Thursday, 10 December 2009

Fear and Baking in Long Island

So I'm about to go all Julie & Julia, and write a confessional post about cooking. I suppose I could call it NappyValleyGirl & Nigella, but the idea of cooking my way through 'Nigella Christmas' is simply laughable. Because this post is actually all about my fear of baking.

I decided this year to make Littleboy 2 a birthday cake. Now this is a big departure for me; I've always bought the boys' birthday cakes before, usually at vast expense from a poncey Italian deli on Clapham High Street. This was partly down to laziness but the truth is, baking terrifies me, and I just don't know enough about it. The last time I baked a cake, for The Doctor's birthday a few years ago, it was a total disaster and the time before, for my mother's funeral, the whole thing collapsed and had to be binned. Before that, my only efforts had been similar disasters in school cookery lessons; I recall once making a swiss roll that was inexplicably twice the size of anyone else's AND burnt.....

The fact is, I can't bake. I can cook a half- decent supper, but when it comes to cakes, puddings, biscuits and breads, I just don't have a clue. Just the thought of it makes me panic. I get all paranoid about the quantities, then about the ingredients. The whole terminology of baking is like a foreign language to me. Does it matter that something calls for 'cake flour' and not normal flour? Is the baking powder that I've bought 'double acting' - what the hell does that mean anyway? Is whipping the same as beating, and should I do it with a whisk or a wooden spoon? Are you still supposed to grease a non-stick pan? No-one, even the most 'simple' of recipe writers, tells you these things; they just assume you know.

But this year I was determined to be different. I am not doing much journalistic work at the moment - thanks, recession - and I have less of an excuse not to become a domestic goddess (ha). And I didn't just want to buy a commercial cake mix - I wanted to do it properly, mixing everything by hand. My mother always baked our birthday cakes, and I remember enjoying helping, so I also thought it would be a fun activity for the Littleboys.

I perused a few cookery books and settled on a very basic Nigella Lawson recipe for children's birthday parties, plus an icing recipe from The Joy of Cooking. I spent ages in the supermarket selecting a cake tin and baking ingredients (and trying to work out what all the American equivalents are - for example, icing sugar is 'confectioners' sugar', and caster sugar didn't appear to exist). And then I began the task with the Littleboys, who were tremendously excited.

My first mistake was not reading the recipe properly. Somewhere between trying to instruct the Littleboys how to beat eggs and making sure they didn't spill everything all over the kitchen, I failed to notice that this was actually a recipe for a Victoria sponge cake ie. in two tins. While I do partly blame Nigella's rambling prose (quote - "I do not know how to ice, but have taken the precaution of marrying someone who does"), I have to admit that I was not really concentrating.

I only had one tin, but by the time I'd measured the quantities out it was too late. 'Oh well," I thought, "I'll just have to put it all in the one tin and cook it for longer." Then I panicked because Nigella called for greaseproof paper and I had bought a non-stick tin. I had a sinking feeling at this point that things would not go well.....

After the maximum time suggested by Nigella, I took a look at the cake. It looked done. And for sure it was - black on the edges and the underside, well done in the middle. Chargrilled cake. And I swear I followed Nigella's oven temperatures.....

I would have binned it, but for the boys, who were desperate to try it, so we iced it anyway. Littleboy 2 had asked for a 'green cake' but I wasn't up to this; instead I made a white icing and then tried to write his name in green icing from a tube. But the tube stuff melted into the hot icing straightaway. So there we have it; blackened sponge cake with green smudge icing. I cut off the burnt bits and served it to the Littleboys (who, bless them, still pronounced it delicious).

This morning I turned myself away sternly from the ready-made birthday cakes in the supermarket, like a reformed alcoholic, and swore to try again. This time, I attempted a sponge cake from The Joy of Cooking to be served at his birthday tea tomorrow. Again, I was flummoxed by the recipe; I couldn't understand why, unlike Nigella's, it didn't seem to contain butter, and didn't need self-raising flour. How can a sponge cake recipe vary quite so much?

This time I was solo in the kitchen, without my Littleboy helpers. I concentrated painstakingly with the quantities and tried not to worry that my beaten egg whites were not 'stiff' as suggested. The result? Cake no 2 isn't burnt, and looks vaguely like a sponge cake, even if the icing looks distinctly like the handiwork of a child or a deranged modern artist. I do feel a small sense of achievement (although we haven't tasted it yet) and have been spurred on to cook brownies with the boys this afternoon.

But I also feel frustrated; why do I find these things quite so difficult, when other people seem to be able to knock up cakes at a moment's notice? Is there anyone else there who suffers from fear of baking?

19 comments:

Expat mum said...

I am SO with you on this. I didn't even take cookery lessons so I have no idea why you need say, eggs in anything anyway. I can't ever correct my mistakes (oh, just add more what?) and everything I bake turns out like a hockey puck. Last week I demonstrated with those Pillsbury refrigerated pastry packs. Croissant rolls. The kids watched as I did exactly what the packet told me to do - and they still all nearly broke a tooth on them. Pah!

Mwa said...

I do suffer with that as well. But I have also found the remedy! Lately, I've been finding some very easy recipes and trying them. (Spongecake and a swiss roll are too complicated to start with.) I suggest bread pudding and chocolate cookies. And our oven only needs about 2/3 of the normal cooking time as well. I'm getting used to checking up on the baking.
(I've only baked two things so far - you can guess which! ;-) )
Babysteps!

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

One of the top searches for my blog is 'stodgy cake' so I don't think I'm the person to ask!

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

ps Happy Birthday LB2! Enjoy the cake.

A Modern Mother said...

Unfortunately, unlike cooking, baking is an exact science and you need to follow the recipe EXACTLY. Then your oven might be wonky and not really at the right temperature, or there may be pockets in your oven where it is a higher temp.

Why not try a mix first? A choclate cake with homemade cream cheese frosting is really yummy. It's hard to go wrong with those, and you could then build and your success.

EmmaK said...

lol so funny...yeah I think I made that Nigella cake too and it turned out flat and burnt and I am quite a good baker generally speaking. I find there are simpler recipes on allrecipes.com

nappy valley girl said...

Expat Mum - yes, I think most recipes assume a fundamental understanding of what the different ingredients actually do. Which I lack....

Mwa - yes, I know I should start basic. Believe me, I would never attempt a swiss roll now...

Brit in Bosnia - stodgy is better than burnt, n'est-ce pas?

Susanna - well, science was never my forte....will take your advice and try some mixes.

EmmaK - I think the problem with Nigella is that she writes it in a waffly, flowery manner that doesn't quite make it clear what is going on. At least The Joy of Cooking tells it like it is. I'll take a look at allrecipes.

Iota said...

Yes, I have a fear of baking. But last week-end I baked 27 ginger cookies (recipe from the Joy of Cooking), and it turned out to be not as bad as I'd thought. I think the more you do it, the easier it becomes. I'm trying to get to know a few recipes really well, so that I can toss them out like a pro. (I'll let you know when that day comes...)

Iota said...

There's a line in Julie and Julia where Julie says something like "the nice thing about cooking is that it's so reliable - if you mix bla with bla, it will ALWAYS do bla". At that point I turned to my friend in the movie theater and said "that's exactly my frustration with cooking - you do exactly the same thing twice in a row, and it turns out different each time."

Metropolitan Mum said...

Well done for going back to your baking fear. You know what they say - you have to confront your enemies.
I don't really share your fears, but I am shitting my pants when it comes to cleaning ;-)

Jenny Rudd said...

buying cake from supermarkets and allowing children to slather them in various revolting shades usually gets the funometer revving like mad. I reckon baking is a confidence thing, you need lots of time to practice the art. Time being one of those things lots of mums have in short supply. I like your blog by the way

conuly said...

I think, like Jenny does, that you have built baking up into this IMPOSSIBLE task, and that's why it's hard. I can explain a few things, but I can't make baking easy for you - you'll just have to come to that on your own.

The fact is that if you know what you're doing and don't worry about it, cake is a very easy thing to make. All it is is flour, liquid (usually milk), a bit of oil, some sweetening, and something to make it rise (eggs and baking powder, generally). If you can make pancakes, you can make cake. You just have to get over the confidence barrier and get comfortable with what you're doing.

1. If one recipe called for self-rising flour and the other didn't, that's because in the other recipe they had you add baking powder to make your cake rise. Self-rising flour is just regular flour with baking powder added to it as a convenience to the baker.

2. You can always use All Purpose ("regular") flour for cakes. That's why it's called All Purpose. Cake flour is more finely ground, and usually has been sifted before being put in a box. Cakes made with cake flour will be somewhat fluffier, softer, and lighter. However, there's no point in buying cake flour unless you bake often, so just use the same amount of All Purpose and your cake will be fine.

3. You should really whip/beat with an electric eggbeater, most recipes assume you have one nowadays and will say how long you're supposed to do it for and at what setting. If you don't have one, nor a rotary eggbeater, I suggest using a fork. It'll help break up clumps of flour and it's easier to use and wash than a whisk. (And if you really need a whisk, get a bounce whisk. They're fun!)

4. The point of non-stick pans is that they don't stick, so no, technically you don't need to grease them. However, greasing the pans is incredibly fun for young children, and then they get to bounce the flour around in the pan as well, so let the little kids do it while you re-read the recipe.

5. I'm pretty sure all baking powder is double-acting... and it really doesn't matter much anyway.

6. IF you find out you have twice as much cake batter as you have cake pans, you can NOT fill the pan up twice as far and cook it longer. It doesn't work, as you discovered. Fill the pan the normal amount and reserve the rest of the cake batter to make a second cake later. Or eat it raw, or ditch it, whatever.

7. You have to let the cake cool down to room temperature or so before you put the icing on, because icing melts. But you know that now.

I'll pass you some very easy recipes to start in a bit, just give me some time to decompress from spending all day with my niecelings.

erik said...

I am with you in this. Of all the things that a person can do in the kitchen, baking is what I hate and scared the most. I had tried once and it was a nightmare. I just wasted a whole lot of ingredients there. It is so frustrating.
wood furniture

Mom/Mum said...

Oh that made me laugh. Am glad am not alone in the chopping off the burnt edges of things!!!
I actually enjoy baking more than cooking, but am nopt blessed with excellence in either department.
However, over time, I've found that I can rustle up a basic bun or cookie or victoria sponge, but if am going to have to share my baking with friends, I tend to rely on a quic bake Betty Crocker cake or brownie or cookie mix, s it seems so far, I havent been able to bodge those ones up!
My fave recipes? The 'teatime' ones from an old childrens 70s style cookbook I had when a little girl. It's all Flapjacks and tea scones, but never fail to impress guests when i bring out a British dessert....
keep going, you'll be the new Nigella before you know it!
btw - why does no-one tell you how importnant baking skills are in the Mom culture???

Absolutely Write said...

I'm rubbish at baking. Even when I get it right I take no pleasure from it whatsoever. Don't feel bad - some people love spending time in the kitchen in all that food and mess. Me, I'd be happy to never have to cook anything ever again, I'd rather be in the office. Or even in the garden at a push.

Mud in the City said...

Does the Joy of Cooking contain line drawings of a hairy couple poncing round the kitchen? Hope so!

Try this choc tart, honestly, it IS easy: http://uktv.co.uk/food/recipe/aid/573910

Thomas said...

Try out the Devil's Food Cake in the Joy of cooking. I made it several times and it always worked. (Well, once I was out of sugar and I managed to make a chocolate bread loaf). And if it is so dark to begin with, then it can look (sligthly) burned, and no-one is the wiser.
I also recommend an electric beater, I'd never attempt baking without one. Or try make muffins: there you only stir the batter a little bit, and the recipes are generally very easy.

It can take a while to figure out the actual oven temperature, maybe a thermometer helps, as another commenter suggested.

Good luck, just keep trying, once one thing works you can make it your signature cake/muffin.

Mona (not Thomas, but the account I was logged in as)

nappy valley girl said...

Iota - my experience of cooking is more like yours than Julie's. Nothing ever tastes quite the same!

Met Mum - I am rubbish at cleaning too.....

Jenny - thanks for visiting, and your eminently sensible advice!

Conuly - gosh thank you for all that advice. I do have an electric beater, I just for some reason didn't use it - my husband is a better cook than me and I tend to think of such things as 'his'....

erik - yes. And the other thing about baking is that if it turns out well, one is tempted to eat it, and then grow fat....

Mom/Mum - I think the chances of me being the new Nigella are about as great as me becoming president of the USA....

Absolutely Write - you know, I like the idea of being good at cooking. Unlike something like sewing or knitting, I couldn't care less about being crap at those. But I love food, so being able to make it should in theory be pleasurable. Maybe one day...

Mud - thanks for the recipe(And no it doesn't, but it should!)

Mona - Devil's food here we come. Thank you.

conuly said...

I hope I didn't inadvertently sound condescending, btw - I get in lecture mode and just keep on monologuing along there.

I did say I'd share a few recipes. I get my cake recipes usually off the bag of flour, actually, so I won't bother with that - just about every flour bag has a cake recipe on it, and they're actually fairly simple. (BTW, a simple - very simple! - adaptation to a cake recipe can be to take a boxed cake mix (or the dry ingredients of a cake recipe if you know what you're doing) and replacing all the liquid ingredients with a can of soda. Any soda - club soda, sprite or ginger ale if it's a white cake, coke or root beer if it's a chocolate or spice cake. The club soda is effectively both a liquid and a leavening agent. This works for pancakes as well, or you can just add some soda to your normal recipe to make your pancakes fluffier.)

Also, when you're baking, remember to check it at the earliest time suggested, not the latest... but don't keep opening the oven door to check because then your cake or cookies won't rise properly either. That part *is* trickier to manage.

http://simplyrecipes.com/recipes/blondies/

This is a good, simple recipe for blondies (which are like brownies but without the chocolate). I increase the salt a bit and I don't add butterscotch chips.

Recipes in the US use measurements by volume (do you have a set of measuring spoons and measuring cups?), and typically you measure so that it's level. SOME recipes benefit from measuring a "scant" amount (slightly less than filling the spoon or cup) or a "heaping" amount (going over), but as a beginner, just make everything level. I should have thought to bring this up before, because if you need measurements that go by weight, I don't have any of those (although they are easier to work with if I did).

http://hubpages.com/hub/Raspberry-Butter-Cookies-Recipe

That's an incredibly simple recipe for cookies. Two sticks of butter is half a pound or 16 tablespoons (and each tablespoon is carefully marked on a stick, so you can just cut along the lines).

http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/carrot-cake-iii/Detail.aspx

That's a pretty simple carrot cake recipe. You will find it tastes better if you use brown sugar instead of white - use the same amount of brown sugar as you would use white sugar. The carrots need to be finely grated. Fastest way to do that is to use a food processor if you have one, otherwise - make the kids do it.

I'll look a bit for an interesting but VERY simple cake recipe for you later. Carrot cake doesn't really count, it's not made like cakes typically are.