baking cakes

If you thought that the Great British Bake Off frenzy proved us to be a nation of budding bakers, think again. A survey by the organic flour brand Doves Farm has found that nearly half of us have never baked a cake and, more shaming still, over a third could not name the key ingredients in a sponge cake (ie eggs, butter, sugar and flour). Have you really been that distracted by Noel Fielding’s shirts?

Baking is easy as long as you follow the rules. Leave your “dash of this, handful of that” cooking to savoury dishes: baking is a science, and for the ingredients to react in the way that you want you must weigh and measure much more precisely.

There are four main ways of cake making. The most common is the creaming method, in which sugar and softened butter or margarine are beaten together until pale and fluffy. There are also the rubbing-in and melting methods, but you don’t need to worry too much about these. The simplest of the lot is the all-in-one method, where you simply put everything in a bowl and beat it all together. This is ideal when making a basic sponge cake. For those that require lots of extra ingredients, though, you are better off using the creaming method.

However you make your cake, the most important thing to remember is that you are trying to incorporate as much air as possible so that the resulting sponge will be light and fluffy. For all-in-one cakes, where you are not beating in so much air, this means adding extra baking powder to the self-raising flour to provide an extra boost. Using margarine instead of butter will also give you more lift, although the result won’t be so rich.

If using the creaming method, beat the sugar and fat together for much longer than you imagine — at least five minutes with an electric whisk — because this is when air becomes trapped in the mixture. Modern flours don’t generally need sifting, but it is a good practice in cake making because it stops the flour clumping heavily together as you add it to the bowl. Finally, don’t overmix it or you will knock all that precious air out again. This is why recipes talk of “folding in” the flour with a spatula or metal spoon, gently turning the batter rather than stirring it. It’s better to stop when there are still a few streaks of flour than to work it too hard.

And finally, don’t keep opening the oven to see if the cake is ready. Trust your timer — and your nose.