The smell of freshly baked goods right out of an oven counts as one of life’s big pleasures for Dublin-born chef Rachel Allen. Her show Rachel Allen: Bake!premiers on Discovery Travel and Living tonight. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What are your first memories of baking?
I remember baking at home with my mother and sister. There was always a fight about who would lick the batter off the spoon and the bowl. And that’s so similar for so many kids. I have happy memories of my sister and I, when we were little, standing and helping make biscuits or buns for the family. The wonderful aromas of baking bread, cakes or cookies take me back to those times.
Sweet tooth: (clockwise from above) Allen says home-made baked goods are great gifts; Pink Meringues with Raspberry Cream; and Lime Yogurt Cake with Rosewater and Pistachios.
What are the most common mistakes that novice bakers make?
I think it is not using good ingredients. You have to have proper butter when you’re baking. People try and use margarine and other not-so-good substitutes for butter. Once you use good ingredients, that definitely makes it a lot easier. I do try and teach simple rules, and once you know a few simple tips, it’s quite easy. For example, if you’re beating butter in a bowl, it needs to be soft.
How important is it to measure ingredients exactly for baking?
It’s quite important, isn’t it? Baking is not like other types of cooking. When baking a cake, I always weigh the ingredients, but not while making a salad or a curry.
Do you have any tricks to successfully unmould a cake?
Before the cake is going to be baked, line the base of a tin with parchment or greaseproof paper. Brush melted butter, not oil, on the sides of the cake tin. Sprinkle some flour along the sides. Some of it will stick to the butter; shake off the excess. Another good trick when the cake is baked is to run a sharp knife along the edges of the tin while the cake is still hot. Then allow it to sit for 5-8 minutes in the tin before trying to unmould it.
What old-school desserts do you love?
I love bread and butter pudding and sticky toffee pudding. I love all the fattening and filling ones, such as custard.
Is baking bread an art or a science?
Well it’s a bit of both, actually. There’s definitely a science attached—to get the ingredients in the right proportion, and ensuring that the temperature is not too hot or not too cold for the yeast. But it also involves passion and patience as well. There’s an old saying that if you’re happy when you’re cooking, it shows in the food. I think that’s very true of baking.
What are three things that everyone should try and bake at least once?
The first would be a classic cake, such as a Victoria sponge. Second, try some meringues, because once you know how to make a basic meringue, there are so many variations you can do. The third are some nice cookies—maybe chocolate chip, if you’re making them with kids. Then you can experiment with spices, dried fruits, or orange or lemon zest. These are the basics, and once you know them, you can play around after that.
What is the best thing the Irish can bake?
Soda bread, the traditional Irish bread which is not made using yeast as a raising agent, but bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk. The acid in the buttermilk reacts with the bicarb and causes the bread to rise. All over Ireland they make it in different ways: with plain flour, brown oatmeal flour, or with caraway seeds, which is really old-style Irish cooking.
If you had to use Guinness as an ingredient in baking, what would you do with it?
I would make a fantastic beef and Guinness pie using puff pastry, or a rich fruit cake with the Guinness or any other Irish stout. It’s a wonder.
Why do bakers always want you to fold a cake mix?
If you fold gently, you don’t develop the protein that is present in flour. Of course, it’s different with yeast bread, where you really have to knead it; but for cake batter, you should fold gently.
Has all the stirring and mixing helped you keep fit?
You know, I think it has. It is hard work, it keeps the arms toned.
What is the best dessert to a) seduce someone with; b) eat before you die; c) eat on a hot summer’s day; d) eat while on a diet; e) make for a children’s party?
I would say some wonderful profiteroles, with pastry cream on the inside and hot chocolate on the outside. When you bite into them, there’s a lovely contrast between the hot chocolate and the pastry cream which explodes in your mouth. But they should be fed to your lover.
Before I die, I would love to have a rich chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. For a hot day, I absolutely love your Indian kulfis, or a meringue with summer berries. Even a coconut meringue roulade, with lemon curd and cream and raspberries, would be great.
While on a diet, I would eat a wonderful yogurt with fresh berries or any seasonal fruit. And drizzle some honey over it and squeeze some lime or lemon juice. For a children’s party, try cupcakes with a buttery, sugary top in different pretty colours. Also, you just can’t go wrong with a lovely chocolate cake.
What is the one thing about baking that you wish someone else could do for you?
Line my tin. I always find that the boring bit, even though it takes only a minute. I don’t mind measuring out the ingredients, but I always feel lazy when it comes to lining the tin.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
225g dates (stoned weight), chopped
250ml black tea (not too strong)
100g unsalted butter, softened
175g golden castor sugar
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp vanilla extract
225g self-raising flour
¾ tsp bicarbonate of soda
Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, to serve
Toffee sauce, to serve
20cm (8 inches) diameter spring-form/loose-bottomed tin, or a 20x20cm (8x8 inches) square cake tin
For the toffee sauce
(Makes about 650ml)
250g soft light brown sugar (or half brown half castor sugar)
275g golden syrup
225ml double cream
½ tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). Rub butter on the sides of the tin and dust with flour. Line the base with greaseproof paper. Place the chopped dates and tea in a saucepan and bring to boil. Cook for a few minutes until the dates soften, then set aside. Beat the butter in a large bowl or an electric food mixer until soft. Add the sugar and beat until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then beat in the mixed spice and vanilla extract. Fold in the date mixture. Sift the flour and bicarbonate of soda and fold in gently until mixed. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is firm to the touch and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Allow to stand in the tin for about 5 minutes before removing and transferring to a serving plate. To serve the cake, cut into slices and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or whipped cream and a very generous drizzle of warm toffee sauce over the top.
For the sauce
Place all the ingredients for the sauce in a saucepan set over high heat and boil for approximately 4–5 minutes, stirring regularly until it thickens. Serve warm.
Rachel Allen: Bake! airs every Saturday at 10 pm on Discovery Travel and Living.