Wednesday, 31 March 2010

My Secret Ingredient

Cakes and muffins are among the things I enjoy baking most. I started out when I was a little girl with ready prepared mixes, moved on to other people’s recipes and then began to invent my own as well. When you have made cakes and muffins for as long as I have, you start to learn tricks and ingredients that make them tasty nearly every time – things that affect not just the flavour, but also the texture and mouth-feel of these treats. And one of the ingredients I have come to value the most is one I never really even liked very much to start with - buttermilk.

Buttermilk was originally the liquid that was left over when cream was churned into butter. However as butter is made on a large commercial scale these days, the buttermilk we buy in the supermarket now is cultured. Basically, lactic acid bacteria is added to skim or non fat milk. It’s perfectly safe because it is pasturized, but I don’t like to think about it too much because no cook wants to hear the word bacteria in their kitchen! However like many things that sound a bit strange, this ingredient actually makes things taste incredibly good.

I first remember buttermilk in my mother’s kitchen. Mom wasn’t really a big baker so I can’t imagine what she used it for, but I know she would drink it ice cold from the fridge. I tasted it once and was horrified. Thicker than ordinary milk, with a tart, almost sour taste, it didn’t impress my childish taste buds one bit. Such was my dislike that when I discovered a muffin recipe not that much later which called for it, I made it a point to substitute ordinary milk. I avoided buttermilk like the plague. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I decided to make that old recipe actually using the real thing.

It was a revelation. The muffins had more body, and thus a more satisfying mouth feel. The sugar in the muffin recipe offset the buttermilk’s tart flavour, and it somehow made them taste even better. I started to use it regularly in muffins. Now people have been using buttermilk in muffins for years, but one day I got to thinking about what the results would be like if I used buttermilk in my cakes. I’d heard about using mayonnaise in chocolate cakes, and although I had never done it myself, I had tasted cakes made with it that were delicious. So much against my better judgement I used buttermilk in a sweet cake recipe – my devil’s food cake recipe in fact. The results were fantastic. Just like in muffins, the buttermilk gave the cake more body and enhanced the flavour. It didn’t make it taste any less sweet, and it was just somehow better.

Since then I’ve been using buttermilk in a lot of my recipes. Not every cake responds well to it; very light white cakes are not enhanced by it at all, and it certainly does not work well in a classic Victoria sponge. However most chocolate cakes, especially those which involve bananas, and also ginger and spice cakes get a real boost from my now not-so-secret ingredient. Not surprisingly, cakes that take a leaf out of the muffin book, like my Carrot, Walnut and Ginger Snack Cake and my Banana Maple Walnut Loaf Cake also benefit from the addition of buttermilk.

So if you like making cakes and muffins, do yourself a favour and consider substituting buttermilk when ordinary milk is called for next time. The results may surprise and - I hope - delight you!

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