Saturday, 11 December 2010
Is it worth baking your own cakes?
I baked a really brilliant cake last weekend. No credit to me - I'm not a great baker - but the recipe came from my friend and erstwhile commissioning editor Sarah Randell, who is.
Sarah has been brought up in the Delia school of patient and exhaustive recipe testing - she used to work on Delia's books, hence the unusual credit on the front of her own new book Weekend Baking. (Delia almost never gives endorsements for cookery books.) She's now the Food Director of Sainsbury's magazine (which is where I worked for her) and tweets as @sarahbonviveur for those of you who are on Twitter.
The cake's particularly delicious taste owes a great deal to the amount of dried fruit in it and the agave nectar, a natural fructose sweetener. It's an ingredient you might well not have at home which got me thinking about the cost of baking.
No doubt about it, it costs more to bake your own cakes than buy them ready made, particularly fruit cakes. They obviously taste much, much better, make the kitchen smell great, give you a glow of satisfaction and probably feed more people than a shop-bought cake - but those people will probably eat far more than they would of a shop-bought cake as well.
I know baking is more about love than economics but what is the frugal cook to do? Adapt the recipe to use ingredients you already have for a start. Sarah already suggests a range of different nuts so you could use what you have, toasting them first if they've been hanging around the cupboards for a while. I didn't have prunes so I used apricots and figs instead which was lovely. And I didn't give the cake its final crust of crushed sugar lumps but used the demerara sugar I had instead.
The other strategy is to find another way to use the ingredients you have had to buy, such as the agave nectar. The most obvious being to make another cake and as we're not mad about conventional Christmas cake I plan to make this again instead. (Sarah suggests that if you want to make the cake more celebratory you can brush warm, smooth apricot jam over it and decorate it with small dried apricots and pecan halves.) And there are shedloads of suggestions if you Google 'agave nectar recipes'.
There's also the question of tins. I didn't have the 18 cm square tin that Sarah recommended so used a round 21cm tin instead. It made the cake slightly shallower than it should have been but it was fine. If you're an infrequent or inexperienced baker it's easy to fall into the trap of feeling you have to buy a new tin every time you make a cake. There's a useful chart on how to adjust the size you use here. (I should ideally have used a 20cm round tin)
Anyway, try it - for Christmas or not - it's a really great recipe.
Sarah's Simple Fruit Cake
100 g ready-to-eat dried apricots or figs
125 g stoned, soft Agen prunes
125 g shelled pecan nuts, almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts, or a mixture
150 g butter, softened
125 g light brown soft sugar
175 g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
150 g sultanas
juice and zest of 1 orange
juice and zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 tablespoons agave nectar (or runny honey)
2 pure cane rough-cut sugar cubes, roughly crushed
an 18-cm square tin, 7 cm deep, lined with baking parchment and buttered
Preheat the oven to 150˚C (300˚F) Gas 2.
Using scissors, snip the dried apricots and the prunes into small pieces. Roughly chop the nuts.
Put the butter and sugar in an electric mixer (or use a large mixing bowl and an electric whisk) and beat until combined and fluffy.
Sift the flour and cinnamon into another bowl.
Add the flour mixture and beaten eggs alternately to the butter and sugar, whisking on a low setting all the time.
Using a large metal or wooden spoon, stir in the chopped fruit and nuts, the sultanas, orange and lemon juices and zests and the agave nectar. Mix well.
Tip the mixture into the prepared tin and spread it evenly with a spatula.
Sprinkle the crushed sugar over the cake, then bake in the preheated oven for 1 1/4 hours. Leave to cool in the tin.
Recipe taken from Weekend Baking by Sarah Randell, published by Ryland Peters &Small £16.99.
Do you regard the cost of home baking as an issue? If so how do you keep down the cost? Do you ever feel it's simpler/easier to buy a ready-made cake or does the pleasure of baking your own generally outweigh that?