My mother is many wonderful things, but a cook is not one of them. I don’t have fond memories of us licking cake bowls and cutting out cookies in a warm, homey kitchen. In fact, as a notoriously fussy child, I was fed mostly on anything-on-toast and whatever could be thrown in the oven, as the chances of me eating it quietly and not throwing a room shattering tantrum were inversely proportional to the amount of carbs I was served (let’s be honest, not much has changed on this count).
My passion for food arrived when I started having to feed myself, not as the result of any kind of family legacy, and although I’ve had great fun figuring it out for myself, it would have been handy to have the basics in the bag! Here are 5 things I wish my mother had taught me before I jumped on the baking bandwagon.
1. Use ice water for pastry
Tips like this make me remember that baking is essentially a science, although my GCSE grades and the success of my sponges may not necessarily correspond. The fat in pastry needs to be kept as cold as possible in order for the dough to develop its signature “flake” – warm fat will release a water content that affects the gluten structure of the flour, and makes the dough tough and prone to shrinking. Using ice water (sans cubes, obviously) helps to keep the temparature of your pastry as low as possible.
2. Bring eggs to room temperature before use
Eggs are commonly kept in fridges to retain their freshness, but when it comes to baking, you want them to be room temperature before you add them to your mixture. This makes the whites “relax”, and makes the egg easier to incorporate when whisked into your other ingredients.
3. Coat raisins/chocolate chips/dried fruit in flour
I wish I had known this sooner; it took several years of grimacing at burnt sultanas in my scones to realise that action needed to be taken. Tossing your tasty fruity or chocolatey additions in a light dusting of flour before adding them to your recipe will help to distribute them more evenly, rather than sinking entirely to the bottom or ending up miserably frazzled on top.
Bonus tip: soak raisins in hot water/booze (I know which I prefer) to plump them back up and make them juicy before adding them to your batter or dough.
4. Always mix meringues in metal or glass bowls
I know, I know, I never thought it mattered either, but if you do the bowl-over-head test, the material of your bowl can make all the difference between triumphant peaks and a soggy mess. Plastic can retain traces of oil or grease, even when washed, and this can prevent the egg whites from reaching their true, voluminous potential. Go for metal or glass containers, and make sure that they are spotlessly clean before you start. This is the secret to my perfect pavola, which has endorsement from an actual Australian (try and contain your jealousy)
5. NEVER open the oven door for a peek!
This may seem like less of a secret and more of a well-known fact, but it’s a rule that is notoriously difficult for even the most proficient and experienced chefs to adhere to sometimes! When you’ve baked something you’re really excited to see, the temptation to open the door and have a quick peek can be overwhelming – but unless you want your sponge to resemble a rather sad looking Grand Canyon, don’t do it. Believe me. I have, and it’s not worth it!
Are there any more baking secrets my mother missed? Leave me a comment and let me know!