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!
Hi, I think you have to start with pie crust or biscuits first before attempting something so hard as a chocolate cake. The key is not to over mix. In baking you have to measure and be accurate and adjust for elevation such as 5000 feet you have to add extra flour. I think you did well with the baked bread.
Thank you! Yes, I think “over-mixing” – over “over-doing” anything is a general problem, I have! 😛 When I cook meat, it tends to be over-done and my eggs are always over-boiled… I’m always worrying that I haven’t done it enough – haha!
I live at high altitude, so there are some things I simply don’t even try. I found the little things make a huge difference. Proper pans and especially pre heating the oven are important .
Oh my goodness, I can just imagine that living at high altitude would make things even more complicated!!
My daughter and I love to watch the Great British Baking Show when I visit.
What a lovely way to spend time together 🙂
I dabble in baking. I work for a Bakery supply company so I have access to wonderful ingredients. I have come a long way but enough to give suggestions. Love the blog!!
Thank you, Lauren! 🙂
You’ve given me courage to try baking my own bread after reading your blog! I recently purchased all the ingredients but have been hesitant to do it. Bread making has never been my forte. Cakes, cookies and desserts I can do but bread baking is intimidating!
Oh Ann – there really is nothing in the world like the smell of fresh bread, I think (even if the bread in question isn’t edible – haha!). I wish you lots of luck (although if you can already do cakes & cookies, you’re well ahead of me 😉 ) and please don’t give up if the first loaf doesn’t work out – just try again!
Well done! I love Bake Off – called Great British Baking Show in the US. I’m impressed with your loaf!
Thank you! 🙂
Hi Hannah just loved your latest blog, I have had such a wonderful giggle over your cooking trials and I just lost it 😂when I got to the picture of your husbands birthday cake but at least you try and practice makes perfect as they say. I am going to look into that cook book, your bread turned out great. Keep up the good work
Haha – I’m glad you enjoyed the post and had a laugh! 😀
Big smiles emerged reading your blog today – you sure are dedicated to the task at hand and what a lovely husband you have. I am so happy for you that you finally succeeded and a big A for effort!🌼💛🌼
Aww, thank you, Vibeke! 🙂
Many decades ago, I tried to bake something easy (so Ithought) and tasty. I whipped up a recipe for Angel Food Cake. Having no electric mixer, I thought ok, just whip by hand with a fork. I whipped and whppped and whipped. Surely that would suffice. I put the liquuidy mixture in my prepared pan and baked it. Afterall, most things seemed to rise better in heat anyway. Well, I ened up with a horrible, burned thin brick. Not only did my apartment smell awful for days, it took an almost herculean effort to clean my pan. I have never made or attempted to make an Angel Food Cake since then. Thankfully, my baking has vastly improved over time, but that burnt smell and pan still haunt me to this day.
Oh my goodness, I think your “baking bungle” story takes top prize, Debra! You really made me laugh with your account – I could just imagine the smell!! I will never look at an Angel Food Cake the same way again 😉
For all the baking blunders shared, I am now hungry and would like some of that toast please!
The first time I made tiramisu I was given the recipe from a chef in an Italian restaurant so I didn’t have anything written down. I carefully layered the boudoir biscuits in the bottom of the dish and spooned Tia Maria coffee liqueur over it. I couldn’t understand why the biscuits didn’t soak up the liquid properly so I thought I hadn’t added enough. A quarter of a bottle later I thought it’s got to be enough by now so I whisked up mascarpone cream with icing sugar and almond essence and layered it over the top. Then I added a layer of whipped double cream and decorated with little almond macaroons and grated chocolate. My son and his wife came to supper and I served a lasagne (which I have to say was pretty good) and then proudly presented the tiramisu. My son didn’t want any so my daughter in law and I ate the whole thing, which was delicious. However, I had forgotten a very important ingredient – the coffee! The biscuits should have been soaked in coffee and then 3 tablespoons of coffee liqueur. When we’d finished it we couldn’t stand up! It really is easy to make as long as you remember all the ingredients! Good luck with your baking, sounds as though bread is you forte xxx
Oh my goodness- your story made me laugh, Wendy!! I can just picture the three of you struggling to stand after your boozy tiramisu – hahaha!
I once over cooked a batch of cookies and they came out a little crispier than indeed.
Oh dear! I haven’t even attempted cookies yet, Christine 😉 – for some reason, I find them much more intimidating than cake or bread!
I love baking although I don’t bake as much as I used to. Enjoy your baking! It is fun and produces good results!
The only think I can see about the cake is it said ‘soft’ peaks, not ‘stiff’ peaks and when folding things in, it should be done to the ‘just barely’ mixed to keep the fluff from the air beaten in. (also, folding is a very gentle process to keep the air, which will keep the cake from collapsing) Soft peaks just barely keep the peak shape. I had a quite lovely Earl Grey cake that was lovely (I made a lemon buttercream to go with it instead of the listed vanilla buttercream because I prefer that combination) https://livforcake.com/earl-grey-cake/ If you want to try it (no whipped egg whites in the cake itself, just in the buttercream)
Ahh… that’s a good point about the “soft” vs “stiff” peaks! Yes, I must read recipes more carefully in the future. And yes, I think I tend to get a bit too enthusiastic when mixing things and so bash all the air out of it 😉 Thank you for the recipe of the Earl Grey cake – it sounds lovely – I will definitely give it a try sometime!
I’d love to be able to bake!! I mean I’ve tried but I’m not very adventurous! People make much more yummy sweet treats than me. Maybe one day…
Oh, do give it a go, Ami! It’s great fun, even if the results turn out a bit disastrous – haha! I find that just playing around with dough is very relaxing and a wonderful way to forget about everything and be “in the moment” 🙂
I like to bake, I always have, although work gets in the way sometimes. I like to do my favorites plus try new recipes in between. So far no major blunders but I do tweak things if I want more or less of a certain ingredient. And I know the cooking shows are all about presentation, but I really don’t care so much about how something looks as long as it tastes good.
Yes, I have to agree, Alicia – taste trumps presentation any day!
Your bread looks fabulous! The toast especially will inspire me to try this recipe!
Aww, thank you, Bebe! 🙂
My major baking fiasco involved company. I had proudly made hamantashenfor dessert, but when served, they were rock hard.
They are supposed to be nice & soft and mine even had poppy seed filling. This batch wouldn’t even crack when thrown on the floor. So much for my reputation as a baker with one of my husband’s long time friends.
At least the meal was delicious.
Hahaha! That line about them not cracking even when thrown on the floor made me giggle 😀 Sounds like it was still a wonderful meal though!
Hi Hsin-Yi, love reading about your baking trials and tribulations! I’m not much of a hobby baker myself, but never had any trouble with baking bread, so don’t know what to suggest. Now cakes are a different kettle of fish. Sometimes they’re fine, other times not. I think it has to do with the oven. Not every oven is alike, and yours sounds as if it is too hot — maybe try a lower temperature? I remember trying to bake a cake when I lived in the hall of residence, and the cake was in the oven for hours and hours, and still remained liquid! That was quite the disaster. 😀
Anyway, don’t give up if you enjoy baking, you’ll get there in the end!
Oh, that’s a really good suggestion about the oven! Yes, I think I need to learn to adapt recipe instructions to my own oven and not just follow them blindly. Your “liquid cake” story was funny! 😀
I admire your willingness to experiment and think you have found your baking niche. Your tea bread looks yummy! I will have to try the recipe. Well, might wait until cool weather again as here in Virginia it’s Spring which rapidly becomes hot and humid summer so not best for baking. I absolutely adore your Oxford Tea Room novels. Great characters I can vividly imagine, quirky mysteries, descriptions of locale and yummy tea time delights. Eagerly awaiting next. And thanks for sharing the recipes!
Aww, thanks for the kind words, Sherry 🙂 And yes, I think baking bread rather than cakes is going to be more my thing!
Hi Hsin-Yi Loved reading about your baking endeavours. I was fortunate to grow up on a farm with an old fashioned coal range oven, so the smell of fresh bread was always present in the farmstead. It does look like you’ve over kneaded/mixed the ingredients too long, or had too high a heat, but then I’m no expert. My favourite recipe is a self-saucing chocolate pudding. I learnt it as a kid and have always gone back to it for a quick dessert… Its fantastic with ice-cream. Maybe try that for the next birthday dinner. Have fun and I look forward to the next book in the Bewitched by Chocolate series.
Wow, your childhood sounds so wonderful – I can just imagine the smell of fresh bread you described! Yes, you’re spot on – I definitely have a tendency to over-mix and generally over-do things- haha! Will have to learn to treat baking ingredients more gently 😉 – and I think I need to learn how to use my oven better too. Ooh – and “self-saucing chocolate pudding” is one of my favourite desserts!! I don’t think I have the courage to attempt making one myself but I always love ordering it when it’s on a restaurant menu. 🙂
I think trying is the first step to success. So, keep going. I’m an avid baker (except for everything yeast based – we’ll never be friends) but I used to pressure myself that everything needed to look as pretty as it tasted. I learned over time that looks can be deceiving and it can taste great, even if the dough grew out of its box or the cake looks more like the leaning tower of Pisa.
Keep on trying. Maybe even Gemma will find her perfect baking moment in time…
Oh, that’s so true what you said, Berit- it’s putting too much pressure on ourselves (something I definitely tend to do!) that can make things more stressful. I will definitely keep trying and learning!
I find a good pie crust so much more difficult to achieve than making a good loaf of bread. Like I was with my granny at age four or five my son stoud on a chair helping me prepare meals and baked goods. Wich gave to a nasty teachers lack of faith. When my son’s grade two teacher asked for home baked goods to be served at the end of the year party my son baked two brownie cakes one with walnuts one without and took them to the party! The teacher phoned to complain about my doing all the work and my son lying taking all the credit and reprimanded him infront of his class mates. I had to lieve work and set her straight making her apologize to my son infront of the entire class and principal. Because my son did all the work on his own even hammering the walnuts in a folded tea towel to add to one brownie pan. 😏😊Kat
Oh, your poor son! I’m glad you set the teacher straight. It’s lovely that you and your son had/have such lovely times baking together!
Hello, I love your baking pics. I love to bake too. Sometimes, my cookies will come out burnt and hard. They taste delicious even if they are not very pretty. Cheers!
Thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Michele – and yes, looks aren’t everything! 😉
When I was about 12 I received the Nancy Drew Cookbook as a gift. It had lots of fun international recipes. I made the fortune cookies. I typed fortunes on little pieces if paper and carefully folded them in the cookies. Unfortunately the cookies have to be very warm to be folded so this resulted in very tender fingers! After spending most of the day baking my cookies, I invited some of my family members over to sample them. They were a hit, especially with my elderly great uncle. We couldn’t make him understand that there were fortunes in the cookies so he ate the cookies complete with the 🥠 🤭!! I still have the cookbook and a cherished memory 😊.
OMG – there’s a Nancy Drew Cookbook???!!! I must try to find it! I was/am a huge Nancy Drew fan! When I was a little girl, all I ever wanted was “titian hair” – haha! 😉 Those were my favourite books growing up and one of the reasons I write cozy mysteries today 😉
I loved your fortune cookie story too. Wow – I’m really impressed you tackled something so “fancy” – and the story of your great uncle eating the whole fortune cookies – paper slip and all – made me laugh! 😀
I love reading about your baking and we also love the great British baking show! I actually find the recipes on your website to pan out very well! I made the Victoria sponge cake, but my boyfriend had the audacity to call it a strawberry Hamburger cake 😫 but I thought it was very accurate to the recipe 🤷🏻♀️I would post a picture but I don’t think the website lets me 🥲
Oh, I’m so glad to hear that the Victoria Sponge recipe turned out well for you (and I have to admit, your boyfriend’s comment made me laugh – haha!) 😀
A delicate touch is often needed. Too much kneading or beating can be too much.
Yes, so true!! That’s my mission – to learn to have a more “delicate touch”! 😉
Cookies are the easiest thing to start out with. Your cake probably would have turned out fine if you used a Bundt pan. It is possible your pan was too big for the amount of batter. You also have to gently fold the egg whites in to keep as much air as possible in the mixture and don’t overmix.
Oh, I hadn’t thought of the pan – you’re right. A true Bundt pan would probably have made a difference. And yes, I think I definitely over mixed the batter (I have a tendency to get too enthusiastic when mixing or kneading things!). Thank you for the tips!
Congratulations on the tea loaf triumph! It looks delicious! I hope it gives you confidence to keep trying on the other kinds of yummies. 😸
Oh, you mentioned you could use some suggestions for titles for your Bewitched By Chocolate series. How about “Chocolate Covered Cherry Charms”?
I’m really enjoying your books. Thank you for your work! And please give Muesli a scratch around the ears for me.
Thank you! 🙂 And thank you also for the title suggestions (it sounds delicious – haha!) I will add it to the list of possible contenders 😉
The bread looks delicious. I had a problem with my bread looking like yours when I mixed up baking soda with baking powder. I know kneading the dough long enough is also important.
Thanks for the tips! Yes, I have to be careful about mixing baking soda and baking powder too.
Your post was interesting. It brought back memories of my dad. He used to love to make bread!
Aww, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
I think you are so brave to even try to bake your own bread! I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin. My sister always loved to baked, but since her retirement two years ago, she has perfected baking – from bread to pastries to cakes. It’s amazing! So…I can at least enjoy home baked treats, even if I didn’t bake them myself! (And yes, I have gained a few pounds since her retirement!)
Oh, lucky you, to have such a good baker for a sister! 🙂
I’m very good at eating and chatting about food but I’m not really a natural cook/baker myself as well. In my defense, my mother is absolutely great in the kitchen so I’ve always been kind of lazy to learn myself. Your attempts were funny to read but your last tea loaf looks absolutely fantastic! Thank you for sharing with us your culinary crimes 😀
Oh, I know exactly what you mean, Alice! When I first left home and got married, I could barely cook at all since my mother had always done everything at home and it was so much easier just to say “Mama, I’m hungry!” 😉
Your final bread project looks wonderful! Congratulations! For really beginner bakers I can only recommend maybe starting with a box mix cake just to get the feel of it before tackling an actual recipe.
Thank you! And that’s such a good idea to use a cake mix to start with – why didn’t I think of that?! 😛
Loved your attempts. We all make mistakes. I made my first cake when I was nine. I thought the amount of flour to add was only a suggestion, so I did not add all of the flour. The cake had a big dip in the center, and my grandfather laughed, saying, ‘Fill it with frosting.’ I did. The cake was good, but I enjoyed the extra frosting even more.
Haha! Your story made me giggle! Although I think it’s incredibly impressive that you made your first cake at nine!!!
The first cake I made from scratch was so hard we couldn’t slice it except with a butcher knife! Everyone in my family told me to stick to boxed cake mixes. I have improved in my baking, however, I still don’t make cakes.
Oh my goodness, that’s funny! Well, I feel better to know that there are others who struggle with cakes 😛
It all looks so tasty. Really looking forward to reading the upcoming Bewitched by Chocolate novel. Hope it’s not the last!
With the bread maker, I’ve found the best outcome if the loaf is when you add the ingredients in the order of the recipe . Can’t wait to look at the crumpet and fruit bread recipe
Happy Baking 🌷
Thanks for the tip, Deb! 🙂
Baking is an Art, which means practicing over and over. Good Luck!
I have had several unsuccessful attempts at bread making so I feel your pain. My husband is Celiac and usually our bread attempts turn out like rocks!
Oh, I can relate to the “rocks”! 😛
I am impressed by your persistence. Your fruit loaf looks lovely. I like to bake. When I was growing up, I once used garlic salt rather than regular table salt in chocolate chip cookies. It was only 1/4 teaspoon but garlic packs a punch.
OMG – garlic salt in chocolate chip cookies?! I shudder to think – hahaha!
My son and I love to bake and cook together. We haven’t tried bread yet but have made cookies, cupcakes, cakes, biscotti and a bunch more. We also watch the holiday baking shows here in America.
Aww, how lovely – what a great way to spend time together!
Since I don’t bake much I often forget to check the exp.date on the baking powder resulting in a flat, tough product that didn’t rise. I remembered last Christmas and got a new can so we had some yummy “soft” holiday goodies.
Congrats, Jos, on the successful holiday baking! Yes, I can relate to the expired goods – in fact, I think half of my pantry is “expired” a lot of the time – haha! 😉
Hello, This was nice. I really want to learn how to bake a good loaf of bread. I think my favorite part would be kneading the dough. I just like how the dough looks. I also want to try out the espresso cake recipe. I don’t particularly like to drink coffee but I do like coffee cake for some reason.
Ooh, yes! My favourite part absolutely is the kneading! And I just LOOOOVE the feel of dough so much – and the smell of the yeast too. It’s pretty hard work to knead it all by hand but there is something to satisfying about it 😀
complètement addictif je suis sous le charme de vos romans et attends avec impatience le suivant, Api mon chat Mau Arabe, noir et blanc, et moi vous remercions sincèrement de tous ces bons moments passés en votre compagnie ! bien cordialement .
Merci pour votre message très gentil ! Je suis tellement heureuse d’apprendre que vous (et Api) appréciez tant mes livres! 🙂