Baking is one of those skills passed from generation to generation. My mum was taught by her mum and her grandma, I was taught by my mum and grandma and my mum and me are imparting our skills to Mini Me who is a budding baker.
Growing up in the Eighties when packet mixes were the preserve of many mums who found themselves having to work outside of the home as well as raising a family for the first time in a generation, my childhood was filled with good home-cooked food (plus a bit of butterscotch Angel Delight and the odd Findus crispy pancake). Oh how I longed for the joys of more stuff from packets.
I remember mum making endless vats of Christmas cake mix when she had her own catering business. And a Sunday teatime treat was chocolate Victoria sponge with "buttercream" (made from Co-op Red Label marge!). And despite me repeated requests to be able to buy packet mixes, I was taught that they were a waste of time and wouldn't taste so nice and "didn't I know how lucky I was to have good food when there were children starving in Africa". My eight-year-old self certainly wasn't as understanding and empathetic to this as Mini Me is these days.
So as an early twenty-something I rebelled and ensured that everything I bought was pre-made. Jars of pasta sauce, just about any packet mix I could find and the joys of a Pot Noodle! But one day I found myself tinkering with a jar of pasta sauce that was tasteless and within a few short months, I realised I was putting more into the sauce than I would if I'd bothered to cook it from scratch.
And so began my journey of (mostly) eschewing pre-made stuff. Of course, even Queen Mary Berry admits that she buys some stuff ready made. Life is too short to make Filo pastry but I will always make my own puff pastry. And if I'm too lazy to make it then I don't get to eat it. Simple!
It's the same when it comes to cake. They all start with great, fresh ingredients and not a packet mix in sight. The best lesson Mum ever taught me was her basic sponge mix (which I poo-pooed, but many cakes later, it's right. Mother really does know best). Okay it's not her secret recipe but baking is a science and even a small variance in ingredients or oven temperature can make great difference in the resulting cake. Which is why when your recipe calls for eggs, you need to use the right size. The difference between a medium and large egg can be as much as 20g which could put a lot more liquid into your cake and possibly make it collapse if you're not careful. I know a lot of people who have tried a simple sponge with varying results and ask why mine turn out great time after time.
The trick to a basic sponge mix is to start by weighing your eggs in their shells. Then weigh the same amount of butter, caster sugar and self-raising flour. Cream it altogether for a couple of minutes (don't forget to de-shell the eggs first!). Add 1tsp vanilla essence per 200g of sugar. Either spoon into cupcake cases and bake at 180c conventional/160c fan for 25 minutes.
Basic sponge recipe
4 medium eggs weighed in their shells
Same weight of self raising flour
Same weight of softened butter
Same weight of caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence.