On baking

I’m not much of a cake eater (most of my cakes are made in order to use things up) but I do enjoy baking, and the new series of The Great British Bake Off being screened on BBC2 has rekindled my cake-making enthusiasm. I don’t really enjoy watching the programme – there’s too much opportunity for public humiliation for my liking, and I haven't really learnt anything from it, other than that Paul Hollywood appears to consume a great deal more salt than I do – but the final results look fantastic and you can always pick up an idea or two about new ingredients.

And then there’s pastry. I started cooking tarts a couple of years ago when we got a bag of gooseberries and one of redcurrants in our weekly fruit and veg box. I’ve never been a fan of plain stewed fruit, but I thought the idea of a gooseberry tart sounded nice. With the gooseberries scattered over the top, the redcurrants filling in the gaps and a vanilla custard poured over the fruit, the tart was a great success and I was excited by the idea of producing more. To this end, I bought The Art of the Tart by Tamasin Day-Lewis. Although neatly produced, well bound so that it stays open on the worktop, and with appetising photos, the book was disappointing when it came to the content. Apart from the fact that Day-Lewis is a serial name-dropper (she is the sister of the actor Daniel and has plenty of luvvie friends) she has a propensity to skim over the finer details of the recipes and is often quite casual about the methods, airily suggesting that you ‘make your shortcrust pastry in the normal way’ but with ‘60g rolled oats’ included instead of half the flour. Well, that was the most difficult pastry I’ve ever attempted to make, and I wonder if she’d actually tried making it herself, or just thought it sounded like a good idea. Even worse, in the companion book Tarts with Tops On, many recipes don’t mention the required size of pie dish for the listed ingredients, which is a major omission in my opinion! I learnt a lot more about the art of pastry-making, which isn’t that straightforward for a beginner, from Michel Roux’s book Pastry. I don’t read recipe books purely for entertainment: I need to be able to make the recipe work!

On the other hand, I do like recipe books to be entertaining as well. One that I revisit again and again purely to read the historical snippets, anecdotes and technical information is Cakes by Barbara Maher. Ms Maher is a woman of German extraction and her book is heavily weighted towards middle-European cakes and pastries, so we have Austrian carrot cake, made with potato flour and whipped egg whites but no butter, Sachertorte, Gugelhopf, Strudel and many more. She really explains how the process of baking works, scientifically but not dogmatically, so that you come away with more of an understanding of how to transfer the techniques to other recipes. This is my kind of cookery book, and I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys cakes, whether or not they have any intention of baking them!

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