Perfect time to bake up a storm
Daily life is strange and unpredictable right now. I’ve worked from home for the last 20 years, so the coronavirus hasn’t changed that, but my eldest son, who’s at university, is at home every day and getting his lectures online.
Every day seems like a “snow day”, when normal life is suspended, and we wait to see what is and isn’t possible.
It suddenly feels as if the home is more important than usual. Normally people are off pursuing their own lives, going to work, seeing friends, and home is just a base.
But if you’re self-isolating — and even if you’re just following government guidelines and avoiding restaurants, cinemas and sporting events — you fall back on the home in a way that seems profoundly old-fashioned.
Home, for now, is our world.
Because of this I feel compelled to make it a good place to be, so I bake.
This isn’t just because I’ll end up with tins of cake and traybakes — the end result is not the point — but because baking creates a sense of comfort. I am not surprised to read that people are buying flour as well as other dried goods.
Baking fills the kitchen with great smells — vanilla, melting chocolate, caramelising sugar — and seems to anchor everyone.
It doesn’t feel so much as if the world has been upended, more that it’s simply good to be at home. My sons have taken to baking as well, producing their own cakes and pancakes, and are discovering the joy of making things.
If you’ve baked all your life, there are even more advantages to comfort-baking. As I learnt to bake before I learnt to cook, buttering cake tins is something I’ve always done. It brings a sense of continuity in a time when we don’t even know what next week will hold.
Many of the processes that baking encompasses are meditative — you sift and weigh and beat butter and sugar, and some are also physically enjoyable, like the feel of flour in your hands as you rub butter into it to make pastry. Nothing feels lighter or softer than flour.
Baking is also predictable. If you whisk egg whites and sugar together, you’ll end up with sweet, white clouds. The baker is in control and, no matter what’s happening elsewhere, will produce something good to eat. Unlike dinner, which is gone in 30 minutes, the results of this labour will be around for several days.
Nigella Lawson has written about the “transformative power” of baking. All cooking is transformative, of course. You put a raw chicken into a hot oven, and it will eventually become golden and juicy. But baking’s power to transform seems almost magical. Most cake batter looks like a sloppy mess when you put it in the oven but will turn into a risen moist sponge that calls for decoration and imagination.
You can get completely lost in baking. Julie Jones, an Instagram star due to her astonishing pastry work, started making the tarts for which she is now famous because her mother developed dementia. They baked together until Julie’s mother could no longer manage it — the process calmed both of them — but Julie baked on her own every evening, cutting intricate shapes out of pastry, to deal with the stress she was under.
This isn’t just baking, this is a form of play and one which is as absorbing as making Lego structures when you were a child. Emma Mitchell, a nature writer who uses country walks and sketching plants to ward off the depression from which she suffers, tweeted just recently, “If you’re overwhelmed by anxiety my first tip is to cook. This may sound tame but it’s very effective. Your mind will become absorbed in and distracted by the recipe. This mental state is called ‘flow’ and has been shown to be as effective as meditation.”
I know baking is a strange response — frivolous, some might argue — to what we’re going through right now, but we all need coping mechanisms. If you can leave the results of some of your creativity on the doorstep of a neighbour, so much the better. While we aren’t allowed to physically connect, a sense of connection is more vital than ever.
Try one of Diana’s recipes:
Chocolate and caramel-hazelnut cake
This is a cake to make for afternoon tea or to serve after dinner with cream. I started out thinking of it as a showstopper — two layers, cream as well as caramel — but I’m ultimately someone who ends up making things simpler. This could look grander but its flavour wouldn’t be improved. All the same, it’s one to bake for a friend for a special occasion.
Prep time: 30 minutes | Cooking time: 50 minutes
- 115g butter, plus extra for greasing
- 140g plain chocolate, chopped, plus a couple of squares to decorate
- 150g soft light-brown sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 130g plain flour
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
For the caramel-hazelnut topping
- 200g granulated sugar
- 1½ tbsp golden syrup
- 125ml double cream
- 30g butter
- 90g blanched hazelnuts, halved and lightly toasted
- Preheat the oven to 160°C/150°C fan*/gas mark 3. Butter a 20-22cm springform cake tin and line the base.
- Put the butter and chocolate into a heatproof bowl and set this over a pan of gently simmering water (don’t let the bowl touch the water). Stir a little to help them melt, then lift the bowl off the saucepan and set it aside to cool.
- Beat the sugar and eggs together with an electric mixer until pale and increased in volume. Whisk in the melted chocolate and butter, then the vanilla. Quickly fold in the flour, bicarbonate of soda and a good pinch of salt, being careful not to overmix. Scrape the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 40 to 45 minutes. A skewer inserted into the middle of the cake should come out clean.
- Allow the cake to cool in its tin for about 15 minutes, then slide a knife around the edge of the cake, unclasp the tin and remove the ring. Remove the base and peel off the paper.
- Put the cake, the right way up, on to a wire cooling rack. Don’t worry if the cake sinks a little in the centre.
- To make the topping, put the granulated sugar and golden syrup into a medium- sized saucepan with 125ml water. Set it over a low-medium heat. Don’t stir the mixture but tip the saucepan slightly to ensure that the sugar is melting (some of the sugar tends to gather at one side of the pan). Once melted, turn the heat up and cook until the mixture has caramelised. You’ll know when it gets to this point by how it smells as well as by the colour. If you don’t take it far enough, the topping will be really sweet, so do get it to the caramel stage.
- Immediately pull the pan off the heat and pour on the cream, standing well back as the mixture will hiss and spit. Add the butter as well and stir until the caramel is smooth, then stir in the hazelnuts.
- Spoon the hazelnuts on top of the cake, allowing the excess caramel to drip down the sides. The top should be completely covered in nuts and caramel. Leave to set for a while (though the caramel will stay slightly soft).
- Carefully transfer the cake to a plate and decorate with some shavings of chocolate. Serve it with either whipped cream or crème fraîche. It’s best to dip the blade of the knife you’re using to cut the cake into boiling water — that way you’ll be able to slice through the caramel more easily.
*Diana’s conversions may differ slightly from the standard — Daily Telegraph