Carol O’Callaghan says a good cook has to have good tools for baking.
A recent conversation with the tribal elders told of my grandmother’s generation and how they prepared for Christmas baking.
Back then chickens were fully liberated girls, taking a lengthy sabbatical from egg laying over winter which necessitated some wiliness on the part of domestic bakers to ensure they had plenty of eggs for Christmas baking in October.
Apparently the practice was to save eggs each week from late summer, to smear them in butter as a preservative, then wrap in newspaper to store in a cool, dark place until ready for use.
We’re blessed to be free of this inconvenience, but with ever-busy lives fitting Christmas baking in can be a challenge, especially if you’re not used to baking in general but have been seduced by the recent glut of baking programmes and thought you’d have a go.
But before getting carried away with ingredient shopping, make sure you have the basic equipment - cake tins, cooling racks, pudding basins, a large saucepan or pressure cooker for cooking your plum puddings; mixing bowls, wooden spoons and rubbery spatulas for cleaning the bowl of every scrap of batter. Very important too is a weighing scale. You might be able to improvise with quantities for other types of cooking, but weighing for cake baking must be accurate for a successful outcome.
Be careful if you’re using digital scales and make sure it’s set to zero with a container on top, otherwise it will include the container’s weight in the ingredient measurement. Being flat and streamlined, digitals are easy to store but I have a preference for the traditional type as there’s no search for batteries at a critical moment in measuring.
The Mason Cash mechanical model is finished in festive red to look smart on a shelf when not in use (€49 at Littlewoods Ireland), though fans of gizmos might be tempted by the latest in weighing technology. The Connected scales is Bluetooth operated with an app that search recipes, weighs your ingredients and lets you share pictures of your bakes on social media (€99 at Harvey Norman).
American cooking programmes like The Barefoot Contessa have had us dispensing with scales altogether and reaching for the measuring cups and spoons. Some are plain and practical plastic, but for something worth showing off on a kitchen shelf or utensil rail, check out the Russet set (€32) resembling little copper pans, and the artisan ceramic Crowned version (€45, both from Anthropologie at www.anthropologie.co.uk). Another option is to log onto www.convertunits.com to find out how to convert American cups and spoons into grams or ounces.
Many an expensively produced cake mix didn’t bake as expected because of the wrong size tins. If it turns out all your tins are square and the recipe calls for round, there’s a handy website www.cookipedia.co.uk which will convert tin sizes from round to square and vice versa to save you buying new ones, and will also convert inches to centimetres if you don’t have a ruler handy.
Cooling multiple items can take up more space than available so check out Aldi’s three-tier cooling rack (€8.99) which is perfect for space-challenged kitchens and folds flat for easy storage. But if there’s one piece of kitchen kit that requires money to be thrown at it for Christmas baking, it’s the free-standing mixer and bowl.
Admittedly, you can pick one up for less than €100, sometimes as little as €50, which are perfectly adequate for a muffin batter or Victoria sponge but won’t have the capacity and strength to take the amount or weight of Christmas cake and pudding mixtures.
This is where you have to bring in the big guns like the Kitchen Aid Artisan (€585 at Harvey Norman), Smeg (€549.99 at Dwyers Electrical) and Kenwood’s Chef Sense (€549.99 at Soundstore). Or you can get everyone at home to help with the bicep breaking graft in the time honoured fashion by telling them it’s good luck to stir the batter.
Check your oven to ensure it’s correctly calibrated and temperatures are accurate, especially if you think it’s overly hot or not hot enough. The same applies to a brand new appliance that you are not yet accustomed to using. A simple way of testing the accuracy of the temperature is to buy a box of cake mix and bake one tin of it on the middle shelf. When it’s fully cooked, check to see if it cooked within the time specified on the box, or not, and make the necessary adjustments to the timing on your recipe.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved