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Mary Berry answers your questions

We asked Britain's favourite baking companion and crusader against the soggy bottom all your questions on baking, fashion, grandparenting and much more. Here's what she had to say...


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Mary Berry's cooking and baking tips

cherry cake

Q: Your new recipes all now have butter which has been softened. Can we use all your 'old' recipes which say soft margarine and substitute softened butter? Your books nearly fill one shelf and my first book of yours is Marry Berry Cooking at Home which I think I bought in 1983!

A: For the all-in-one method of making cakes either use a spread such as Stork or softened butter. My reason for changing to softened butter was that so many people, by mistake, were picking up low fat spreads and getting very poor results, whereas Stork gives excellent results.


"I always use self-raising flour for cakes"

Q: I sometimes need to change the quantities in recipes - to halve or double them. I feel as long as I keep everything in proportion I'm probably going to be OK. But then I never really know what to do about cooking times. Is there a rule of thumb or do you have to guess and hope?

A: You have to adjust the cooking times. A cake will take longer but something like a casserole would be about the same cooking time.


Q: I hate the taste of baking powder. I feel I can always detect it. It tastes metallic and distinctive to me. When baking powder is called for, can you usually substitute self-raising flour, or do I just have to do without those recipes?

A: I always use self-raising flour for cakes. When I'm using the all in one method I add a little extra baking powder because the mixture isn't beaten so much. The secret is not to add too much - if the recipe says a teaspoon, it's a level teaspoon.


Q: I loved watching the GBBO. I wondered if you had ever tried baking with silicone bakeware? I was bought a set and have made a few cakes with it, but I'm not convinced they are the best they could be.

A: There are various brands of silicon bakeware. Some are very good and some are not so efficient. The cheaper ones are too flexible and haven't got such good non stick properties.


Q: Bake Off is the best cookery programme ever and I love your style of no-nonsense good home food and have had great success with your recipes. My fruitcakes (birthdays and Christmas) taste great but have you an idea why they are crumbly (even though moist) and don't slice cleanly?

A: Most fruit cakes need time to mature. If you cut them within a few days they are crumbly. Make quite sure that you use either butter or a full fat spread such as Stork because a low fat spread will make it crumbly. Good luck.


Q: I don't watch cooking shows often, but when I do, I'm always amazed when chefs say "add a pinch of salt" and then just free pour half the contents of the salt mill! And a glug of oil or whatever is always a third of the bottle... What advice can you give those following recipes at home?

"For the all-in-one method of making cakes either use a spread such as Stork or softened butter."

A: When following recipes at home from a cookery book for the first time, read the recipe a couple of times to check you've got the ingredients, then follow it exactly and the results should be the same as the picture. The second time, make your own amendments if you wish, for example adding more oil, butter, salt.


Q: Since he retired my husband has taken over the cooking and is one of your biggest fans. However, most of your savoury dishes seem to contain garlic and I have a garlic intolerance. Is there anything he could use instead? He usually just leaves it out but often it leaves the dish with the feeling of needing just that something extra.

Oh, and would you consider leading a bring back the bun campaign? These new fangled cupcakes are all puff, wind and mock icing.

A: Garlic is an ingredient that can be left out. You could add something like shallots, which have a stronger flavour than onions.

I'm not a huge fan of cupcakes either, though they give a lot of pleasure to children. I do encourage them not to over-decorate them. The proportion of cake mixture to icing should be appropriate.


Q: Can I ask you a question about salmon? I recently bought a side and wanted to bake it - but then had a panic about it being raw in the middle so chopped it into fillets and cooked individually Can you advise me on how long I should cook a side or even a whole salmon in foil in the oven and at what temperature (fan)?

A: To cook salmon in the oven in foil, wrap it in one layer of foil and put it in your roasting tin. Put it in a preheated oven at 160C (fan). The cooking time will vary according to the size of salmon, usually about 30 minutes. Open the foil to check for doneness, lifting the salmon away from the bone along the backbone. When it isa flat pink colour, not shiny, it is done. Leave it to cool in the foil, removing the skin while it's still warm.


Common baking problems, solved

Baking ingredients

Q: My sponges sometimes come out of the oven with too dark a crust but not cooked that much all the way through. Do you know where I'm going wrong?!

A: All ovens vary. Try cooking at a lower temperature for longer and you should get a pale golden, evenly cooked Victoria sandwich.


Q: I love baking - something inherited from my mother, who made cakes every weekend. Could you tell me the reason why sometimes cakes sink in the middle - very frustrating!

A: Cakes sink in the middle for a variety of reasons. If you take them out of the oven too soon the mixture will dip in the middle because it's not done. If you add too much baking powder it will rise in the oven and towards the end will sink.


Q: When I make a Victoria sponge, the cakes rise well, but on the top they have what I can only describe as "blisters", rather than a nice smooth surface - can you help please?

"For greasing tins I always use butter because it is easier for the parchment paper lining to stick to."

A: Make sure you're using the correct fat, either softened butter or Stork for baking, and take care not to overbeat. You only need mix until it's beautifully smooth, then straight into the tins.


Q: Which is better - oiling or greasing with butter? I've had a few sponges stick using both so not sure where I am going wrong.

A: For greasing tins I always use butter because it is easier for the parchment paper lining to stick to it. Oil doesn't have the same adhesion.


Q: Mary, why do the cherries sink to the bottom when I bake a cherry cake and what can I do to prevent this disaster?

A: To make a cherry cake it's always best to add something to stabilise the flour. This is sometimes ground almonds, or rice flour. This supports the cherries and the mixture needs to be fairly stiff before adding the cherries. Cut the cherries in half and wash excess syrup away and dry them well before adding.

Whip up these delicious recipes with help from your grandchildren

Baking with grandchildren

kids baking

Q: What sort of granny are you? Do you cook much with your grandchildren or is it a bit of a busman's holiday? And if you do - do you let them lick the spoon? I panic about raw eggs (not that it ever did us any harm)

A: I certainly do cook with the grandchildren, and I've got five of them now! I think it's great for them. It teaches them how to add up because they're using scales. Of course I let them lick the bowl, that's the best bit! I'm not worried about raw eggs. I buy British eggs with a lion on and use them in date. This means that the chicken has been inoculated against salmonella.


Q: My grandchildren have been turned on to baking by the Bake Off. Why do you think suddenly it is trendy for men to bake cakes? Do you think there is a change coming even if it is slow? My mum always baked cakes and Dad made bread.

A: The Great British Bake Off certainly has got everyone baking and that includes men. As we're in recession many more men are at home and are with the children and they all watch the Bake Off and want to have a go themselves, so sometimes it's bread but the young always want to have a go at the cakes.


Q: I've been a fan for years and the GBBO is my idea of heaven. Can you recommend a good recipe for two 4/5 year olds who love flinging flour and eggshells around. I think they're getting bored with cookies, brownies, cupcakes and bread. I do allow them to switch the mixer on and off and add ingredients under (very) close supervision.

A: Why not try to make pizza? They'd love handling the dough. Use fast action yeast or even a scone dough and let them choose the toppings you know they will enjoy, and the bonus is they can have it for lunch.


Mary's cook books


Q: Fashions in food have changed so much since you began writing books - how have you kept up with that and are there things you made then that you are still making now whatever the fashions?

A: There are new ingredients arriving all the time and I try to use them in my recipes. For example I can remember when you couldn't buy fennel, avocados or mangoes. So I make sure that in my recipes I give instruction on how to prepare and use them. Sometimes you'll see a new flour labelled cake flour on the shelf in the supermarket. I keep to self raising, plain and strong because cake flours come and go.


Q: Does your new book have lots of pictures? I have never been able to fathom why people write recipe books but don't show a picture of how whatever it is is meant to look in the end.

A: My cookbook, Mary Berry's Cookery Course, is generously illustrated. There are step-by-step guides for the tricky processes and I'm there to hold your hand throughout. Expect to find perfect omelettes, the very best lasagne and lots of glorious puddings and cakes.


More about Mary

Mary Berry

Q: We would all like to know how you can eat so much cake and stay so slim. We are rather fond of cake at GNHQ so any tips would be greatly appreciated! (CariGransnet)

Mary’s mantra: "Have a small slice, enjoy every moment of it...and don't go back for a second."

A: My mantra is 'have a small slice, enjoy every moment of it and don't go back for a second'. No tidying up in the cake tin when an odd piece falls off, and no eating the half flapjack that the children leave.


Q: Do you ever get sick of cake?

A: I don't get sick of cake but I am a little bit tired of over-iced cupcakes. Lemon drizzle is my favourite.


Q: Please tell me that sometimes you can't be bothered to cook and fall back on a takeaway. Pleeeeeeease.

A: For me, if I'm not feeling like cooking it's a boiled egg and brown toast, and sometimes I'll nip into Marks and Spencer and buy a complete meal for £10, or perhaps Waitrose. It's good to have a bottle of wine as well.


Q: Here at Gransnet we feel there's a dearth of older women on screen and as role models generally. Do you think of yourself as being in the vanguard? Do you think communities like Gransnet might help to make older women more visible in time?

A: I never think about age. I'm thrilled to be so busy at 78. I'm lucky to have a lovely, supportive family and feel well.


"I don't get sick of cake...lemon drizzle is my favourite"

Q: I've been an admirer of yours for many years, the way you juggle your career and family is to be applauded. My question is do you feel under pressure to constantly redefine yourself given the ever increasing number of 'celebrity' chefs or do you think people like tried and tested classics? Personally I prefer the classics!

A: I don't feel I have to reinvent myself. You just get me as I am. I try to be as fair and encouraging on the Bake Off as I can and when I write recipe books I just try to give you more detail in each recipe so that you get success with your home cooking.


Q: I have always enjoyed your recipes. Although I enjoy watching and reading recipes from many cooks, I find that I return all the time to the same great writers; for me, probably Jane Grigson, Marcella Hazan and Madhur Jaffrey would be the top three. Who has had the most influence on you over the years? Or to put the question another way - which are the most bespattered books in your kitchen?

A: The most bespattered books in my kitchen are from Katie Stewart, who used to be Cookery Editor of the Times and had her feet firmly on the ground, and her recipes were excellent. I was inspired by Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson.


Mary Berry: style icon

Q: Your sense of style is perfect, do you agonise over what to wear to achieve the balance between modern and classic, or does it come naturally?

A: Just like most people, I agonise on what I'm going to wear. I try and choose something that is colourful, not too tight, suitable for my age without being frumpy. I'm glad you liked it. The jacket I felt was almost part of the dress and you couldn't see my floppy upper arms!


Q: I love your floral bomber jacket! And the Great British Bake Off is just brilliant telly. Thanks for joining us.

A: I'm glad you like my jacket. It's by Oasis and I often get them from Marks and Spencers, Jaeger, Phase Eight and Zara.


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