I get asked some questions a lot. The most frequent relate to Paul Hollywood’s phone number and the secret to achieving a perfectly flat cupcake. Both are difficult to obtain and provide varying degrees of joy depending on your view point.
The other one is how I develop recipes. Folks are intrigued… they want to know where the inspiration comes from. Do I start with a base recipe? Do I just chuck ingredients around in the kitchen and hope for the best? How do I know what to add when something doesn’t taste quite right? How much food (and thus money) gets wasted in the quest for a recipe to be just right? Well here goes…
Savoury recipes are easier. When I say savoury I mean dinners, lunches, the essential food stuffs of life that stop us all from keeling over. One night I might make a Thai inspired noodle salad. I add some lime juice, some fish sauce. Then some sugar. Then a little sesame oil. I taste it. I add some fresh chilli. I taste again. I add some fresh ginger. I taste again. And so on. You get the idea. Tasting is key, and essential savoury recipes lend themselves to this. Whether a marinade, a sauce, a salad – they all take well to a little sip and then a nip and tuck. Trial and error plus a reasonable palate make for a pretty good recipe.
Now the sweet stuff, mainly of the baked variety. That’s trickier. Because on the whole you can’t taste as you go. Even if you do taste a raw cake or biscuit batter before baking it rarely tastes akin to the finished, baked item. And I’m one of the strange people who doesn’t like raw cake batter. So that method wouldn’t work for me at all.
This is where instinct comes in. And having a ‘palate memory’. (I know that sounded a bit Heston; stick with me.) I tend to start with a basic recipe. That might be a sweet crust pastry, a sponge cake, an oaty biscuit, a wholemeal loaf. These are the foundations of the recipe wardrobe – the white tee shirts, the jeans with the great fit, the perfect summer sandals that don’t rub. Where do they come from? Mainly from my past – recipes my home economics teacher taught me, ratios of fat to flour taught by my mother and grandmother, so pressed into my head I recount them like a times table. A sponge recipe I can scale up or down according to the number of eggs. Once I have this basic starter recipe then the alchemy begins.
I get ideas for recipes from everywhere. Sometimes a memory. The chocolate cake in my children’s party chapter of Recipes from a Normal Mum started as a memory. It was how I remember the chocolate cake from my own 1980s birthday parties. Soft yet firm enough to slice easily, chocolately without being dense and grown up, icing sugary sweet that peels off the cake easily. It took over 17 attempts to get it just right; the cake of my childhood. I tried different ratios of ingredients, different temperatures and indeed different icings. Did we eat the trial attempts? Well, I didn’t put on a stone developing the recipe book through eating lettuce.
Other recipes come from inspiring dishes I’ve eaten out and about. Blueberry, lemon and white chocolate cupcakes made for a school fayre were a cakey version of a lemon and blueberry macarons I’d eaten months before in Paris. My ‘palate memory’ knows that white chocolate works with lemon, so I added that too. I’m a firm believer in eating other’s food to expand horizons. I’m always learning.
As for adapting recipes, well I know for sure that playing with sugar content is easier and more reliable than playing with egg content. I know that ground almonds will on the whole be happy as a substitute for flour (or at least some flour). I know that most bread recipes are pretty much the same ratios of yeast to flour to salt to liquid, save for the flavours you add and the shapes you make. I know that adding eggs and fat to bread makes for a slower rise. I know all this through reading somewhat obsessively, listening to others and just rolling my sleeves up and having a go. I’m never afraid of baking up a disaster. So many recipes never make it to my blog, but that’s okay. In the words of a great man who never minded having a go, ‘he (or she) who dares, wins.’
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Photography credit: David Loftus