Basic Baking!

It was my mums birthday at the weekend and rather than get her a shop bought cake,she asked for a traditional chocolate sponge cake made by yours truly. As well as running and amateur photographry, I’m also very much into baking cakes! I’m not going to claim I’m an expert,and there will be lots of better blogs out there I’m sure on the virtues of baking! But I thought I would share some tips for those who haven’t tried it before, fancy giving it a go and are wondering on how best to approach it.

My tips are as follows:

  1. Start off easy!! Baking as with any pastime takes a lot of practise and will involve trial and error before you start to get comfy with yourself. You may think “oh but it’s surely just mixing all the ingredients together and then putting it in the oven and hey presto?” Take it from me, it isn’t as simple as that! This is why I always tell people who have never baked a cake before to chose something like my chocolate sponge cake above. There are only a few key ingredients needed for this,flour,butter and sugar and eggs.  I won’t go into specifics on this blog post on amounts but may do so in future posts! But suffice to say the sponge cake involves the mixing of the above ingredients before being put in a baking tin for a short period of time. For little effort you are still left with a nice light cake which most people will enjoy! You can alternate with chocolate,vanilla etc and other flavourings for the sponge mix and the buttercream filling. If you can get this right after a few times you’ll feel more comfy moving onto the more difficult bakes. Another reason for choosing a simple cake to begin with is uou aren’t spending lots of money on lots of ingredients, which if the bake goes wrong..and it will sometimes..even the professionals get it wrong!..then you’ve not just wasted a lot of money. My viewpoint too is that if you get a sponge cake right and you enjoy it you’re likely to be more adventurous and keep on baking in the future. Be seen many friends go for a difficult cake,burn it or something similar and have been put off from trying again.
  2. Check what utensils/tins/bowls you’ll need and invest in them. If you plan on just making the one cake and never something else,you will still be able to get some bowls and cake tins cheap at most supermarkets. If you decide you want to get more involved in baking then I would encourage you to invest in better equipment. You essentially get what you pay for,and ok some thing can be expensive but in the long run you’ll get more life out of everything you’ll use. If you’re going to invest in only one thing I would recommend a decent set of scales. I love my electric one and it has given me accurate measurements time after time leading to great cakes! But  do try and invest in some basic baking equipment, it will make your life so much easier than trying to mix ingredients up in small bowls.
  3. Read the ingredients twice and when writing out the list of things you need to buy,make sure you’ve factored all elements of the cake baking into the total amount needed. There is nothing worse than baking a cake only to discover you are short of sugar or butter and you need to go back to the shops. Some cakes you may get away with leaving but depending where you are in the mixture it may be too late to salvage! For me I prefer to write out everything on a piece of paper and then add up the total for all elements of the cake so that I can be sure I’ve got enough. It’s better to have reserves which can be used in future bakes than come up short.
  4. Use fresh ingredients. This is simplicity but you’d be surprised at how many people use up old ingrediants just to get it out the cupboard. You may get away with sealed ingredients such as flour but even then you’ll need to check it for weevils by sifting it. No container is perfect. Plus the older the ingredient is,the less rise you will get out of your bake. For things such as egg and milk and butter it is self explanatory why you should be using fresh products,anything that has gone off will lead to a few upset tummies! Most of these will have use by dates but I also go by smell which rarely fails you unless you have a cold (in which case you shouldn’t be baking! Who knows what germs you are adding to your cake..yuck!) With me I’m a bit of a perfectionist now so I prefer to just buy completely new products such as eggs etc even if I have some in the fridge still in date. The fresher the ingredients the better the cake will be.
  5. Discern what flour you need! Flour will be a key component of whatever you’re baking,it’s important therefore you get the right one! You may think they are all the same and that they will all work and give you the same bake. But this isn’t the case,some cakes will only require plain flour,others may need self raising flour to ensure it rises while cooking. These flours will normally be used for cakes which don’t need additional baking powder. Being an amateur baker I now have all types in my pantry cupboard for all eventualities. 
  6. Prepare your baking area. Again it seems to simple as to not even think about it, but doing this will make life less stressful. There is nothing worse than not having enough room to put your ingredients down and the bowls etc. And if you’re up to your arms in cake mix you don’t want to be moving phones,keys,books,money etc out the way covering it in a mucky sticky mess! The 10 minutes it will take to clean the kitchen up will make life easier in the long run. Having a clean kitchen surface area will also ensure there will be no nasty bugs entering your bake too! Keys,phones etc may look clean,but who knows what germs are on there,and if some bakes require you to roll pastry etc I know I’d want to be eating something that has come off a germ free surface. Just imagine how you’d feel if you bought a cake or something from a bakery and discover that they haven’t been cleaning the surface! You’d feel angry and sick! For this I have an anti septic spray which I wipe down every surface I intend to use. 
  7. Prepare your ingredients before the mix. It may seem tedious but again it makes life so much easier and it will work out quicker for you if you have all your ingrediants measured out and ready beforehand. I like to set everything I’ll need in little bowls and plates around my main mixing bowl ready to put in. This includes pre-sifted flour (sifting flour will ensure no lumps in the mix) and butter which has been cut into little squares so it is easier to beat.
  8. Read and follow the instructions carefully! This is something I’ve learnt to my cost, sometimes missing out key bits because I’ve not read it properly. Any ingrediant which you get from a book will have been set out using the correct measurements and the correct order to do things,you may be tempted to take short cuts or add things or put less things etc but doing this and you risk the bake not coming out right. I will always bake my cake with the book open on the right stage,and it’s probably my methodical brain from studying science but I will follow each part to the end! I realise this probably inhibits my cakes from being more exciting, but you’ll find your own method. If you are coming into baking fresh though I’d recommend the methodical route! At least until you are comfy with your abilities.
  9. Use the cooking temperatures and times as a guideline and not the bible. All ovens are different and all of them are probably wrong temperature wise to what is written on them. I know this because my mum had her old oven tested recently by a professional and the oven was 20degrees celcius below what it said it was. In cooking terms this is a lot! Different ovens are heated differently too,some are gas and some are electric and these will invariable affect the temperature and how it spreads in the oven. Again this is why going for a simple bake is my recommendation to begin with. You will get an idea of how hot the oven gets and whether you need to maybe turn the temperature down/up. With my oven I’ve worked out it is stupidly hot compared to my previous house. I learnt this after putting a sugar glazed cake in the oven and it got so hot the sugar within the tin started cooking too fast and I was left with an uneven bake. As such I tend to put my oven lower than the recommended temperature and leave it in longer. Again this is something you’ll learn with practise. 
  10. Let the cake cool properly. This is especially important if you are going to add fillings and toppings to the cake. Sponge cakes because they are light will cool quite quickly, but once out on the cake rack,even though it may feel cool to the touch,you’ll probably find it is still very warm within the cake. For the more dense cakes they will need even longer to cool. Again this is a “oh sh*t!” moment I learnt from experience. I had made a lovely carrot cake for my sister and thought I had given it sufficient time to cool, to the touch it certainly felt cool enough. So I proceeded to decorate it all nice and neat with “happy birthday” in icing writing and using different bright colours and adding sugar flowers etc and put it in a cake container to deliver to my sister. On arrival and opening the lid I discovered to my horror that the cake must have been so hot still internally,my lovely decoration now looking like the artwork of someone into horror movies!! So make sure you leave the cake long enough before decorating.
  11. Most important part. Cut a big slice and enjoy! After all you’ve put all that effort in,it’s only right you get to enjoy the merits of your work! And bask in the glory of praise likely to come your way. You’d be surprised at how few people can actually be bothered to bake,once they discover you can you’ll be right admired!

Hopefully your first bake will be just the first of many and you’ll get ever more creative over time! And if you’re a runner like me,you can be happy that you can get away with an extra slice or two because you’ll be running it off in training!

Happy running and most importantly happy baking! Do any people have any other tips for the beginner and expert alike that I may have missed out? If so feel free to share 😁

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