During the Coronavirus lockdown, many people have tried their hand at baking at home… so much so that the supermarkets have been cleared of flour, sugar and yeast for weeks! I have seen lots of bake-a-longs on social media and many new recipe e-books have been published in this season.
As a baker myself (and fortunately with some stocks of sugar and flour already in my cupboards), I am enjoying this baking revival immensely… but I have also seen people unhappy with what they have made or struggling to bake at all because they don’t have just the right ingredients. I have spent years tinkering with recipes and I wanted to try and demystify some of the beliefs around baking.
When you simplify baking down, it is really just a series of ratios of a small group of ingredients… fat, sugar, liquid (eggs/water/milk), flour and a raising agent of some kind… and varying these ingredients results in a series of different bakes. Recipes differ to add in flavour and vary texture but these ratios largely remain the same.
As an example, my Mum has been baking for as long as I can remember and learnt her way around the kitchen from her mum. Recently my Mum baked a cake with double the amount of flour than she should have done (by mistake). Rather than throwing the ‘ruined’ cake away, my Mum and Dad still enjoyed the bake because what she actually made was a very large biscuit! Still completely edible (and tasty!)… just not quite what she had in mind!
Here are some ratios of commonly baked items…
- Cake is equal parts butter, sugar, eggs and self-raising flour.
- Biscuits are equal parts fat and sugar to double the amount of flour.
- Cookies are double the amount of sugar to fat and flour.
- Basic bread is flour, yeast, a little sugar and water.
- Pastry is flour, fat and water (where the ratio of flour to butter varies the pastry type).
- Pasta is 100g flour to 1 egg.
There are some extra things that can greatly help the success of a bake…heat, air bubbles and gluten.
Most raising agents (baking powder, yeast, the active agent in self raising flower etc) start becoming active when they touch moisture and work better when they are in a warm place…
- For bread, the yeast allows the bread to rise and creates those lovely air bubbles and the yeast gets to work beautifully when placed in a warm place.
- For cake, the best place for this reaction to happen is when the cake is in the oven. So ideally as soon as the flour is folded into the rest of the ingredients, carefully put the mixture in your tins and then straight into the oven. This allows the cake to rise, creating the tiny air bubbles needed to keep the cake tender and light.
Air bubbles are fragile right up to the point that they are baked in the oven and once you have worked hard to create air bubbles, it is also important to be careful to keep them there! Opening the oven door too quickly (which shoots a whole load of cold air into the oven) or knocking cake pans as you move them, can work against those delicate air bubbles and cause cakes to sink.
Sometimes eggs are used as the raising agent and if you have spent time whipping eggs to add in the air, any other ingredients added after that point needs to be added in carefully.
Gluten is what allows the air bubbles to keep their shape and it helps to ‘stick’ the bake together. The more you work it, the stickier and stronger the gluten becomes. This is perfect in bread making when the gluten is stretched and rested a number of times to make that perfect crusty loaf. In scones and or shortcrust pastry however, minimal working of the gluten is required, to avoid the end result being too tough or heavy.
Many naturally gluten free flours absorb moisture at different rates so often a complex combination of flours are needed to recreate a standard gluten flour.
I am not a gluten free baker generally, so my knowledge on naturally gluten free flours is limited, but I have learnt (through trial and error) some simple tips…
- Bakes where there is minimal need for air pockets can be made gluten free pretty easily. For example, biscuits and brownies (and this is why on a gluten free menu, there is often a chocolate brownie!).
- Gluten free cakes are not as resilient as their gluten-y cousins. That is because they don’t have the help of the gluten to keep it all together. It is simple to recreate a cake using a ready mixed gluten free flour (someone else has worked out the complex flour ratios for you!) but just remember that they may need a bit more liquid in the batter before baking and they don’t keep as long once baked.
Below is a versatile recipe for Raspberry Crumble bars which can be made either vegan or gluten free …or both…or neither!
I have made this bake in all variations and it is just as delicious each time so I have used it here to illustrate some of the points above.
The base is a simple shortbread type biscuit base (so it does not need air bubbles) and removing the gluten from the flour means that it will still be tasty. The recipe doesn’t have eggs so by simply replacing the butter with a dairy free alternative makes this bake becomes vegan pretty simply. The jam that runs through the centre adds a lovely hit of flavour and if you wanted to change the jam and raspberries to your favourite (cherry, blackcurrant, strawberry etc) then it won’t affect the bake at all.
Have fun and experiment! I’ve made some delicious food by just having a go and seeing what happens! My personal favourite experiment was some Coffee Jam which worked amazingly well in the centre of a coffee & walnut cake!
Raspberry Crumble Bars
- Base...230g butter (or dairy free margarine)
- 100g caster sugar (or granulated)
- 1tsp vanilla essence/extract
- 250g plain flour (can use gluten free plain flour
- 1 jar of raspberry jam (or any jam)
- Topping...100g oats (regular or gluten free)
- 140g soft brown sugar
- 80g plain flour (can use gluten free flour)
- 120g butter (or dairy free margarine)
- fresh raspberries (or any fruit)
- Plus a little icing sugar and water to finish.
- Step 1 Preheat the oven to gas 6 or fan 180.
- Step 2 Line a 9″ x 13″ baking tin (1″ deep) with baking parchment.
- Step 3 For the base – Melt the butter and then stir in the rest of the base ingredients until well combined.
- Step 4 Spread this sticky dough/paste on the bottom of the tin and bake in the oven for 15 minutes until the top is a little golden.
- Step 5 Whilst the base is baking, melt the butter for the topping and then mix in the rest of the ingredients (except the jam and the fresh raspberries). This will make a fairly crumbly mixture.
- Step 6 When the base is baked, carefully spread a good layer of raspberry jam across the base. The base will be soft (and hot!) so you’ll need to be gentle so as not to crush the base too much.
- Step 7 Then sprinkle over the crumble topping to cover the layer of jam. Add in a few fresh raspberries onto the crumble layer.
- Step 8 Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes until the top is golden brown. Leave to cool in the tin.
- Step 9 Once cool, gently take out of the tin and cut into pieces (I usually cut the edges off, but you don’t need to).
- Step 10 Make up a little water icing by mixing the icing sugar with a little water (you can add some extra vanilla here if you want to) and then drizzle across the top to finish.