How do you know if your oven is performing as it should? (The answer might lie in a batch of scones!) How do you turn plain flour into self-raising flour? How do you get a crisp – not soggy – pastry bottom on a pie?
Lyndey Milan knows – and loves – baking. The popular TV host and author has been helping home cooks discover the joys of cooking for years, and along the way she’s gathered a wealth of knowledge. In Lyndey Milan’s Baking Secrets (weeknights 6pm on SBS Food from 16 June), she shares great recipes, from maple-glazed baked doughnuts to perfect pies, and excellent baking advice too.
Here’s our round-up of 11 of the best baking tips from this home-cook hero:
Bake scones to test your oven temperature
“Your oven… it’s got pride of place in your kitchen, but do you really know it and are you getting the best out of it?” Milan asks in Baking Secrets, before sharing a few tips and tricks. “First of all, if you’re making cupcakes or muffins or cakes, always put it in the middle shelf. My mum always said make sure the bottom is right in the middle. If you’re making pies or bread, put it on the bottom shelf because you want a nice crisp base - unless the recipe says otherwise. But, best of all, you can do what I do, I have an oven thermometer that I keep in my oven. So every time I preheat it, I can see if it’s the right temperature. But if you haven’t got one of those, make up a batch of scones - great thing to do anyway! If they cook at 220 degrees in less than 12 minutes, your oven is way too hot. And if they take longer than 15-20, then it’s too cold. So you can adjust your oven up or down.” (Try Milan’s caramelised pear scones, from Episode 6 of Baking Secrets.)
Oh no, I’ve run out of ….
Ever gone to bake and discovered you’re out of caster sugar, or icing sugar? “I like to use caster sugar in cakes because it dissolves better and makes it really light and fluffy. If you - like me - have ever been caught without caster sugar… let me show you what you can do,” Milan says as she demonstrates the solution in Baking Secrets. “We will tip some normal sugar into the food processor and blitz it to make caster sugar. In a powerful machine it doesn’t take long. Now, if you really want some icing sugar, just keep going.”
And if you’ve got your heart set on making a cake and you’re out of self-raising flour, here’s the formula for making your own. Take a cup of plain flour, put in two teaspoons of baking powder, then sift them together. Milan also has a tip for figuring out which is which. “Has this ever happened to you? You’ve taken your flour out of the cupboard and then you don’t know which one’s plain and which one’s self-raising. You could taste them, because the self-raising flour will taste a little bit saltier and it also doesn’t clump together like plain flour. But there’s a great test that you can do,” Milan says. Mix a little of each flour with some plain white vinegar, in separate cups. “The one that is self-raising will just foam a little bit.”
“If you’ve ever been frightened about pastry, this is the one for you.”
Beginner bakers – or anyone looking for a quick, easy pie pastry – say hello to Milan’s olive oil pasty. “My very favourite kitchen essential is olive oil and I use it every single day, and while it may not traditionally be associated with baking, I find it gives a richness and intensity that I just love,” she says, while making her open-top Mediterranean roast vegetable and goat cheese pie. “If you’ve ever been frightened about pastry, this is the one for you, because it’s simple, simple, simple.” Not only does it use just four ingredients – plain flour, salt, olive oil and water – but you don’t even have to roll it out. “You don’t have to worry about rolling it out or being fancy. You can just push it into shape.”
For pastry that does need rolling, Milan’s tip is to use baking paper. After making the pastry, wrap it in plastic wrap and rest it in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. “Then, take it out, and my tip is to roll it out between two pieces of baking paper - especially if it’s got a lot of butter in it. It just makes it a lot easier. Then when you line your tin, it’s a really good idea to put it back in the fridge again for about 15 minutes before you go to blind bake it. Do that and you’ll have perfect pastry every time.” It’s a technique she uses in her beef and red wine pies, and in the chocolate pastry she uses in her chocolate ganache tart.
No soggy bottom!
Blind baking is a key part of making a great pie, as Milan explains in the Pies & Puds episode of Baking Secrets.
“For me, a really good pie always has a crisp bottom, not a soggy one. So, to do that you want to blind bake your pastry base first.” There are a few ways of doing it. One is to line the pie tin with pastry, and then cover the pastry with crumpled baking paper and weight it down. “I like to crinkle up my baking paper because then it gets to all the edges. Put in some lentils or dried beans or pastry weights, bake it in the oven for about 15 minutes and then what you do is lift [the paper and beans] out and pop it [the pastry] back in the for about five minutes to brown. It’s a slow drying out of the pastry.
“As you might imagine, I’ve got a couple of shortcuts as well. One is you can line your pie tin with your pastry and then prick it all over, really vigorously, and then put it in the freezer - before you bake it - because it starts to cook before it can shrink. Then my favourite tip - because I love to use butter puff pastry, because I love its flavour - is to use that for a base and not just a top.” With that, she says, line the tin with pastry, prick it, and then put another pie tin of the same shape on top. “You can even weight that down. That goes in the oven for about 15 minutes and then dries out like that. If you do that you’ll always have pies with beautiful, beautiful crisp bases.”
The best way to soften butter quickly
Ever wondered by so many recipes say to cube butter? As Milan explains in Baking Secrets, and while making Guinness crème brulee with Irish whiskey snaps in Lyndey Milan’s Taste of Ireland (double episodes Saturday’s 6.30pm on SBS Food from June 15), cubed butter melts more evenly and quickly than large uneven chunks.
Another tip: “Keep it covered in the fridge either in its original wrapping, in a butter dish or wrapped in plastic wrap,” Milan says. “You can freeze it if you want to. But, if you do, don’t try to soften it in the microwave. It will lose its emulsion. Much better to cut it up into cubes and let it soften that way. But if you’re making pastry and you’ve forgotten to take it out of the freezer or you want to use it hard from the fridge, here is my favourite tip. Just grate it.” The grated butter will then be soft enough to beat with sugar in a cake or biscuit recipe, or rub into a pastry or dough – such as her French savoury brioche tear-and-share loaf, flavoured with garlic, herbs and cheese.
Are your eggs still okay to use?
“Keep them in the fridge, they stay much fresher, and store them in the box because the shells are quite porous and they can absorb aromas and flavours. And, then, if you want to see how fresh they are, you can just pop them in a bowl of water. If they’re fresh they sink to the bottom - because they’re heavier - and if they’re not so fresh, they’ll rise to the top,” Milan says. Eggs that float should be discarded. (You can read more fun facts about eggs on Milan’s website here).
“It’s all about the icing.”
Ever iced a cake and ended up with crumbs in the icing? Or worried that you can’t get the surface smooth? Here’s how to avoid the first – and reassurance that a rustic finish is lovely too. “First impressions count and when it comes to cakes, for a lot of people, it’s all about the icing,” Milan says. First, place strips of baking paper on the plate on which you are going to decorate the cake, forming a rough circle, and place the cake on top (this will keep the plate clean and give a neat bottom edge to the icing). The strips should be sitting under, and extending a little outside of, the base of the cake. If you’ve got a lazy Susan, placing the plated cake on that will make icing the cake easier. The first step is to cover the cake in a thin layer of icing and put it in the fridge for half an hour or so. That hardens the icing, and avoids any crumbs getting into the main layer of icing. Then use a spatula dipped in hot water to ice the cake, as that will make applying and smoothing easier. Ice the sides and then the top. You can use the spatula to achieve a smooth like, decorating combs to give patterns, or deliberately create a free-form icing. “Some people do like it really nice and smooth. I’m a bit of a rough and ready girl. I quite like it looking rustic,” Milan says. Once you’ve finished icing, carefully remove the baking paper.
Making a frosting with melted chocolate? Let the chocolate cool a little before adding to other ingredients. "You don’t want to add hot white chocolate to cold cream cheese or it could seize,” Milan explains in the first episode of Baking Secrets, as she demonstrates how to make her indulgent cupcakes topped with white chocolate icing and honeycomb.
The key to perfect meringue is an absolutely clean bowl. "First and foremost - as my Mum taught me - really clean beaters and a really clean bowl. If it’s not scrupulously clean, wipe it out with some lemon juice or even some vinegar before you start. Then start slow… you can finish fast,” Milan explains. “Make sure your egg whites are foamy before you even start to put the sugar in. Just a tablespoon full at a time. Don’t be tempted to dump it all in.” (Put these tips to good use in Milan’s luscious ginger layer cake with chocolate olive oil ganache and honeycomb cream.)
Every pancake perfect
“Now a lot of people find they have to throw out the first crepe or pancake when they make one. But I've got a technique that I find means that I don't, and it's quite simple,” Milan says in Taste of Ireland, while making drop scones (much like a pikelet), which she serves with a quick berry compote. “You pop some butter in the pan and you really do need to make sure that it melts. Now, this is all you need to do, is to actually wipe it out. I find it's the excess of butter that often means that it won't cook evenly.”
Is my cake properly cooked?
There are three ways to tell, Milan says. “First of all, usually, a cooked cake will shrink back from the edge of your pan. Secondly, you can touch the middle gently, with your finger, and if it bounces back it’s usually cooked. If you’re really not sure, use a skewer into the thickest part of the cake, draw it out slowly and if no mixture sticks to it, then it’s well cooked.”
Want more great ideas? Watch Lyndey Milan’s Baking Secrets 6pm weeknights from June 16 and double episodes of Lyndey Milan’s Taste of Ireland Saturdays at 6.30pm from 15 June. Baking Secrets is part of SBS Food Channel 33’s Sweet Treats month, with shows packed with sweets, baking, and chocolate 6pm every night from June 3, then on SBS On Demand.
I am using many of the ingredients we saw in Kalamata market in a modern but nonetheless Greek way. This recipe for spinach pie is one of the classics of Greek cuisine. It can also be made in small triangles and is served as part of a mezze, or is an important part of the Lenten menu. Made with Kate on Kythira, these are traditional sweets, a specialty of the island, featuring its legendary honey. They are really more like a biscuit – crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. For a firmer biscuit, after 20 minutes in the oven, reduce the temperature to 160°C and cook for further 10 minutes.
I am using many of the ingredients we saw in Kalamata market in a modern but nonetheless Greek way.
This recipe for spinach pie is one of the classics of Greek cuisine. It can also be made in small triangles and is served as part of a mezze, or is an important part of the Lenten menu.
Made with Kate on Kythira, these are traditional sweets, a specialty of the island, featuring its legendary honey. They are really more like a biscuit – crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. For a firmer biscuit, after 20 minutes in the oven, reduce the temperature to 160°C and cook for further 10 minutes.