If you can’t stand the heat…

After a few weeks of hot weather, I’ve been reflecting on the influence it has on baking.

Disclaimer: I lived for 8 years near Toulouse, in south-western France. I consider it is really hot when it stays upwards of 25°C at night. At my day-job, the Brits have the air-con going on one side of the room, whereas us foreign types (Japanese, Italian and French, respectively) keep it off on our side.

Nevertheless, when it comes to baking, the effects of the current 25 to 30° we’ve been having are noticeable.

There are advantages: for once, it is easy to cream room-temperature butter with sugar when making sponge. The kitchen in my current home, besides having the best view (see above), is also the least insulated room – it is a narrow and deep extension with very little in the way of insulation. It can be cold, damp, hot…

Anyway. As I was saying, the hot weather helps with some aspects of baking – those that require things to be soft. Marzipan turns into a thin, flat sheet to cover battenbergs in half the time it does in “normal” weather. Room-temp butter mixes in easily into cream cheese frosting. Yeasted doughs rise faster (or, if you’re like me, of the no-knead, long rise persuasion, require less yeast).

Orange marmalade battenberg cake

On the other hand… Even with a perfectly cooled-down sponge, that same cream cheese frosting must be refrigerated to set after being spread on the cake – and there’s no hope of piping it into pretty shapes. Buttercream is chancy – depending on the recipe you use, it can collapse, split or turn unless you refrigerate the cake just after decorating it.

This weekend, I brought a salted butter caramel cake to King John’s House Tea Room with a skewer planted in the middle, to keep the two tiers together in the short distance between my kitchen and theirs… and told the ladies to refrigerate it, if at all possible, to help it set.

Salted butter caramel cake (2 layers), Spiral edition
Salted butter caramel cake (2 layers), Spiral edition

I wouldn’t want to try to make puff pastry in this weather. On the other hand, I have found you can make short-crust pastry easily if you work quickly – and preferably, with a food processor. Short-crust wants the butter to be very cold, or even frozen, and cut in small cubes. Blitz the butter, double its weight in plain flour and a pinch of salt until you reach a fine sand consistency, then add cold water almost teaspoon by teaspoon, pulsing until the dough comes together.

All that process should take less than 2 minutes – no time for the butter to melt. Take the dough, place it on cling film, shape it into a rough disc, then cover with more cling film and refrigerate immediately for 30 minutes.

Using cling film that way is very useful with other types of pastry as well. You can roll the pastry between the two sheets of cling film without adding any flour, and thus without altering the balance of ingredients.

One last point about hot weather and bakers: do check the temperature of your fridge. I do that daily, to detect a problem before spoilage happens, and as per food hygiene regulations, but a thermometer is a really cheap piece of kit that will bring you peace of mind.

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