Go ahead and ask anyone who knows me and they’ll happily laugh in your face if you ask them about my past baking escapades. Nutella chocolate chip cookies? Apparently adding a whole jar of Nutella to the regular recipe is not how you do it. My misfortune extends into general cooking as well – I have a longstanding fear of chicken after all the times I’ve messed it up.
Now, this isn’t to say that I haven’t tried tried again over the years, because believe me I have. I find that I always get too experimental while baking, which requires being more exact, and too exact while cooking, which allows for being experimental.
Let’s quickly talk about the encore though because that certainly is something I excel in: I’ve been eating very well while here in West Cork. Georgie, my hostess, makes sure of that with whatever her berry crumble compote with homemade vanilla ice cream was last week (which I can confidently say I ate about half the pan of). And then there’s Fiona, the housekeeper here at Inish Beg, who (amongst many other kind things she does for me) has graciously invited me to family birthday gatherings with the headliners being her scrumptious cakes. If I didn’t know any better I’d say I’ve stepped right into the only child version of Hansel & Gretel.
This past weekend the Estate (Georgie and Fiona) was literally catering to a very large hen party and I had the extreme pleasure of being allowed to help out. Friday afternoon was spent preparing soup, main course, and dessert (though they call it “pudding” over here) for 26 hungry hens. While I helped with little bits and pieces of the main dishes, the two things I worked on in full were the loaves of Ciabatta bread and Parmesan Shortbread cookies (“biscuits”). Thankfully, Georgie and Fiona were constant fixtures in the kitchen so I was never lost for guidance. They’re seasoned professionals (are you having that???) in cooking and baking so many a word of wisdom was offered to a novice like me.
Throughout the afternoon I made a mental note of those little tips they told and showed me. While I’m confident that a few of them slipped through this flour-sifter-excuse-for-a-brain of mine, I hope you’re able to learn something useful from the list I’ve compiled here!
Check your ingredients before you start the cooking / mixing / baking / any preparation process. Seems pretty obvious, but I’ve messed this up with cereal before and that’s literally only two ingredients so I try to keep drilling it in and maybe you should too.
Pour the uncooked rice into the pot of boiling water, don’t pour the boiling water onto the pot of uncooked rice. This prevents the rice from sticking to the pan. However, you should also stir it to be on the sticking safe side because it can still happen. Not speaking from personal experience here, definitely not.
Clean your kitchen as you go. This was especially relevant given the amount of cooking we were doing throughout the day but in general I can see how nice it is to have everything tidied and put away when the fruit of your labor is ready to be enjoyed.
When a recipe calls for warm water, it means it should be on the border of just warm enough to not burn you when you put your fingers in it.
As you roll your dough, rotate it in a circle to keep it from sticking to the table. Assuming you already know to flour the surface you’re rolling on, put some flour on the rolling pin to keep it from sticking to that too. Also a little bit on your hands can’t hurt…
Pack your tablespoons.
Oil everything when letting bread sit to rise. Similar to the whole flour concept, it’ll just make your life easier when you’re pulling it out of the bowl. Dough is incredibly sticky, who knew?
Save the foils from butter to use as an easy tool for greasing pans.
Give your bread a little tap on it’s underbelly when the bake time is up and if it sounds hollow, it’s done. The loaves we made were a bit thicker than the recipe had called for so Georgie turned them onto their backs for a few minutes to make sure the bottom cooked all the way through.
Fan ovens work best for baking. I’ve actually never even heard of a fan oven until I came over here. The circulation of the heat is really great for making your cakes and things bake evenly.
Egg whites are finished being whipped when you flip the bowl upside-down and they stay put. I had a mini heart attack watching Fiona test this one, I’ll be honest. Also as a side note, imagine how long it took to whip egg whites back in the pre-electric mixer days…
Taste test everything.
One of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced is watching the loaves of bread, my loaves of bread if you will, come out of the oven all goldened and ready to eat. It’s one thing to dump a box of mix into a bread maker; it’s a whole other thing to work in all the individual ingredients and watch it rise before coming to fruition in a good old fashioned oven.
These tips have certainly helped inspire me to feel more confident, but I can’t say I’ll be hosting any 5-course dinners at my place in the near future. It was so much fun to watch and learn from two incredibly talented women such as Georgie and Fiona and I got a lot out of the experience.
But my favorite thing of all that I learned about cooking and baking?
It’s as easy as bread & biscuits.