Thursday, February 10, 2011

Be Prepared!

We need to enjoy cooking, and the best way to keep cool, calm and collected is to prepare as much as we can well in advance, and so am suggesting a few hints and tips that I follow myself to make culinary life a lot easier.

Firstly, try and avoid using weighing scales if we can. Our mothers and grandmothers and right back through the centuries used to be so familiar with cooking they could gauge just how much they needed, either by 'the handful' or a 'spoonful' (from salt-spoon up to a tablespoon). I rely on my mum's old tablespoon as being the right size (many spoons differ slightly - so best check before you start), and then work with the following...
each of the amounts shown are approx.: 1 oz/25g
1 level tblsp .....salt
3 level tblsp .....flour
2 level tblsp .....rice
5 level tblsp .....grated cheese
4 level tblsp .....grated cocoa
1 level tblsp .....honey/jam/syrup
2 level tblsp .....granulated sugar
3 level tblsp .....sifted icing sugar
6 level tblsp .....fresh breadcrumbs
4 level tblsp .....porridge oats

spoon measures:
1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons
1 level tablespoon = 15ml
1 level teaspoon = 5 ml

Most recipes use 'level' spoons when measuring, and my cooks' reference book (from which the above and below are taken) says this:
"A tablespoon (or tblsp) - when referring to dry goods (i.e. flour etc) usually means a rounded tablespoonful.
A rounded tablespoon means there is as much of the product above the rim of the spoon as there is in the bowl of the spoon.
A heaped tablespoon means as much as you can get on the spoon without it falling off.
A level tablespoon is where the ingredient is level only with the top edge (rim) of the spoon. To achieve this, fill the spoon and then run a knife horizontally across the top, discarding anything above the level of the spoon - making sure you have something underneath to catch it (as this can be returned to the packet etc)"

When it comes to measuring anything like butter - normally sold in 250 blocks, cutting diagonally from corner to corner will give us four and a half ounces (125g or thereabouts ), so not difficult to cut a bit off if we wish for only 4 oz (or 100g). When using melted butter (or any fats) use a measuring jug (the 'weight' is the same either in g's or mls). Four ounces of melted butter/fat/oil are equal to 8 tablespoons.

Now we come to the preparation bit where scales are useful when 'bagging up'. When making up my own bread mix (for the bread machine) found it so much easier to make up 12 'mixes' (6 white, 6 brown) in one go. A plastic bag was put on the weighing scales and into this went the flour to make one loaf, then all that needed to be done was add the the right amount of dried milk, sugar, salt, (all usually measured by the teaspoonful) and even a knob of butter (or lard). This then tied up, and another bag put on the scales and another mix made. All then stored together with the rest made at that time. When needing to make a loaf, no need then to drag out the scales and start measuring. Oh no, all I need to do is sprinkle yeast into the machine, tip the contents of one bag on top, and then add the right amount of water (some machines add water first, yeast last), then swith on. This makes it all so EASY when the mixes have been prepared in advance.
Busy mums might find their school-age children would be happy to make up the mixes for you.

Other 'advance preparations' can be home-made pastry mix (flour and butter blitzed in the food processor - only water needed to be added when used), home-made scone mix (flour, butter, sugar etc - milk added when used), crumble mix (flour, oats, sugar, butter - then just use as required) - all these to be kept in the fridge or freezer. Even biscuit dough can be made in bulk, rolled into thick sausages then frozen to be sliced and baked as required.
It goes without saying that as much cheese as possible should be grated and bagged up. When frozen it keeps a long time, also quite a long time in the fridge. Myself mix oddments of any hard cheese: Cheddar, Edam, Red Leicester, Double Gloucester, even White Stilton. Sometimes include Gruyere, and Mozzarella as these - when cooked - go 'stringy' and perfect for pasta dishes and pizzas. Cheese that has gone very hard is grated on a fine disc to us with (or instead of) Parmesan and kept in separate to the more roughly grated cheeses.

Even when it comes to baking cakes and such-like we can still partly prepare. My favourite 'bake' is the American muffins, as the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, spice etc) are weighed and put into one bowl, the 'wet' ingredients (oil, milk, egg etc) put into a measuring jug, then left overnight. Tip the wet into the dry with a rough mix, it doesn't matter if it is a bit lumpy, and then just popped into a pre-heated oven to bake.
If we make muffins often, we could measure out the dry ingredients and have these already bagged up, leaving only the 'wet' to do the night before or even on the day.

When we think about it - many cakes start off with the same - or very similar - 'weights and measures'. One we are most used to is the traditional recipe for Victoria sponge cake - this being made with the the same weight of (each) flour, sugar and fat (butter or marg) to the weight of eggs used. It doesn't matter than what size the eggs are, tiny or large. The cake starts with their weight. However today, bought eggs tend to be the same size, and medium eggs (for cooking purposes) are expected to weigh 2 oz (50g) each, so if making a V. Sponge, using 2 eggs, we would then be using 4 oz (100g) each of the other three ingredients. Worth remembering this as many of use now use larger eggs, so theoretically we should slightly increase the weight of the rest to allow for this. Same when making meringues - normally 2 oz (50g) sugar to each egg white. If using large eggs, allow a little extra sugar.

Nevertheless, if we have a favourite cake recipe we use often, there is nothing stopping us measuring out as many ingredients as possible into small bags (I use cheap plastic 'sandwich' bags - these being reusable with dry ingredients), then just stacking them into a larger container to pull out and use as required. This works well with flour, sugar, dried fruit.... .

Butter/margarine are easy enough to judge by weight when sold in the block, (but weigh if you must - and then wrap up in small amount if useful - ready for 'instant' use), then, when cake- making, all the ingredients will have been ready weighed and just need mixing with some liquid (which might be just eggs - and they are usually to hand - and when baking should always be at room temperature).

To get us started, today am giving the basic recipe for 'A Rich Cake' - not a million miles away from the trad. recipe for Victoria Sponge, but slightly more flour used. This recipe can be used as a 'starter' to make other things. Several suggestions given below, but remember that with each only HALF the basic recipe is used, OR you could use all the recipe and make two things at the same time. With all recipes the oven temperature is the same (given below).
If intending to use these recipes often, then worth weighing out the flour and bag up in advance. Ditto the sugar, and if you wish also measure and wrap the marg/butter and keep this in the fridge. Eggs wating at room temperature on the table for you to use.
Basic Rich Cake recipe:
10 oz (300g) self-raising flour
8 oz (225g) caster sugar
8 oz (225g) margarine
4 medium eggs
Cream margarine and sugar together, add a teaspoon of flour (this helps to prevent the eggs 'curdling') then beat in the eggs, one at a time. Using a metal spoon, fold in the flour.
Use this mixture for the following recipes - all to be baked at the same temperature: 170C, 325F, gas 3.

Coconut Cup Cakes: makes 18
half quantity of above rich cake mix
2 oz (50g) desiccated coconut
2 rounded tblsp desciccated coconut
few drops pink colouring
4 oz (100g) icing sugar
hot water to mix
Fold the 2 oz/50g desiccated coconut into the cake mixture and spoon into 18 paper baking cases (these should preferably be standing in tart tins). Bake for about 25 - 30 mins (temp. given above). When cooked the tops should spring back when pressed gently. Cool on a cake airer.
Place coconut and colouring in a small jar, fit on lid and shake gently until the coconut is tinted pink (you could omit the colouring and leave it white if you wish - or just colour the icing). Mix the icing sugar with a little hot water, a few drops at a time, to make a fairly thick icing. When cakes are cold, spread this thinly on top of each and sprinkle with the coconut.

Seed Cake:
This ones easy - just mix two level teaspoons Caraway Seeds, into half the basic cake mix (above) and place into a greased and lined 1 lb loaf tin (or deep, round 6" cake tin) and level the surface.
Bake at temperature given above (lowest shelf) for one and a half hours. When cooked the cake should have begun to shrink from the sides of the tin, and the top spring back when gently pressed. Leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes, then turn out, remove paper and finish off cooling on a cake airer.

Fruit and Nut Bars: makes 15
half quantity of basic cake mix
2 oz (50g) unsalted peanuts
2 oz (50g) raisins
3 oz (75g) porridge oats
2 oz (50g) demerara sugar
2 level tblsp golden syrup
3 oz (75g) margarine
Prepare the base by first brushing a shallow oblong 11" x 7" (Swiss Roll type) tin with oil or melted fat and line with greaseproof (or parchment) paper. Then grease the top of the paper also. Spread the basic cake mix over this.
Prepare the topping by putting the peanuts and raisins in a bowl with the oats and sugar. Measure the syrup carefully (making sure there is no extra on the underside of spoon) then put this in a pan with the margarine and place over a low heat until melted, then add this to the dry ingredients. Mix well, then spread this on top of the cake batter ready and waiting in the tin.
Bake towards top of the oven (temp given above) for 45 - 50 minutes. If browning too quickly cover with a tent of foil, shiny side upwards (shiny side reflects heat away). Do the finger press test - if cooked the cake should spring back when pressed, bubbling should have stopped and cake beginning to shrink from sides of tin. Leave to cool in tin for 10 minutes, then cut into squares or fingers. Leave to cool a little longer before turning out, then removed paper and finish cooling on a cake airer.

Banana and Orange Pudding: serves 4
(note: other fruit could be used instead of bananas - canned sliced peaches, canned pineapple rings etc)
half quantity basic Cake mix (recipe above)
zest and juice of 1 orange
2 large bananas, peeled and sliced
6 glace cherries (opt) cut into quarters
1 oz (25g) butter
1 oz (25g) sugar
First prepare the tin. Brush the base of a shallow 7" baking tin with oil or melted fat, then line the base with greaseproof paper or baking parchment, then grease the surface of this also.
Arrange the sliced bananas and prepared cherries (or other fruit if using) over the base of the tin. Put the butter, sugar and orange juice into a pan and bring to the boil. Pour this over the bananas.
Fold the grated orange zest into the cake mix, and spoon this over the bananas. Level the top with a spoon or spatula.
Bake at given temperature (above) in centre of oven for about 45 minutes - then given the finger press test. When cooked turn out onto a serving plate and remove paper. Serve hot with custard or cream.

Cherry Cake:
Again a simple recipe using the basic mix again. First wash 3 oz (75g) glace cherries and leave to dry on kitchen paper before cutting into quarters, then mix these with 1 oz (25g) cornflour, making sure all the cherry pieces are kept separate. All you do then is fold these into half the basic cake mix. Spoon into greased and lined 1 lb loaf tin and bake on lowest shelf at the usual temperature for a good hour - maybe longer - until the top springs back with the 'finger-press' test. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out, remove and cool on a cake airer. Best to remove paper once it has got cold.

Other than greasing and either flouring or lining cake tins in advance (these can be done days ahead and stored in plastic bags), having ready a tray with the assorted spoons, forks, knives, beaters that may be needed, all we need then to do is toddle off to the larder with a tray, remove the pre-weighed ingredients from jars/tins, take them all back into the kitchen and - with most of the preparation already done - we can start baking.

Just think about it. No table littered with numerous bags of flour, sugar, dried fruits etc having to be carried from the larder then sitting waiting to be returned, and no scales needed to be washed (often between weighings). How easy is that?

Was contemplating a scoot with Norris again, but see it has now begun to rain, and getting quite misty outside, so think I'll give my airing a miss today - although if the weather clears, may nip out mid-afternoon. There is always another day. Meanwhile will start 'bagging up' my own 'mixes' ready to lighten the load in the future.

Looking forward to hearing any tips you have about advance preparation. Or anything else for that matter. Just keep those comments coming. Already looking forward to tomorrow when we will all meet up again.