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
Serves 12

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?


Nethergreen said...

Baking your own cakes is considerably more economical than buying shop-made if by that you mean supermarket ones ones. Shop-made ones taste so chemically revolting and are so sweet that we won't eat them so it's a complete waste of money buying them :-) Besides - if I've made it then I know exactly what's in it, and I never use ingredients I can't pronounce!!

Enjoying your revived frugal blog

Unknown said...

I Agree .. Factory made shop sold cakes are revolting most of the time. but if you want to be frugal you just have to be careful what kind of cake you make and where you buy your ingredients.

Sarah said...

My fave is boiled fruit cake. So easy, so tolerant of sloppy mixing, it's a winner with my son too.

I don't like shop cakes, either, not even here in France where they are primarily made of sickly mousse.

Claudine In France said...

I prefer to bake rather than buy, simply because I find most shop-bought cakes to be far too sugary for my taste.
I almost always reduce the sugar content in fruitcakes by a third or even half, with no detriment to the taste.

Here in France, I will buy the occasional festive cake, the ones I know cannot easily be made at home. The tarte aux pommes, galette des rois, génoise or fondant au chocolat, I make at home, with no mousse, sickly or otherwise, in sight! ;)

Fiona Beckett said...

Well, I was being a little provocative but still - the cost of baking can mount up. And there are some decent shop bought cakes though I agree with you Frances and Claudine that they tend to be oversweet (but then some home-made recipes do too).

Boiled fruit cake made with mixed dried fruit is a good cheap option I agree, Sarah. I remember I used to make barm brack regularly. Also has the virtue of using up leftover tea!

You're also right Vanessa: the price of dried fruits also varies hugely depending on where and at what time of year you buy it. Health food shops - and particularly co-operatives - tend to be cheaper than supermarkets.

verity said...

Yes - I am as guilty of buying hings to try out a bake as I am of trying to think of bakes to make with what Ive got. We find home made bakes so much mrore satisfying. I like the sound of his recipe and I actually have agave nectar in the cupboard - it's v versatile, I use it as a vegan substiite for honey (when baking for a vegan friend) but often instead of golden syrup in flapjacks too

Anonymous said...

I find that like for like, quality for quality, making your own is much cheaper. Properly made shop bought cakes are expensive, it's just the muck that is cheap.

Frugality is about making the cakes that don't use expensive ingredients, the ones that last or get eaten very quickly, and bulk buying expensive ingredients when found at a bargain price.

I am crowing because I found a kilo of glace cherries for a fiver this weekend so I can make cherry cake. Delish.

Fiona Beckett said...

Someone just told me they baked it using golden syrup, Verity so it obviously works well with that too.

And like the sound of your bargain cherries @fairycakemother. That's definitely the way to go with baking

verity said...

I reckon this cake might work with honey too - I've made my christmas cake now and OH prefers chocolate anyway, but I shall give this recipe a go in the NY.

Fiona Beckett said...

I think honey might possibly have too assertive a flavour given all the dried fruit in it but you're the baking queen, Verity. Give it a go!

stools said...

It is not only more cost effective to bake your own cake but you can always be sure about the components. Not to speak about the amazing smell around the house!
Sweet for the mouth and sweet for the soul :)

faerie said...

I haven't bought a cake from the shops in almost 3 years now! Admittedly, that is partly because I am a poverty-stricken student at university... But my main reason is health reasons, the rubbish that is put in the cheaper cakes and bakes worries me a lot, especially when I can't pronounce most of it! I have figured a much cheaper baking method though, I rarely use butter any more, instead choosing to use coldpressed rapeseed oil, which is not only infinitely healthier but actually works out cheaper than butter as it never seems to go off and you use less than you would of butter. Plus, I think it tastes better and gave been assured of this by everyone who has tasted my feelgood banana/peanut butter muffins :)