Sweet sensations: Happiness is a warm sponge
Baking is this year's hot food trend, but it's worth going beyond watching TV shows and buying cupcakes, says Annie Bell. The rewards are as good for your soul as for your taste buds
Friday 18 November 2011
Going a long way back, when I was at primary school we used to raise money for the charity Shelter. And one morning in assembly, a young mother with two children came to talk to the school about what the experience of being rehoused after being homeless meant to her, and how her life had changed.
I still recall very vividly as a seven- or eight-year-old, how her face lit up when she started talking about baking. How, when she was homeless, she hadn't been able to bake, but now with her galley kitchen she was able to make cakes whenever she wanted. So she baked every single day, it was such a huge pleasure and privilege, cooking far more than she needed or could use.
As a child, this spoke volumes. I might not have been able to understand the wider social implications of her situation, but as it was I understood exactly where she was coming from. My own love of baking stems back to about that time, when I too discovered what it was like to become lost in the process. What started as a study in making rock cakes has become a lifelong passion.
Like her, I bake cakes almost compulsively. I bake when I don't need the end results because I need to go through the process itself. I can always dream up some reason why I "must" bake a cake. I want to know what a cheesecake tastes like made with orange zest rather than lemon and I am curious what will happen to my farmhouse sultana cake if I up the ratio of ground almonds in relation to flour. When what I am really doing is losing myself by becoming absorbed in another activity, one that I find endlessly soothing with its scents and rhythm.
Baking is therapeutic, it is a displacement activity. This may not put the sexiest spin on it, but I do believe that is why so many people are drawn to this particular type of cooking. I put this to Edd Kimber, last year's winner of The Great British Bake Off. "Before winning, I was working in an office in a job that I hated, and evenings spent baking were my stress relief. It took me out of myself. It's peaceful, solitary, I'd go into the kitchen and switch on the music, I could relax and chill."
That there is a lovely product at the end of it, something that can be given and shared, is an extension of that; you are doing something for other people, which in return gives us pleasure. And perhaps this is one reason so many women love baking (the title of Kimber's new book, incidentally, is The Boy Who Bakes (Kyle Books, £16.99). I doubt "The Girl Who Bakes" was ever going to be newsworthy). Baking plays on a natural tendency to nurture, it is an extension of the mothering role.
But I cannot but help see the irony, that so much of today's baking renaissance is owed to the cupcake craze, which in my eyes isn't a real cake at all, more a frivolous fashion statement. They will always be with us and it would be sad if they weren't, but the pendulum is starting to swing, as we have finally recognised that perhaps the Emperor is in the buff after all. For the serious cake-lover there is much more satisfaction to be had in a thick wedge of Victoria sponge or fluffy lemon drizzle cake than there is in a sickly bank of pastel-coloured butter icing and sugar sprinkles.
So roll on the return of real baking and real cakes. The Boy Who Bakes is very much a part of this move back to proper cakes. Kimber takes classics and gives them just the right kind of twist without losing sight of their heart. "There is something about slicing into a cake, it's a communal act. I've never been a fan of cupcakes; occasionally you come across a good one, but there are a lot of bad ones." As it is, his book draws us in with classics such as cherry linzer slices, Nana's gingerbread, peaches-and-cream upside-down cake. It's modern baking at its best. He has that lightness of touch that sets a good cake baker apart.
A lot of the time, good cake baking is about what you don't do, rather than what you do do. Baking cakes is ultimately accessible; that so many of us start in childhood says it all. It is sad if anyone is put off making a cake because they believe it is in some way difficult, and it is frustrating to come across cake books with chapters on "technique" – "take care not to overbeat the mixture", "the eggs must be added gradually" and so on. And if you don't? You know what, you get pretty much the same results. Perhaps if you had to compare the two resulting cakes you might find one was slightly different to the other, but it is unlikely that one will have "worked" and the other won't.
I would urge any doubters or novices to start with an "all-in-one" Victoria sponge. The very first time I made one of these it came as a revelation. Having spent all my life until that point doing what I was told, creaming the butter and sugar, adding the eggs one by one with a little of the flour to stop it from curdling, here was a recipe where you chucked it all into a food processor, pressed "on" and you ended up with a fantastic sponge. This isn't just the case with a Victoria sponge, there are any number of cakes that require you to do no more than that.
To say there is no technique at all called for in cake baking is obviously oversimplifying it: pastry work can be fiddly and demands that you respect certain house rules, and creams and icings call for a careful hand; mixtures may need to amalgamate and egg whites to be whipped in a scrupulously clean bowl with clean beaters to a stiff foam in order to help to leaven a sponge. But certainly, they are nothing like as scary as many believe they are, or that many recipes would suggest.
So why anyone would ever be put off baking is something that remains a mystery to me. Casting around, I can see various members of my family sitting on the couch who have never baked a cake in their lives, and they are coincidentally male. So I start with my 14-year-old son. "Lou, why don't you ever bake cakes?"
"Because I don't have time," he replies without putting the remote down.
"Rubbish," I counter.
"OK, because I can't imagine devoting that amount of time and effort to it when I could be doing something more useful like playing guitar. But I don't mind eating them." And it probably is that straightforward.
'Gorgeous Cakes' by Annie Bell (Kyle Books, £9.99) is out now
Rise up: Sponge made easy
Classic Victoria sponge cake
Makes 1 x 20cm cake
If you have never baked a cake before, start here and go on – it will work wonders for your confidence. This is one of the loveliest cakes of them all, and flies the flag for that magical marriage of butter, sugar, eggs and flour.
225g unsalted butter, diced
225g golden caster sugar
225g self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder
4 medium eggs
Filling and top
150g strawberry jam
icing sugar for dusting
Heat the oven to 170C fan/ 190C (gas mark 5) and butter a 20cm cake tin 9cm deep with a removable base. Place all the cake ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and cream together. Transfer the mixture to the cake tin, smooth the surface and bake for 50-55 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Run a knife around the collar of the cake and leave it to cool. You can leave the cake on the base or remove it as you prefer. Slit with a bread knife and spread the lower half with jam, then sandwich with the top half and dust with icing sugar.
The rich version
The cake is instantly whisked into the realms of luxury if you spread 180ml of whipped double cream on top of the jam before sandwiching it. Take care not to overwhisk the cream, stopping just as it starts to form soft peaks.
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