Restrictions may be slowly relaxing across Australia but chances are we'll still be spending a good chunk of our time indoors for a while yet.
That means more time devoted to Insta-baking, fine-tuning that sourdough and making cakes before breakfast (never a bad idea).
So best surrender to the baking bug and brush up your kitchen skills while we still have the chance.
If you've never baked before, that's OK, says Sydney baking teacher and cookbook author Anneka Manning of Rosebery cooking school BakeClub. She has launched a self-guided online course that teaches beginners how to bake in 14 days.
Here, Manning shares her expertise on how to become a confident baker, regardless of your level of skill.
Learning from your mistakes will just make you a better baker in the long run.Anneka Manning, baking teacher and cookbook author
1. Match your baking ability
If you're new to baking, now's not the time to tackle that croquembouche or six-page croissant recipe. Classic homely baking is big right now, so don't be afraid to choose a simple recipe that matches your skills, equipment and ingredients, Manning says. That will set you up for success and help you develop basic confidence you can build on gradually in the months and years ahead. "Good recipes are quite often the simplest," she says. "Just because you're a beginner baker doesn't mean you can't produce something that everyone will want to eat and enjoy."
2. Use a reliable recipe
A good recipe should be easy to follow and never leave you feeling lost, whereas a bad one can lack important information or just be plain confusing. Worst of all, it will lead to a disappointing result. "Anyone can publish a recipe these days so not all recipes are equal and not all recipes are equally achievable," Manning says. She suggests looking for recipes that have all the ingredients in proper order, combine flavours well and are easy to read. Reliable sources such as a reputable website, book or newspaper, or recipes a friend recommends, are a good place to start.
3. Read your recipe and follow it
Before you crack an egg or start whisking, take a moment to read through your recipe and note any special ingredients, techniques and equipment. Make sure you follow the instructions closely, especially if this is your first attempt. "It may seem a boring thing [to do] because we all like to skip those little steps but taking two minutes to read [it] will make a world of difference," Manning says.
4. Collect all your ingredients and equipment
Make like a TV chef and have all your ingredients and utensils ready to go before you start cooking. "You're less likely to forget an ingredient that you're meant to be using," Manning says. "We've all done that - we've all left out baking powder or forgotten the milk and wondered why the batter was so sticky." Collecting all your equipment and ingredients to start with will also make the whole baking process so much more enjoyable, she says.
5. Bring butter and eggs to room temperature
Don't be tempted to cheat and use chilled butter or eggs when the recipe says otherwise as this will affect the texture and consistency of your bake. If you're short on time, Manning suggests coarsely grating butter to help soften it more quickly, or placing your eggs in a bowl of warm (not hot) water to nudge them along.
6. Adjust your oven racks and preheat your oven
Avoid scorched fingers and adjust your oven racks before preheating your oven so your cake will sit in the centre of the space. Allow at least 20 minutes for your oven to heat up - the more time, the more stable the temperature will be as it bakes. "Putting a bake into a cold oven will almost guarantee you a really dense, heavy, flat result," Manning says.
7. Prepare your cakes tins and trays
"There is nothing more frustrating than turning out a cake and finding the bottom half is stuck to the tin," Manning says. "There's always something you can do with [the pieces], but there's nothing better than turning it out and it comes out beautifully." So if a recipe says to grease, line or flour your tin or tray to prevent sticking, pay attention.
8. Measure accurately
It might seem obvious, but measuring ingredients accurately is one of the easiest ways to guarantee a good bake. Use reliable scales and proper measuring jugs, cups and spoons, and have a ruler handy for measuring tins. Take care when converting overseas measurements, especially with tablespoons, which measure 20ml in Australia but 15ml in many other countries. "When you learn how to measure and you're a little bit mindful and conscious of measuring accurately it's actually really easy and it becomes part of habit," Manning says. Once you've mastered measuring, you can then challenge yourself with more advanced techniques and recipes.
9. Use a timer
"Don't just keep an eye on the clock," Manning says. "It is too easy to lose track of time. A portable digital timer is invaluable - it will be accurate, easy to set and, unlike your oven timer, can be taken wherever you go if you want to leave the kitchen briefly."
10. Don't get disheartened when things go wrong
"Don't worry if it doesn't work out," Manning says. "Quite often [my students] learn more from their mistakes than they do from their successes … Baking is like any new skill that you're learning - you're always going to learn every time that you do it." Don't presume you can't bake if you make a mistake and, most importantly, don't stop baking, she says. Instead, try to work out what went wrong and give it another go. "Learning from your mistakes will just make you a better baker in the long run."
Anneka Manning's BakeSchool: Basics course is available at bakeclub.com.au/products/bakeschool-basic
Rich, decadent, totally addictive and, best of all, dead-easy to make. Photo: Alan Benson
Classic walnut brownies recipe
Try the variations below for delicious twists on the classic.
Makes: about 24
Melted butter, to grease
250g good-quality dark chocolate, chopped
150g salted butter, cubed
165g (¾ cup, firmly packed) brown sugar
3 eggs, at room temperature, lightly whisked
75g (½ cup) plain flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
¾ teaspoon baking powder
150g walnuts, toasted (see tips)
icing sugar or cocoa powder, to dust (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 140C fan-forced (160C conventional). Grease a 16cm x 26cm shallow slice tin. Grease and then line the base and long sides with one piece of baking paper.
2. Place the chocolate and butter in a medium heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, making sure the base of the bowl doesn't touch the water. Stir occasionally until chocolate and butter have melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from saucepan.
3. Add the brown sugar and eggs to the chocolate mixture and use a balloon whisk to stir until well combined.
4. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder. Add to chocolate mixture and stir until just combined. Stir in the toasted walnuts.
5. Pour mixture into prepared tin and spread evenly. Bake in preheated oven for 30-35 minutes or until moist crumbs cling to a skewer inserted in the centre. Leave to cool in the tin.
6. Lift the brownie from the tin using the baking paper. Cut into squares and serve dusted with icing sugar or cocoa powder, if desired.
• To toast walnuts, spread on a baking tray and toast in an oven preheated to 160C fan-forced (180C conventional) for 8-10 minutes or until lightly golden and aromatic.
• These brownies will keep in an airtight container in a cool place (but not in the fridge) for up to 5 days.
Drunken prune brownies: Soak 150g halved, pitted prunes in 2 tablespoons warmed brandy for 30 minutes. Replace the walnuts with the soaked prunes and any remaining liquid.
Red raspberry brownies: Replace the walnuts with 150g unthawed frozen or fresh raspberries.
White chocolate chunk brownies: Replace the walnuts with 150g coarsely chopped good-quality white chocolate.
Recipe and image from BakeClass by Anneka Manning, photography by Alan Benson, Murdoch Books, RRP$45.00