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Baking Hints and Tips

New to baking? Read our expert hints and tips to get you started

1. What is the secret to perfect pastry crusts?

Using a combination of butter and lard will give you a really light crumbly pastry but always make sure you chill your pastry before baking, so it can rest and doesn’t shrink while cooking. When it comes to rolling it out, don’t over handle it. And finally, make sure your pastry is cooked through – it should be light golden and crisp!

2. What is the difference between white and brown sugar?

White sugar is more refined and the molasses has been removed. Brown sugar has the molasses added back in. Brown sugar has more flavour from the molasses and this can add a richer flavour to your baking.

3. Why do my cakes always sink in the middle?

There are a number of reasons as to why this can happen. Firstly, if your baking powder is out of date – it won’t work properly! Or if you tend to open the oven door during baking – the sudden cool air can make the cake sink. Finally, over-beating the cake batter – this can cause the cake to collapse or if the cake is undercooked the cake may sink in the middle. 

4. How do I make sure the middle of my cake is cooked without burning the outside?

Make sure the oven temperature isn’t too high and if you have a fan oven you will need to lower the temperature to ensure the edges don’t cook before the middle. You can place a piece of baking paper over the cake for the last 10-15 minutes to ensure the top of the cake doesn’t have too much colour. 

5. My cakes keep cracking and I don’t know why. Help! 

The main reason for a cake cracking is if it’s been cooking for too long. It will dry out and this can cause it to crack. Opening the oven door frequently during cooking may also cause the cake to crack 

6. Recipes often say to beat mixtures until they’re ‘light and creamy’. What does the ‘light’ part actually mean? 

As you incorporate air into a mixture it naturally will start to lighten in colour. If you are making a Victoria sponge you will notice the butter and sugar will start to lighten on colour as you beat it. You will see the mixture on the outside edge of the bowl will be darker in colour. .

7. Is there any way I can stop my cake sticking to the tin? 

First of all, buy yourself a good quality cake tin, preferably a non-stick one. You will still need to give it a light coating of butter, but generally your cake will come out of the tin more easily. Always line your tin – bottom and sides; with baking paper and lightly grease the tin and then sprinkle with caster sugar and flour. Make sure you remove any excess. This forms a light coating on the outside of the cake which will help to stop it sticking. 

8. Why do my cookies keep spreading and how can I prevent this from happening? 

Make sure you have pre-heated the oven before you bake and chilled the cookie dough before baking, this will help reduce the dough from spreading once in the oven. 

9. Every time I try to make meringue, it is either too hard or too soft. What is the secret to the perfect meringue? 

Meringue requires long cooking at a low temperature. You can give the meringue a heat boost by placing it in the oven at a higher temperature and immediately reducing the temperature. Do not over or under-cook the meringue – be patient! When the meringue has had the required cooking time, turn the oven off and then leave the meringue in the oven to cool completely.

10. Is there anything I can use instead of baking powder? 

Baking powder is a mix of cream of tartar and bicarbonate of soda. If you want to make it yourself, use 1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda and 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar. Store in an airtight container and do not keep for more than a few days as its chemical composition will deteriorate and your cake won’t rise as well. 

11. Should I always sift the dry ingredients? 

Yes, sifting is a great way of mixing ingredients together, such as cocoa, flour, salt and baking powder. Sifting also allows you to incorporate air into your mixture which is ideal for making light sponges and will make sure there are not lumps of dry ingredients in your mixture. 

12. Why does the dusting sugar I sprinkle on top of my cakes always caramelise? 

You should only dust your cake when it has completely cooled, otherwise the heat of the cake will melt the icing sugar as it is so fine. 

13. I added too much flour. Do I have to start again or is there anything I can do to rectify the recipe? 

We’ve all done this before and you need to think about “how much is too much”! If your only alternative is to throw the mixture away, then maybe you can try and salvage the mix! If you have added less than a ¼ too much, then try adding a little milk to loosen the mixture. If you have added more than ¼ too much, then you possibly need to add some milk and if the recipe uses an egg, add another! It will be a little experimental, but all may not be lost! It’s always best to check the weight of each ingredient before you add it to the mixing bowl. 

14. When recipes say ‘add flour’ do they mean self-raising or plain? 

Unless the recipe specifically states self-raising flour, you can assume it is plain flour that is required. Most recipes will state exactly which flour to use. In the US, they call plain flour “general purpose flour”. 

15. What is a Pithivier? 

A Pithivier can be sweet or savoury, but whatever your filling you must be using the best puff pastry. The pastry should be made with butter and be folded and rested the correct number of times. The rolling, folding and resting will give the pastry the light, buttery layers you are after. The Pithivier should not be over or under filled – too much filling and it will ooze out of the sides, too little and you get a mouthful of pastry and no filling! The Pithivier should be decorated before baking, so the end result is uniformed, decorative and delicious. 

16. Do you have any special tips for making Fondant Fancies? 

The sponge should be light and buttery. The surface should be really smooth and even before decorating to ensure a smooth finish. If you are pouring syrup over the sponge, make sure it is properly chilled before you cut it into squares. This will give the syrup time to soak in and the sponge to firm up a little – otherwise the little sponge squares could fall apart. Make sure the layer of marzipan isn’t too thick and the icing is the right consistency to allow it to cover the cakes smoothly without being too transparent. The little cakes should have pastel coloured icing and be beautifully decorated. 

17. How do you make Chiffon sponge? 

This sponge requires quite a lot of skill. The egg white should be stiff, the egg yolk and sugar must be whisked for a long time to give maximum volume. The flour should be folded in very carefully to ensure the volume isn’t lost and the egg white must also be added slowly to maintain as much air as possible. The cake should be baked in a fully lined tin and be baked immediately – don’t leave it sitting around for even a minute! 

19. How do you make the perfect flapjack? 

Good question. It took me a while to get flapjacks right, which amused a lot of people as they are meant to be easy!!

I think the key is not to overheat the butter and syrup/sugar as this can make the flapjacks too chewy. You must melt them slowly, so all the sugar dissolves, this will ensure the oats stick together when the flapjack is cool. There are numerous recipes for either crunchy or chewy flapjacks, depending on your preference. Personally, I like to add chopped, dried apricots and a little desiccated coconut!

20. How do you pipe icing/ butter icing well? 

Piping is a skill and therefore requires practice! It’s a good idea to practice on a piece of greaseproof paper and then you can scrape the butter cream back into the bag!

Make sure your butter is really soft, but not melting and add the icing sugar gradually so you don’t disappear into the sugar cloud! I add a few drops of vanilla extract which makes the icing taste a little like vanilla ice cream!

Don’t overfill the piping bag and twist the end tightly to help remove any air bubbles. Make sure you can stand over the item you are decorating as you need full control, and holding the bag straight down over the cake makes it easier!

Use one hand to hold the twisted section of the bag and use the other hand to hold the mid section of the bag to give you more control. You need to squeeze a little icing and as the nozzle area empties you simply twist the bag again to force the icing down to the end. Take your time and really concentrate!

Remember…. practice makes perfect and perfect icing is worth the effort!

21. How can I stop my pastry being quite so heavy and difficult to handle? 

Don’t over handle your pastry! Pastry requires a light touch and no over mixing. It’s not bread dough, so you shouldn’t kneed it! Use your fingertips to rub the fat into the flour. As a rule the palms of your hands should remain ‘flour free’.

When the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs, you can slowly add your ice-cold water. I use a table knife and gently cut the liquid through the flour mix. Add just enough liquid to form soft dough. Now you can get your hands in to briefly form a ball and after a little squeeze and shape the dough is ready! Wrap in cling film and chill for an hour before using! It will be light, crisp and melt in your mouth! No more heavy pastry!!

22. How do you make perfect buttercream? 

You need to use double the quantity of icing sugar to butter! For a standard Victoria sponge 140g butter and 280g icing sugar should be fine! The butter needs to be really soft, but not melting and the icing sugar should be added slowly! Beat the ingredients together and flavour with either lemon zest, vanilla extract, or you can replace 20-30g of the icing sugar with cocoa for a yummy chocolate buttercream! 

23. What is the secret of using powered gelatine? 

Powdered gelatine is great because it dissolves really easily and will help prevent lumps in your jelly or set dessert. I use leaf gelatine and powdered gelatine and find both works really well. You can always sieve your dessert before leaving it to set to make sure there are no lumps! 

24. Once baked how long can I keep my treats for? 

Some baked good benefit from a little time in the cake tin! Brownies, Parkin and fruit cake definitely taste better on day 2 or 3!

Make sure you have an airtight container and your cakes and biscuits should stay fresh for 2-3 days! If you think they won’t get eaten, why not put some in freezer bags and pop them in the freezer for a later date!

Sponge cake will dry out when it is past its best and biscuits may lose their crunch! Remember homemade goodies may not last as long as shop bought, but that’s because they are more natural and why they also taste better!

25. When I bake with chocolate chips they always sink to the bottom of the cakes/ biscuits, why is this? 

A good tip is to sprinkle a little of the flour over the chocolate chips and make sure they are coated. Stir them through the cake and make sure the cake goes straight into the oven. This also works if you are using raisins or cherries! 

26. How do I get my icing to sit tightly on a big cake? 

You need to make sure the icing is rolled out big enough to cover the top of the cake and will fall down the sides easily without the icing having to stretch. Use your rolling pin to drape the icing over and starting on one side carefully lay the icing over the cake. First smooth the icing over the flat top and gently smooth it down the sides to ensure there are no air pockets and the icing fits snugly to all sides of the cake. Continue to smooth the icing over and around the cake before cutting off any excess. Make sure you don’t cut the excess too close to the base, allow a couple of millimetres to tuck underneath. 

27. Do you have any tips on gluten free cakes? 

Gluten free cakes can be a little heavy or dry, so try and use fruit purees or grated vegetables, such as carrots to give you extra moisture! It’s really important for your eggs to be at room temperature for gluten free bakes! Finally, don’t over bake your cakes, keep a close eye on them and follow recommended temperatures and timings! 

28. Is there anything you can use instead of Self raising flour? 

You can make your own self-raising flour with plain flour and baking powder! Add 1 teaspoon of baking powder per 110g plain flour 

29. Is there anything you can use instead of baking powder? 

Baking powder is a mix of cream of tartar and bicarbonate of soda! 1 tsp baking soda to 2 tsp cream of tartar! 

30. Is there anything you can use instead of icing sugar? 

If you have a really good food processor you can try and blitz your caster sugar to a fine powder. It probably won’t be as fine as Whitworths icing sugar, but as a last resort, you could give it a go!

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