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WHY clutter up your kitchen with weighing scales? After all, half the world cooks without them. Throughout history, food has been prepared perfectly well with the quantity of ingredients estimated rather than carefully weighed. When measurements were called for, a piece of curved bark, a beaker, or even one's hand sufficed.

Then we began to record things. Ways of cooking were written down instead of being shown to the next generation. In time, the modern recipe with exact quantities and detailed instructions appeared. And so, to be able to cook from written recipes - either old or new - you had to be able to measure ingredients accurately.

American cooks use measuring cups. I find them maddening - a cup of flour, sifted, weighs less than scooped straight from the bag; a cup of butter weighs more - or is it less? - than a cup of sugar, and so on. Give me weighing scales any time.

Consistency is the crux of the matter. To repeat recipes successfully, you need to minimise the number of variables in cooking. A set of scales is, as Mrs Beeton wrote, "amongst the most essential requirements of the kitchen".

After a few years of hard use, my spring scales became inaccurate for very small quantities. My electronic scales went haywire each time the batteries ran down. And beam scales are rarely made nowadays. The best type, in my view, is a set of old-style balance scales, with a cast-iron frame, a shallow pan for weights and a capacious scoop for ingredients. Almost every kitchen shop sells good-looking sets in black, blue or green.

Antique shops sometimes have beautiful Victorian beam scales, which are fine for weighing small amounts. On holiday in a house with no scales, I once devised my own beam scales with the aid of a broomstick, two plastic bags and a packet of butter cut into 1oz pieces - but it was hardly practical for everyday use. For weighing small amounts of spices accurately, a set of Edwardian letter scales can work well in the kitchen.

Should you be thinking of buying a set of antique scales, check that they are properly adjusted by placing the same denomination coins on each pan, then make a rough check for accuracy, since a 10p coin weighs near enough 14oz, and a 2p and 1p coin together weigh approximately 10g.

Unrestored, and therefore cheaper, sets of balance scales from the Forties and Fifties can be found in junk shops and at jumble sales. Provided they are not broken, they may only require cleaning and checking for accuracy. The cast-iron frame can be painted without affecting the efficiency of the balancing system. Some sets of scales can be adjusted by turning a metal nut on a spindle, while others have a moveable needle at the pivot or fulcrum of the scales which zeros the reading. If necessary, increase the weight of one of the pans by attaching a metal washer to the underside.

Then, if need be, buy a shiny new set of weights. A metric set should range from 5g to 1kg, and an imperial one from 14oz to 2lbs. It's still worth having a set of both, but choose them in different shapes - such as cylindrical, hexagonal or conical - to prevent confusion between the systems.

Confusion enough exists over spoonfuls. Are they level, or rounded, or heaped? Logic dictates that since a spoonful of liquid must be level, so is a spoonful of all other ingredients, unless stated otherwise. Culinary misfortunes can occur unless this is understood. For, of course, one properly rounded spoonful is equivalent to two level ones. To ensure consistency in measuring, buy a set of inexpensive plastic graduated spoons marked 2.5ml, 5ml, 10ml and 15ml respectively, and also giving the imperial equivalent.

Since 1oz equals the somewhat awkward amount of 28.349g, there have been numerous attempts to produce a workable table of equivalence, usually based on rounding up or down. Hence the oft-repeated advice in cookery books to work within one system of measurements or the other.

For some recipes, whether you round up or down is not significant. However, in cake baking the size of the finished cake, and its baking time, are partly governed by whether the measurements are rounded up or down - often to the popular and convenient 1oz/25g, or sometimes to 1oz/30g - which can give a seriously distorted result for larger quantities. So I favour a more accurate table of equivalence based on 1oz/28.5g; this gives a rough equivalent of 14oz/7g, which I find produces a perfectly workable result.

Some supermarket chains have issued their own equivalence tables since the change in EC legislation in October. Top marks to Lothian council, though, whose shop-window display in Edinburgh is currently demonstrating the imperial/metric equivalence with heaps of food and jugs of liquid, measured in each system, clearly set out and explained in a way that enlightened the citizens that I saw studying it.

For measuring liquids, a transparent graduated jug - either glass or plastic - is invaluable. When cooking with centuries-old recipes, though, I'm glad of my ancient enamelled measuring jug whose scale includes archaic measures such as the gill, or 14 pint/150ml, and the quart, aka 2 pints.


The weight of the eggs is the determining constant in this neat ratio of ingredients. The cake is equally good made plain, without a layer of fruit in the middle.

4 size 2 eggs, in their shells

plain white flour

caster sugar

unsalted butter, softened

12 teaspoon finely grated zest of lemon or 1 teaspoon orange-flower water

225g/8oz blackcurrants or raspberries (the fruit must be dry) - optional

Heat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Weigh the eggs in their shells and make a note of the amount. Weigh out the same amount of flour, sugar and softened butter and place in a mixing bowl.

Break the eggs into a small bowl, beat lightly and add to the dry ingredients with the lemon zest or orange-flower water and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth.

Spoon half the mixture into a buttered, lined round cake tin measuring 9-10in/23-25cm. Sprinkle the fruit on top and cover with the remaining cake mixture, smoothing the top level.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 45 minutes until the top of the cake is springy in the centre. Cool in the tin for two minutes, then turn out to cool on a wire rack.

Serve the cake warm with creme fraiche, or plain when you are eating it cold.