Did you start baking during the pandemic?
Yes, I was one of those who succumbed to the lure of the yeasty dough and sugary sponge. I was already a huge fan of the Great British Bake-Off (if you haven’t seen that show yet – OMG – run to Netflix now!) – and so it was a short step from watching keen amateurs whip up drool-worthy creations to imagining myself brandishing a rolling pin and whisk with brilliant flair.
Ahem. Sadly, the reality didn’t quite match my fantasy and I quickly discovered that – much like Gemma, the heroine of my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries – I was far better at eating (and describing!) cakes and buns than baking them. 😉
I have to say, cooking in general is not my forte – I’m too impatient to follow recipes step-by-step and can’t be bothered with faffing around, measuring out ingredients. I like to think that I have Jamie Oliver’s talent for creating culinary masterpieces just by tossing in a “pinch” here and a “dash” there (I don’t 😜).
Still, it works out OK sometimes in cooking. Baking is a whole other story, though. You really do have to measure ingredients properly to get the right ratios for the perfrct rise and Maillard reactions and all that (well, unless you’re a very experienced baker!). Thus, I obediently deployed the kitchen scale and measuring spoons, and even splashed out on a dinky little oven thermometer… but somehow, my initial attempts still resembled something that had arrived from outer space.
Here, for example, is my first lovingly-made bread loaf (if you think it looks bad, try eating it! 😝We practically had to use a chainsaw to slice it.)
Hmm… well, maybe making bread is too hard for a beginner and I should turn my attention to desserts instead? After all, everyone said baking cakes is easy: just mix up a batter, pour into a tin and away you go!
So I duly set about looking for a good cake recipe and found a scrumptious-sounding espresso cake on the website Leite’s Culinaria which starts with the immortal words: “This espresso cake is easy as can be…”
Delighted, I set myself the ambitious goal of making it for my husband’s birthday, since coffee was his favourite flavour. And at first, it looked like everything was going swimmingly: I had the sugar and butter creamed, the flour sifted, the egg whites beaten into peaks so stiff you could stab someone with them (ooh – there’s an idea for a murder mystery!) ..
…and then I hit a snag: I didn’t own a bundt tin. Never mind – a quick squizz on Google told me that you could create a makeshift bundt tin by placing a ceramic bowl filled with baking beans in the centre of a normal cake pan (isn’t the internet amazing? OK, I didn’t have baking beans but surely uncooked rice will do…) – and so the batter was poured in, the cake tin was carefully placed in the oven and the stage was set…
I spent the next hour hovering around the oven, peering eagerly through the glass front every 10 mins and happily imagining the look of amazement on my husband’s face.
Well, he certainly looked taken aback when I presented him with his special homemade present.
“Oh… er… that’s really sweet.. thank you… er, what is it?”
“It’s a cake!” I said, beaming. “A rich espresso cake with coffee glaze and chocolate shavings!”
“Really?” My husband eyed it doubtfully. “Are you sure it’s not a Frisbee?”
OK, I had to admit – something weird had happened in the oven. Instead of puffing up nicely into a soft, springy sponge, the batter had somehow collapsed into dense flat ring which bore a strong resemblance to a teething toy for a Great Dane.
We had to use a hefty steak knife to cut a slice from it (are you seeing a pattern emerging here? 😉) and my poor husband valiantly attempted to chew through a piece before I took pity on him and agreed that the best place for the “cake” was probably the kitchen bin.
Experienced bakers here – do you have any idea what I did wrong?? I’m sure I followed the recipe instructions exactly!
Anyway, I remained undaunted and continued ploughing my way through more baking recipes. Suffice it to say, our bin was overflowing for the curbside rubbish collection each week. 😜
Probably one of my most distressing “disasters” was my attempt at making crumpets. Now, I’d eaten the most amazing crumpets the last time I was back in the UK, during a visit to the Cotswolds village of Bourton-on-the-Water (will be doing another travel blog post about that soon!).
I’d popped into the most adorable little tearoom called “Small Talk Tea Rooms” and had had a plate of delicious toasted crumpets, slathered in honey. I absolutely LOVE crumpets – the crispy crust and moist chewy interior and the little holes which the honey (or jam or butter – whatever takes your fancy!) runs into…
… so I was desperate to try and recreate the magic at home. And I came upon a great crumpet recipe in a local food magazine, which looked so simple. I didn’t have proper crumpet rings so I substituted some cookie cutters. Slight overflow of the batter but never mind…
It was looking promising (I could even see some holes appearing!) – and then the next thing I knew, my beautiful crumpets had turned into hard, misshapen lumps. What did I do wrong??
You’d think that I’d realise the universe was telling me something by now and I should give up my baking endeavours but no: nothing motivates me like an impossible challenge. 😉 I was determined to bake something – anything – edible, even if it meant resorting to technology!!
Yes, I got myself a bread machine and I have to say, it did produce a loaf that was fairly edible. But it wasn’t exactly fantastic. It was still dense and heavy, despite me not doing anything except pouring all the ingredients into the machine (honestly, I just have to look at a piece of dough and it goes tough and lumpy!! 😝) and there was something detached and sterile about the whole process which felt somehow hollow and disappointing…
So I went back to the
drawing baking board. I decided that since I love eating bread much more than cake, I would focus my efforts on producing a decent, handmade loaf. And I found a fantastic book called Brilliant Bread by Great British Bake-Off star Scottish doctor James Morton.
I was impressed by Morton’s backstory – he was midway through his medical degree at university when he took part in the show and has since managed to not only graduate and start working as a junior doctor in the NHS, but also produce several award-winning cookbooks, guest star in TV shows, write columns for national newspapers and create home-brew beers… talk about over-achiever!
And I was even more impressed by his book, which I found really simple and easy to read & use, compared to many of the other baking cookbooks I’d tried. The recipes seem designed for a beginner home baker (popular, everyday type breads, nothing too fancy or specialised, nor too many difficult ingredients) and he’d thoughtfully tackled things that amateurs and beginners struggle with, like practical tips and clear photos on how to knead dough, which really help your confidence.
Anyway, so I rolled up my sleeves, took a deep breath and tackled one of the recipes in Brilliant Bread. It was for a delicious-looking tea loaf, which is basically a kind of English fruit bread, I suppose. (According to the Oxford Companion to Food, tea breads and tea cakes are a family of “yeast-leavened baked goods considered suitable for afternoon tea or high tea in Britain, including many spiced, fruited and enriched breads and buns”.)
The recipe only requires common pantry ingredients (with easy substitutions) and I have to say, just putting everything in the bowl – even before I started mixing and kneading – already smelled heavenly!
There’s a fair bit of kneading involved, although you can use the dough hook in a mixer, of course. I loooove the feel of dough, though, and really enjoy kneading by hand, so I had a good workout! 😉
And when it finally came out of the oven… OMG, I don’t think I’d ever seen anything so beautiful in my life! 😂
It wasn’t just beautiful to look at – when I sliced it open with bated breath, I was delighted to see that the inside was light and airy, with a moist crumb bursting with spiced fruit, that went beautifully with the crispy, caramelised exterior…
So I’m happy to tell you that after all the trials and tribulations, there is a happy ending to this story after all. 😄
And I have to say, there is no feeling like sitting down for a well-earned cup of tea with a couple of slices of toasted, home-made fruit bread.
Here are the recipes I tried… in case you fancy trying them too!
Do you have any baking tips to give me? Or maybe you have baking blunders of your own to share? Or if you’ve tried any of the recipes in this post… I’d love to hear your stories. Do leave a comment and tell me!