Behind the recipe: How to make Christmas cake

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A couple of weeks ago I made this year’s Christmas cake. I make my husband’s grandmother’s recipe, although, much to his horror, I do make some adjustments here and there. But it produces a fruit-packed dark cake that we both love, so it always seems worth it. And more than ever now we are a family of three, I enjoy the ritual of digging out the fruit in October, and making the cake, knowing that it promises cosy evenings and feasting to come in a couple of months. Even when all my good intentions of early Christmas shopping and house decorating come to nought, I feel comforted knowing that at least I have a cake stored away, that will make tea times feel festive.

Shauna from Gluten Free Girl wrote a lovely post earlier this year about the ritual of making the same food each week, of having a pattern to the week that everyone recognises. I feel the same way about these annual rituals of cooking. There is great comfort in a cooking ritual that evokes a specific time of year: marmalade in January, strawberries in June. But for a Brit, Christmas is the one time of year that we celebrate with specific festive foods. Americans have Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl to mark their cooking year. With Hot Cross Buns seemingly available all year round, Christmas is the last food feast in the calendar, even if it does seem to start in September.

When making a fruit cake for Christmas, there are certain rituals to the process that seem arcane. It seems to be a very complicated recipe, and it’s tempting to shortcut as many steps as possible. But why is the process so peculiar, compared to baking a straightforward sponge cake?

The main thing to remember about fruitcake is that it is (or should be) more fruit than cake. And dried fruit needs a few things to bake well: to be moist enough not to dry out; to be cooked slowly so that all the sugar in it doesn’t scorch; and to be suspended in a cake batter firm enough so that it doesn’t all sink to the bottom when baked. Here are some of the steps you might find in your Christmas cake or fruit cake recipe, and why they are worth doing:

Soaking the fruit

Many recipes start with measuring the fruit, and soaking it overnight (or for even longer). This plumps up fruit like raisins and currants, and the liquid they take in here will help keep the cake moist as it sits. And if you soak in brandy, rum, whisky or another spirit, it will also help to preserve the cake.

Wrapping the tin in brown paper

Using all my Blue Peter skills on the cake tin for the fruit cake

This is what really says Christmas to me. The idea when lining the tin with multiple layers of paper, and then wrapping newspaper or brown paper around the outside is to insulate the tin, and prevent the outside from browning, and ultimately scorching, before the centre of this dense cake is cooked through. You may also be asked to cover the top with paper, to prevent it browning too far.

Brushing/soaking with brandy/rum

This one definitely depends on how far in advance you’ve made it, and how often you remember to do this. It should serve two purposes – to help keep the crumb moist, and to further preserve the cake, and prevent any mould from forming. You should also make sure you wrap the cake well each time you do this, so that the moisture is kept in.

Wrapping in marzipan

So it’s been baked, and soaked, and wrapped, and it’s nearly Christmas. Just time to ice it. But first you have to cover it in marzipan and then let it dry out?? This is really a royal icing thing. The marzipan is there to stop the dark fruit of the cake from bleeding through the pristine white icing. And letting it dry out prevents oils from the almonds from leaking into the icing.

I’m not a huge fan of royal icing, or of shop-bought marzipan that is so sweet it makes your teeth ache. But I could be persuaded by Nigel Slater’s homemade almond paste with orange zest, and golden icing sugar icing.

Here is the recipe I use. The dried fruit can be varied, as long as you keep to the same weight. I like to keep a base of raisins and currants for their dark, rich flavours, but you may prefer paler, sweeter fruits: sultanas, figs and apricots chopped small, dried cherries. I have to confess that I no longer whisk the egg whites separately – I just couldn’t see how the air would survive folding in with the fruit. Instead I mix the whole eggs into the creamed butter and sugar. 

Recipe: Pendleton Christmas Cake

PREP TIME: 1 hr plus soaking

TOTAL TIME: 5 – 6 hr

This recipe – for 9 inch round tin (or 8 inch square) – 20cm square.

Ingredients:

  • 450 gram Raisins
  • 450 gram Sultanas
  • 340 gram Currants
  • 110 gram Candied Peel — finely chopped
  • 110 gram Glace Cherries — halved
  • 75 ml Brandy
  • 75ml orange juice
  • 110 gram Almonds, Blanched — shredded
  • 285 gram Flour, Plain
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Ground Cinnamon
  • 1 tsp Mixed Spice
  • 1 pinch Nutmeg — grated
  • 225 gram Butter
  • 225 gram Sugar, Soft brown
  • 1 tbsp Black Treacle
  • 6 Eggs
  • 55 gram Plain Chocolate, melted
  • 1/2 tsp Bicarbonate of Soda
  • 1 tsp Warm water

Combine the fruit with the brandy and the orange juice. Leave to soak overnight.

Line tin with 2 thicknesses of baking parchment and tie a band of brown paper around the outside of tin that comes 2-3 inches above the rim.

Set oven at 300F/150C/130C fan or gas mark 3.

This recipe is in three parts: the cake mixture, the fruit, and the whisked egg whites. Each part gets a separate portion of the flour mixture until they are all combined at the end.

Sift flour, salt and spices together and divide into 3 portions. Mix one portion with the prepared fruit and nuts (especially coat the cherries well in flour).

Cream the butter in a mixer, or with a handheld mixer, then add the sugar and beat well until fairly light and fluffy (at least 3-4 minutes), then stir in black treacle. [To measure the black treacle, take the lid off the tin and stand it in hot water for a few minutes – this makes the treacle more liquid and easier to measure. Also, oil your measuring spoon with a little vegetable oil before scooping out the treacle- this will help the treacle to slide off the spoon]. Melt the chocolate in the microwave, or over a pan of gently simmering water. Stir in the melted chocolate.

Separate eggs, and whisk yolks together until slightly thickened, and add to butter mixture alternately with second portion of flour. Mix gently, so as not to overwork the flour and make the batter tough.

Fold the 1st portion of flour (mixed with fruit and nuts) into the cake mix.
Dissolve bicarbonate of soda in the warm water and stir gently into the mixture.

Whisk the egg whites until holding very soft peaks and fold into the cake mixture with the third and final portion of flour.

Turn cake mixture into prepared tin, smooth top with palette knife and brush with a little tepid water to keep cake soft while cooking. Put cake into oven and bake at least 3 and up to 4.5 hours. After the first hour, place a folded square of baking parchment on the top to reduce browning (this can go on from the beginning, but then tends to stick to the mixture).

When cake has been in the oven about 1.5 hours, turn cooker down to 290F (145C) or Mark 2. At the end of cooking time (or after about 3 hours) test with a skewer to see that it comes out clean with no batter clinging to it. Leave in tin to cool for 30 minutes then turn out carefully on to wire rack.

When cold wrap in several sheets of greaseproof paper and store in completely airtight tin. Store for at least one month. Will keep for a year or more. Cover with almond paste two weeks before needed and ice one week later.

More about making fruit cake, and some recipes:
BBC Food Fruit cake
Nigel Slater’s Christmas cake
Felicity Cloake on her perfect Christmas cake

Beginning to bake #9: Apple and blueberry cake

Finished cake

I wanted to finish this series with another cake – a bit of an occasion cake that you could make for a birthday or dinner party. The obvious choice is a Victoria sponge, which you can make plain or chocolate, and fill with buttercream. But to be honest, you just need to follow the cupcakes recipe from this series, double it and bake it in two 20cm sandwich tins. Very easy.

Instead, I wanted to explore one of the best things about baking – experimenting.

Experimenting with food

One of the joys of baking is that you can play around and invent your own recipes.  There are some rules to be followed, and weighing accurately is important, but the rules create a framework that you can work within to be creative. Once you understand what’s going on in a recipe, and the ratios that  make things work, you *can* play around with baking recipes. Understanding that is really liberating and opens up a whole creative world.

To do this successfully, you need to understand which elements are important to the structure of the cake, and which you can safely play around with.

This weekend, I made a cake with fruit baked into the top. This can be pudding, with custard or creme fraiche, a cake for afternoon tea (or even a late breakfast). It doesn’t require filling or icing, and can be served warm, so it’s a great last-minute option for dinner.

The recipe I started with is from Donna Hay’s book, ‘Off the Shelf’ – a book about cooking from the pantry. This one, and several earlier Donna Hay books are hard to find now in the UK, but they are really lovely. Donna is the Martha Stewart of Australia (but nicer than that sounds). She is a great food stylist and photographer as well as a cook, so all her books and her  bi-monthly magazine are beautiful, with big pictures of all the dishes.

This recipe is for a peach and raspberry tart with a sponge base. The original recipe is as follows (converting the cup measures to grams):

  • 125g butter, softened
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 185g self-raising flour
  • 2 peaches, halved and cut into thin wedges
  • 150g raspberries
  • 2 tablespoons icing sugar

[You can find the full recipe (American version) here: http://articles.nydailynews.com/2002-06-02/entertainment/18194663_1_raspberries-tart-peaches]

Just looking at the ingredients list, and the order they are presented in, I can guess  at the method and which ingredients I need to leave alone. And the method confirms this – you cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy, add the vanilla and eggs, mix the flour in gently, and then top with the fruit when the mixture is in the tin.

In a recipe like this, the ratio of the butter to sugar to flour to eggs is important. With enough knowledge, you can start playing with this too, but it’s much harder to get right.

The bits that you can safely play with are the fruit, and to a certain extent, replacing some of the flour.

For the fruit, the main thing to bear in mind is making sure that the fruit you use releases a similar amount of juice, or the finished cake could be either too dry or too soggy. Strawberries, for instance, are very juicy and get very wet when cooked. Apples and pears release much less liquid. Stone fruit such as peaches and plums, and berries, are somewhere in between.

So when I decided to replace peaches with apples, and raspberries with blueberries, I was confident that the blueberries would behave in a similar way to the raspberries. However apples give up less juice and need more cooking to become soft than peaches. I solved this problem by gently cooking the apple slices in butter before putting them on top of the cake. This made them slightly softer, giving them a head start in the cooking. They were cooked just until starting to become translucent, but still firm enough to hold together in slices.

If you did end up using much juicier fruit, you can compensate by adding something more absorbent to the flour – cornmeal, polenta, semolina will all absorb more liquid (that’s a good trick for pastry with fruit on top as well).

For this cake, I wanted to add both moisture and a different flavour by adding ground nuts to replace some of the flour. Ground nuts have a good deal of oil in them, so they don’t behave exactly like the flour. They won’t provide the structure that flour would, so the cake may sink more (although with fruit on top, this one won’t rise very high anyway). It will also keep the cake nice and moist as it keeps. I was going to use ground almonds, but then saw ground hazelnuts on special offer after passover, so used them instead.

So the final recipe I ended up with is as follows:

Apple, Blueberry and Hazelnut cake

Recipe adapted from Donna Hay’s Off the Shelf.

Oven preheated to 180C/160C fan.

  • 2 apples (Braeburn), cut into thin wedges,

— Gently fried in butter until they have softened slightly and lost some of their opacity. Put aside to cool.

Cooked apples

  • 125g butter, softened
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

— all beaten together in the KitchenAid until light and fluffy

Creamed butter & sugar

  • 2 eggs

— beaten together, and then slowly beaten into the creamed mixture

Added egg

  • 145g plain flour (forgot about the self-raising part, and it was fine!)
  • 45g ground hazelnuts

— added to mixture and mixed just to combine.

Flour and ground hazelnuts folded in

Scraped all of this into a lined and greased 9 inch/22cm springform tin.

Batter spread in pan

Arrange the apples on top and sprinkle over a carton of blueberries (around 150g – 200g).

Apples onto cake

Add blueberries

Bake for 1 hour, until the cake risen between the fruit is golden, and springs back. You can also use a skewer to test for crumbs, but pick a point in between the fruit.

Put on a rack to cool, and sprinkle with icing sugar before serving.

Finished cake

The final cake is firm and moist, slices cleanly and supports the fruit without it sinking through. It’s perhaps a touch on the sweet side, so I might consider experimenting with reducing the sugar in future. That is the sort of thing you want to do gradually, as you will affect the ratio of the cake.

Beginning to bake #8: A simple loaf of bread

White bread baked in a pot

I’m going to give cakes a bit of a break – too much sugar around here. Instead, let’s turn to bread. Bread is probably the baking area with the greatest gap between myth and reality. It seems hard and unachievable, the sort of thing only crazy obsessives or domestic goddesses attempt. Actually the process is easier than making a cake.

So how did breadmaking acquire this intimidating aura? A few things get in the way:

It takes time

Unlike the soda bread, which came together in just an hour, yeasted bread will need at least 2 or 3 hours from start to eating. However, for most of that time, you don’t need to do anything. What you really need is a few hours when you’ll be at home so you can dip in and out of the process. One useful thing is to make bread while you’re making something else like a casserole. That allows you to chop some carrots or stir the pot while you’re waiting for the next bread step.

You can even stretch the time out so you can start it off one evening and continue the following morning or even the next evening. There are a number of tricks to use to speed up or slow down the dough and make it work to your schedule.

Briefly, you can speed things up by using more yeast or by keeping everything warm so the yeast multiplies faster. Conversely, you can slow things down by starting with less yeast or using the fridge to store the dough for a while.

It’s not predictable

Cakes can be tricky, but you can have a reasonable expectation that if you use the right ingredients, weighed accurately, and baked at the right temperature, it should do exactly what it’s supposed to. Bread making is more unpredictable, in that factors that are hard for you to control at home (like room temperature and humidity) have a much greater influence. This is fundamentally because you’re cultivating a live organism, the yeast, to do the work of aerating the bread. It’s more like gardening than cooking. The trick lies in understanding the processes and recognising what they look like, so you can proceed until the dough is ready, rather than watching the clock.

You need to know what you’re aiming for

One reason people can be disappointed with their breadmaking is that it isn’t like their favourite bought type, and there are many different types of bread. Whether you like rough, chewy sourdough, nutty wholemeal sandwich loaves or soft white rolls, you can create each of them at home, but you’ll need to use not just a different recipe but a different approach for each one.

So, with that in mind, this recipe is for a white loaf with a crust that can be baked in a loaf tin, on a baking sheet or in a pot to make a round ‘boule’ shape.

Equipment:

  • Bowl
  • Wooden spoon
  • A little sharp knife

For baking:

  • A large round casserole dish with a lid (Pyrex or cast iron – it needs to be able to withstand high temperatures)

For the best first-time results, I would recommend the casserole approach, but you can also use a preheated baking sheet, or a loaf tin and put a roasting tin of hot water on the shelf beneath to create steam.

Basic recipe:

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 300g water
  • 3 tsp dried yeast, or one sachet
  • 1 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil or vegetable oil

I’ve covered lots of other tips and tricks for making bread in a previous post, so I’ll go through the recipe fairly straight. This method is adapted from Dan Lepard’s technique and a really great blog post by Azelia’s Kitchen.

Method:

1. Mix

Flour, yeast, salt

Put the flour, yeast and salt into a bowl and mix briefly to distribute the yeast and salt. Add the oil and water. The water doesn’t need to be warm, but if you want things to move fast, then that will help. Mix into a rough dough with a spoon, stopping when there’s no more dry flour.

Shaggy dough

2. Rest

Rest the dough

Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave for 10 minutes. This step starts the gluten working (remember that water + flour = gluten) by allowing the flour time to absorb the water properly.

3. Fold

Bread folding

Instead of kneading to develop the gluten, this approach folds the dough to develop and stretch the gluten. You can do this in the bowl if you’re short of space, but it’s a little easier to do on the counter. If you’re putting it on the counter, use oil rather than flour to prevent the dough from sticking. This means you won’t change the overall balance between flour and water in the recipe.

Just scrape all the dough out, push it into a single ball and then fold each side into the centre, as if it had 4 sides.  Do this three times, for 12 folds in all. This should create a nice tight ball, with a smooth surface on the side away from the folds.

12 folds

4. Rise

Ready to rise

Turn the dough so the smooth side faces up in the bowl. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to rise for a few hours or until doubled in size.  To speed this up, put the bowl in a warm place, or to slow it down, if you need to leave it alone and come back later, put it into the fridge. If you do that, you’ll need to let it come back to room temperature before you carry on.

Risen dough

5. Shape

Once it has risen, it will be very puffy, with big bubbles. To redistribute these and form the shape of the loaf, scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a floured counter. Try to make sure the smooth upper surface is preserved, and ends up face down on the counter. Press all over with your fingertips to push down the big bubbles and flatten the dough slightly. Fold the sides into the centre again to reform the ball.

Shaped dough

6. Proof

Proofing

Put the dough onto a floured tea towel, this time smooth side down. Fold the towel over it, and leave to rise again, for somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour, until it’s expanded again and become puffy again.

Proofed dough

7. Bake

While the dough is proving, put a large casserole dish with a lid into the oven (Pyrex or cast iron are good). A good 20 minutes before you think the dough will be done (start after 20 minutes if you’re not sure) turn the oven on and set to 220c or 200c for a fan oven.

Into the hot pot

Once you’re ready to bake, take the scorching hot pot out of the oven, remove the lid and tip the dough, fold-side down, into the hot pot. Use a small sharp knife to slash the top of the dough. Replace the lid (don’t forget to use oven gloves) and put into the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 15 or 20 minutes to get the top brown.

First bake

Finished loaf

8. Cool

Tip out onto a rack and leave to cool. Be as patient as you can – important things happen to the interior of the loaf as it cools, and you’ll find it is quite doughy if you cut it early.

The bread will keep well for a couple of days because of the oil in it, but if you don’t think you’ll get through it wrap the whole loaf or a half before freezing. You can also hand-slice it and then freeze so you can toast it straight from the freezer.

Beginning to bake #7: Cupcakes (or fairy cakes)

Icing on top

To most people, cupcakes and muffins are pretty much the same thing. Certainly, if you buy them in supermarkets, both will be very sweet, quite dense, and come in individual paper cases. Cupcakes are likely to be differentiated by a swirl of thick icing or perhaps a glaze of shiny royal icing.

But in baking terms, the two are very different. Muffins have relatively little fat or sugar, and are combined very carefully. They produce moist, not-too-sweet buns, which often have fruit mixed through the centre. They rely on a big boost of baking powder or bicarbonate of soda to make them airy, and because they contain so much moisture (and water + flour = gluten), you have to mix them very gently so they won’t be tough.

Cupcakes, however, are just sponge cakes made in little cases. Think of fairy cakes or butterfly cakes you might have made at school. Although the recipe in this post is for cupcakes, you can also bake it in a larger cake tin to make a sponge cake. For that matter, almost any cake recipe in this format (where you cream the butter and sugar together first) can be converted to cupcakes by just baking it in paper cases (a useful thing to remember if you don’t have the right sized tin, or the mixture looks like it won’t fit – bake the excess as cupcakes). You just need to make sure you adjust the baking time (and in some cases, the temperature).

Structure of the batter

The structure of a cupcake is a foam, a web of flour starch and egg proteins, with many tiny bubbles. The big difference between making cupcakes and any of the previous recipes in this series is that incorporating the air is much more important. The batter you end up with is quite delicate, with just enough connection between the ingredients to hold the all-important air in there.

The starting point for incorporating air in this type of cake is creaming, mixing butter and sugar really thoroughly to create bubbles. Both of the biscuit recipes started by mixing together the butter and sugar, but this is not creaming. Creaming involves beating the butter and sugar together for a long time, to allow the sugar to create little bubbles in the butter – what Hannah Glasse in 1774 described as a ‘fine thick cream’. This is work that calls for electric assistance – Hannah Glasse suggested that using your hand, this should take an hour. Another 19th Century book suggests it is “the hardest part of cake making” and you should have your manservant do it.

In the absence of a man-servant, a handheld electric mixer or a stand mixer like a Kitchenaid makes this much, much easier. With a small quantity it can be done by hand, but expect a decent workout. You need the mixture to change colour – as the air is incorporated, the bubbles make the mixture look paler. The texture also becomes much fluffier.

Basic recipe:

(adapted from Nigella Lawson’s cupcakes in ‘How To Be A Domestic Goddess‘)

This recipe is for a plain sponge, more of an old-fashioned fairy cake than a fluffy American cupcake. However, if you master the techniques for this, then most other cupcake recipes will look familiar*.

  • 125g butter, room temperature
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 125g plain flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 2-3 tbsp milk

Diagram of recipe

To make sure everything mixes together easily, you need to make sure that everything is at room temperature, and that the butter is really soft but not melted. To warm eggs up, put them in a bowl with warm water for about 5 minutes. To warm butter, microwave on the lowest setting, or use a very, very low oven (60C or so.)

I’m also going to assume an electric mixer of some sort, although with enough elbow grease, you can do the same with a wooden spoon.

Start by beating the butter on its own to make sure it’s soft. Add the sugar and mix together, then beat really thoroughly until creamed – pale and fluffy. This should take at least 5 minutes with an electric mixer, probably longer.  It’s almost impossible to do this for too long.

Creaming-montage

Beat the eggs in a small jug or bowl. Add a little at a time to the butter and sugar, beating really thoroughly after each addition. Add the vanilla, or any other flavouring (such as lemon zest for lemon cupcakes). It’s at this point that the mixture can curdle, especially if things started out a bit cold – the mixture will look lumpy and a bit scrambled (see photo, ahem). If this happens, the answer is just to keep going – it might not be as light, but it will come back together when you add the flour, and the end result should be fine.

Curdled mixture with eggs

Sift in the flour and baking powder. Mix very gently, ideally by hand, just to combine and mix in any visible streaks of flour. A silicone spatula is good for this, as you can scrape the sides and right down to the bottom of the bowl.

With flour added

If the mixture is still quite stiff, you can add a little milk to loosen it up. The traditional description of this is ‘dropping consistency’, meaning if you scoop up a big spoonful and hold it upside down of the bowl, it will drop off. Mix the milk in very gently – remember that the liquid in the eggs, plus the milk will activate the gluten in the flour, and too much stretching at this stage will make the network of protein in the cake too tough.

Divide the batter between the muffin cases. Bake for 20 minutes at 190C/170Cfan until the tops are evenly golden and the centres spring back when you push them gently (meaning the centres are cooked through).

Into cake cases

Cool on a wire rack before icing. The simplest icing is to use icing sugar or royal icing sugar mixed with a very small amount of water or lemon juice and spread over the top.

Baked until golden

* There are some sponge or cake recipes that ask for you to mix the fat and the flour together first, waterproofing the flour as much as possible, and relying on the baking powder for the rise.

Variations:

The most obvious variations are flavour ones. The main thing is to use concentrated flavours so that you don’t add too much liquid or too much dry ingredients and change the balance of the mixture.

  • Replace some of the flour with 2 -3 tablespoons of cocoa to make chocolate cakes. Ice with chocolate ganache (an equal mixture of cream and chocolate, melted together).
  • Flavour the mixture with lemon zest (or Boyajian lemon oil) and use lemon juice to make the icing. Leave out the vanilla in this case.
  • Use instant coffee to make a coffee-flavoured sponge.

For further variations, see the next post on sponge cakes.

Beginning to bake #6: Cookies

Cookies 1 and 2

Biscuits or cookies – there are hundreds of variations. Providing a basic recipe for biscuits is hard – there are thousands of different biscuit or cookie recipes out there, and every country has it’s own favourite variations: bourbon biscuits, gingernuts, speculoos, chocolate chip cookies, macarons de Paris, biscotti, shortbread, digestives – the list is *long*.

But let’s start with some generalisations: most are a combination of flour, butter and sugar. Many also have egg to bind the dough together and to help it become crispy. Some will include some leavening – baking powder or bicarbonate of soda – to help it puff in the oven.

The shortbread-type cookies contain just flour, butter and sugar. They are mixed in the same way as pastry, but with softened instead of cold butter. This makes it hard to roll out, but gives you that characteristic shortbread crunch and really crumbly texture.

American cookies usually have a lot more sugar and some extra liquid or egg. They are usually designed to be scooped into balls and then spread out in the oven, and they usually have plenty of additions – chocolate chunks, nuts, dried fruit, oats.

Looking at different cookie recipes, there is a huge variation in them (and, because I’m a complete geek, I assembled a spreadsheet to check this. I know. But it keeps me in gainful employment). Look at different people’s shortcrust pastry recipes and you’ll probably find they are almost identical. No two biscuit recipes seem to be the same. That gives you a clue – if there is a very wide range in existing recipes, that tells you that you can probably play around and adjust recipes quite safely, and still come out with something that works/is edible.

To prove that, I tested two different but basic cookie recipes for this post. Use whichever you like the sound of. When you make such plain cookies, though, remember that the taste of the butter will be very prominent, so use something good, and definitely don’t use margarine or low-fat spread.

Make sure the butter is soft before you start. If you usually keep butter in the fridge, as I do, there are a couple of things you can do. One is to get the butter out of the fridge and put it on the counter several hours before you plan to bake. Hmm. No, I don’t usually remember to do that either. Instead, I most often slice the butter I’ve weighed for the recipe into thick slices on a plate and put it into the microwave. I use 1 min bursts on the lowest setting (90W) until I can press a finger in without too much trouble. You don’t particularly want to melt it, but if part of it does, just let it stand for a bit, and then mix it all together again. For cookies, it’s not a big deal, though it will get more important next time when we move on to cupcakes…

Cookie recipe 1 – shortbread type

Baked sliced cookies 1

This is a very plain dough, and almost the only difference with recipe 2 is the much reduced amount of sugar. On its own, it’s a bit boring, but it would work well as a thumbprint cookie (where you press a depression in the centre of the cookie and fill it with jam). The contrast with something very sweet would work with this plain dough. Because it’s quite fragile, I rolled this dough into a log, chilled it, and then sliced it into discs before baking. You can also use this method to make a sweet tart case – take the discs and press them together in a tart tin to form a complete crust.

  • 200g butter, room temp
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 300g plain flour
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Put the softened butter into a bowl and add the sugar. Beat together – it will make a paste.

Add the vanilla. Put a sieve over the bowl, and add the flour and baking powder. Sift into the bowl and mix together. It will be crumbly.


Add egg and knead gently until it comes together as a dough.

Cookie dough 1
Wrap into a cylinder in baking parchment and twist the ends. Chill for about 30 minutes.

Cookie dough roll

Slice into discs about 5mm thick, and place the slices onto a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. If you want, press in chopped chocolate or coarse sugar as a topping.

Sliced dough with toppings 1

Put into the oven and bake for about 14 minutes at 150C (fan)/170C. When they’re done, they will still be very pale, but should just start to colour slightly brown at the edges.

Cookie recipe 2 – cookie type

Chocolate chip cookies 2

This is more recognisably a cookie. It won’t be chewy, but crisp instead. If you want chewy you can do a few things: use brown sugar instead of caster sugar; replace plain flour with bread flour, and beat the dough to develop the gluten a bit (you’ll need a mixer or a strong arm).

  • 200g butter
  • 300 plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Cream the butter and sugar together, to make a stiff paste.

Butter and sugar 2

Add the vanilla and egg, and mix together. Place a sieve over the bowl, and add the flour with the baking powder. Sift into the bowl to make sure the two are combined. Mix together – it will form a stiff dough.

Cookie dough 2

Mix in any chunks, flavourings or other additions. For this recipe I used 70g of chopped dark chocolate.
Chocolate chip cookie dough 2

At this point you can chill the dough for 10 or 15 minutes (especially if it’s very soft) or up to a couple of days. Use a scoop or a spoon to pull off about a tablespoon at a time of dough, form it into a ball and place it on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment.

Scooped cookie dough 2

Bake for 15-20 minutes at 150C(fan)/170C, depending on how crisp you want them. As for the other cookies, you are looking for at least a little colour at the edges. These won’t colour like most cookies because they don’t contain brown sugar, so they will remain quite pale.

Variations:

Beginning to bake #5: Freeform rhubarb tart

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Shortcrust pastry is one of the most useful baking skills. You can use it for sweet or savoury dishes, make it in any quantity, keep it for a day or two in the fridge or store it for later in the freezer. And the skills are very simple – you mix the flour and butter using the same rubbing in method as for scones.

The recipe today is for a freeform fruit tart, so you don’t need to worry about lining a pie dish or tart tin. You can use all sorts of fruit in the centre, just cut fairly small so it cooks through. Watch out for fruits that give off a lot of juice when they cook – you might want to add some breadcrumbs or cake crumbs underneath the fruit to soak up the juices. But with the rhubarb here, I just didn’t pack it too closely, and it was fine.

Rhubarb tart

Making shortcrust pastry is surrounded by a dense thicket of rules and myths:

  • Cold hands make better pastry
  • You should roll out the pastry on a marble slab
  • You need to use ice water
  • All butter pastry is best
  • You should always use lard for the best pastry

So why all the rules? What’s with keeping everything cold? For pastry, you really need the waterproofing effect of the fat to make sure the pastry ends up ‘short’, which means crisp and crumbly, like shortbread. Butter is made of only about 80% fat (depending on the brand). The rest is a mixture of water and milk solids (seriously. Check the nutrition panel on a packet). This means that anything you do to warm the pastry up risks melting a little bit of butter and releasing some water into the flour, and you want to keep that to a minimum.

Another reason for keeping things cold is to preserve some pieces of fat in the pastry. When the dough is rolled out, these pieces will form thin layers of fat, separating layers of dough. As the pastry cooks, the fat melts and separates the layers, making the cooked pastry flaky as well as crumbly. If you want a more flaky pastry, leave more large pieces of fat in the dough. When you roll it out, if you can see big streaks of fat, you can gently fold it like a business letter before proceeding. This will gives you some of the characteristics of rough puff pastry. If you want it more crumbly, rub the fat in until all the big pieces disappear. For a really shortbread-like crust, you can use softened or melted butter, along with sugar, which also interferes with the gluten.

Similarly, you want to handle it as little as possible. Rolling it out or stretching it many times will make it tough not crisp, as it develops the gluten.

Why use lard or shortening?

Those who swear by lard or vegetable shortening for their pastry do so for two reasons. One is that both are 100% fat, so there’s no risk of releasing water into the pastry as it melts. The other factor is that both melt at a higher temperature than butter, meaning you can use warm hands with less risk of melting the fat. The down side of both is that the flavour isn’t as nice as butter, so a common compromise is to use half butter and half lard.

Equipment:

  • Bowl
  • Knife
  • Baking sheet or tart tin

Basic recipe:

The phrase to remember is ‘half fat to flour’ – you always start with a ratio of half the weight of butter or other fat to the weight of flour. Richer shortcrust pastries can use more butter, and can use eggs as well, but this is the basic recipe, and a good place to start.

  • 200g flour
  • 100g cold butter (or half butter and half lard)
  • 4-5 tbsp cold, cold water
  • Big pinch of salt

For a rhubarb tart:

  • 3 sticks of rhubarb
  • 1 clementine or orange
  • Brown sugar

Method:

Weigh the flour into a bowl, add the salt, and add the cold butter, cut into chunks. Using a dinner knife, cut the butter into smaller pieces in the flour. Aim for the largest chunks to be about the size of a large pea. This will make it easier to rub the butter in.

Butter pieces cut in

Using your fingertips, rub the flour and butter together to integrate them, as in the scones recipe. Here, it doesn’t matter if the butter doesn’t disappear completely – you can leave some small lumps. Keep everything as cold as you can.

Once the butter is rubbed in, add about 3 tablespoons of fridge-cold water (about 45g if the bowl is on the scales).  Use the knife to mix it around and try to get everything equally damp. You’re not trying to get it wet enough to form a ball on it’s own, like with scones. All you need is enough dampness that when you squeeze the crumbs together, they stick to each other and don’t crumble apart again. Try that test to see if it’s ready. You will probably need another tablespoon or two to make sure it’s damp enough all the way through, but try not to use too much more than you need. The more water you use, the tougher the pastry will be, and the more likely it is to shrink when it is baked.

Use the knife to start sticking the damp crumbs together (the more you can use a knife or a scraper to push things around, the less you will have to use your hands, and the cooler everything stays).

Tip everything out onto the counter and pat and push it into a single disc of dough. Put this into a small ziplock bag or wrap it in clingfilm, and stash it in the fridge. Leave it for at least 30 minutes and up to a day.

Pressing down

Remove from the fridge, put it onto a floured counter and start to roll out with a rolling pin. If it’s too cold and stiff for the rolling pin to make an impression, leave it out for a while.

The trick when rolling out pastry is to roll it only in the middle – don’t roll off the front or the back. Just roll a little, then turn the pastry gently by about 1/8th of a turn, and roll again. This stops you making any part of the pastry too thin, and turning it helps to keep it roughly round and makes sure it is not sticking.

The pastry will probably start to crack at the edges as you roll it out. You can push these together, so that they don’t spread and get bigger as you roll further. Just push the edges of the crack together with your fingers, or pat the edges to seal it up.

Cracks at the edge
Push the cracks together

Once you have a thin sheet of pastry, transfer carefully to a baking sheet. It’s easiest to move it by draping it over the rolling pin, or by folding it gently in half and then sliding it over. Using a piece of baking parchment to line the baking sheet will make it easier to move, and will also stop any juices from the fruit sticking the tart to the baking sheet when it’s baked.

Move to baking sheet

Spread it out on the baking sheet, and move the whole thing into the fridge while you prepare the fruit. This will chill the pastry back down, and also give the gluten that was stretched out by the rolling pin a chance to relax.

Meanwhile, chop the fruit into small pieces and combine with a couple of tablespoons of sugar, and some clementine zest here.

Cut rhubarb and mix with sugar

Remove the pastry from the fridge. Arrange the fruit over the pastry, leaving a wide border around the edge. Leave any juices that have collected in the bowl. Fold the edge of the pastry over the fruit, and pinch it together to hold it in place.

Crimp edges

Crimp it all the way around, then if there are some sugary juices still in the bowl, use a pastry brush to brush them over the edge of the pastry. This is not essential, but will make it sweeter and help it brown.

Bake at 200C/180C for about 20 minutes until the pastry is brown and crisp.

Variations:

  • You can cut the pastry into pieces when it comes out of the fridge, and roll each piece out separately to make individual tarts. The ones below are actually made with a rhubarb-apple compote and roasted rhubarb pieces on top.

Small rhubarb tarts

  • French apple tart – use the same pastry to line a tart tin. Peel, halve and core about 6 or 7 medium apples. Slice thinly and arrange on the pastry. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the pastry is deep golden and the apples are all cooked and starting to colour. Brush the top with warmed apricot jam. This one adapted from a recipe in Saveur magazine.

Apple tart

  • Use the same pastry on top of a dish of beef stew or chicken to make a pot pie. Brush the dish with water or milk to make it stick, and crimp it to the dish. Cut a couple of holes in the top to let the steam escape. Brush the top with milk or egg to get a lovely golden colour. Try replacing the puff pastry in this Jamie Oliver recipe for beef and Guinness pie with your own homemade pastry.

Beginning to bake #4: Bread in an hour

We’re on to post four of my baking mission – read the original rationale here. In this Lent project, we’ve gone from pancakes to muffins to scones. And now we’re starting bread.

But not scary yeasted bread – that comes later. A soda bread that can be ready in an hour. And that’s an hour from walking in the door to eating it (I timed it in case you didn’t believe me, and you can see the timer running in the photos).

Bake 35-40 mins

Soda bread and scones are very closely related. Instead of yeast, soda bread again relies on baking powder or bicarbonate of soda for leavening. As the name suggests, soda bread is most often made with bicarbonate of soda (baking soda if you’re in North America) along with something acidic like buttermilk. And apart from flour and a bit of salt, that’s all you need. A little melted butter is often added to make it more tender. There are also recipes with more butter, some sugar and raisins that make something more like a tea cake or a scone – also very good, and see the Smitten Kitchen variation below, adapted from the New York Times, which suggests serving with some cheese and apples.

IMG_0083

Back with a more austere recipe, with so little in the way of ingredients, you really need good flour, and proper seasoning to get a good flavour from the bread. Wholemeal or a mix of plain and wholemeal flour gives you a wheaty flavour and a more interesting texture. Spelt flour is also good, and small parts of rye flour mixed in will give another flavour again. Stoneground flour has more flavour than regular flour – the grinding process will incorporate the germ and more of the oils into the flour, so you can often see a visible difference, and it looks creamier than steel-ground plain flour.

Like scones, this bread will also stale fast, so it is best made and eaten warm on the same day (although it will also make decent toast the following day). But it’s so quick that there’s no need to keep it hanging around. Just make it when you want it.

Equipment:

Nothing new here: scales and measuring spoons, plus:

  • Bowl
  • Wooden spoon
  • Baking tray

Basic recipe:

  • 200g plain flour
  • 200g wholemeal plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 190g yoghurt + 140g milk (or 330ml buttermilk)
  • 1 tsp honey (optional)

Turn the oven on and set the temperature to 200C or 180C for a fan oven.

Weigh the flours into the bowl. Add the bicarbonate of soda and salt, and combine with a whisk.

Weigh flour and bicarb

Add the milk and yoghurt to the bowl. Add the honey on top if using, then use the spoon to mix everything together until you have a sticky ball of dough.

Mixed dough

Sprinkle plenty of flour on a board or the counter. Scrape the dough out onto it.
Turn onto floured counter

Sprinkle the top with more flour, and flour your hands. Fold each edge over into the centre to make it into a ball. It will be very sticky. Use plenty of flour, and don’t handle it too much. Just get it into a rough ball shape.

Fold into a ball
Lift the ball gently onto the floured baking sheet. Pat it out to about 3cm thick, just flattening it a bit.

Flour the handle of your wooden spoon, and press it into the surface of the dough to make a cross. This will give the dough room to expand in the oven, and help the loaf to rise a little, giving a lighter crumb.
Mark cross with a spoon handle

Put the tray into the oven and set the time for 35 minutes. After that time, check the loaf. It should be a dark golden brown. If you’re not sure, bake for another 5 or 10 minutes. I baked for 40 minutes at 180C in my fan oven. An oven without a fan will take longer.
Bake 35-40 mins

Leave to cool on a rack for at least 5 minutes, and then slice and enjoy warm with butter.

Serve warm

Variations:

Lorraine Pascale Soda Bread

Lorraine Pascale has a lovely recipe which makes a large loaf. She uses treacle to give the loaf flavour and a little sweetness.

Smitten Kitchen – Skillet Irish Soda Bread

Smitten Kitchen adapted a New York TImes recipe to make a much sweeter, more cake-like loaf, that is still incredibly good. I like to bake this one in my deep oven-proof cast-iron pan, lined with baking parchment, but it will work on a baking sheet as well.

Richard Corrigan – Whole poached wild salmon with wheaten bread

In Northern Ireland, soda bread is often known as wheaten bread. Here Richard Corrigan of Lindsay House and Bentley’s Oyster Bar in London, gives his wheaten bread recipe.

Beginning to bake #3: Scones for tea

Baked scones

Scones are easy to make at home, but so hard to buy. If you’ve never had a homemade scone, the chances are you’ve never had a good one.

Scones also keep very badly. Even the next day they become dry and crumbly. So the solution is to bake them the day you want to eat them, and if necessary, freeze any leftovers that day. They are the sort of thing the fifties domestic goddess would start to make because someone had dropped around unexpectedly – quick, and best eaten fresh from the oven.

Why are scones next on the ‘how to bake’ list? Like pancakes and muffins, the ingredients for scones are pretty simple, and rely principally on baking powder to make them rise. You just need flour, butter, milk, baking powder and maybe a little sugar to to put them together. Some add eggs to the recipe, but I’m sceptical – that seems to make a much cakier thing, and not a proper cream-and-jam scone.

The differences are that you use cold butter, and you rub the butter into the flour, creating crumbs. ‘Rubbing in’ the butter is something you also do with shortcrust pastry. It involves cutting the cold butter up into pieces about the size of peas. Then you use your fingertips to rub the lumps of butter into the flour. This distributes the butter through the flour, coating some of the flour with fat, and waterproofing it to restrict the development of the gluten when the milk is added. You want soft and tender scones – too much gluten would make them tough and chewy.

For the same reason, you want to play with the scone dough as little as possible – don’t knead it or smush it around. Use a spoon to mix the dough together, then your hands very briefly to make sure all the floury bits are incorporated. You need to make sure it forms a single lump of dough, but no more than that.

To make the scones, you can flatten the dough with a rolling pin or just use your hands. It just needs to be patted out to about 2cm high. The thicker the dough at this point, the taller your final scones will be.

You can use a cutter or a glass for round scones. For minimum waste, just cut the dough into wedges or squares with a sharp knife.

Glazing the scones is optional, but it will give you a beautiful shiny golden top. The ideal is a beaten egg, or a yolk beaten with a little egg or cream. Some milk or cream on it’s own will also do, but won’t be as golden. Try not to drip glaze down the sides – it can limit the rising in the oven.

Equipment:

  • Bowl
  • Spoon
  • Knife
  • Pastry brush
  • A solid baking sheet. That means thick sheets of metal, probably aluminium. Can be non-stick, anodised or plain. You need it thick and heavy so it won’t warp and twist in a hot oven.
  • A round cutter (optional: the end of a water glass will also work, or use a knife to cut squares.

Basic recipe:

Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s ‘How to be a domestic goddess’:

  • 250g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 70g cold butter
  • 2 tbsp / 30g caster sugar
  • 130ml milk (full fat if you can)
  • 50g sultanas or raisins for fruit scones
  • 1 egg plus 1 tbsp milk for the glaze

Method:

Put the flour, salt and baking powder in a bowl and mix togther with a whisk.Slice or cube the cold butter and put it into the flour.

Flour and butter

Use a butter knife to slice through the butter, reducing it to small pieces in the flour.

Once you’ve sliced it up as much as you can, use your fingers to rub the butter and flour together. The movement you want is something like the ‘money, money, money’ gesture – rubbing your thumb along the fingers of the same hand and back again. The trick is to get the bits of butter and flour in there so that as you rub your fingers together, the butter and flour get pushed together. Using your fingertips keeps everything from warming up too much – your fingertips are cooler than your palms.

Butter rubbed into crumbs

Once the butter has almost disappeared, and the mixture looks sandy without any big lumps, add the sugar, and raisins or sultanas if you want to use them.

Add the milk and stir everything with a spoon or a knife to make a dough.

Mixing into dough

Once it’s almost all mixed, use your hands to push and squash it until there are no more floury parts and the whole thing comes together in a single ball, leaving the bowl virtually clean.

Ball of dough

Take a small handful of flour and scatter it over a counter. Tip out the ball, and if there are any big fissure or cracks, push them together. Push the ball out to flatten it to a roughly rectangular piece about 2cm thick. Use a cutter to cut round scones, or a knife to cut into 6 square ones.

Cutting scones

Cut scones

Put the scones carefully on a baking sheet.

Scones on the tray

Beat the egg with a little milk (or just use milk on its own) and use a pastry brush to glaze just the top of the scones. This will make sure they get a golden colour in the oven.
Bake for 10-15 minutes at 200C until risen and brown on the top.
Cool on a rack and eat as soon as possible (or freeze).

Baked scones

Variations:

The Guardian: as part of a series, Felicity Cloake investigates the recipe for the perfect scone

Baker Paul Hollywood was featured on BBC2’s the Great British Bake-off. He says his scone recipe is perfect.

Delia has a step-by-step on how to make scones on her website.

Beginning to bake #2: Raspberry muffins

This is the second in my series of Lent posts on simple baking. After pancakes we move on to muffins, and the first item that is actually baked.

The word muffins is used for all sorts of things, including split and toasted English muffins, made with yeast, and those cakey things sold in plastic wrappers with a spookily long shelf life. We’re not talking about either of those here. What we’re aiming for is a not-too-sweet bun, with some pieces of nuts or fruit adding texture, that’s moist and quite good with breakfast or a cup of tea. The classic would be a blueberry muffin, the firm berries providing little pockets of purple juice, but in this case, I’m doing raspberries, because that’s what I had in the freezer. And I like raspberries better.

The logic for moving from pancakes to muffins is that the mixture is made in a similar way: you mix dry ingredients, including flour and baking powder, and add wet ingredients, including milk and egg, and mix together very briefly. This is a thicker mix, so it is baked in a muffin tin in the oven instead of being cooked in a pan.

My preferred recipe for muffins uses mashed bananas as part of the wet ingredients. I think this gives a great flavour, and it helps to use up the over ripe bananas that I always seem to have. However, I’m trying to make these recipes as straightforward as possible, and you don’t always have bananas just lying around. So this is a plain version. But if you find yourself with bananas on the turn, I urge you to try one of the recipes in the Variations section below.

This version can be used with other berries instead – blueberries would work very well (it’s originally adapted from Nigella Lawson’s blueberry muffin recipe). Frozen berries can be easier to work with, as they don’t smush when you stir them in. Or you can use other fruit, chopped nuts, citrus zest or chocolate chips as the flavouring instead. As these muffins are quite plain, it’s also nice to add something crunchy to the top – crunchy sugar, and chopped nuts or flaked almonds are good. But all these things are optional and flexible. Start with something straightforward and go from there.

Equipment:

In addition to scales and measuring cups:

  • Bowl
  • Wooden spoon / silicone spatula
  • Jug or small bowl for wet ingredients
  • Muffin tin (can be pretty cheap, doesn’t need to be non stick if you’re using cases)
  • Muffin paper cases
  • Spring-loaded ice cream scoop (entirely optional, but really good for dividing muffin batter into cases. If you get addicted to muffins, get one).

Basic recipe:

Wet ingredients:

  • 100ml/g milk (as before, milliliters and grams are the same thing for milk and water)
  • 100g yoghurt
  • 1 large egg
  • 75ml vegetable oil (near enough 75g)

Dry ingredients:

  • 200g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
  • pinch of salt
  • 75g caster sugar

Flavourings:

  • 200g raspberries – fresh or frozen

Topping (optional):

  • flaked almonds
  • demerara sugar – a couple of tablespoons of each

Method:

Preheat the oven to 200C / 180C if it’s a fan oven.

Measure the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Use a whisk to combine them, and make sure the baking powder and bicarbonate are distributed through the flour.

Measure the wet ingredients into a large jug or a small bowl. Use a whisk or a fork to break up the egg and combine it all together.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry. Mix the two together gently. Once they are most of the way combined, but still with dry patches, add the raspberries. Frozen berries are easier to mix in, but fresh are good too.

Divide the mixture between the muffin cases. Sprinkle a few flaked almonds and half a teaspoon of sugar onto each muffin. Bake for 20 minutes at 180C.

Once they are golden brown on top, and they spring back if you press the top gently with your finger. Leave the muffins to cool for five minutes in the tin, then lift them out using the cases and set to cool on a wire rack (a grill pan will also work).

Muffins are best eaten on the same day, or the day after. If you want to keep them longer, the best thing to do is put them in a plastic box or a ziplock bag and freeze soon after baking.

Variations:

Banana muffin variations: Cherry and almondCoffee ginger walnut

Dan Lepard has a recipe for mocha fig muffins that are both dairy and egg free.

Marmalade makes a good muffin – it adds moisture from the pectin in the marmalade.

Beginning to bake #1: the pancake plan

As I explained in my previous post, the challenge I have set myself is to set out a series of steps to help someone to learn to bake. The idea is to build each step on a platform of existing knowledge.

Thinking through possible starting points, I’ve decided to assume only the skills needed to fry things. If you can make a basic stir fry, or cook up some bacon and eggs then you should be able to make pancakes.

Although cooked on top of the stove, and therefore not strictly baking, pancakes have many things in common with baked goods. They are made of flour, eggs and milk, and in the case of these puffy Scotch pancakes, leavened with baking powder.

Cooking them on a pan also allows you to easily tell when they are cooked, one of the harder things for novice bakers.

A word about equipment: I am going to try and keep equipment needs to a minimum, and to increase what is needed by only one or two pieces each time. However, there are a couple of things that I think are essential for baking of any sort. One is a set of digital scales – I really wouldn’t want to ever bake without them, although American cooks seem to have avoided them for decades. Because you can zero them out with a bowl on there, you can often measure everything into one bowl. You can also more or less get away without a measuring jug for liquids, because they can be weighed too (remember that 100ml of water weighs 100g, and that goes for milk too). So, get a good set of digital scales, with a flat top and a zero button – they should be about £20. You will also need measuring spoons – at least 1 tablespoon, 1 teaspoon and a half teaspoon. Don’t use cutlery – it’s very unlikely to give you the same measure.

Apart from those two baking essentials, for these pancakes, you will also need a frying pan, a bowl or large jug, a whisk and a large spoon or a ladle (to pour the batter into the pan).

Basic recipe:

  • 120 grams plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons (tsp) baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 150 millileters / grams milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

This is a fairly simple ingredients list, so you may find you have everything on hand anyway.

If your baking powder has been untouched for years, it’s probably worth getting a new pot. Baking powder is just a mixture of a powdered acid and a powdered alkali. When you add liquid, the two react, producing bubbles of carbon dioxide that make baked goods light and fluffy. Modern baking powders are often ‘double-acting’, releasing gas when the liquid is added, and then again when heat is applied in the oven.

If it’s old, it can lose it’s potency.

Method:

Measure the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl.

Add the sugar. Use a whisk to combine them together, making sure the baking powder is evenly distributed in the flour. If you have a sieve, you can put that on top of the bowl before you zero the scales and sieve them all together, but the whisk does a pretty good job. Watch out for lumps in the baking powder – those are harder to remove with a whisk.

Add the milk and the egg to the centre of the bowl, and use the whisk to combine everything together.

You need to mix the liquid and flour completely, but you don’t need to beat it hard and remove all the lumps. Whenever you add water to flour, you will start to develop gluten, the stretchy protein thy gives bread it’s texture. If you beat this batter hard, you will develop the gluten more, and the pancakes may end up chewy.

Heat a frying pan over a medium heat.  Non-stick pans are very helpful, I used a cast iron pan, but use whatever you have. Add a little butter, allow it to melt, and then wipe the pan with a paper towel to coat the pan with fat, and remove the excess.

Use the spoon or ladle to add about a tablespoon of batter to the hot pan. Spread it a little to form a circle, then leave it to cook.

You’ll know it’s ready to turn over when you have little bubbles over the surface, and the top of the pancake has almost all set, with virtually no liquid left. Turn over with a spatula, and cook the other side for a few minutes. You’ll know you have the heat right if the pancake is a perfect shade of golden brown when the top is set. If it looks too pale or too dark, adjust the heat.

Continue cooking the pancake like this, on batches. Get as many as you can in the pan, without them flowing into each other. If they do touch, use the spatula once they are set to separate them, then continue.

Keep the cooked pancakes warm on a plate or baking tray in a low oven (about 120C), covered with a tea towel.

Serve hot with maple syrup and crispy bacon. Or make then for afternoon tea, and serve with jam.

You can also freeze the pancakes after they have cooled. Interleaved them with greaseproof paper or baking parchment if you want to remove them individually, and freeze in a sealed box or freezer bag. Reheat frozen pancakes a few at a time in the toaster, or wrap a larger stack in foil and warm in the oven.

Variations: