Had we all been part-time bakers, we wouldn’t have had to wait for a pandemic for a lesson in slowing down. Unlike in cooking, you cannot amp up the heat to melt your chocolate faster; you must wait, or watch it burn. You can’t cheat and mix all your dry and wet ingredients together at once—your end-product won’t be as good. At a time when rules – of social distancing, sanitisation and countless other government and WHO mandates – are dominating our lives, baking shows why rules are golden. The more you bake, the more you understand that there’s method in madness and there is beauty in letting things take their own time.
It is no surprise then, that the lockdown has witnessed a significant upsurge in baking with enthusiasts whipping up everything from mango cheesecakes and banana breads to Dalgona-coffee-inspired bakes, focaccia gardens and a multitude of no-bake desserts, putting to use biscuits, leftovers, seasonal fruits and anything within their arms reach.
But baking can also be intimidating and it’s hard to pin-point where to begin. Ripped off the comfort of andaaz or intuition – which Indian cooking prides itself on – you are bound to feel lost. But a few tricks, a relatively small investment (it’s cheaper than a set of cupcakes!) and these expert tips from India’s finest pastry chefs should set you straight.
Here is your ultimate guide to baking as spelled out by Pooja Dhingra of Le15, Sanjana Patel of La Folie and influencer, Shivesh Bhatia spell it out.
Get equipped before you whip
No, you do not need to place an order for a blow torch and Nigella Lawson’s suave hand-mixer right away. But you do need to make a small investment in a few basics. Here’s where to start:
- Measuring cups or weighing scale: Baking is all about precision. While investing in a small kitchen weighing scale (that start at as low as Rs 349) can help up your game, even a basic set of measuring cups works. “Opt for a sleek and compact scale that’s battery operated, because it’s easy to carry around. Try and check the minimum measurement and go for one that measures at least 1 gm,” Patel suggests. Bhatia on the other hand recommends beginning with measuring cups and moving on to a scale if you want to practice baking more seriously.
- Mixing bowls: An affordable set of mixing bowls should take a lot of load off your chest in the long run, rather than resorting to basic kitchen utensils. This will help ensure cleanliness – which is of utmost importance during baking – and keep your baking tools segregated from those you use for cooking.
- Whisk: Several recipes require long periods of beating and to that end, investing in an electric hand mixer makes sense, says Patel. If you feel like this will burn a hole in your pocket, spend on a balloon whisk. “It’s a very handy tool and help incorporate air into your batter,” shares Bhatia.
- Spatula: Another simple tool worth its salt is a silicon spatula, which all three bakers unanimously recommend. Invest in a sturdy one with a long handle to make your life easy.
- Cake moulds: This is a no brainer and many of us already have antiquated cake moulds in our homes, passed down the generations. Even so, to make things fun you can do a little research and purchase a few basic moulds, like tin or silicon cupcake moulds or a tart mould. A basic circular cake tin, however, is a must-have. “If you’re buying one, might as well get a mould with a detachable bottom or side,” Bhatia shares.
- Parchment paper or a silicone baking sheet: Ever experienced the heartbreak of doing everything right yet having to scrape off your cake from the tin leaving it disfigured? Eliminate this by investing in a parchment paper roll or a silicone baking sheet, which is eco-friendlier and more reusable. The latter is also perfect for baking macarons and cookies. If you want to begin with parchment paper until you save enough for the silicon mat, then be sure to buy parchment paper and not butter or tracing paper, Bhatia cautions. “People often use both interchangeably, but butter and tracing paper isn’t heat-resistant,” he informs.
- Foil and cling wrap: When you’re picking up the parchment paper, sneak in a foil and cling wrap roll into the shopping cart as well. Foil is required for multiple recipes and can be used to secure your cake tin, especially if it’s an old detachable cake tin, that tend to lose shape. Cling wrap will be required to rest your dough and batter for certain recipes and is really a household essential.
- Wooden skewers: These are long wooden sticks that look like toothpicks, but here’s why you shouldn’t use the latter. “People use toothpicks to check if their cake is done and end up burning their hands because they’re so tiny that you’ve to shove your hand into the oven,” Bhatia cautions. You could use a fork, but these are super cheap and doesn’t deform your cake.
Additionally, you can invest in piping bags and nozzles and if you’re intrigued cake decoration. These cost anything from Rs 200 and upwards. Patel also suggests you invest in a set of basic chef’s knives, explaining that kitchen knives don’t work for baking. “You need a slightly broader one to cut your cakes, especially layered ones and having a serrated bread knife is also a must,” she says. The other thing that Dhingra and Patel both point out is the utility of oven thermometers. They’re tiny and helps measure the temperature of your oven exactly. “Many recipes have the temperature as per the baker’s oven, but it may vary from one appliance to the other, which is where thermometers come in,” Dhingra reveals.
Stock your pantry up
Thankfully, when it comes to basic cakes, most ingredients are already available in the kitchen or easily procurable. But here’s a list of must-haves to make your life easy.
- Flour: Wheat flour is going to be the default ingredient in most of your bakes. Use any local, packaged flour and don’t fixate on self-rising flour, because not all recipes need it. Patel swears by Blue Bird, but you can use any other refined flour. Additionally, you can experiment with gluten-free and-plant-based flours, too, such as, almond, oats, coconut and ragi.
- Butter: It’s hard to think of butter and not reach out for Amul, considering that it’s an emotion. But if you can control your feelings, make a quiet switch to unsalted butter to avoid mishaps and bake your goodies perfectly. Having said that, salted butter can also work, if that’s what you prefer, in which case, if the recipe requires salt, skip it.
- Vanilla extract: Most of us are used to relying on store-bought artificial vanilla essence. However, Patel and Bhatia recommend spending a little more on genuine vanilla extract for top results. “You’ll still be using small amounts but it really elevates the overall flavour,” Bhatia shares.
- Sugar: The jugaadu Indian in us has for years powdered regular sugar and supplemented it with icing or granulated sugar. However, the challenge with this trick is that it messes with the measurements but also sweetness of your baked delight. Get that packet of castor sugar now!
- Chocolate: The truth is that most of us foray into baking because one cannot have enough of chocolate cake, right? So, why not invest in good quality chocolate rather than chocolate compound? Bhatia says, “The difference is that compound has vegetable fat and not cocoa butter. So, using a good chocolate makes a hell lot of difference.” Chocolates with a high percentage of cocoa butter are called couverture chocolates and are premium in nature. However, if you wish to stick to chocolate compound since that’s more easily available, Dhingra suggests Morde’s.
- Cream: “I’ve seen so many people use fresh cream instead of whipping cream. It doesn’t form peaks and then, you’re bound to add sugar to hold things up, which leads to bad results,” points out Patel. If you’re looking to experiment with layered cakes, Dhingra, too, suggests buying a good quality cream. Pro tip: Check that it has at least 35 per cent fat.
- Others: Baking powder, baking soda (both, not either/or), eggs, vinegar and curd (you’ll need this for eggless recipes) and cinnamon powder!
Things to keep in mind
Pooja Dhingra suggests:
- Always read the recipe thoroughly before starting.
- Measure all your ingredients and lay them out before you.
- Don’t keep opening the oven door! Opening it for 30 seconds can drop the temperature drastically. Be patient.
- Store baking powder or soda in an airtight container in a dry place to keep it potent.
Tips from Shivesh Bhatia:
- Be precise and patient, without this you’ll end up messing things up.
- Don’t over-mix your batter while combining the dry and wet ingredients or it will lead to a super heavy cake.
- Don’t make blind substitution without putting any thought into it.
- TRUST THE RECIPE!!!
- Understand your oven: Whatever recipe you’re following, the time and temperature given is basis the baker’s oven. Tune it to yours.
Sanjana Patel says:
- Double sift all your dry ingredients to avoid aeration while folding in the batter.
- If you’re using milk, use whole milk or almond milk and not skimmed milk because you need texture.
- Weigh your ingredients right: If the recipe is in grams, measure in grams; if it says cups, use measuring cups.
- Preheat your oven: Heat your oven for 15 minutes at least and at a temperature slightly higher than you would be baking in because when you open the oven door, the temperature drops. But remember to reset it to the prescribed temperature baking.
- If you’re using a grill oven (most common), start with the top and then, the bottom deck.
Well, that’s what we believe a pretty well-rounded synopsis of everything you need to know before you put your mittens on. If you’re baking lemon tart, please send some this way.
Images: Shivesh Bhatia, Sanjana Patel and Shutterstock.com