We’re always told that baking is a bit of a science (which was never my forte at school). Over-mix your batter and your child’s birthday cake might not rise, under-knead your bread and it’ll end up dense and tough, miss-measure anything and it’ll be a huge disaster. So it’s no wonder baking can seem kind of intimidating.
I cook, of course, but home-made cakes, biscuits, pastry and bread is something I’ve always steered well clear of. Yet with each year of Great British Bake Off contestants mixing, kneading and proofing to create impressive masterpieces, I’m tempted to give it a go too (the basics, not a giant colourful dragon in biscuit form).
So, for the first time, I’m going to bake a cake – and then see where this baking pursuit takes me. Great British Bake Off 2020 watch out…
I start by seeking out the simplest-looking cake recipe on the planet – butter, sugar, eggs, flour, baking powder and lemon zest, from the Great British Book Of Baking – what could go wrong? I borrow a cake tin and a handheld whisk (I own no relevant equipment whatsoever) and on a Sunday afternoon, I meticulously measure out all the ingredients (it’s a science).
It turns out, bringing it all together with an electric whisk is weirdly exciting, and I pour it all into the cake tin, transfer to the oven, make the sticky lemony glaze – sugar, lemon juice and more zest – as instructed, and wait.
And then I get distracted and completely forget about it. I finally remember it’s in the oven 20 minutes after the instructions call for removing it. In situations like this you can only laugh, my poor lemon cake looking uncharacteristically brown on top as I prod it and pour over the glaze.
After cooling, it’s a little hard around the outside, crusty on top, and all in all a bit drier than the desired result, but it – and this is the important bit – does bear some resemble to a lemon drizzle cake. Despite over-baking Prue Leith definitely wouldn’t approve of, it still feels vaguely satisfying to have turned flour, sugar and eggs into something (somewhat) edible.
Not discouraged by my first attempt, I go for something even easier – Welsh cakes. You don’t even need an oven for these. Essentially, it’s self-raising flour, a dash of milk, an egg, sugar and sultanas, hand-mixed in a bowl. I roll out the pastry (with a wine bottle, I don’t own a rolling pin) and cut out the round shapes with a glass (no cutters either – but it turns out a half-pint glass make perfect size Welsh cakes anyway).
Five minutes in the pan, flipping mid-way, and the first batch of little round spheres have puffed up slightly, with a nice golden crust too. I sprinkle some sugar on top and test them out on a Welsh person. "Exactly as they should be," he says. Cha-ching.
Let’s ignore the fact I burned the next batch.
Call it overconfidence but, next, I decide to cook lunch for my family involving homemade pastry. A basic shortcrust is made of flour and half fat (thanks Delia), a pinch of salt and a dash of water, it should be crumbly and buttery, and years of watching Bake Off has drilled into me that there must not be a soggy bottom.
You don’t want to overwork shortcrust, so the less you do the better (suits me). I discover it’s literally a case working the butter into the flour – weirdly therapeutic – to create an even texture throughout, and using a tiny amount of water to bring the mixture into a ball that cleans the bowl. It’s surprisingly easy. I rest it in the fridge for 30 minutes in cling-film, before rolling out (I have a rolling pin for this one) just larger than my quiche tin – it’s looking a little thin but I go with it.
I copy what they all do on Bake Off: Draping the pastry over the rolling pin, to hover it over the tin and lower it into place. Next, I push it into the edges carefully, prick the bottom with a fork and blind bake for 15 minutes. I chop up my quiche filling – I’m going for broccoli, Stilton, walnuts and red onion – and whizz up a basic egg and cream mixture with some garlic and lemon zest.
The pastry comes out of the oven looking remarkably like pastry. I assemble my ingredients in the (slightly rustic-looking) case, pour in the egg mix before it goes back into the oven for 30 minutes. I suspect it may be down to Delia but the quiche, particularly the pastry, crumbly with a crisp bottom, is bloody delicious. Despite waiting until 4pm for lunch, my quiche recipients are impressed.
Raspberry and coconut (vegan) cake
I’m really pushing the boat out now, and attempt a dairy-free cake – nope, not even the absence of all-important eggs can stop my new baking prowess. I’m attempting a Tom Kerridge recipe, using coconut milk and mashed banana, desiccated coconut and lemon, along with self-raising flour, sugar and baking powder. Measuring and whisking before carefully folding some raspberries through the mixture to avoid knocking too much air out of it (I hear that’s important).
I pile it into a loaf tin (borrowed, of course) and into the oven, while I make an icing from fresh raspberries, lemon juice and icing sugar. Some 40 minutes later, thrilled my cake has risen and firmed up on top, it’s time to rest and cool it.
Baking takes some patience; as Bake Off tells us, cakes need to cool before you ice them – and I probably don’t wait quite long enough because most of the icing falls down the sides, but I artfully sprinkle fresh raspberries and toasted hazelnuts across the top.
The result is more pudding-y than spongy, but it’s moist, tasty and a hit with all my (vegan and non-vegan) guests.
Will I be baking again?
I won’t be whipping up batter on a weeknight anytime soon, but I found spending a few hours on a Sunday baking surprisingly relaxing and therapeutic. There’s something special about baking that feels as if you’re making something out of nothing. And fresh out of the oven, even my beginner bakes (lemon drizzle aside) tasted better than most basic shop-bought ones, which is pretty satisfying. Plus, once you’ve got the basics in your cupboard, you can make so many things without needing a big supermarket trip.
After my first foray into baking, I find myself flipping through recipe books for do-able bakes, Instagramming my successes, online shopping for equipment and wondering if I should tackle bread next. There’s a whole big baking world out there to explore.