Baking 101 (Part 1)

The Gourmet Glutton turns 1 this week, which calls for something special,  and this is a really special series. I’ve talked about Nodee Chowdhury on my blog before, the amateur baker with a penchant for healthy twists to decadent classics. Check out my Undercover Veggies article if you haven’t done so already. I decided to have a conversation with her, focusing on the basics of baking. She has tons of experience in home baking with a lot of useful hacks and resources up her sleeve. It was a long, fun and informative chat, and I’ve decided to split it up into chunks. So, here’s part 1…

Utsav:  I’ve always felt that there is a difference between cooking and baking, the latter feels magical, almost like alchemy. What is your opinion?

Nodee:  I think when it comes to cooking, you can rely on gut feeling and basic flavour knowledge to create good dishes. Baking however is equally science and art, and perfection is so, so important. But you’re right, the science yields a great deal of art: there’s a solace in making the perfectly risen souffle that i don’t think is comparable to anything else in the kitchen.

Orange Almond Cake

U:  What is it about baking that fascinates you the most?

N:  Well, I’ve got a sweet tooth, so most things fascinate me! But through the years, I’ve tried to work on restraint, bringing in a balance of savoury/sweet/fresh dishes and finding healthier alternatives. What still makes the kid in me sing is perfect execution of flavour!

U:  In my opinion, this sciencey aspect of baking is what hinders many amateur cooks from trying their hands at baking. With the precision of measurements and temperatures nailed to the t, the perfect execution of flavour feels like a distant dream for most aspiring bakers. What advice would you give to the enthusiastic novice who really wants to give baking a shot?

N:  I think when you’re starting out, baking has to primarily come from a place of love. It was just that for me. I thought about flavours in my spare time and looked up recipes i could try. So instead of aiming at Heston-ish molecular gastronomy, you have to build from the ground up. The basic idea of baking is comfort right? So it should be about relaxing and following a recipe to start off with. And well, even if your cake doesn’t look “insta” ready, it will probably still taste delicious.

Chocolate Cheesecake

U:  I agree with you. Baking has an added touch of love, a slice of homemade cake really speaks heaps. There is something incredibly gratifying about baking your own batch of cookies and sharing it among friends and family.

N:  Agreed!

U:  Okay so let’s move into baking 101, starting with the oven. The OTG versus microwave dilemma is a clear case of quality versus convenience. How far can a microwaved cake match one made in the oven? Is it worth it to invest in an oven after all?

N:  I have baked 90% of my baked goods in a convection oven, and i can guarantee that if you choose a microwave with the right dimensions, there is no need to invest in an OTG.

The convection oven works in the same way, except for having a fan and a rotating base which ensures even cooking. The pitfalls may be choosing a microwave which is too small and thereby does not have an even heat distribution. Anything upward of 28L is a GOOD convection oven.

Another thing to remember is, a convection oven is actually hotter than a conventional one at the same temperature. So unless the recipe provides a “fan oven” temperature, it might be smarter to drop the temp 10 degrees. You can’t fix an overbaked cake but you can cook an underbaked one for longer. 

Underbaked and sunken, Overheated and cracked (Courtesy : BBC)

Another thing I would add is, the microwave setting can also help you bake. Melting chocolate, making a quick sponge or dehydrating fruit quickly. Of course, if money or space aren’t an issue: by all means, invest in a glorious oven.

To clarify, I’m talking about a microwave with a “convection” mode- you can’t bake without it!

U:  Yes. My microwave was old and didn’t have a proper convection mode so it wasn’t great for baking, but yes, it is good for melting chocolate. One thing to keep in mind while melting chocolate in the microwave is to do it in short bursts and stir in between.

N:  Absolutely. I prefer to keep the power at 50% and stir at 30 second intervals. Of course the results are best if you chop your chocolate at least coarsely, to start with.

U:  While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the microwave mug cake, arguably the easiest baked good that you can whip up in no time. How do you go about making it?

Chocolate mug cake (Courtesy : Betty Crocker)

 N:  So the mug cake leaves out the egg as a high heat would scramble it. It’s a good idea for a single serve dessert and you can try many variations!

The easiest one i do is this:

3 tbsp all purpose flour

3 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp cocoa powder

1/4tsp baking soda

And a pinch of salt.

Mix these well and add:

3 tbsp flavourless oil

3 tbsp milk

Optional: you can add half a tsp vanilla essence, chocolate chips, what have you.

The options are endless!

Microwave this on high, and watch for the rise. Usually it takes between 70-90 seconds to cook. Rest it for a minute before eating!

U:  Excellent. I really think the mug cake is an excellent starting point for beginners without advanced gadgetry at their disposal.

N:  Absolutely! You can cut out the cocoa and drop a tbsp of milk for a basic vanilla cake. Or you can add a tbsp of melted peanut butter in place of oil for a PB chocolate delicacy. What a perfect little treat!

U:  You talked about using the microwave for quickly dehydrating fruit, something I was unaware of. What kinds of fruit can you use and how exactly do you do it?

Dried Mango (Courtesy : The Week)

N:  You can use practically any fruit, I’ve tried strawberries and grapes: basically those with a good amount of water content. Slice them up thin, and place either onto the clean rotating plate or a silicon sheet if you have one. Use the defrost setting and let it run for 25-30 minutes. This does the work of what a low temp oven would take hours to achieve. This might be a good resource

U:  That is excellent. You learn something new every day. And this technique sounds like something that has numerous potential applications.

N:  Yeah, you can find out a lot of new things if you just search on the internet. That’s basically how I taught myself. There’s years of experience to learn from!

We’ve only just begun. Join us next time as we continue our conversation on the basics of home baking.

Bread Pudding

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