Over the last few months I’ve been getting more adventurous with my oven usage. After something of a false start when I first moved in where it turned out the thermostat wire had melted through, I’ve been slowly getting the hang of my new oven. The rule of thumb appears to be, 10-20˚C lower than the recipe/packet suggests and 5-10 minutes less cooking time (180˚C on the middle shelf seems to be sweet spot of the oven) and you’ll be just dandy.
To my great delight – and relief! – unlike my last place’s oven, this one actually bakes cakes and buns properly, no more half-cooked blueberry muffins for me! They don’t weld themselves to the paper cases anymore either! I’ve now successfully made two different kinds of muffins (rhubarb ones and apple and cinnamon varieties) in the oven so I feel more able to be more adventurous with my baking again. I didn’t realise how much frustration and uncertainty about whether they’d come out okay had curtailed my baking.
The somewhat temperamental nature of the previous ovens meant I really only made pasta bakes and pies in it – though an honourable mention needs to be made for the delightful discovery of baked eggs. It’s been rather fun experimenting with roasted vegetables – I may never again eat sweet potatoes any other way – as it’s opened up a whole bunch of recipes that I previously avoided as they started with ‘first roast the vegetables’ and it was too much of a faff. It really does improve the flavour of a surprising number of vegetables.
I’ve also successfully made bread in the oven now – even if only from packet mix so far – something I never risked attempting in either of the ovens at my old place. Before I moved to Inverness I used to bake bread, not all the time, but at least on a regular basis. I’d got pretty good at making soda bread, and it became a ritual to make it every time I made pea and mint soup, something I now only really do when I’m home visiting my parents for Xmas. I’d forgotten in the interim, how easy and satisfying I find making – most, ciabatta never comes out right for me – bread until I had the dough under my fists pummelling it gently into submission. There’s a special kind of joy in going to check on my proving dough and finding it successfully doubled in size. In the way my whole flat smelled of warm bread for a good 24 hours afterwards, and the repeated pleasure I got every time I opened the breadbox to be greeted by the scent. The way the loaf was exactly the right size for me to have eaten it all before it went off, and the satisfaction of making sandwiches for lunch with it, the added pleasure of the casual ‘that looks nice bread’ comments from colleagues to which I could proudly respond ‘thanks, I made it myself’. There are few more comforting scents than fresh bread you made yourself, I find. An olfactory hug if you will.
So I think we can call last year on the blog a reasonable success. I wanted to blog twice a month, I wanted to cook 2 things a month from my new recipe book and most of all I wanted to stop myself from being all feast and famine in writing terms. I didn’t entirely succeed, I only made 20 posts last year, but that was an improvement on the previous year’s 15 and while I didn’t cook two things from the cookbook every month, I did cook something from the book almost every month. And most importantly, for the first year ever, I managed to write at least one thing each month! Hopefully I can keep that up, along with writing – and much, much more importantly cooking – more.
This year, I have decided on two separate challenges to keep me writing (and cooking for that matter) on a regular basis. First up, I want to bake something new each month this year, sweet or savoury, it doesn’t matter. Despite us now having a better oven, I’ve barely baked in it. I want to master baking in this oven. I miss it and its an important part of how I relate to my colleagues – I like being the kind of workmate that appears sporadically with home-baking. Secondly, I plan to work my way through the other recipe book I got last festive season – How to be a Better Cook by Lorraine Pascale. As I’m going to be doing two different challenges, I’m only going to try and cook one recipe a month from the book – unless the thing I’m baking that month is also from that book!
Over the last year and a half, I’ve lived in three different places, which has meant three different kitchens. One of those was my parent’s kitchen, which is familiar but having been away seemed strange and new again last winter. I adored the kitchen in my old flat. It was big and between my flatmates and me we basically had everything culinary we could possibly need (and a few things we didn’t). One of my flatmates was as keen a cook as me and the kitchen became the main social space of our flat. The weekend that I moved in there were home made brownies and I never had a chance to get nervous about cooking in this kitchen because someone else was already experimenting. There were successes and disasters and not a little heckling.
My current kitchen is different. It’s small and perfectly formed but it’s not mine. I’m a lodger and however well that situation has worked out, I’m always aware that this is someone else’s kitchen. It’s exacerbated by the fact that my landlady isn’t much for cooking herself. She doesn’t bake at all. I already spent much more time in the kitchen than she does just making dinner and preparing packed lunches. So for months I chickened out of baking. After my excellent start to my Bake More Often challenge in the first three months of the year, I didn’t bake again for another three months.
Then June arrived and with it both my parents’ birthdays. And they came to visit. In our family birthdays are always marked with cake. Even when I was writing my dissertation in sunny Bournemouth and couldn’t come home for my birthday, my parents sent me a tiny box cake in the post. I couldn’t not provide cake and pride forbade the shop-bought variety. There were some obstacles. Due to the aforementioned small kitchen, most of my non-essential cookware is in storage at my parents’. I had no cake tin and it seemed foolish to buy one up here that I would use once or twice and not again after it. Equally it seemed foolish to buy flour and sugar and all the rest when I had no room to store them and would probably only bake once or twice. So I determined to get one of those packet mixes and make a cake that way. After all I’d got back into baking back in Bournemouth after I’d found a packet on special offer and had too much fun making butterfly cakes…
Then I discovered that neither did my landlady. In fact the extent of her baking equipment is a large bowl, a whisk, a set of scales, some wooden spoons and a bun tray. Undeterred I bought packet mix and butter, and made red velvet cupcakes. Not quite as impressive as I’d hoped but baking nonetheless. The icing was a bit of a disaster but the buns were tasty and my parents were impressed that I’d actually produced cake in this strange new kitchen.
The oven has taken some getting used to. Its highest temperature is 200˚C (it’s a fan oven thankfully) and pretty much anything I ever bake in it takes at least 5 if not 10 minutes longer than the instructions say. It’s been an experience. However, I’ve persevered, as evidenced by the fact that I have another two Bake More Often posts planned for this month. (Pastry is a bit of a theme; it seems to be the most consistently successful substance to bake in this oven.) I made Banana and Peanut Butter muffins and they were…fine. Well the recipe needs a bit of refining which doesn’t help but in the end I established that giving them a wee zap in the microwave then letting them cool down again made them quite pleasant to eat for breakfast. Given how nice they looked and smelled they were just a bit underwhelming.
Back to the drawing board with those ones I fear…
Well, at least one of my foodie resolutions is going well. So far this year I’ve baked three times, which is the same amount that I managed all year in 2014 and its only March! Today I want to talk about the two items I made that were also on my big 30 recipes list (I’m now up to 23 recipes tried) which is an extra kind of progress.
Technically one of those baking incidents was actually two because it was across the Friday and Saturday of an epic weekend of baking. Why am I calling it one baking incident instead of two? Well it’s silly really, but when it comes down to it, as a novice cook, determined to learn to cook properly there’s a lot of snobbery out there about ‘cheating’ at cooking. (Bless Delia Smith for her campaigning against this kind of nonsense, I may not want to cook her recipes but, she’s a kitchen legend for a reason.) I stand by my statement that life’s too short to make your own puff pastry, yet still that little niggly voice says ‘well, its not really baking, is it’. Which is nonsense. Between pummelling the pastry into submission so they didn’t attempt to take over the world, carefully trimming the sausages to fit perfectly, and making sure the rolls stuck together properly, it certainly felt like baking. Also I suspect I’ve ruined their mini frozen cousins for myself which to me is always a sign that I’ve done some proper cooking. Next stop learning to make my own veggie sausages for them!
The other bake that I want to talk about is the batch of Bite-size Pinwheel Snacks that I made as a Cheerio Biscuits for my workmates on my last day working there. Normally when recipes say ‘tiny’ or ‘bite-size’ they aren’t even close – and make you wonder about the size of said chef’s mouth – but these actually are, perfect when you’re baking for a team of people where at least half of them are on diets. They are a bit of a challenge though they actually look more complex than they are. The mixture is really quite dry (not an egg in sight!) and I was quite worried for a while about it coming together until I thought to just get my hands in there and knead it into submission (you add the chocolate to half the mixture by kneading it in so I figured that it couldn’t hurt) after which it behaved much better. They turn out to have a pleasantly short-bready texture to them, which I enjoy. Due to not actually liking chocolate as a child – I’m still much more a crisp hand even now – baked goods in my childhood were chocolate free and it mostly doesn’t occur to me to use it when I’m baking myself now. To the extent that when I came to having to buy cocoa powder and was faced with the range of options I plumped desperately for the ones I’d seen in my Inverness flatmate’s cupboard – he made really good chocolate brownies, alright! So this was actually my first attempt at cooking with chocolate and my goodness you get in a glorious mess! Oddly enough the most frustrating bit of the process isn’t weighing and dividing the mixture or even rolling the two batches together like a swiss-roll, but having to chill the mixture in the fridge for half an hour – twice! The first time was fine, it gives you time to do the dishes, but second time round I’d run out of things to do. Definitely one to do on days when you’re making several different things. Mine weren’t as neat and tidy as the recipe-book picture, but I’m sure I’ll get tidier with practice.