Baking Essentials, Tips And Shortcuts

By West Africa Cooks, 10 November, 2017

Before you get into the kitchen and start baking, take a minute or so to read through some useful advice that will help ensure your homemade cakes are as delicious and lovely as the ones in our shops. Baking is fun and you don't have to be an expert to do it, just get to know the basics, prepare yourself with the right ingredients and equipment, and your cakes will be perfect! Even if you're well-practised at baking, our tips and shortcuts can help save time and make your cakes even better, so read on for some wise words from the professional bakers.


  • The better your ingredients, the better your cakes will look and taste. Buy the best you can afford and try not to skimp on quality.
  • Our recipes give quantities and measures in metric and imperial, so that everyone can follow them, no matter what type of equipment or oven they have. Always use the same system throughout a recipe - never mix the two. We recommend a set of digital scales, for measuring exact amounts. It really is essential that your measuring is precise. especially for frosting, else the finished results may not be as good as hoped, or the cakes might not turn out quite like the photographs.
  • All spoon measurements are level, unless otherwise stated.
  • Butter should always be unsalted, as salt can affect the flavour of the cake. It needs to be very soft, so get it out of the fridge long in advance (or soften for a few seconds in the microwave if necessary).
  • When using dairy products like milk, cream or cream cheese, always use the whole or full-fat varieties for best results. For all recipes that require cream cheese, we recommend using full-fat Philadelphia.
  • All eggs should be large and at room temperature.
  • Use a really good-quality cocoa powder (such as Green & Blacks) and good-quality chocolate with a minimum of 70% cocoa solids.
  • Baking powder and bicarbonate of soda have important jobs to do, helping cakes to rise and creating the right texture, so make sure they haven't passed their best-before dates, or they may not be effective. Also, if a recipe calls for plain flour, never substitute self-raising flour, as this contains raising agents and will affect the outcome.
  • It's good practice to sift flour, cocoa powder and icing sugar before use. This removes lumps and improves the texture of the finished cake. If combining dry ingredients like these, it is easiest to simply sift them together, then mix them by hand with a spoon (avoid mixing them with a machine as this raises a dust cloud, sending some of your carefully weighed ingredients up into the air.)
  • Nuts are often nice toasted or roasted before use, which really improves their flavour. Simply pop them into a saucepan and toss over a medium-to-high heat for 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat as soon as they turn brown as they can burn easily.
  • There are many brands and types of food colourings; each may give a slightly different final shade to your cake or frosting. Although liquid food colouring is the easiest to get hold of, we recommend a paste, which normally results in a better colour. Pastes are available from cookshops or specialist cake shops. You will need less paste than you would liquid; just add a little at a time until you reach the desired colour.
    While we're on the subject of colour, red is generally the trickiest to achieve. For recipes such as the Red Velvet Cupcakes or Christmas recipes like the Candy-cane Cupcakes, steer clear of bottles labelled 'natural red' or 'scarlet' as they aren't strong enough to create a good depth of colour. (Adding more doesn't tend to work; it just. spoils the flavour and often causes the batter or frosting to split.) The most reliable red liquid colouring is Dr Oetker 'Red'.
  • We have tried to ensure that most of the ingredients in our recipes can be bought from supermarkets. However, some of the recipes do call for slightly unusual or specialist ingredients. Many of these are available in larger supermarkets or in specialist cake stores. If you are struggling to locate them, search online for suppliers who will deliver or import. We've included a directory of suppliers on, where we suggest stockists for some of the trickier ingredients. so that you never find yourself stuck.


Baking is a science so it is really important that you measure your ingredients accurately. A set of digital scales is ideal for the most precise measuring. Most of our recipes call for either a freestanding electric mixer (with a paddle attachment) or a hand-held electric whisk. It's essential to use one of these; mixing the ingredients by hand is rarely as effective and the finished cake won't be as successful. A hand-held electric whisk (or a hand-held blender with a whisk attachment) can be bought cheaply from larger supermarkets and is a great investment for all types of recipes - baking or other.

  • Always use the size of cake tin specified in the recipe. (Using the wrong size will affect the cooking time, the batter may cook unevenly and it could overflow.) No matter what size of tin a particular recipe calls for, as a general rule you should always fill it about two-thirds full.
  • For cupcakes and muffins, a deep muffin tin is best (usually with 12 holes). Do try and get a deep one, as regular 'bun tins' are designed for fairy-cake style cakes rather than the generous author's cupcakes.
    The best cake tins are non-stick, loose-bottomed ones. Even if using non-stick, you should still always grease or line the tin as instructed. This will help stop the cake sticking to the inside of the tin and make it easier to remove, avoiding the edges breaking or crumbling and making the finished cake look gorgeous.
    • For layer cakes, use three or four 20cm (8in) loose-bottomed sandwich tins
    • Cheesecakes are best made in a 20-23cm (8-gin) spring-form tin
    • Tarts and pies normally require a 23cm (gin) loose-bottomed tart tin
    • Bake loaf cakes in standard non-stick loaf tins
  • When making bars, slices or pies, you might prefer to use a foil tray or foil pie dishes, instead of a regular metal tin. These are especially good if you want to transport the cakes or give them away as a gift. They are available from Lakeland, specialist cake shops and catering suppliers.
  • All the recipes in this book have been tested in a conventional oven. If you are using a fan-assisted oven (which tends to cook things faster) it's a good idea to read the manufacturer's instruction booklet, which will probably recommend turning down the temperature a little. If you no longer have the oven instructions, we suggest reducing the temperature by 10 per cent.
  • All ovens vary in temperature and many people have 'slow' ovens without even realising it. An oven thermometer is a very useful piece of equipment. It can be permanently hooked into your oven so you can always be sure you are cooking your cakes at the correct temperature.

Method And Techniques

  • Follow each recipe exactly as written. Baking isn't a time for experimenting; the wrong balance of ingredients can cause a recipe to fail. Our methods may seem unconventional at times, but they are tried and tested, so trust us! When creaming butter and sugar, it should be done for a good amount of time - 5 minutes or more - until the mixture is really light and fluffy. It is almost impossible to beat the mixture too much at this stage. However, once the flour is added, beat as little as possible, gently folding or stirring it in until just incorporated, as over-beating the mixture at this point will result in the cake being dense or heavy.
  • When adding liquid ingredients to a cake batter, it is usually best to do this in a couple of batches, pouring in just a bit at a time and mixing well between each addition to properly combine the ingredients. Our cake batter can be quite runny and may sometimes look a little spilt; don't panic, the cakes will bake beautifully.
  • Cooking times can really vary depending upon your oven (and also how many items are baking at the same time). Just because the specified cooking time is up, it doesn't automatically mean the cakes are done. For every recipe, we give a time range, so use this as a rough guide, checking the cakes after the minimum time, but leaving them for longer if they need more time in the oven, and checking them regularly.
  • Try to avoid opening the oven door until the minimum recommended cooking time, or you risk your cakes sinking or cheesecakes cracking.
  • To tell when cakes, cupcakes or muffins are ready, insert a skewer into the middle. If it comes out clean, with no mixture stuck to it. the cake is cooked. You should also look to see if the cakes are well risen, springy on top and golden brown (though this last bit obviously depends on the flavour or colour of the cake - for example, chocolate sponge will never be golden!) When making frosting, don't worry if the proportions seem a little odd or if it takes ages for the butter to incorporate with the icing sugar. It's correct for the mixture to be quite fine and 'sandy'. Once you add the milk, all of a sudden it will begin to come together to make a nice, soft, fluffy icing. It takes a bit longer than conventional butter icing, but the result is much more delicious.
  • Cakes should be completely cool before you frost them. Otherwise the frosting might melt or slide off the cake.
  • Frosting can be piped or scooped onto cakes (avoid using a spoon as this tends to get messy) and swirled with a palette knife.
  • All cakes are best kept in an airtight container. If stored like this, layer cakes can last up to 5 days and cupcakes will stay incredibly moist for 2 days.

Source: The Hummingbird Bakery Cake Days: Recipes to Make Every Day Special by Tarek Malouf


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