Sunday, 30 January 2011

Starting out….a beginner’s guide

I received an email from a student named Sam, part of which was as follows:

I used to enjoy making cakes at home and would actually quite like to bake something... but I don't have the first clue what to buy.

I suppose this is a request for a sort of 'beginners start up guide' post for your blog. What inexpensive kit to buy but will do the job, what key ingredients do you think every cake maker needs in his/her cupboard, that sort of thing. Then maybe a recipe to go with those things....

This got me thinking. Although my baking obsession began only maybe about 5 years back it’s amazing how much kit I’ve acquired (I can be very focussed when I want to be!) so I’ve tried recall what I started out with and what I think you need to make nice cakes…and it’s surprisingly little.

The first thing I’d say is that if you’re on a tight budget forget kitchenware shops or department stores. Don’t get me wrong, they sell gorgeous stuff but they’re not known for being cheap. Ruling out options like charity shops or car boot sales (because you can’t guarantee what you’ll find on any given week) I think good quality but cheap kitchenware can be found in the following places:

  • Wilkinsons or any equivalent general household goods store – many high streets have such a shop, many are independent rather than chains.
  • Pound shops – used selectively. I’m not sure I’d buy my cake tins here but a set of plastic measuring spoons or a wooden spoon does the same job however much it costs.
  • Supermarkets – a superb source of kitchenware at great prices. Electronic handheld whisks can be picked up for £6 (often cheaper in the sales). I buy virtually all of my everyday cake tins from Tesco.
  • Robert Dyas – forget that it’s a DIY shop, it has a good selection of cookware often with special offers like 2-for-1 on cake tins
  • Ikea

So, that’s where I’d head, but what should be on your shopping list? I’ve tried to be concise and cover all aspects of baking such as cakes, cupcakes, biscuits and pastry – obviously, if you have no plan to make pastry, ignore the stuff relating to pastry…sorry if that sounds patronising but I don’t want to scare anyone by the length of the list! Some of these items might already be in your kitchen as they are multi-use.

If you hunt around and choose wisely I think you can easily get everything for under £40, and you won’t need all of it straightaway. The list is intended as a “starting from scratch” guide, but you’re more than likely to have some of it already.

  • 2 x 20cm round springform tins i.e. the kind that do up with a clip. This tin is the workhorse of the kitchen and you’ll use it for practically every cake you bake. Why two? They are the same diameter as sandwich tins (the sort you need to make layer cakes such as Victoria sponges) so, if you have two, you can save yourself having to buy extra tins for that purpose.
  • 1 x cupcake pan i.e. the pan with 12 little indents. Non stick is always best because, while you won’t need it for cupcakes as they sit in paper cases, you will if you decide to make mince pies or jam tarts in it.
  • 1 x baking sheet – a flat tray perfect for biscuits or scones.
  • 1 x large mixing bowl – metal, glass or ceramic it’s up to you; they’ll all do the job just as well. I’m always drawn to metal as a big stainless steel bowl is light to move around the kitchen and won’t smash if you drop it.
  • 1 x wooden spoon – try to get one with a nice long handle as it’s easier to use.
  • 1 x large metal spoon – you need this for folding. It has a sharper edge so cuts through the ingredients more crisply; again, a long handle will make it easier to use.
  • 1 x spatula – now if you’re going to use this in hot pans get a silicone one; however, I use mine only to scrape cake batter from the bowl. I’m cheap where spatulas are concerned – I hate the fancy ones with rigid wooden handles. I like a nice one piece plastic effort that is flexible; from memory, mine is by Kitchencraft and cost no more than £2.
  • 1 x metal sieve – handy for sifting flours and icing sugar but also useful for straining fruit to make coulis and egg mixes used to make custard.
  • 1 set of measuring spoons – don’t pay much for these; I have a great set that came from a Christmas cracker last year! You can use your ordinary household spoons in the cutler drawer but these are more precise for half spoon measures.
  • 1 x cake skewer for testing when the cake is done. However, if you already have metal or wooden kebab skewers you can use those instead.
  • 1 x electronic hand whisk – yes this sounds extravagant but I have seen them in my Tesco for £5. It will repay its cost so many times over the first time you try to whip egg whites or cream! Personally, I reckon all sponges taste lighter when you get air into the creaming process – why break a sweat when this piece of kit will do it for you?
  • 1 set of scales – I would go for electronic and, again, I’ve seen them in Tesco for around the £5 mark. Choose one with a nice big bowl that can handle wet and dry ingredients.
  • 1 x wire cooling rack. Still the best way to cool cakes and get air flow round them. I like the old fashioned rectangular kind as you can fit two tins on it at a time.
  • 1 x measuring jug – many cakes contain milk or oil and measuring this accurately can make or break a recipe. Plastic will be cheapest but if you’re going to use it for other cooking with hot ingredients (i.e. making up stock) then choose glass.
  • 1 x biscuit cutters – plastic are cheapest and I’ve bought whole sets in Pound stores.
  • 1 x rolling pin – if you wish to make pastry, biscuits or scones then you’ll need one of these; go simple and pick the plainest wooden one you can find – make sure it has a bit of weight to it.
  • Baking paper – sold where the foil and clingfilm is in the supermarket. Line your cake tins with this and nothing will stick or tear on removal.
  • Clingfilm – use this to roll out biscuit dough and pastry and you won’t need to use any extra flour.

You have the kit but what will you use it for? There are staple ingredients I think every baker should have in their kitchen. With these you’ll be able to bake a huge array of cakes and biscuits and, when a recipe catches your eye and needs something additional, you’ll only have to buy that one extra item:

  • Unsalted butter – always unsalted. You should be in charge of any salt in your baking
  • Caster sugar – the one ingredient you’ll use again, and again and again!
  • Icing sugar – for icings and buttercreams, and some pastry recipes
  • Plain flour – for pastry, biscuits and some cakes
  • Self raising flour – for cakes
  • Baking powder – the most common raising agent
  • Eggs –I always use large eggs
  • Milk – I only use semi skimmed, it’s a nice halfway house as it isn’t too fatty but still has flavour
  • Jam or nutella – nice for filling sponges
  • Cocoa powder – will turn any sponge batter into a chocolate sponge batter
  • Vanilla extract – gorgeous in sponges, biscuits and custard

The perfect recipe to put all this into action? Start with a classic and marvel at baking skills you didn’t know you had – it’s got to be a Victoria Sponge, and you can find the recipe here.

If you think I’ve missed out anything important please leave a comment!


Helen @ Fuss Free Flavours said...

Great post!

I think it goes without saying that eggs should be free range! Preferably organic.

The Caked Crusader said...

Hi Helen

I totally agree with you - a happy chicken lays a happy (tasty) egg!

Nora said...

Great post. When I moved to my flat a couple of years ago I had literally nothing, so had to build even this list up slowly. And I learnt that a piece of spaghetti can make a great cake tester. And I did all my whisking by hand until my other half despaired and went and bought an electric whisk from the supermarket. Now I think I was totally crazy. But funnily enough, when I finally got around to buying proper electronic weighing scales, they stopped working almost immediately, so I had to go back to my supercheap stop-gap scales from the pound shop, which are still going strong!

Suelle said...

Very useful post for beginners.

I find that many people are still confused between greaseproof paper and baking paper (or parchment), especially if they are reading older recipe books. Greaseproof paper is not what you need for most cake making - it's only non-stick while it's warm. Baking parchment is properly non-stick, even when you've cooled something like brownies or flapjack in the tray, and is the thing to use!

Anonymous said...

Good list - amazing how little we can manage with.

I always use greaseproof paper when I bake blind though. I find baking parchment seems to make the pastry damp.

Jacqueline said...

What a great reference page for a new baker!

I love lists, so this was a great post for me :)

Clara said...

Hi, I'm only just getting into baking but I really enjoy it and I LOVE your blog. I spend quite a lot of time just reading recipies and looking at the pics, even if I'm not going to make them!!

Anyway, I'm going to buy some new things, sandwich tins, a wire rack etc, and I was wondering if you think an electric whisk is worth investing in? Usually I just use my whisk and a lot of elbow work, but I thought maybe for buttercream icing etc, an electric whisk might be better.

What would you recommend?


The Caked Crusader said...

Hi Clara

I think an electric whisk is a good idea - particularly if you want to whip up meringue or buttercream.

As with any equipment I would advise you to buy the best you can afford as it will serve you well.

I have a Dualit hand mixer and like it a lot - however, it is quite expensive.

Happy baking

Anonymous said...

Hey, first of let me just say that I love your blog!

I wad wondering what is the depth of the cake tins you use? My cakes are never look as big as yours and I'm thinking it's because my cake tins are too shallow (or I'm hopeless at baking haha)!

Which tins do you have or what would you recommend?

Thanks :)

The Caked Crusader said...

Hi Anonymous

Thanks for your kind comment.

My tins are all from either the supermarket's kitchenware depts or Lakeland. I don't use any fancy stuff!

I think a cake will rise as far as there is something to support it so what I do is line the sides of the tin with a strip of baking paper which comes up above the height of the tin - that way you have more support. Lakeland sells rolls of baking paper perfect for this purpose.

The other key to getting height is taking your time with the creaming butter and sugar stage - keep going on this until it almost resembles whipped cream.

Hope this helps

Happy baking

Anonymous said...


Regarding the tins, thank you for the super quick reply!

Thank you for the the baking paper tip - I will definitely be trying it this weekend.

Yep, I'm definitely taking more time with creaming the butter and sugar, which is a lot easier now I've bought an electric hand whisk - albeit a very cheap one!

Thanks again and happy baking to you too!