Home baking can intimidate even the most competent cooks, but with these tips and recipes you'll be able to produce everything from basic scones to delicate madeleines.
Home baking makes a comeback
Once deemed an old-fashioned pastime - the preserve of women in pinnies - home baking is having a bit of a moment. Over the past few months, a spate of cookbooks on the subject have been released and retailers have reported a rise in sales of bakeware. Cake is cool. And while you may argue that the Magnolia Bakery made cupcakes chic a decade or more ago, nowadays homemade is where it's at.
Homemade cakes and biscuits have endless appeal. Importantly: you control the contents. Scan through the ingredients list for a shop-bought cake and you'll find much more than just eggs, butter, flour and sugar. Think emulsifiers, egg powders, preservatives and fruit concentrate. Not particularly necessary or nice.
There's something wholesome about making a cake from scratch; it fills the house with a lovely aroma and nine times out of 10, the end result will have a superior taste to a supermarket offering. But even competent cooks are often wary of baking and there seems to be a misconception that you're either good at it or not. This really isn't the case. Granted, baking requires slightly more attention to detail (timings, weights, etc) than whipping up a Bolognese sauce or throwing together a stir fry, but provided you bear a few things in mind and follow the recipe carefully, you shouldn't go too far wrong.
It sounds simple, but when baking it really is important to read the recipe carefully, from beginning to end. This means you won't be surprised to learn that a batter needs to be left to rest for 40 minutes or be sent into a panic by the last-minute addition of a crucial ingredient.
Make sure you check that you've got all the necessary ingredients before you start cooking. It really will make a difference to the state of your cake if you end up substituting demerara sugar for caster or using 15g less butter than required.
Similarly, if the recipe says that the butter needs to be chilled or the eggs be at room temperature, then follow these instructions.
Weigh ingredients out carefully using kitchen scales and to minimise stress, do this before you start cooking.
The temperature of the oven plays a critical role, and all ovens behave differently. You may have to experiment a few times to gauge whether yours is hotter or cooler than average; and an oven thermometer can be invaluable. If a recipe calls for a preheated oven, then make sure you give it enough time; this can take up to 20 minutes.
Above all else, avoid the ultimate oven mistake: repeatedly opening and closing the door to "check" on your cakes and biscuits. Cold air rushes in, the temperature drops and the end result is affected - and this is the most common reasons cakes do not rise properly.
Scones offer instant baking gratification. They are made using store-cupboard ingredients and are quick and easy to prepare. Just don't skimp on the jam and cream.
A few tips will help the end result: cut the butter into small pieces - this will make it easier to rub into the flour. Make sure the milk is ice cold when you add it, to create scones that are nice and light. Don't roll the dough out too thinly (it won't rise a huge amount in the oven); 2cm thick is about right.
For fruity scones, add mixed peel and a handful of sultanas or raisins to the mixture with the flour or, for a savoury version, leave out the sugar and add 25g of grated cheddar cheese and a teaspoon of mustard.
Makes: 6 large scones
230g self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting pinch fine salt 50g butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces 1 tbsp caster sugar 150ml milk
Preheat the oven to 220¿C/fan 200¿C/gas 7. Lightly grease a baking tray. Sieve the flour into a large bowl and stir in the salt. Using your hands, rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Mix in the sugar and then gradually pour in the milk, stirring with a knife, until the mixture starts to come together to form a soft dough. Shape the mixture into a round with your hands and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough out to a thickness of at least 2cm. Use a cutter or upturned glass (approximately 6cm across) to cut out the scones. They will shrink slightly in the oven. Place the scones on the greased baking tray and cook for 12-14 minutes, until sightly risen and a light golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack and eat while still warm.
Use the right sized tin, and always take the time to grease and line it. Skip this step and you'll regret it when the cake clings to the base rather than sliding out cleanly.
The key to a light and airy cake is creaming the butter and sugar together properly. Make sure the mixture is pale, light and fluffy before you start to incorporate the eggs.
Add the eggs gradually. If you try to combine them with the sugar and fat mixture too quickly then the whole thing will curdle. If this happens, it isn't disastrous, but the cooked cake will be heavier than it should be. A good trick is to add a small spoonful of flour with each addition of egg.
For a light sponge cake, always sieve the flour and fold it into the mixture gently and carefully. The idea is to combine the ingredients without losing any of the air that has already been incorporated into the mixture.
To check if a cake is cooked, insert a skewer into the centre; if the skewer comes out clean, then the cake is ready. If not, return it to the oven for a few more minutes. A cooked sponge cake will spring back into shape when pressed lightly.
Always leave cakes to cool completely before transferring to an airtight container to store. If you are not going to eat them within a couple of days, cooked cakes freeze well.
The following recipe is a lovely old-fashioned tea cake, which is given a bit more of a citrus kick with the addition of lime. To serve it as a dessert, top each slice with a spoonful of sweetened mascarpone cream.
Lemon and lime drizzle cake
260g caster sugar 260g butter, softened grated zest and juice 2 lemons grated zest and juice 2 limes 90ml milk 3 eggs, beaten 260g self-raising flour 4 tbsp granulated sugar
Preheat the oven to 180¿C/fan 160¿C/gas 4. Grease and line a 23cm-wide, 7cm-deep round baking tin. Put the butter and sugar into a large bowl and beat together, either by hand or with an electric whisk, until pale and creamy. Stir in the lemon and lime zest, followed by the milk. Gradually add the eggs, a little at a time, beating continuously and waiting until every bit of egg has been incorporated before making the next addition. Sieve over the flour and carefully fold into the mixture. Do this gently; you don't want to knock all the air out. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking tin and bake for 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. While the cake is cooking, prepare the drizzle topping. Pour the lemon and lime juice into a small saucepan, bring to the boil and reduce by half. Allow to cool before stirring in the granulated sugar. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, prick the surface all over with a skewer. Slowly pour over the lemon and lime syrup, it will soak into the cake. Leave to cool completely before turning out.
These dainty little French cakes have a lovely, light texture, buttery flavour and golden colour.
They are prepared using a slightly different technique to a traditional sponge. To achieve their distinctive scalloped, shell-like shape, the prepared batter is poured into a tin with small oval moulds and ribbed indentations. This recipe is for orange and honey madeleines, but you could easily use lemon zest instead or omit the honey altogether.
For authentic flavour, it is important to beurre noisette the butter - without scorching it. Melt in a heavy-based saucepan, over a medium heat. When the butter is ready it will be light brown and take on a nutty flavour and aroma. Strain and leave to cool before adding to the cake mixture.
Grease and line the tin, first with butter, then flour, before placing in the fridge to chill. Madeleines are notorious for sticking.
Once you've made up the batter, cover with cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for at least an hour. This is important as it allows the gluten to relax, making for a lighter end result.
Orange and honey madeleines
Makes 12 regular-sized madeleines
75g butter, plus extra for greasing 3 eggs 80g caster sugar 1 tbsp honey finely grated zest 1 orange 120g plain flour; extra for dusting icing sugar, for dusting
Put the butter into a small saucepan and place over a medium heat. When it starts to smell nutty and turn light brown it is ready. Strain through a sieve and set aside. Whisk the eggs (using an electric or hand whisk) until they have almost doubled in volume. Continue to whisk, adding the caster sugar in a steady stream. Use a large spoon to stir in the honey and orange zest. Sieve over the flour and carefully fold into the mixture. Lastly, add the melted butter, stirring the mixture just enough to combine. Cover the bowl with cling film and place in the fridge for at least an hour. Generously grease the madeleine moulds with butter, then dust with flour. Turn the tin upside down, to get rid of excess flour. Put in the fridge to chill. Thirty minutes before you want to cook the madeleines, preheat the oven to 190¿C/fan 170¿C/gas 5. Spoon the rested batter into the prepared moulds, filling each one full. The cakes will rise in the oven and you don't want the mixture to spill over the sides. Cook for 12-14 minutes or until the edges of the madeleines are light golden brown. Remove from the oven and unmould immediately. Leave to cool for five minutes, before dusting with icing sugar and serving warm.
No time to bake? Try these sweet spots:
Baker&Spice - Souk Al Bahar and Dukkan Al Manzil, Dubai
Baker&Spice is dedicated to cutting air miles and using seasonal local ingredients, which surely means that if you pay a visit here, you can have your cake and feel good about eating it. Banana bread, lemon and passion fruit meringue cake and date and chocolate with date syrup are among the favourites.
The Lime Tree Cafe - Jumeirah Beach Road, Al Quoz, Ibn Battuta Mall, Dubai
The carrot cake served at The Lime Tree Cafe has become the stuff of legend and with good reason. It would be a shame to let this deter you from sampling some of the other sweet treats they have on offer, though. You might just prefer a slice of blueberry citrus cake, or what about spiced apple with maple frosting?
Magnolia Bakery - Bloomingdales, Dubai
For cupcakes galore, you can't go far wrong at the Magnolia Bakery in Dubai Mall. This is the UAE branch of the New York store that was credited with kicking off the craze in the first place, after all. Despite an impressive range of flavours, their iconic red velvet version remains a firm favourite among many.
Sugar Daddy's - Various locations across Dubai and Abu Dhabi
For cupcakes in the capital, this spot often tops the list. The company opened a flagship store in Al Khalidiyah mall a few months ago, meaning that it now has eight shops across Dubai and Abu Dhabi. With more than 15 flavours to choose from (among them Kity Kat, Cookies N' Scream and Blind Date), one thing you can be sure of is that they offer options and frosting aplenty.
The One Café - Zayed the First, Khalidiyah, Abu Dhabi
It might be found in a slightly unexpected location (on the top floor of a home store) but the café at The One is worth a visit, even if furniture is the last thing on your mind. The banana and pecan cake is sweet without being overwhelmingly so, and the carrot cake is also pretty fine.