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The Basics of Baking

Having some time on my hands lately (in which to grow and flourish in exactly the way that potted plants tend not to in office environments), I did some baking. I baked a chocolate loaf, some Aberffraw (shortbread) biscuits, an apple cake and some soda bread, and they all turned out decently, to varying degrees of yumminess. But this was entirely thanks to following the recipes; had I not done so, I wouldn’t have had the first clue what I was doing or where to start - rather reminiscent of several pieces of software I’ve installed and configured under Googled recipes. I don’t actually understand how any of this stuff works; I just know to follow a recipe.

What I’ve gathered over the past two weeks is that there is a set of basic ingredients that will pretty much allow you to bake anything; the variations after that are in additional flavouring, toppings or construction.

The essential ingredients are:

  • Plain flour
  • Self-raising flour
  • Butter
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Water
  • Yeast
  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Baking powder (contains bicarb but is not the same thing)

What can you do with these? For my own reference (based mainly on Nigel Slater’s basic recipes in Appetite, with a dip into Nigella and some other more comprehensive tomes):

  1. Combining plain flour with just over half as much butter and a little water to make it stick together creates an unsweetened pastry dough suitable for pies. Add sugar to make a sweet pastry or nuts/spices to make a more savoury one.
  2. Lose the butter (except for greasing a bowl and tin), use strong bread flour with two thirds lukewarm water instead and add yeast and salt, and you get a white bread dough. Needs to be left to rise twice during making, which requires warmth and a couple of hours. (Nigel suggests that this will also make pizza dough if flattened out and drizzled with olive oil. Nigella recommends using water in which potatoes have been cooked, and reducing the amount of salt. Some recipes use a little water in which to activate the yeast and then milk for the majority of the dough.)
  3. Rub butter or lard into the flour first to make a dough suitable for plain rolls.
  4. Replace the larger proportion of the bread flour with wholemeal flour and you get a wholemeal loaf. (Can be sweetened by adding honey to the water before activating the yeast, then adding melted butter to the dough.)
  5. Soda bread doesn’t use yeast at all (no proving), just flour, buttermilk (skimmed milk at a pinch), bicarb and salt. (But is a bit heavier and more filling as a result.)
  6. Forget the yeast, add a decent amount of butter and a few tablespoons of baking powder to plain flour to make a scone dough (which I guess is some degrees closer to a cake recipe).
  7. Plain flour with two thirds butter and a third sugar makes a shortbread dough suitable for biscuits. Easy for kids.
  8. Add a small amount of baking powder for a more normal biscuit recipe.
  9. Self-raising flour with the same or greater amounts of sugar, butter and eggs creates a cake mix. Can be combined with a spoon, no mess (but whisk the eggs and sugar first to get some air in). Add flavourings, spices or ingredients as required. Increasing the proportions of butter and sugar relative to the flour creates a lighter sponge. (Self-raising flour can be sub’ed with plain flour, baking powder and salt or vice-versa - it’s a shortcut combo.)
  10. Puff pastry: you buy it from a shop, preferably in ready-rolled sheets. (See also: Filo.)