Baking masterclass: Go bake to basics with Charlotte Ree

Queen of tarts: Charlotte Ree with shortbread jam tarts from her new book.
Queen of tarts: Charlotte Ree with shortbread jam tarts from her new book. Photo: Luisa Brimble

My name is Charlotte Ree and I am an avid baker. When I am not baking, I am normally travelling as part of my day job as communications manager for a book publisher.

I get such a great deal of pleasure from the process of baking. I discovered a love for it as a way to not only nail my sweet cravings, but to unwind after a busy working week. There is something truly wonderful about taking the time to stop and focus, put your phone away and get swept up in a recipe – even if it is 1am! Baking is a way for me to de-stress, decompress and the benefits are not only in the process of baking, but in the gifting of it, too. You can feel so much joy and sheer satisfaction in presenting someone with a classic, homemade cake.

Just Desserts by Charlotte Ree.
Just Desserts by Charlotte Ree. Photo: Plum Books

I believe strongly in baking from scratch, going back to basics with the classic flavours and techniques that our grandparents perfected. Some of my earliest memories are spent sitting on my nanny's kitchen counter licking batter from a spatula as we made jam drops together. Morning teas spent with her were simple, delicious and on the table in no more than 30 minutes.

As a result I am a no-fuss baker. The purpose of my baking is to show people that good, delicious, mouth-watering recipes do not have to be complicated. My book aims to fill your baking arsenal with simple, tried-and-tested, trustworthy staples that you can bake day in, day out.

I want to encourage first-time bakers, existing bakers, and anyone who thinks there is no chance they could ever bake, that getting back to basics, making classic recipes from our childhoods, is the perfect way to ground you and bake joy into your life.

Ree has launched her baking book, Just Desserts.
Ree has launched her baking book, Just Desserts. Photo: Luisa Brimble

My baking non-negotiables

1. Read through a new recipe in its entirety before you begin

Make sure you have all of the ingredients and equipment and have allocated the time needed. Baking is a science and so you will want to follow the method to the tee to ensure you end up with a cake that is risen, moist and delicious.

2. Remember that no two ovens are the same

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It may be worthwhile getting your hands on an oven thermometer to check your oven temperature – you can also use it to check for hot spots to avoid burning your cakes. My beautiful friend, Nadine Ingram, from Sydney bakers Flour and Stone, taught me that the most important rule of thumb when it comes to baking is to follow your intuition and there is no better time to do this than when it comes to your oven. Use the cooking time for each recipe as a guide only, with the view to check on what you're baking about 10 to 15 minutes before the stated finish time. If you are baking cookies or layer cakes, you will want to swap/turn the trays halfway through to ensure they bake evenly. When checking or turning your cakes, be sure to open your oven for the least amount of time possible to prevent heat loss.

3. Use a bamboo or wooden skewer to test your cakes

Insert it into the middle of the cake – if it comes out clean then the cake is cooked (avoid metal skewers as they are slippery). If you notice that your cake is cooking too quickly on top and not all the way through, you can cover the top of it with foil to prevent it from burning.

You'll need a rectangular tin for baking brownies.
You'll need a rectangular tin for baking brownies. Photo: Luisa Brimble

4. A stand mixer is your best investment as a baker

I simply could not live without my mine. The benefit is that you don't need to be beating, creaming, folding or whisking as the mixer does it for you. Instead, you can use that time like I do – to wash dishes, tidy the kitchen and prepare for the next steps of your recipe. It also means you are more likely to bake as the process isn't so time-consuming. If you are only just beginning to dabble in baking and don't want to make the commitment to a stand mixer just yet, simply use hand-held electric beaters. They are small, convenient, inexpensive and easily transportable. I often take mine on holidays with me.

Helen Goh's banana, coffee and cardamom bundt cake with coffee caramel.

Decorative Bundt tins come in all shapes and sizes. Photo: William Meppem

Ree's peach, raspberry tray cake - or just roast or poach the fruit for a simpler dessert.
Ree's peach, raspberry tray cake - or just roast or poach the fruit for a simpler dessert. Photo: Luisa Brimble

Five cake tins that everyone should own

The following cake tins are my favourites, but don't stress if you're missing any; my recipes are very flexible.

  1. 20cm or 22cm springform tin
  2. 33cm x 23cm x 6cm rectangular tray tin
  3. 20cm x 5cm square tin
  4. Two rectangular baking trays
  5. Classic Bundt tin (my favourite is the Party shaped Bundt)

A Bundt tin is a magical cake tin that looks more like a piece of art than your regular bakeware. Bundt tins come in all shapes and sizes and you can, though, use springform tins instead.

Useful items to have in your kit

  1. Apart from the stand mixer, a set of electric scales is the most important piece of equipment in my kitchen. They are so much more accurate and the best part is that you can place a mixing bowl on the scales and set it to tare (subtract the weight of the container) before you add each ingredient, allowing you to measure various ingredients of differing weights one after the other.
  2. Heat-resistant spatula to stir hot ingredients or scrape down bowls
  3. Balloon whisk
  4. Spoon measurements
  5. Measuring jug, either plastic or glass
  6. Large metal spoon to fold ingredients such as meringue together
  7. Large metal sieve to sift ingredients like cocoa powder and icing sugar
  8. Small metal sieve to dust and decorate desserts
  9. Palette knife for icing cakes (also handy for sliding under cakes and cookies to transfer from their trays to wire cooling racks)

Tips to make baking easier

Baking with ingredients at room temperature makes a huge difference to the final result. With butter that you may have forgotten to leave out overnight, you can either cut it into cubes or use a grater to speed up the softening process.

You will want to get into the habit of breaking your egg into a small bowl before adding to the cake batter to avoid egg shells or one bad egg ruining your cake entirely.

Before you begin baking, ensure you have greased and lined your cake tins or baking trays. It does not have to be complicated or difficult. For springform tins, simply cut a square of baking paper that is 5 cm bigger than your tin on each side and place on the base of the tin, then get the ring of the tin and place it tightly over the base so there are no wrinkles in the baking paper. Close the spring tightly and lock it into place. Generously spray the inside of the ring with a non-stick cooking spray.

Essential ingredients to have on hand for last-minute baking

Have some last-minute baking to do? I have eggs, plain flour, castor sugar, baking powder, vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste, cocoa powder and unsalted butter on hand at all times – 5kg of butter to be precise. With these ingredients you can bake almost anything, and to make something delicious you can throw in any seasonal fruit, too.

Actually, one of the simplest desserts I make is to roast or poach some fruit with vanilla bean paste – apples, pears, peaches, the choice is yours – and serve with vanilla ice-cream. So simple but so incredibly delicious.

Five recipes everyone should have in their repertoire

I am a no-fuss baker and good, delicious, mouth-watering recipes really do not have to be complicated. The tips above will build your confidence and show you just how simple it can be to create amazing desserts. Here are five sweet recipes I think every baker needs to have in their arsenal.

Just Desserts, by Charlotte Ree, is published by Plum, RRP $29.99. Photography by Luisa Brimble; styling by Lee Blaylock. Available in book shops and online from October 29, you can pre-order your copy now at charlotteree.com.

Ree will be in conversation at Kinokuniya, Sydney on October 29; at Cinema Nova with Readings Carlton, Melbourne on October 31; and at Riverbend Books, Brisbane on 5 November.