Reporter’s kitchen challenge at Redbridge College as part of National Baking Week
The nation is in the grip of baking fever and it seems I am one of the last remaining few not to have caught the bug.
With more than 4.5million people tuning in to watch The Great British Bake Off on BBC Two, which was filmed in Ilford, and National Baking Week starting today, it’s become embarrassing not to know how to create your own strudel or to perfect a Victoria sponge.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve eaten more than my fair share of baked goods, with cheesecakes and chocolate torts high on my wish list and Mr Kipling a firm friend.
It’s just that I’ve never had the curiosity to tie on an apron, grab a bag of flour and venture into the kitchen myself.
Either that or I’m just lazy.
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But I need not give up on a life of freshly baked treats and spend my days eating packaged supermarket versions.
Salvation lies in the form of Pauline Moody, cake expert extraordinaire at Redbridge College, and her enthusiastic class.
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As I join the celebration cakes for beginners course at the college in Barley Lane, Little Heath, it becomes clear from speaking to Pauline that I could be set for a road to Damascus moment.
She explains her own conversion to a life of baking: “One of my best friends adopted a girl and asked me to bake a cake and decorate it and I didn’t have a clue.
“I went to the cake shop and bought all the equipment and made it and I was so thrilled about it.”
From there, Pauline was off and running on a career which has seen her teaching at Barking and Redbridge colleges for 20 years in total.
But before I attempt anything as ambitious as an anniversary cake, the class is going back to basics – for my benefit, I think – to make cupcakes.
With Pauline as my guide and fellow learner Elaine Farmer, 57, as my partner, we measure out the self-raising flour, butter, caster sugar and eggs which are required.
Even tackling the traditional scales is slightly daunting at first but once everything is measured out, it’s time for the more fun job of whisking.
First the butter, then the flour and the eggs are slowly mixed in, with Pauline stressing how the process aerates the mix to give better results.
My patient cupcake colleague Elaine is unsurprisingly much more clued up on what she’s doing than me – and she is also on the college’s sugar flower course.
She says: “Pauline suggested I give this one a try too.
“I want to make more attractive cakes and I can combine the two courses.
“My daughter has got her own cupcake business.”
The mix, including a touch of vanilla flavouring, soon goes into a cupcake tray using a scooper – possibly not the technical term.
And our tutor is by our side with handy tips, such as to bang the bottom of the tray to remove any air bubbles.
Anyone with a passing acquaintance with a baking programme on TV will know the importance of a pre-heated oven, but it’s a good thing Pauline is there to remind me.
Once the cakes are in, and in no way attempting to dodge the washing-up, I speak to fellow students about their motivation for coming on the course.
Clearly for many, it’s intended to be more than a hobby.
Liz King, 46, of Wanstead, says: “I’ve always been interested in baking.
“Now I want to decorate the cakes properly and make them more professional looking.
“I might want to do it professionally.”
Randi Glenn, 46, of South Woodford, is in agreement. She says: “I want to run workshops for people to learn cake decorations, to take it to the next level. I’ve baked cakes for quite a while.”
A cupcake without any topping would be a sorry sight, so the next step is making the butter cream that will be piped on in multicoloured swirls.
Seventy-five grams of butter, 500 grams of icing sugar, four tablespoons of milk and two teaspoons of vanilla flavouring are mixed together to produce a light, fluffy icing, to which Pauline adds small amounts of colouring.
She then confidently demonstrates the art of piping, producing a rose cupcake that, as Liz says, would probably sell for �2.50 in a shop.
Pauline has used her enthusiasm to build the college’s baking courses up from one evening a week to five classes, including cake-decorating lessons for varying degrees of skill.
She says: “There’s a huge sense of achievement.
“When they [the pupils] come in, I show them what they’re going to make and they look at me like, ‘I’ll never be able to do that’.
“When they achieve it, they can’t believe it.”
I’m kindly offered the first cupcake to taste and can admit a sense of accomplishment when, far from being inedible, it tastes just as good, or better, than what I’d get in the shops.
It remains to be seen how often I will be donning an apron back at home and Pauline is definitely safe in her job, but at least I can now say that once upon a time, I did manage to bake a cupcake.
n For the full list of Redbridge College’s hospitality and catering courses, visit www.redbridge-college.ac.uk or call 020 8548 7400.