They say that a good workman never blames his tools, but when it comes to baking, good tools can often mean the difference between a delicious, fluffy cake, or a disastrous set of undercooked, messy muffins.
When it comes to cooking, using a “pinch” of this or a “dash” of that is not only acceptable, it’s actually admired. In baking, however, it’s all about precision. While there is always some room for error and improvisation attention to detail is key. This can be off-putting to many, who (wrongly) assume that they “can’t bake”. But if you learn “the basics”, then you can bake almost any recipe you desire.
A reliable oven is essential to successful baking. Preheat the oven to the required temperature for 10-15 minutes before use, so that it has time to fully reach the correct temperature. Avoid the temptation to keep opening the oven door to check on your cake, particularly early in the cooking time, as a sudden rush of cold air may cause the cake to sink.
For more even baking, position oven rack in the center and bake only one baking pan at a time. If you must bake two pans, space racks so the oven is divided into thirds and switch pans top to bottom and back to front halfway through baking.
If you bake regularly, it helps to have a basic selection of cake tins, like, baking trays (with and without lip), deep round and square tins, round springform tin, 12-cup muffin tin, loose-based tart tin, loaf tins and rectangular traybake tin.
You will also need a hand beater, weighing scale, good set of mixing bowls, whisk, rubber/silicon spatula, measuring cups (dry and liquid) and spoons, wire cooling racks, sieve, graters, pastry brush and baking/parchment paper.
If possible, always use the tin size stated in the recipe, as cooking times have been calculated for the stated tin, and if you change it to a very different tin the cake may cook unevenly and give a disappointing result.
Greasing and Lining Tins:-
Not all cake tins need to be fully lined for baking. For many simple sponges you just need to give the base and sides of the tin a quick brush of oil or melted butter and insert a piece of non-stick baking paper in the base. Richer or low-fat mixtures usually need a thoroughly greased and lined tin to prevent sticking.
Grease the base and sides of the tin, then slip a piece of non-stick baking paper in the base. Grease the paper. Sprinkle a little flour into the tin. Tilt the tin, taping lightly, so the flour coats the base and sides evenly. Tip out any excess.
The six most widely used baking ingredients you should always have in your pantry, are, sugar (white granulated, caster and brown), flour, butter, chocolate (cooking variety), eggs and baking powder/soda.
Additional ingredients are, unsweetened cocoa powder, vanilla extract, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, chocolate chips, assorted nuts and yeast.
Avoid using low-fat spreads in cakes unless the recipe has been written specially for these, as they have a high moisture content and tend to give a heavy, poor-textured result.
Allow the butter or margarine to come to room temperature and soften for at least 30 minutes before use, to make it easy to cream.
Always use eggs at room temperature for baking, particularly in whisked mixtures. They will whisk to a larger volume when used at room temperature.
When adding eggs to a creamed mixture, always add them gradually at first and beat hard after each addition to prevent curdling. If a cake mixture should start to curdle, quickly beat in a tablespoon or two of flour, which should correct it.
How to tell when a cake is cooked:-
Cakes are usually slightly domed in the centre with a lightly browned surface. Gently touch the surface with your flattened fingers; it should feel just firm. Some cakes require a further test of pushing a skewer into the centre; if cooked the skewer will come out clean.
To test a sponge cake, press it lightly on top with your fingertips; it should feel springy to the touch and spring back without leaving an impression.
Most cakes, particularly whisked sponges, will begin to shrink slightly away from the sides of the tin when they are cooked, so this is a good indication.
To test a rich fruit cake, remove from the oven and place on the counter top, then listen closely to the cake. If you can hear the cake mixture sizzling, it needs to go back in the oven. If you can’t hear anything, it should be done.
– Padma Anagol