Anyone who watches the Great British Bake Off will know how highly Mary and Paul consider technique. Of course, flavour is paramount but the winner of GBBO will also have developed their skills through the competition, mastering a range of techniques which elevate their cakes and bakes to a professional standard.
With this in mind we've prepared a guide to 3 of the trickiest techniques to master - so you can create showstoppers which even the likes of Paul Hollywood can't knock.
As with most techniques that are difficult to master there is a critical point which can make or ruin the end result. With choux pastry this point is adding the eggs to the warm dough. Too much egg and the mixture will be runny and difficult to pipe. The egg will cause the pastry to set before it has had time to rise. Too little egg and the choux pastry will be heavy and stodgy with little rise.
Variance in ingredients, atmosphere and temperature means that it's impossible for a recipe to say exactly how much egg to add to the dough. Instead, it has to be done by eye in order to achieve the correct consistency. In French this stage is known as the 'bec d'oiseau' as once prodded, the mixture should spring back forming a curve which resembles a bird's beak. The mixture is ready when it looks very silky, and will drop from a spoon held at an angle above the mixture – ‘dropping consistency’. It shouldn’t be runny.
To achieve the right consistency first make sure that the mixture has cooled sufficiently so that it won't cook the eggs - it should still be warm but comfortable to touch (less than 55°C.) To begin with add roughly half the amount of egg called for by the recipe. Stir it in vigorously using a spatula. Test the consistency. If it is still too solid add the equivalent of the volume of 1 egg at a time, mixing after each addition until you reach the magical 'bec d'oiseau.'
For more tips and a step-by-step guide see our French Chouquettes Recipe.
Unlike choux pastry, the beauty of tempering chocolate is that if it all goes wrong you can always remelt the chocolate and start again. Tempering chocolate is an essential technique as the process of heating, cooling and heating the chocolate helps the cocoa butter crystals to aline correctly in order to produce shiny chocolate with a great snap and mouth feel.
To test that the chocolate is tempered dip a strip of baking paper into the chocolate and set aside. Once set the chocolate should be shiny.
Traditionalists favour the marble slab method, but we've found the following method is a lot more user-friendly. The chocolate is melted in a bain-marie and then a small amount of solid couverture chocolate drops are stirred in. This is because couverture is pre-tempered chocolate, meaning it is already packed with the beta crystals needed for great sheen and snap. It also has a higher than usual fat content which makes it less viscous and easier to work with. For the full step-by-step guide to this technique see our article on How To Temper Chocolate.
Last but not least we have macarons. The crucial step in any macaron recipe is known as 'macaronage' - the process of combining the meringue and the 'tant pour tant' (the almond/icing sugar) mixture. Sadly, macronage belongs to the choux-pastry category in that once you've gone past the perfect consistency it is irreversible. Over-mix the batter and the macarons may not rise and will have a blotchy/oily surface where the almond oils have been released. Under-mix the batter and the macaron tops may come out cracked.
Use a spatula to mix the batter, gently folding the dry ingredients into the wet ones. Make D-shaped movements with the spatula cutting straight through the middle and then scaping round the outside of the bowl. The consistency is right when the mixture begins to look glossy around the edges. Test the mixture by prodding it with the end of the spatula, the batter should sink back into place after about 20 seconds. Once you start to pipe the macarons it will soon become clear if you have under-mixed. Tap the baking tray on the surface a few times and if there are still 'nipple' marks from the piping nozzle the batter is under-mixed. Return it to the bowl and continue mixing whilst being careful not to go too far!
For an FAQ on macaron making see our article 5 Common Problems When Making French Macarons. Our step-by-step recipe for Perfect Raspberry Macarons will help as you start out and once you're feeling more adventurous have a go at our Feuilletine And Salted Caramel Macarons Recipe.
You can see that the macarons in the bottom right have a slightly blotchy or 'oily' surface. The oil from the almonds has started to leach out, caused by over grinding the almonds or by over-mixing the macaron mixture.