Everyone seems to be baking during lockdown and whilst all flours are hard to come by, I have noticed people talking of needing self-raising even though they have plain. Time for a recap on the history of raising agents ending with notes about adding your own to plain flour.
The earliest form of cake making arose as a sideline to bread making, i.e. a little of the dough (which at this time was leavened with an ale barm) was enriched and sweetened. Although ovens have existed since Roman times, they were not a feature of ordinary households, so many of these yeasted doughs were cooked on a flat iron plate (griddle or girdle) suspended over the fire. Others were taken to a communal oven to be baked.
Seed Cake, flavoured with caraway seeds, which are much lighter than the fruit usually added to cakes, was one the first large rich cakes to be made using eggs instead of yeast as its raising agent. By the 18th century it had become a tea-table favourite and it remained so throughout Queen Victoria’s reign. Madeira Cake was also popular in well-to-do households of the 19th century when it was served to morning callers accompanied by a glass of Madeira wine.
Food historians believe that the use of Sodium Bicarbonate dates back to ancient civilization although there is little record of its use until the late 1700’s. Once it became widely accepted that it would create carbon dioxide in the presence of certain acids, housewives began making their own chemical leavenings but it was not until a commercial mix, Baking Powder, was developed in the mid 1800’s that it became widely used and many yeast-risen doughs were abandoned. Compressed yeast was not developed until the late 19th century by which time baking powder was already firmly established as the preferred raising agent.
Despite its age-old use, Baking Powder is a chemical compound and it is useful to consider the methods formerly used to avoid over use of a chemical additive. By including whisked egg in a cake mixture we can use air as a raising agent instead of carbon dioxide. Even in creamed mixtures, where the eggs are beaten rather than whisked, provided the correct proportion of eggs is used and the mixture well beaten, little additional raising agent is required.
Although self-raising flour is often stipulated in recipes and has the advantage of the raising agent already being thoroughly blended with the flour, it is an all-purpose mix. By understanding the chemistry involved in the use of chemical raising agents, you could create your own more exact blend dependent on the recipe, the quantity of acid ingredients it contains, and the extent of rise required. This can be done by adding an appropriate amount of commercial Baking Powder or creating your own from a blend of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar. The un-combined elements keep for far longer than when blended and you avoid the cornflour or other starch that has to be added to them, which is both a waste of money and not exactly helpful to the cake. As well as their possible effects on health, too much chemical raising agent imparts an unpleasant taste and can even result in the mixture becoming over-risen and collapsing.
Homemade Self-Raising Flour
I never buy self-raising flour, partly because I don’t make cakes that often, but also because I have often have raw soured milk and can use this in place of some, or all, of the cream of tartar. Here are some notes to help you blend your own:
- The active ingredients of baking powder in the UK consists of 2 parts cream of tartar (the acidic element) to 1-part bicarbonate of soda (alkali). In ready blended self-raising flour, baking powder is about 5% of the total weight, so 250g of self-raising flour is 225g of plain four plus 25g of baking powder (not all of which is the raising agents).
- Whilst Delia Smith recommends 4 teaspoons baking powder (10g)/200g plain flour, Nigella reduces it to 2 teaspoons/150g flour. Because I use the separate raising agents rather than baking powder, I can reduce this even further. I find 1 level teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda plus 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar perfectly sufficient to raise 200g of plain flour in most dishes. Of course, where the recipe already includes other acidic ingredients, such as buttermilk or sour milk, you can reduce the amount of cream of tartar, probably by half.
- Remember to make sure that your raising agents are well blended with the flour, and keep the dry ingredients separate from the wet until the final mixing.