The perfect cake is light, moist, flavoursome and a beauty to behold. But how do you go about making it? Bake Off 2014 winner Nancy B has five top tips for baking success…
Common Problem: The Curdle
Ever noticed your butter and sugar mixture starting to separate as you add the egg? This is it curdling. But don’t panic. It’s common mistake and can be fixed: just turn up your whisk to its highest setting, add a little flour and all will come together again.
One way to avoid curdling in future is to make sure all your ingredients are at the same temperature – ideally around 20 degrees, which is the average temperature in a domestic kitchen. I never store eggs in the fridge, and take the butter/margarine out of the fridge about an hour before I start to bake.
My secret ingredient is soft margarine: I find it makes a lighter cake, resists curdling and is, of course, cheaper. Another way to avoid curdling is to add a tablespoon of flour every time you incorporate a little egg.
Inspiration: The Reusable Baking Parchment
When you’re making a cake in a hurry, lining the tin can be a hassle: scrabbling about with scissors, trying to get the measurements right, cutting off the inevitable overhang… One quick solution is to invest in a roll of reusable baking parchment and cut out squares/circles to fit into the bases of your favourite tins. Then each time you make a cake, all you have to do is spray the sides of the tin with a little oil and place the ready-cut parchment in the bottom. After baking, peel away the parchment as you would greaseproof or baking paper, wash it, and put it back in the tin ready for next time.
Technique: The Cocktail Stick Test
I remember when I first made cakes, the sponge could look absolutely perfect but within ten minutes of taking it out of the oven it had sunk in the middle – or was raw inside! The traditional test is to pop a cocktail stick or skewer into the middle and if it comes out clean then the cake is baked. But I must say this method used on its own has failed me in the past. So I also check the cake’s temperature by sticking the cocktail stick in the centre of the cake and then placing it on the back of my hand. If it feels hot to the touch and is clean, your cake is baked. If the cocktail stick feels cool and/or has unbaked mixture on it, then you need to bake the cake for another 10 minutes.
Style: The Flawless Cake
A well-baked cake should be evenly coloured with only the slightest rise in the middle. If your cake is domed and then cracks, it may mean your oven is too hot. And if it’s baked too quickly, your cake will be dry. Next time, drop the temperature by 10 degrees and it should be fine. It’s all about getting to know your oven.
A domed cake can also indicate too much baking powder or other raising agent. So on your next bake, reduce the raising agent by half. If your cake is brown on the outside but unbaked inside, there may be too much cake mixture for the tin size or, again, your oven could be too hot.
Always use the size of the tin indicated in the recipe, and bear in mind a square tin of say 20cm needs more mixture than a round tin of the same size.
New twist on a retro classic: The Revamped Victoria Sponge
The classic Victoria Sponge comes with a delicious jam and cream filling. But why not turn an everyday bake into a real showstopper? All you need is some freshly whipped cream for the filling and topping; colourful, juicy berries; and a dusting of icing sugar. And remember: don’t let the cake lay upside down on the cooling rack, or you’ll end up with unsightly ridges on the top! To avoid this: carefully lay a tea towel over the cake while it’s still in the tin, hold your palm on top, and flip it over so the cake rests face down in your hand. Then quickly flip it right side up and lay it on the cooking rack. Your cake will then cool without any marks and look much more professional and appealing.
@nancybbakes won Great British Bake Off 2014. Since then she’s travelled from Cornwall to The Shetland Isles, baking and entertaining fans.
Learn more about her food and her travels on her blog.