I have always loved to bake and have long been renowned for my sugary prowess in the kitchen. I am that faithful friend who will arduously craft you a birthday cake – or a cheesecake with macadamia-nut brittle and salted caramel sauce – but only if I really, really like you. Baking, like most of life’s worthy endeavours, is perfected over time. Things slowly become easier, simpler and more beautiful after sometimes-spectacular series of trial and error. It’s the holiday season, and I am feeling particularly generous, so, here are a few tricks and tips I have learned from my time at the oven.
By Erin Starr
1. Measure absolutely everything
This is an especially good tip for the unsure beginner baker. Baking is a science – the rise of your dough or the texture of your brownie all depend upon intricate chemical reactions. For this reason, measurements are of paramount importance. Measure out everything from flour to baking powder to salt – even the slightest mistake could have potentially disastrous effects. Pay special attention to baking powder, yeast and gelatin. No one wants to cry over a sunken sponge cake (I swear it only happened once and it was a particularly tough week).
2. Use salt!
I am a professed sodium addict. I am one of those terrible people who reach for the salt shaker before I have had even taken one bite of whatever is placed before me. As deplorable as some may find this little quirk of mine, please, I beg of you, do not underestimate this tip. Adding a pinch of salt to something sweet can be truly revolutionary. It will give icing a creamier richness. It will transform a caramel sauce into a revelation, and it just might turn those dark chocolate brownies into something of a religious experience.
3. Trust yourself and your equipment
For those of us with trust issues, this is going to be a tricky one. One of my biggest baking triumphs is that I have developed a wonderful baking instinct. I know when a cake is just about right. I know the precise moment when I’m about to over-whip my cream into a buttery mass. I know exactly when a meringue is set to crunchy on the outside and scrumptiously gooey on the inside. This comes with time. Trust your gut and trust your oven. Do not, under any circumstances, compulsively open your oven to check on whatever you have cooking. Take a deep breath and only open the oven door when absolutely necessary.
4. Temperature is important
If a recipe calls for ‘room temperature’ eggs or ‘chilled’ butter, I implore you to pay attention. Even though you’re wearing a fuchsia apron instead of a lab coat, doesn’t lessen the science that is the art of baking. A block of butter pulled straight from the icy confines of the fridge is not going to easily emulsify into your batter. As for eggs, if you’re making meringue, temperature is imperative. Room temp egg whites will effortlessly triple in volume. Your pavlova will never be the same again.
5. Be creative
Once you are comfortable with the fundamentals, you can toy with all the weird and wonderful ingredients in your pantry. This is my favourite thing about baking. This is the magical part of your journey, where you can pour yourself a glass of wine, put on a Fleetwood Mac playlist and actually enjoy yourself. Play with citrus – use orange or lemon juice or zest in batters and icings. Add something seemingly savoury to create unique flavour profiles (I love to bake desserts with rosemary or thyme). If a recipe calls for butter, try ‘burning’ it. Place it in a pot over medium heat until it reaches a golden brown colour. Whatever you add it to will have the most marvellous nutty flavour, but remember to refrigerate the burnt butter if the recipe calls for a certain consistency. Stock your cupboards with rose water, almond essence and dried vanilla pods. Experiment with chopped nuts, a dollop of peanut butter or a tot of your best liqueur. Quite simply, have fun!