The Dalai Lama might be one incredibly smart cookie when it comes to most things in this world, but when it comes to baking we’re not so sure. He suggests that one should approach both love and cooking with reckless abandon. But one has to wonder how many poorly aerated macaroons the Dalai Lama has ever sunk his teeth into, or if he’s ever been unlucky enough to dive into an over-whipped sponge cake. Because sadly, almost every single one of us has been on either the receiving or delivering end of at least one bad baking experience, be it an exploding chocolate cake, droopy flan or overcooked pavlova.
To dip our toes into the wonderful world that is flour, sugar and eggs, we spoke to the tome of knowledge that is Nat Paull, head of North Melbourne’s Beatrix. Starting out many years ago with Maggie Beer and going on to work with the likes of Stephanie Alexander, Greg Malouf and Alex Herbert, she’s definitely learnt some dos and don’ts in her career.
“My baking history is paved with many monumental baking disasters,” Paull says with a laugh. Nonetheless, she still remembers her very first cake as “a watershed moment”.
“I made a butter cake when I was around eight years old,” she recalls. “It was very heavy and flat and had a much too brilliant blue icing garnished with banana lollies, but I served it with immense pride to my mother and her friends.”
The first thing to understand with baking, it seems, is that every step of the process has a trick or a knack to it. The first step of every recipe, pre-heating the oven, seems simple enough, but then you have to think about whether it’s gas or electric and if it’s convectional. “I like electric convection ovens, as the fans circulate heat more evenly,” says Paull. But the best and handiest gadget to have in your second drawer is an oven thermometer. “They’re pretty inexpensive and can help navigate the oven fluctuations.”
When it comes to getting the ingredients in the bowl, Paull is quick to advise that the very best thing to invest in is a set of scales. “Using weights for ingredient measurements is probably my most sacrosanct baking rule. It just means there is so much more consistency when baking things time and time again.”
Sifting dry ingredients is another debate that is often raised by bakers short on time, but for Paull, the extra couple of minutes are worth it in order to distribute ingredients better. “A smooth consistency is attained by temperatures of ingredients and careful mixing of the batter.” Something that cannot be done if one is busy trying to eliminate lumps. But another crucial factor that needs to be looked into is the temperature of the ingredients themselves. Some recipes call for room temperature eggs, while others require melted butter or chilled milk. As a general rule, Paull recommends all ingredients be around the 20-degrees Celsius mark. “Cold, lumpy butter in the batter will not disperse evenly and will coat the flour with the fat it needs to impede gluten development. And secondly, if all ingredients are cold then the batter will be cold and it will take longer to start cooking in the oven. Having everything at room temperature gives it that jump start.”
Some of Paull’s favourite cakes include her Coconut Shagg Butter Cake with coconut buttercream and coconut flakes, and a sponge cake soaked with three milks and crowned with cream and berries, known humbly as the Tres Leches.
We’re taking a leaf out of Paull’s cookbook. Here’s one to try at home today: Click here for recipe.