Proportions are everything, as Derek Zoolander could tell you. With cooking, especially Modular Cooking™, proportions are mostly about elements of flavour and seasoning, and can be quite flexible. Too much liquid and you’ll have a loose sauce, but it’ll still be a sauce; chicken tikka masala without any spices is just meat in gravy. Swap basil for oregano and you might not even notice; forget the salt until the end and it’s not the end of the world, just add it in to taste.
With baking, though, precision matters more. Proportions affect texture — the same ingredients can make either a Victoria sponge or thin crepe batter, when mixed in different ratios. Forget the salt in a yeasted bread and it will taste bland and rise poorly; swap baking soda for baking powder and you might end up with a hockey puck instead of cake.
Proportions are also the simplest way of ensuring you’re getting a good mix of nutrients. I loathe technical diets — pseudo-scientific calculations down to the calorie, with their control-freak attempts to biohack a system we barely understand. Traditional cuisines and common-sense eating patterns have succeeded in keeping humans healthy in a variety of climates and conditions for millennia, though it took until the 19th century to identify macronutrients like fat and protein and until 1913 to discover the first vitamin. Michael Pollan’s succinct advice, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” is all you need to know, with the caveat that ‘food’ means whole foods and minimally processed foods, instead of neon-packaged wonders of food science. The easiest way to follow Pollan’s advice is to visually divide up your plate, like a pie chart: half fruit and vegetables, with a good mix of colours; a quarter starch, like grain, rice, bread or potato; and a quarter protein, like meat, fish, beans, nuts and eggs. Go easy on the fat without avoiding it, and keep the sugar to a dull roar, and you’ll never need to consult another chart-filled tome or self-help section again.
Baking is often seen as both an arcane art and ultimately non-essential. I agree with both those criticisms to some degree, but baking isn’t universally difficult, and I find an emotional resonance with even the least competent home-made bread that isn’t found in a loaf of sliced store-bought. Beyond a tray or pan to bake in, the most critical thing for consistent and successful baking is a digital scale. Armed with this, most home-style recipes are within your grasp.
One of the most achievable recipes is beer bread, confidence-inspiring but simple enough it barely warrants a recipe: dump 330ml beer (the cheapest lager you can put your hands on; I often use Galahad, which comes in a 500ml can, so weigh out 330g on your scale and finish the rest yourself), 375g self-raising flour and 3 teaspoons sugar in a bowl and mix it around. It’ll be pretty thin, more like a batter than a dough. Pour it into a buttered loaf pan, optionally put a little more melted butter on top, and bake for about 45 minutes at 180°C until deeply golden-brown. You could optionally mix in anything that goes nicely with beer that isn’t too wet: shredded Cheddar, chopped jalapeños, a little wholegrain mustard or fried-off bacon bits.
Similarly, a stiffer dough creates either savoury beer scones or sweet lemonade scones: combine 300ml single/whipping cream and 300ml beer (Galahad!) or lemonade (7-Up!) and add to 4 cups (or approximately 525g) of self-raising flour and mix gently until it comes together. (Being gentle with the dough is the key difference between tender scones and hard little pellets.) Turn it out on a floured board or counter and squash it together until it forms a cohesive mound. Pat it out until it’s about the thickness of a 2-euro coin and use a sharp knife to cut it into about a dozen wedges. Put your wedges spaced-out on a baking-papered tray and bake at 220°C for about 10-12 minutes or until the bottoms of each scone are nice and set and bready.
I call for self-raising flour rather than plain flour because it’s easier: it already has all the leaveners mixed in, so you don’t need to worry about fractions of a teaspoon of various powders. That said, leaveners go off in time, so self-raising flour only keeps about six months. (No doubt you’ll use it quicker than that.)
THE RECIPE: BROWNIES
Ironically, for all my well-intentioned appeal to Pollan’s authority, the recipe I’m giving you is neither easy on the fat nor sugar. I maintain a handwritten, black-bound grimoire of recipes that I have tested repeatedly and that are provably reliable; this recipe for brownies I nicked from a coworker’s culinary school pastry textbook, then made about a dozen times a week for several years. It was suggested to me that brownies might be a suitable reward for completing your battery of exams, though more realistically, it makes a great way to procrastinate from studying and a delicious excuse to ease yourself and friends into a sugar coma.
You can make this either in a smaller square tin, or double the quantity and make in a larger, lasagna-sized pan.
i) 200g dark chocolate (like 55% dark chocolate, or Cadbury Bourneville; milk chocolate is too sweet and fancy 75% single-origin dark chocolate is too bitter and creates a weird texture)
ii) 150g butter
iii) 3 eggs
iv) vanilla extract (a teaspoon or two — just eyeball it)
v) 250g caster sugar (you can use granulated; caster sugar is the same stuff, just finer)
vi) 200g self-raising flour
vii) white chocolate, chopped up, if you want to be showy
Melt together the butter and chocolate in a bowl or Tupperware in the microwave: nuke it for 30 seconds to a minute at a time and stir it in between, until it’s just melted together but not super hot. (If you’re the sort of person who’s happy to use a bain-marie and is just slumming it, you can, but I used the microwave in the restaurant because it’s faster and easier.)
Separately, whisk together your eggs and vanilla, then mix in the melted chocolate and butter really well. The chocolate needs to be warm and melty without being very hot because otherwise you’ll scramble your eggs.
In a separate bowl, mix together the caster sugar and flour, and then mix the dry sugar-flour into the wet chocolate-eggs and mix until there’s no obvious dry bits left.
This is the stage that you’ll add in the white chocolate if you’re planning to showboat. Mix in a handful to the batter; save another handful to melt down in the microwave and artfully drizzle with a teaspoon over the cooked brownies, like a sugar-fueled Jackson Pollock.
Pour into a pan you’ve lined with baking paper and smooth it out flat. Bake for 25-30 minutes at 170°C, until it’s firm around the edges and just set in the middle. Let it cool completely before you take it out of the tin, or else it is inevitably going to form massive tectonic cracks and half fall apart.
You could mix in something other than white chocolate, if you’re one of the oddballs who likes chopped nuts in their brownies. Cherries, either chopped glacé, candied, or dried (rehydrated in kirsch, amaretto or whisky) would probably be a keep-it-all-for-yourself level addition.
To those about to bake, we salute you.