Rachel Allen, Fairy Cakes and Me.


Rachel Allen has been writing and broadcasting about food for over a decade.  She has written several bestselling books on baking and is an established cookery teacher.  To say the least, she knows a thing or two about baking sponges.  She is also incredibly giving with her time and agreed to meet me to talk about everything ‘sponge’!

Rachel and I discuss the perfect sponge.

Firstly we discussed using quality ingredients.  If you have only four ingredients you must use good quality ones to get good results.  So use decent caster sugar, self raising flour, free range eggs with really yellow yolks and finally good quality unsalted butter.  Do not use margarine!

N.B. All these ingredients should be at room temperature before you start.

Weigh your eggs in their shells and then weigh equal quantities of your butter, flour and sugar.  In many recipes you will see the number of eggs given to a quantity of the other ingredients.  Think about this for a moment, if you are using free range, organic eggs they may well come in very different sizes.  Don’t confuse them with the battery farmed ‘single size’ supermarket ones.  If we understand that baking is a science and ratios of ingredients are important then it makes sense to get equal weights.

Secondly, regarding technique, you really need to cream your butter and sugar well to incorporate all those air bubbles.  This takes time so stick with it.  Use a large bowl to really get the butter beaten well.  The butter / sugar mix will go a much paler colour as the bubbles build up.

Have your eggs beaten together in a bowl separately before adding to your mixture.  This will break the eggs up and help them incorporate into the butter.

At the next stage make sure you ‘fold’ the sieved flour into the mixture and don’t beat any more.  We need to keep the bubbles in there that we have taken so much effort to create.   Tip the bowl up at one side and slide the spoon under the mix and fold it over to mix the flour through.  I find it best to use a big metal spoon at this stage as it has a wider surface area and sharper edge than a wooden one which helps with the folding motion.  This is another reason why a big bowl is important as you can get a bigger ‘folding’ motion going.

How do you know if your sponge batter is right?  Lift up a spoonful and it should drop back off the spoon into the bowl with reasonable ease.  If it doesn’t, add a little milk until it does.  Bit by bit as you don’t want to over do it!

We discussed ovens.  As I have said before, ovens vary in their temperature and you may need to experiment.  Do not be afraid of failure.   Rachel reiterated this and said that practice is crucial.  Remember also that the size of your fairy cakes may vary depending on the size of cases you buy.  They are all quite different and the producers spend more time on making them look pretty than they do stating the size.

The cooking time is important when it comes to the rise of the sponge.  As the egg forms a rigid coating to the bubbles it must be given time for the proteins to set.  Think about how an egg toughens as you fry it.  Therefore, if the oven door is opened too early, the egg collapses around the bubble and the sponge deflates.

I asked Rachel about my belief that we should initially learn how to bake without using electric beaters or mixers.  She agreed with this saying that we then understand what we are looking for at each stage a little better.  We are in closer contact with the ingredients and can spot changes during the process better.

Bearing in mind all of Rachel’s advice let’s make fairycakes!


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