Cold flour, warm eggs and instant coffee: Natalie Paull’s essential ingredients for baking | Baking


Baking shouldn’t mean a really lovely cake is only possible after hours of serious questing for a list of esoteric ingredients. I love fresh yuzu but use the bottled yuzu juice if needs must. I believe most ingredients should be within everyday reach, and that your baking budget should determine what you buy. If you can bake with lavish amounts of vanilla bean, enjoy. If you use can only afford imitation vanilla essence, sure, it will taste different, but it will still be a wonderful bake you made.

I am obsessed with ingredient labels, using the nutritional panels to provide knowledge about the fat, protein and water contents of ingredients. Using the percentages on the nutritional panels, and keeping these consistent, means my baking outcomes are consistent too.

Dry goods don’t last for ever, so if you are an intermittent baker, share dry goods with a baking buddy so they are used quickly.

In the pantry

Baking powder and bicarbonate of soda Baking powder is the heavy hitter of leavening – it does its best work in the heat of the oven. Bicarbonate of soda gives an initial lift, and is great to use with cocoa, chocolate or spice recipesto deepen the flavour and colour.

Cream of tartar Cream of tartar is like pilates for your egg-white foam, keeping it flexible and strong with maximum aeration. Without it, your foam can become rigid and chunky with leaking water, resulting in a weak, flatter batter. Add a heaped teaspoon (or 5g per 300g of egg whites) before you start to whip.

These powders lose efficacy as they age, so write the purchase date on the packet and replace it every six months.

Chocolate and cocoa powder If your budget allows, bypass sweetened compound or cooking chocolate buttons or chips and buy good chocolate from the eating chocolate aisle, or splurge and buy the fancy stuff online in bulk. My go-tos are a bittersweet chocolate with about 60% cocoa, milk chocolate about 30% and quality white chocolate about 20%. Chocolate bars can be chopped into button-sized pieces, and add the fine shards too – they will enhance the dough.

My chosen cocoa is Dutch (unsweetened) cocoa powder. This has had a neutralising alkali treatment, making it work with leaveners such as baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Natural or raw cocoa powder is too acidic, and sweetened drinking chocolate is too sweet. Skip these.

Cacao nibs are like nature’s chocolate chips – unsweetened chopped cacao beans. Use them with a light hand as a garnish on cakes or glazed cookies.

Instant coffee Before you come at me, instant coffee gives maximum coffee flavour with less liquid. Even if you think you are extracting the most intense ristretto, instant will always add more oomph.

Flour Your baking success is tied to the gluten content of your flour, so buy wisely! Gluten happens when the dormant proteins (glutenin and gliadin) in dry flour meet water. The protein duo form gluten – lovely long strands and a framework for a dough. I like to engineer my optimal gluten level by using a mix of baker’s flour (also known as strong or bread flour) and plain flour for a little chew and tenderness.

For sponge success, use a low-gluten flour: Natalie Paull’s fresh strawberry buttersponge with mascarpone mousse and strawberry sherbet. Photograph: Rochelle Eagle

To find out how much gluten is in a packet of flour, look at the nutritional label: 10g of protein per 100g roughly equals 10% gluten.

For cakes and sponges that need a low-gluten flour, a soft plain flour with 8% to 9% gluten will create a tender crumb. The label may state “best used for biscuits, cakes and pastry”.

For pastry crusts and cookies, choose a plain flour with about 10% gluten. This will provide extra structure for crusts that need to hold a filling or a cookie studded with chocolate.

For most yeasted doughs, choose a baker’s flour with about 12% gluten. This will give a perfect framework for yeast to grow, and will also give a lovely chew.

A note on flour temperature (it’s a thing) In a really warm kitchen, chill or freeze the flour for at least 30 minutes before using to slow down the butter softening (or worse, melting!) when mixing pastry doughs. Conversely, in a cold kitchen in the most frigid winter, warm the flour by microwaving it for 10 seconds, or put it in a warm place before mixing into cake batters, so the batter temperature doesn’t drop. Batters that go into the oven at the perfect temperature (ballpark 20C-22C) start baking faster and have better lift and a finer, more tender crumb than cake batters that start cold.

Oil Using flavourless oil is an old-school rule. A good extra-virgin olive oil can add buzzy green flavour to say, a lime frosting; and you can use hazelnut oil with a hazelnut cake. Use bland vegetable oil when you want other ingredients to shine, like in a subtle lemon buttermilk chiffon cake. I am not a huge fan of the flavour of unrefined coconut oil (use it if you love it), but I use a refined, neutral-flavoured coconut oil to thin melted chocolate for dipping if I can’t find Copha (vegetable shortening).

Salt is the indispensable sidekick to sweet. In yeasted doughs it also tightens and reinforces the gluten strands. I like a heftier amount with chocolate, caramel, coconut or even lemon and lime, and a little less with berries or tree fruits. Salts vary in salinity; I like a fine sea salt over harsh cooking or table salt. Make sure you taste the salt you choose. Buy salt flakes to sprinkle on cookies or tarts.

Sugar Caster sugar is your all-rounder – it dissolves easily in batters and caramelises without crystallising. I’m smitten with raw caster sugar because of its mildly malty flavour. If you can’t find it, whiz raw sugar to a finer grain in the food processor.

White refined sugar is best for meringues and caramels; use brown sugars to change textures from fluffy to fudgy.

And here’s a hack: if your brown sugar morphs into a hard block, place the block and a slice of ultra-processed white bread in a zip-lock bag overnight. Miraculous softening!

Vanilla Use the highest quality you can afford, whether it’s beans or paste. Top-shelf extracts are also lovely. Use imitation vanilla to stretch out some good paste. Don’t discard any scraped-out beans – save them and add them to fruit when roasting or use in syrups. Store vanilla beans in the fridge in a completely airtight container. If they harden, place them in a tight-lidded plastic container, cover with two pieces of super-wet paper towel and microwave for 60 seconds. Set aside to steam for an hour until cool and soft.

Verjuice Made from unfermented unripe green grapes, a bottle of this can get you out of trouble when you need to roast fruit, make a sabayon or brighten a cream or cake soak. It’s especially helpful when the lemons have gone mouldy or don’t yield enough juice.

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From the refrigerator

Butter The best butters are unsalted and lightly cultured; they’ll make your cakes more moist and ensure your cookies keep their shape. Find a brand with a bright, fresh aroma. Old or rancid butter tastes terrible, and once it’s in your baking, the evil cannot be undone.

Salted butter is better on, rather than in, pastry. The best butters have at least 80% milkfat – in the nutritional panel, look for at least 80g fat per 100g. “Butter-like” spreads or margarine won’t always behave like butter, and your cakes won’t be their best baked selves.

To test butter temperature Press your finger with a moderate push (like pushing a doorbell) into the butter to gauge the right temperature for the recipe.

To soften quickly, grate it and zap in the microwave, or slice and leave in a warm place for 20 minutes.

Natalie Paull’s dark caramel ganache. Caster sugar is an all-rounder because it dissolves easily in batters and caramelises without crystallising. Photograph: Rochelle Eagle

Creamy and milky things

Full-fat is your friend. For cream, look for products with 35% to 45% milkfat. Ideally, I like to use creams without gelatine. Some “thickened creams” can be 35% milkfat, but when whipped can be loose and collapse quickly. If you can only find a runnier cream with a less than 35% milkfat, whip it with mascarpone (approximately three parts cream to one part mascarpone) – the high fat content will stabilise the cream.

Mascarpone With a 50%-plus fat content, this cream/cheese is a flexible friend. If it’s too soft, I can whip it to hold firm; if it’s too firm, I can slacken it with some cream.

Creme fraiche is higher in fat than regular sour cream, more heat stable and has a gentler tangy quality, but they are often interchangeable.

Cream cheese should be the classic full-fat type in a block, and I do love Philadelphia brand. Skip the spreadable or reduced-fat types in tubs.

Kefir, yoghurt and buttermilk These bring the tang. They’re not always interchangeable, but if you don’t have buttermilk or yoghurt, stir 10g/ml lemon juice into 90g/ml milk and stand for 10 minutes to start curdling.

Eggs

If your baking budget allows, buy truly free-range eggs. Cage eggs are a cruel business. And very good eggs will bring a better, sunnier flavour and hue to your bakes.

I always weigh eggs, egg yolks and egg whites – without the shell. Eggs vary greatly in size, to the point where you may be adding a whole extra egg to a batter..

My egg weighing formula is: for an egg weighing 59g with shell > remove shell > 50g. The white is approximately 30g and the yolk is approximately 20g.

Cold egg or warm egg? For whipping, cold eggs, whites or yolks have more stability and less volume, but overall the difference is negligible. When adding whole eggs to creamed butter bases, always warm the whole egg (in its shell) in hot tap water for around five minutes. This will create a stable temperature for the butter-egg emulsion.

Whipping myths Make sure your bowl is regular clean – no need to rub with lemon or vinegar. Whites will still whip with a speckle of yolk. They’ll take a little longer to stabilise, but they will still whip.

If more than a speckle of yolk accidentally strays into your whites, use half a cracked egg shell to scoop it out. Dip the shell in, isolate the stray yolk to the side of the bowl and drag it up and out against the side. The egg shell is sharp enough to cut the gloopy whites and free the yolky intruder.



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