The ingredients for baking can range from the everyday to obscure and can cost pennies, or be priceless. Like most beautiful things in life, baking is a delicate balance between the bank and beautiful flavours. Knowing where you can splurge and where to scrimp goes a long way to making sure you get a piece of both the literal and financial pie.
So how do ingredients really impact the end result and how can we celebrate South African ingredients whilst saving a few cents?
Award-winning TV chef, master baker and cookbook author – Grace Stevens – shares her top tips for selecting sensational ingredients.
When it comes to my own baking I splurge on butter. High-quality butter has gone through more processes to extract the whey and it is the whey that causes butter to go rancid. A high whey content will also soften your butter and create more steam in your bake making it more difficult to control how it is going to react in the oven. With high-quality low-whey butter, you can get a crisper pastry and a lighter cake because you are not adding extra liquid which would then influence your baking time.
Ultimately using high-quality butter takes out the guesswork. This always leads to a far superior baked good as the excess whey in butter dilutes flavour, alters the texture and minimises the shelf life of your delicacy.
To test if your butter is of good quality, look if it is firm at room temperature. If it is just out of the fridge and creates a puddle you know that you should go with a higher quality product next time.
Buttermilk or Amasi
When it comes to celebrating South African ingredients you will be hard-pressed to find an ingredient more versatile and traditional than Amasi. Amasi is essentially soured milk and is widely available in all South African supermarkets right next to buttermilk. Apart from its unique flavour, it makes an amazing substitute for buttermilk in all sorts of recipes from pancakes to scones. Not to mention being cheaper than buttermilk – especially if you are making a big batch bake.
Authentic buttermilk is the leftover whey after making butter from clotted cream. However, in South Africa, the ‘buttermilk’ we have access to is cultured buttermilk. This is made by adding a culture to milk that is heated and then allowed to ferment. A process that is almost identical to the natural fermentation used to make Amasi. In baking, the enzymes and acidity of the buttermilk or amasi soften the proteins in the flour.
When it comes to testing if your Amasi or buttermilk is of good quality remember that there is a fine line between spoilt milk and good Amasi. Good Amasi or buttermilk should be a slightly thicker viscosity than milk and if it smells sour it has gone off.
You can be forgiven for standing wide-eyed in the egg aisle of your grocery store bewildered by the dizzying array of eggs available. Apart from the obvious cage-free cruelty standards, it has been found that free-range eggs are actually better quality. According to research by Compassion in World Farming, hens who are looked after and fed hormone-free nutritionally diverse diets produce eggs that are higher in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants such as vitamin E.
Apart from being better for you, good quality eggs are usually the main binding agent in the baking process, so it is worth the extra spend to keep everything from falling apart. Often they help with the rise in the batter, add flavour and fat, and subtle colour to baked goods too. Unlike when you fry an egg, the age of eggs has little effect on baking. You can tell the age of an egg by cracking it. Older eggs have thinner outer and inner whites and the dome of the yolk will be flatter.
To make sure that you have good quality eggs, choose free-range grade 1/A eggs with the latest expiry date as they will be the freshest. The most reliable way to test if an egg is still usable is to drop it into a tall glass of water. A fresh egg will sink and an egg that is off will float. This is because the eggshell is ever so slightly porous and will allow air inside over time.
Flour is a major source of gluten and protein in most baking and as such provides most of the structure to your final bake. While there are countless exotic flours out there including buckwheat, chickpea and almond, most baking uses wheat flour. The three main types of wheat flour are bread flour, cake flour and self-raising flour. These flours are separated into these categories mainly by the amount of gluten (the protein that provides structure) that is in the wheat.
In practice, choosing flour comes down to the texture and crumb you want. The higher the protein is the stronger the crumb. Bread flours are high in protein which is why they can hold the form of loaves of bread with a high rise. Cakes need a medium amount of gluten to get a good structure after the batter has risen and self-raising flour is simply flour to which baking powder and a bit of salt have already been added.
Good flour should have a uniform grain when rubbed between your index finger and thumb and should be kept in clearly labelled and dated airtight containers to prevent moisture and weevils. Different kinds of flour have different shelf lives and you know your flour has gone bad when it smells musty or changes colour.
It is strange that as such a magnificent cultural melting pot South Africans often look to classic french and English recipes when it comes to baking. Perhaps it has to do with us not travelling and wanting to be transported to another place with every bite. But if we are seeking food that can carry us to magnificent places with its excellence then there really is nothing better than ingredients and recipes that reflect our own richness.
For more integrable insights into the world of baking, follow Grace on Instagram@ grace_stevenschef, visit her website www.gracestevens.co.za, or meet her in person and book your one on one experience.
Amasi Scones By Grace Stevens
- 500ml flour
- 15ml baking powder
- 2ml salt
- 60ml castor sugar
- 65g butter (soft, room temperature)
- 1 egg
- 125ml Amasi
- Milk to glaze
- Preheat oven to 200 º C
- Sift dry ingredients into a bowl.
- Rub the butter into the dry ingredients until they look like bread crumbs.
- Beat the egg into the Amazi and add to the flour mixture.
- Mix together with a knife and then use your hands to form a dough.
- Turn out onto a floured surface and pat flat, about two cm high.
- Using a scone cutter, or just a glass, cut scones from dough.
- Place scones onto a greased baking sheet and brush with a little milk.
- Bake in oven for 12 to 15 minutes.
- Allow to cool before serving with jam and cheese or with cream and jam.