on a plate covered with a bowl – a warmed bowl in the winter – and leave it for about 20 minutes. You definitely don't want the butter to melt, just to be really soft so it will cream easily. (I don't have a microwave oven, but I am told they soften butter very quickly; just make sure you watch it closely.)
- Eggs – I put the eggs into a bowl of hot water – from the tap, not the kettle – and leave them for 10–20 minutes.
- Milk – I also make sure that milk is at room temperature, not straight from the fridge, if it is going into a cake mixture.
It blends in more easily and some say it makes the cake lighter.
Creaming the butter and sugar
Combining these two ingredients into a pale, fluffy 'cream' with the sugar almost dissolved is the first step in many recipes. It really does affect the results and is worth doing properly, so always allow at least five full minutes of beating. Caster sugar is finer and dissolves more quickly than granulated, and you can use it in most recipes. If you use an electric mixer, you will need to stop it every few minutes, lift the beaters and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Before the advent of domestic food mixers the traditional method of creaming was to sit down with a big mixing bowl on your knee and beat the butter and sugar with your (clean) hand, since its warmth speeds the process and you can feel the sugar dissolving. It is still a very efficient technique, as you will see if you try it.
Whisking eggs for a sponge cake
The terms 'whisking' and 'beating' are often used interchangeably in recipes so it is important to understand what is happening at each stage. If you are making a sponge or a meringue your first task is to aerate the egg by whisking it so it achieves maximum bulk with lots of tiny air bubbles – usually before you start adding sugar. This can be done with a wire whisk, a hand egg beater or an electric beater, but not with a wand blender as its objective is to liquidise, not to aerate. In stand mixers use the balloon whisk attachment. Keep using the same implement as you add the sugar, beating hard so it dissolves into the fluffy mixture.
Cutting and folding
This is how you gently incorporate the sifted dry ingredients into a cake batter. The aim is to achieve a smooth amalgamation without any vigorous beating, which would collapse the air bubbles in the mixture, expand the gluten in the flour and toughen the cake. The best tool is a large metal spoon, preferably one with a shallow bowl, which will 'cut' through the mixture without squashing it. This is how you do it: Steady the bowl with one hand. Beginning with the edge of the spoon against the far side of the bowl cut down through the mixture and pull the spoon gently through the mixture towards you, scraping against the bottom of the bowl. When the spoon touches the near side of the bowl, turn it slightly and lift it up, 'folding' the mixture up and onto itself. At the same time, give the bowl a quarter-turn towards you. Keep cutting, folding and turning until everything is well combined. The transformation in the mixture is soothingly pleasant to observe and the process doesn't take long to do – or to master.
Rolling out biscuit dough or pastry
Press lightly and move the rolling pin from the centre of the dough out towards the edge. Keep rotating the dough as you work, making sure it is not sticking to the bench. If it is, ease it gently upward using a plastic scraper and flick a little more flour underneath it. Don't roll back and forth. You'll just squash the dough – the idea is to stretch it out gently. For biscuits I usually roll out half the mixture at a time, which makes it easier to manage.
Lining a cake tin with baking paper
- Square or rectangular tins – Cut two long strips of paper, each the width of the tin, and long enough to run down the side, across the bottom and up the other side, with an overhang at each end. Lay them across each other at right angles, creasing them into the lower edges of the tin.
- Circular tins – Cut two circles of paper the size of the tin's base. Cut a folded double strip of paper long enough to fit right around the inside and 2½ in/6 cm deeper than the tin. Make a second fold along the length of the paper, 1¼ in/3 cm from the folded edge, and use scissors to cut up to the fold at 3/4 in/2 cm intervals. Fit this piece around the inside of the tin, with the cut tabs at the base. Drop the circles into the base.
Making a paper forcing bag
The best paper for this is luncheon wrap – not waxed or baking paper. Cut a square across the width of the paper and fold it diagonally. Roll the paper into a cone, with the point of the cone at the centre of the longest side, and secure the top edge points by folding them over. Spoon in the icing – not too much, have the bag about half-full – fold down the top to close it and force the icing down to the tip, cut off the end of the tip with a pair of scissors and squeeze away. Practice makes perfect, but I suggest holding the bag in one hand and squeezing with your thumb on top, using the index finger of the other hand to guide the point.
To fan or not to fan
The fan in your oven is intended to distribute the heat more evenly and this is useful if you are baking two trays of biscuits together – the only time that I use the fan. But the fan also raises the effective temperature of the oven and has a drying effect on the baking. Be aware of this if you use the fan and compensate by reducing the temperature by about 20°F/10°C.
The main point is not to overheat the chocolate. I chop the chocolate and put it into a heatproof bowl, then set this over a saucepan of hot water. The water should be brought to a simmer, then switched off before putting the chocolate over it. Make sure no steam can escape and condense back into the chocolate or it will 'seize' and become hard. (Again, a microwave oven may be your preference.)
Large cakes can usually be frozen if they are well wrapped in aluminium foil; small cakes can be frozen in containers and biscuits certainly can – either raw or cooked. Having said that, I don't freeze very much apart from biscuits. You will need to experiment with the recipes to see which ones freeze best.
Rotating trays for even baking
Even on fan-bake the heat in most ovens is slightly uneven, so trays and tins should be rotated once the mixture has risen and 'set', about halfway through the baking time. Set a timer to remind yourself to do this, and don't forget to reset it for the remaining time.
The placement of the racks inside your oven is also important. For biscuits and small cakes have the oven racks as near the centre as possible and for larger cakes, which take an hour or more to cook, have the racks below the centre. If a cake seems to be browning too quickly, before the centre is cooked, place a sheet of aluminium foil loosely on top of it to deflect the heat.
Measurements in these recipes and how I've adapted them
The first set of measurements is from the original recipe – in ounces, cups or spoons. Cup measurements in older recipes can be for a large cup, a breakfast cup, a standard cup, a small cup or a teacup. I've taken this into account in making the recipes and providing the metric conversions. The second set of measurements is metric, in grams or spoons if they are more convenient than weighing. Whichever you choose, stick with one or the other set of measurements for each recipe.
For flour, the weights I arrived at were as follows:
- Large cup – 170 g
- Breakfast cup – 150 g
- Standard cup – 125 g
- Small or tea cup – 100 g *
*3/4 standard cup
For liquid measurements
- Breakfast cup – 300 ml *
- Standard cup – 225 ml
- Teacup – 200 ml
*half a pint
A tablespoon in an old recipe was often a regular large serving tablespoon, holding about 20 ml, rather than a 15 ml metric tablespoon. I have noted this where it is important and taken it into account in the metric version of the recipe. Teaspoons are about the same size whether metric or standard, but some older cook books expect teaspoon measurements to be rounded, or even heaped. (And I have found references to a salt spoon – which means about ¼ tsp.) In the metric column of this book, all spoon and cup measurements are level.
A pinch of fine salt or ground spice is picked up with your thumb and first and second fingers, an amount generally accepted to be less than 1/8 tsp.
If you are interested in making older recipes, you might like to track down some of the standard measuring cups that were used until New Zealand went metric in 1973. A conical cook's measure with the weights of ingredients printed inside it in ounces and grams is a boon for the retrospective cook.