It's taken me 30 years to learn how to line a cake tin properly. It's not that I'm not a good baker - my friends and family would say I am - it's just there are some things that real experts naturally know. Like lining a square tin. Snipping the annoying, bulky corner bit so that it overlaps and sits neatly (or flush to the tin) is where Anneka Manning has it over me.
It's halfway through Manning's class at BakeClub, her Sydney cooking school, that I have the cake-tin revelation. But it's been a class full of clever tips, as is evident from my scribbled notes all over the attractively designed recipes she gives us.
We're looking at ''Healthy Lunch Box'' baking in today's class, and Manning kicks off, in her chatty style, comparing the ingredients in a home-baked muffin (which usually has flour, sugar, eggs, milk, vanilla and chocolate or fruit) with a commercially made one (which might include those six basic ingredients plus a dizzyingly long and scary list of food colourings, flavours and/or flavour enhancers, preservatives, salt and sweeteners and a few things, like humectant, which we've never heard of). With home baking, she points out, you know exactly what's going into your food and you have control over it.
Of the four sweet and one savoury recipes she demonstrates - banana bread; chocolate-chip-and-oat biscuits; apple-and-berry muffins; honey-and-nut muesli bars; and frittatas - only the first two contain sugar. Natural honey is her preferred sweetener in the others. Another tip that resonates with me is that you can substitute honey for sugar in virtually every baking recipe; you just have know how to adjust quantities accordingly.
Manning is on a mission to get real baking into every Australian home. She has the experience to back up her intent, having trained as a home economist and worked for more than 20 years as a food editor and recipe writer for leading food publications, as well as writing and publishing several cookbooks.
There are three main reasons people don't bake, she says: lack of time, lack of skill or lack of confidence. Her recently published book, Bake, Eat, Love and her BakeClub classes, videos and website examine each of these issues. In the book she talks about the benefits of home baking - it's not only healthier but it has emotional benefits too, especially if the cooking experience can be shared between generations or among friends.
While the class and the book can easily be viewed as Baking 101, Manning stresses the point that even passionate, competent cooks don't always feel confident when it comes to baking, because they haven't been taught properly and don't fully understand the techniques involved.
Her nine-lesson plan, developed through a lifetime of baking, is the point of difference with most other baking books. She guides readers through the various techniques, from a one bowl, one wooden spoon method (that any child could master), to folding, creaming, rubbing-in, whisking egg whites, whisking whole eggs and sugar, and kneading, with recipes that use each of the methods. ''Its all based on the mixing methods,'' she says. ''Lessons are structured - people should work through it at their own pace. But they shouldn't try to skip.''
For Manning, baking has always come naturally. ''It's something I do to relax,'' she says. Her cooking career started when she was in primary school and living on a sheep-and-cattle property at Delegate, near Cooma. She started with some successful cake entries in the local show. This was the type of competition that really mattered before celebrity chefs and television cooking shows came into our lives.
''I learnt how to bake from the CWA cookbooks and the Women's Weekly,'' she says. Manning still has a copy of her mother's CWA The Coronation cookbook which she uses for ''basic, yummy things'' like tea cake and sultana cake. ''We've got too caught up with all the fancy stuff,'' she says. ''In this world of technology, we can see what all the chefs are doing - but we've forgotten about simple things.''
Her recipes, designed for busy mums, are simple but special, she says. ''They are special not because they look like an art work but because they've been made at home.''
Reasons why people don't bake, and where they go wrong.
1. Thinking you have to bake something fancy. Don't overcomplicate things, and remember that simplicity, especially when you are baking, can be the key.
2. Using a bad recipe. Not all recipes work. A good recipe will be easy to follow and never leave you feeling lost.
3. Using a recipe that's beyond your skill level. Choose one that is matched to your baking ability and supplies. As your skills grow, so will your repertoire.
4. Not following the recipe. Stay true to the recipe and try not to deviate until you are familiar with the results.
5. Starting to bake before you're ready. Read your recipe; adjust your oven racks, preheat the oven, prepare your cake tins, get all your ingredients and equipment ready.
6. Underestimating the importance of measuring. Baking is a science that relies heavily on accuracy. Use reliable scales, measuring jugs, cups and spoons. And measure your cake tins, too. Using a tin that's too big or too small can make a big difference to the cooking time and the end result.
7. Not using a timer. Don't just keep an eye on the clock. It's easy to get distracted and spoil your cake.
8. Getting disheartened when things don't work out. Learning from your mistakes will make you a better baker in the long run.
Doubling up: Have two sets of measuring cups and spoons so you can pre-measure ingredients and don't have to stop to wash up a cup or spoon at a crucial moment.
Measure up: In Australia, the standard measuring tablespoon holds four teaspoons or 20 millilitres. In the US and Britain, a tablespoon is three teaspoons or 15 millilitres. Check your spoons and adjust the quantities if necessary.
Telling plain flour from self-raising flour: If you get them mixed up put a little of each on your tongue, one at a time. The one that tingles and fizzes is the self-raising flour.
Swapping dry and fresh yeast: Dry and fresh yeast are interchangeable in recipes. Just remember, you will need to use twice as much fresh yeast (by weight) than dry.
Substitute honey for sugar: Use the same weight of honey as sugar, but for every half cup (110 grams) of sugar, reduce the liquid component (milk or buttermilk) by one tablespoon.
No need to grease: When cooking pies and tarts, you generally don't need to grease the tin because the high butter content in pastry helps prevent it from sticking.
Care for your bakeware: Clean all cake tins and baking trays in hot, soapy water then rinse well and place in a low oven (about 100C) to dry before storing.
Melt ’n’ mix caramel walnut cake
This recipe is a great ‘‘standby’’ one that is perfect to whip up at a moment’s notice — it makes a particularly good treat for cake stalls and to take on picnics. The best thing about this cake (if you omit the buttercream and just sprinkle it with icing sugar) is you don’t need any special equipment — just asaucepan and a wooden spoon.
200g (1 cup, firmly packed) brown sugar
100g butter, cubed
1 egg, lightly whisked
75g (3/4 cup) coarsely chopped walnuts
150g (1 cup) self-raising flour
100g butter, softened
115g (1/3 cup) golden syrup
110g (3/4 cup) icing sugar, sifted
1. Preheat the oven to 170C. Grease a 9.5cm x 20cm (base measurement) loaf tin and line the base and long sides with one piece of non-stick baking paper, allowing it to overhang the sides.
2. Place the brown sugar, butter and milk in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the butter just melts. Remove from the heat. Use a wooden spoon or balloon whisk to stir in the egg and walnuts. Add the flour and stir until justcombined.
3. Pour the mixture into the tin and smooth the surface with the back of aspoon.
4. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until askewer inserted in the centre comes outclean. Stand for five minutes before turningout onto a wire rack for the cake to cool completely.
5. To make the caramel buttercream, use an electric mixer to beat the butter and golden syrup in a medium bowl until pale and creamy.
6. Add the icing sugar and beat until well combined and very creamy.
7. Spread the cooled cake with the buttercream and serve cut into slices.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Baking time: 30-35 minutes
•This cake will keep in an airtight container in a cool place (but not in the fridge) for up to two days.
• This cake can be frozen before it’s iced. Wrap it well in plastic wrap and then seal in an airtight container or freezer bag. Label and date, and freeze for up to threemonths. Thaw at room temperature.
Copyright Anneka Manning
Home-made honey muesli bars
This muesli bar recipe isa great one to have on hand. Perfect for lunch boxes, it also helps you avoid all those additives that many of the commercially made ones contain. The nuts can be left out and replaced with more dried fruit. Sultanas, raisins and chopped dried peaches all work well.
125ml (1/2 cup) light olive oil or sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing
180ml (260g or 3/4 cup) good-quality honey
250g (2 1/2 cups) rolled oats
30g (1 1/2 cups) puffed millet
60g (2/3 cup) desiccated coconut
1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
55g (1/3 cup) sweetened dried cranberries
75g (1/2 cup) currants
80g (1/2 cup) raw almonds, coarsely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 140C. Grease a 20cm x 30cm shallow-slice tin with oil and line with non-stick bakingpaper.
2. Put honey and oil in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir until well combined and heated through. Set aside.
3. Combine the rolled oats, millet, coconut, cinnamon, cranberries, currants and almonds in a large bowl. Add the honey mixture and stir with a wooden spoon to combine evenly.
4. Press the mixture firmly and evenly into the lined tin. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until dark golden. Cool in the tin before cutting into bars.
Makes 24 bars
Preparation time 15 minutes
Baking time 45-50 minutes
These muesli bars will keep in an airtight container for up to one week.
Apple and berry muffins
These muffins make a high-energy, high-carb, healthy snack perfect for active kids. Keep them in the freezer and throw them into your lunch boxes – by mid-morning they will have thawed and be ready to bedevoured.
150g (1 cup) white self-raising flour
150g (1 cup) wholemeal self-raising flour
1.5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
55g (1/2 cup) unprocessed oat bran
150g fresh or frozen raspberries, blueberries or mixed berries
1 large ripe banana (about 230g)
1 medium apple (about 120g), such as pink lady, royal gala or golden delicious, unpeeled
125ml (175g or 1/2 cup) quality honey
2 eggs, lightly whisked
60ml (1/4 cup) buttermilk
100ml sunflower, light olive or saffloweroil
1 teaspoon natural vanilla essence
1. Preheat the oven to 190C. Line a 12-hole medium (80ml or 1/3 cup) muffin tray with paper cases.
2. Sift together the white flour, wholemeal flour and cinnamon into a large mixing bowl, returning any husks to the flour. Stir in the oat bran and berries. Make a well in the centre and set aside.
3. Use a fork to mash the banana in a medium-sized bowl. Core and coarsely grate the unpeeled apple and add to the banana. Add honey, eggs, buttermilk, oil and vanilla and stir well. Add to the flour mixture and fold together with a spatula or large metal spoon until just combined.
4. Spoon the mixture evenly into the paper cases. Bake in the preheated oven for 20–25 minutes or until a skewer inserted into one of the muffins comes out clean. Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Preparation time 20 minutes
Baking time 20–25 minutes
• Keep these muffins in an airtight container for up to one day.
• To freeze, wrap the muffins individually in plastic wrap and then freeze in batches in sealed freezer bags or an airtight container for up to one month.
Bake, Eat, Love ($24.95) is available from bakeclub.com.au. Anneka Manning's demonstration and hands-on cooking classes include gluten-free baking and ''No Time to Bake'' and ''Let's Eat Cake'' courses.