Baker’s delight

For as long as I can remember I've thought about food. My mornings have been spent pondering questions such as "What will I cook today? Where will I find the best produce? Which butcher or fishmonger will I be calling?" And then I'd arrive in the kitchen to fire up the oven and stoves for the day. Cooking has always been my way of connecting with people - all the men I have loved I romanced through my food and by cooking for them.

Now I have a new love, but not one I can cook for quite yet. I've just had a baby, and for the moment I have left my kitchen and wine bar to be at home with her. Nursing a baby is utterly engrossing and requires all of you; there's not much left over at the end of the day to bring to the evening meal. In fact, getting dinner on the table is a feat in itself - especially when it involves cooking with a baby in a sling.

I find myself cooking nourishing comfort food and dishes my mother used to make. I think having a baby brings your own childhood back to you, as I'm full of happy memories of growing up around the kitchen. So I'm doing a lot of baking - simple biscuits and cakes to satisfy my sweet cravings and feed the hordes of guests who now visit. Old-school stuff mostly: chocolate-chip biscuits, jam turnovers, apple-cinnamon tea cake and, this weekend, lamingtons.

The best lamington I ever had was at a celebration tea for the 150th Whittlesea agricultural show. I was fortunate to be a guest at this wonderful event, where each table was laden with cakes, scones and sandwiches made by the women of the CWA. There were sweets I had never even heard of, such as iced vovos, and I remember a raspberry sponge that particularly stood out. It certainly didn't look extraordinary, but this simple cake filled with homemade jam and whipped cream was nonetheless incredibly delicious and light in texture. The women responsible were mostly in their 70s and 80s, and I marvelled at their skill and knowledge, and pride in their baking - the atmosphere was of friendly competitiveness.

Why did it all taste so good? Firstly, the technique - a light and delicate sponge, for example, is all about how you fold the ingredients together. And secondly, good, simple ingredients. It made me think of a time when more people had their own farms to supply them with butter, eggs, cream and fruit. Imagine the flavour.

The other key, though, was flour - plain refined white flour. I have experimented with different flours when baking, and while I would prefer to use a more wholesome type, such as a stone-ground, spelt or biodynamic and unbleached flour, I've found that they result in heavy cakes with a strong wheat flavour. This is fine for simple biscuits and slices at home - and sometimes a more pronounced flavour is desirable - but when I want to make a light and delicate tart pastry or cake, only refined white flour will do. I do, however, use an organic brand since I've found there is no difference in the resulting texture or flavour, and at least the wheat has been grown without chemicals.

Different kinds of flours, of course, are made from different varieties of wheat and suited to different purposes. Flour can be hard or soft, the difference being in the ratio of protein to starch. Hard flour has a lot of protein, which, when ground and milled and mixed with water, forms a very strong gluten, making it ideal for dried pasta and bread.

Soft flour is soft and powdery in texture and can produce very light, delicate cakes. Its high starch and lower protein content develops a weaker gluten. All-purpose flour is a blend of both, since its uses are varied, and this is what you'll generally find in shops. If you want a flour particularly for baking cakes, however, and you see "cake flour" or "soft flour", these are ideal. I tend not to use self-raising flour because I've found variations in the potency of raising agents in different brands. I prefer to use plain flour and add baking powder according to the amount specified by the manufacturer.

The other thing I'll say about flour is that freshness is important. I recently bought some flour from a store that obviously doesn't sell much in the way of produce, only to find it was quite stale when I opened the packet. Staleness will definitely come through in your finished baked goodies, so try to buy from shops where you know the turnover is high.

Back to those cakes at the Whittlesea Show, and if I ask why they tasted so good, it's all about quality ingredients and the care and skill of the cook. I look forward to passing these qualities on to my little girl.


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