FOOD & DRINK : PAT A CAKE, PAT; A CAKE...

And learn to bake one as fast as you can. For the final part of our series on flour power, Michael Bateman consults an expert cake-maker and selects some of her recipes, from simple bara brith to quite sinful brownies

WHAT is the best flour for making cakes? In the third and last part of our series on using flour we seek the advice of the country's most renowned cake-maker, Mary Berry.

In Week One we looked at bread flours made from hard wheat, which contains the highest percentage of gluten (so allowing the dough to stretch as the yeast acts). In the second week we focused on breads made with flours that contain very little gluten, such as rye, barley and maize.

And now we look at cake flours, those weak white flours that are also low in gluten, made from home-grown soft wheats. We buy them in stores and supermarkets as light, plain flour or, with a raising agent already mixed in, as self-raising flour.

Geraldene Holt, who is writing a new book on cakes, frankly doesn't like what shops in Britain provide, and she will buy French soft flour if she can get it. "It is very, very fine and well-flavoured." Failing that, she hunts down the best flours to be found from local mills (flours from Doves' Mill, Hungerford, are widely available in wholefood stores).

But John Tovey, hotelier and expert cake-maker, doesn't agree with her. "British supermarket flour is super," he says. "We grow splendid soft wheat in this country. I've tried flours from local mills and they haven't worked for me. They are too heavy." And English cake flours, he says, are certainly far better than American cake flours. "America has the best wheat in the world and the worst flour." Thus speaks a patriot.

Mary Berry, whose Ultimate Cake Book (BBC pounds 16.99) has sold 120,000 copies, takes the view that English cake flours are good and, what is more important, they are consistent. Cake-making is such a precise science that, unlike other forms of cooking, it's vital to reduce the margin of error. It's essential to cake recipes that flour quality doesn't vary. There is no misery for a home baker like the misery of the failed cake.

So what do our experts look for in a flour? A cake is but one step beyond a sweetened, enriched bread. The simplest forms are tea breads, which are bread doughs (yeasted or not) with added dried fruit. Rather more sophisticated are those delicate French brioche breads, enriched with eggs. Or butter; consider the croissant, in which the amount of butter is huge, three-fifths of the flour.

It is the use of fat, whether butter, margarine or egg yolk, that gives cakes their special character (or lard; lardy cakes were once one of the glories of an English high tea). The egg allows bara brith (see page 57) to qualify as a cake.

Some cakes require yeast as the raising agent (or in the case of the classic Genoese sponge, not yeast but only a whisked fluff of beaten egg). But the most commonly used medium is baking powder. This is a mixture of alkali (bicarbonate of soda) and acid (tartaric acid) which gives off gas when mixed with water. Some cooks make up their own mixture in-stead of buying proprietary brands, with two parts bicarbonate of soda to one part tartaric acid.

So it is not just the right flour, but the scientifically exact balance of the right fats and raising agent on which success of your cake depends; the finer and softer the flour, the more easily it will absorb the fat, which will give you the light, airy crumb you seek.

Over to the expert, Mary Berry, whose TV series on cakes was repeated this autumn. Her great following is inspired by the confidence that every one of her recipes will work. I went to see her at her home in Penn, near Beaconsfield, in Buckingham-shire and found her holding enthralled a class of 20 country ladies - some have been known to fly in from Scotland, Ireland and the US. (For further information about courses, ring 0149 481 6535 or write to Watercroft, Church Road, Penn, Bucks HP10 8NX.)

Mary Berry is a natural teacher though she claims she is not academic and enjoyed only games and cookery at school. Her father, who was a former mayor of Bath and later helped to found the University of Bath, sent her to France for a year, much against her will. Subsequently, she went to catering college and qualified as a home economist and teacher. Then, asked by a magazine to contribute one article on cookery, she found her metier and has been writing ever since. She made her her television debut on Good Afternoon with Judy Chalmers in 1970.

That baking is a science rather than art, she is certain. And to those sniffy people who wonder why she advocates margarine rather than butter in her recipes, she has the answer. Traditional cake recipes, using butter, required laborious creaming and rubbing the fat into the flour. Modern margarine has been formulated to suit the speedy all-in-one cake-making methods in which all the ingredients are combined in an electric mixer (or even by hand; it doesn't take long). It's important to choose a soft baking margarine, using it straight from the fridge out of the tub. Mary Berry uses Flora Baking, or Blue Band or Stork SB. An electric mixer knocks out some of the air, so if the recipe specifies self-raising flour she suggests that you add a little extra baking powder.

Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book is the ultimate lesson in cake-making; here we give a taste of her fail-safe recipes. We include on page 57 one of her traybakes, surely the easiest and most convenient form of cake- making ever devised. (We give the recipe for Gingerbread Traybake, just one of the dozen she suggests; if you're converted, you will have to buy her book to get the rest). And for a change of style, we include two contrasting cake recipes from Geraldene Holt, and one from John Tovey.

DARK INDULGENT CHOCOLATE AND WALNUT BROWNIES

Brownies, like gingerbread, are likely to dip in the middle, but this all adds to their charm. Do not overcook them as it's much preferable to have a slightly gooey texture. The outside crust should be on the crisp side, though, because of the high proportion of sugar.

Makes about 24 squares

350g/12oz plain chocolate, broken into pieces

225g/8 oz margarine

2 teaspoons instant coffee

2 tablespoons hot water

3 size 2 eggs

225g/8oz caster sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

75g/3oz self-raising flour

175g/6oz walnut pieces, chopped

225g/8oz plain chocolate chips

Pre-heat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5. Grease and base line a 30 x 23cm/12 x 9in roasting tin with greased greaseproof paper.

Melt the chocolate slowly in a bowl with the margarine over a pan of hot water, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool. Dissolve the coffee in the hot water.

In another bowl, mix together the coffee, eggs, sugar and vanilla essence. Gradually beat in the chocolate mixture. Fold in the flour, walnuts and chocolate chips, and then pour the mixture into the prepared tin.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 40-45 minutes or until firm to the touch and a dull crust has formed. Leave to cool in the tin. When the cake is completely cold, cut into squares.

CARROT CAKE

This really is a good recipe and a popular one. At a recent charity event this is the cake that sold most quickly. I'm afraid, though, that it sounds rather more healthy than it is.

Makes one 20cm/8in cake

225g/8oz self-raising flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

150g/5oz light muscovado sugar

50g/2oz walnuts, chopped

100g/4oz carrots grated

2 ripe bananas, mashed

2 eggs

150ml/5fl oz sunflower oil

For the topping:

175g/6oz low-fat soft cheese

50g/2oz soft margarine

100g/4oz icing sugar, sifted

a few drops of vanilla essence

walnut halves to decorate

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Grease and base line a 20cm/8in deep round cake tin with greased greaseproof paper.

Measure all the ingredients for the cake into a large bowl and mix well until thoroughly blended and smooth. Turn into the prepared tin and level the surface.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 50-60 minutes until the cake is well risen and shrinking away from the sides of the tin.

Allow to cool in the tin for a few minutes before turning out and leaving to cool completely on a wire rack.

For the topping, measure all the ingredients, except the walnuts, into a bowl, or into a food processor, and mix well until smooth. Spread over the top of the cake, swirling the top with a spatula for a decorative effect. Decorate the top with the walnut halves. Chill a little before serving, and store in the fridge as the topping is soft.

BARA BRITH

There are many versions of this traditional tea bread, which can be made with or without yeast. In Welsh, bara brith means "speckled bread". Similar tea breads are made in different parts of Britain: barm brack in Ireland and the Selkirk bannock in Scotland

Makes one 900g/2lb loaf

175g/6oz currants

175g/6oz sultanas

225g/8oz light muscovado sugar

300ml/10fl oz strong hot tea

275g/10oz self-raising flour

1 egg, beaten

Measure the fruit and sugar into a bowl, pour over the hot tea, cover and leave overnight.

Pre-heat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas 2. Lightly grease and base line a 900g/2lb loaf tin with greased greaseproof paper.

Stir the flour and egg into the fruit mixture, mix thoroughly, then turn into the prepared tin and level the surface.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 112-134 hours, or until well risen and firm to the touch. A fine skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean.

Allow to cool in the tin for about 10 minutes before turning out and leaving to cool completely on a wire rack.

GINGERBREAD TRAYBAKE

This gingerbread is equally delicious without the icing. It is perfect for a packed lunch.

Cuts into 21 small pieces

275g/10oz golden syrup

275g/10 oz black treacle

225g/8oz light muscovado sugar

225g/8oz soft margarine

450g/1lb self-raising flour

2 teaspoons mixed spice

2 teaspoons ground ginger

4 eggs, beaten

4 tablespoons milk

For the icing:

225g/8oz icing sugar

about 2 tablespoons water

50g/2oz crystallised or stem ginger, finely chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas 3. Grease and line the base of a 30 x 23cm/12 x 9in roasting tin with greased greaseproof paper.

Measure the syrup, treacle, sugar and margarine into a large pan and heat gently until the fat has melted. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flour and spices. Add the lightly beaten eggs and milk, and beat well until smooth. Pour into the prepared tin.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 45-50 minutes or until well risen and beginning to shrink away from the sides of the tin. Allow to cool in the tin for a few minutes before turning out and cooling on a wire rack.

For the icing, sift the icing sugar into a bowl, add the water, a little at a time, and mix until smooth. Mix in the chopped ginger, spoon over the cake and leave to set.

Secrets of success: Heat the syrup and other ingredients very gently. If they are too hot when the flour is stirred in, it could go lumpy. If it does, you will have to rub it through a sieve.

FROSTED WALNUT LAYER CAKE

Some of us might remember Fuller's tea shops, and their walnut cake. This is very similar and tastes wonderful.

Cuts into 12 generous wedges

225g/8oz soft margarine

225g/8oz caster sugar

4 eggs

225g/8oz self-raising flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

100g/4oz walnuts, finely chopped

For the frosting:

2 egg whites

350g/12oz caster sugar

4 tablespoons water

14 teaspoon cream of tartar

To decorate:

walnut halves

Pre-heat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas 3. Lightly grease and line the base of three 20cm/8in sandwich tins with greased greaseproof paper.

Measure all the ingredients for the cake into a large bowl and beat them together until they are thoroughly blended. Divide equally between the tins and level the surfaces. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 25- 30 minutes, until the cakes are golden and springy to the touch. Turn out and leave to cool on a wire rack.

For the frosting: measure all the ingredients into a bowl over a pan of hot water and whisk, using an electric or rotary whisk, for 10-12 minutes, until thick. Sandwich the cake layers together with a little of the frosting, then use the remainder to cover the top and sides of the cake, swirling the icing to form soft peaks. Decorate with the walnut halves.

Secrets of success: In this method, self-raising flour and baking powder are used together to give the cake the necessary lift. The quickness of the method means that less air is beaten into the mixture than if you were making the cake the traditional way. Don't be tempted to use more baking powder than specified or the cake will rise up and then sink back again.

JOHN TOVEY'S ALMOND SAUTERNES CAKES

You could serve these cakes as a pudding, or at teatime, split in half horizontally, filled with whipped cream and scattered with summer fruit (from Simply Splendid Suppers, BBC pounds 16.99).

Makes two 25cm/10in cakes

6 medium eggs, separated

175g/6oz caster sugar

finely grated rind of 1 orange

150ml/5fl oz Sauternes or other sweet white wine

100g/4oz ground almonds

100g/4oz plain white flour

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4, and line two 25cm/10in round spring- sided cake tins with good greaseproof paper.

In a warm mixer bowl, beat the egg yolks using an electric whisk. When creamy, slowly and gradually beat in 100g/4oz of the sugar. Beat in the orange rind and wine, then fold in the ground almonds and flour.

In a separate clean bowl whisk the egg whites until stiff, beating in the remaining sugar. Fold this into the egg yolk mix, then pour into the prepared cake tins. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 15 minutes. Turn the oven temperature down to 150C/300F/Gas 2, and cook for a further 15 minutes. Cool on a cooling tray.

GERALDENE HOLT'S WHOLEWHEAT SPONGE CAKE WITH FUDGE FILLING

Not every cake has to be made with plain white flour. This is an interesting exception.

Makes one 20cm/8in sponge

85g/3oz light muscovado sugar

1 tablespoon clear honey

14 teaspoon vanilla essence

4 eggs, size 3, separated

115g/4oz plain 100 per cent wholewheat flour

For the filling:

55g/2oz unsalted butter

115g/4oz light muscovado sugar

1 tablespoon single cream

1 teaspoon icing sugar

Pre-heat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas 3. Base-line two round 20cm/8in cake tins with buttered greaseproof paper.

Place the sugar, honey, vanilla essence and egg yolks in a bowl. Add four tablespoons of hot water and whisk the mixture (over hot water if you are not using an electric beater) until it is light and foamy.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff, then fold them into the yolk mixture. Tip the flour into a sieve and shake a layer over the mixture, fold in and repeat until only bran remains in the sieve. Fold in half the bran and return the remainder to the flour bag.

Divide the mixture between the prepared cake tins and smooth level.

Bake in the pre-heated oven until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch (30-35 minutes). Cool in the tins for two minutes then turn out on to a wire rack to cool.

For the filling, melt the butter in a pan, stir in the sugar and cream until dissolved, then boil steadily for two minutes. Remove from the heat and cool the pan by standing it in cold water for two to three minutes. Beat the filling until it is thick but spreadable. Pour the filling over one cake and place the other on top.

Sieve the icing sugar over the top - for a decorative effect mask the cake with strips of paper first, then remove - and serve.

GERALDENE HOLT'S WINE CUPBOARD FRUIT CAKE

I use bottle ends when I'm making this cake, hence its name.

Makes one 20cm/8in cake

200ml/7fl oz mixed spirits: brandy, rum, sherry, fruit liquers

900g/2lb mixed dried fruit: seedless raisins, sultanas, currants, chopped figs and dates, chopped candied peel, halved glace or dried cherries

225g/8oz unsalted butter

225g/8oz dark muscovado sugar

4 eggs, size 3

340g/12oz plain white flour

14 teaspoon bicarbonate soda

14 teaspoon ground nutmeg

55g/2oz ground almonds

55g/2oz flaked almonds

Stir the brandy mixture into the dried fruit in a mixing bowl and leave in a warm place for two to four hours, stirring now and again, until the fruit has absorbed all the liquid.

Pre-heat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas 2. Butter a 20cm/8in square cake tin and line with greaseproof paper.

Cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Stir the sifted flour, bicarbonate of soda and spices into the mixture. Mix in the ground and flaked almonds and the steeped fruit. Spoon into the prepared tin and smooth level.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for two hours, then lower the heat to 140C/275F/Gas 1 and bake for a further one and three-quarters to two hours, or until a wooden skewer comes out clean from the centre of the cake.

Cool the cake in the tin for 30 minutes then transfer it to a wire rack. !

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