Catherine Leyden has been the face of baking in Ireland for nearly 40 years, since she first started with Odlums as a home economist and cookery advisor. She is now the brand ambassador for the well-loved Irish baking label, tackling everything from consumers’ baking dilemmas to devising new products and recipes. She began appearing on Ireland AM over 10 years ago, where her fuss-free, hands-on style made her an instant hit with home bakers across the country. From watching her mother and granny, Catherine developed a love early on for baking, and pursued this even further while studying home economics in college. It’s been a long career for Catherine at the oven door, and she hopes that by making baking accessible and rewarding for those that watch her on TV and write to her at Odlums, that the tradition of home baking will stay strong and continue to evolve for generations.
When did you first realise you loved to bake?
I can recall loving baking since I was ‘knee-high to a grass-hopper’, standing on a chair at the kitchen table with my mother. I loved baking with my granny and my mother and, since I’m the eldest of 10, I carried that tradition on for my siblings as we grew older. It has always been a huge passion of mine and, believe it or not, it’s still a passion.
How do you adapt your baking for the different times of year?
I like to use ingredients that are seasonal – they tend to be a better quality product, bursting with flavour and often less expensive. It also depends on the time of year; obviously at Christmas I’ll be making Christmas cakes, mince pies and plum puddings, and a traditional Simnel cake at Easter. I’ve noticed though that, year-round, novelty cakes are becoming more and more popular. I’ve been asked to make cakes in the shape of boats, guitars – you name it. But really it’s just a good Madeira cake that can be sliced and shaped, and then decorated!
What do you find is the main difference between baking and cooking?
In my opinion, baking needs a little more accuracy than cooking. Ingredients must always be weighed; otherwise even the best of recipes can go wrong. I do love cooking savoury meals as well, but I find after spending so much time baking I tend to just go for five-ingredient meals and quick-fix pastas, that sort of thing. Unlike cooking, it can be difficult to tell if you’re on the right track when baking unless you know the recipe well, but as with many things, practice makes perfect!
What are your top five most-used recipes?
Traditional Irish brown soda bread, light fluffy scones, a fresh cream and fruit sandwich, the classic apple tart and ever-popular buns!
What tips would you give to someone who is not a confident baker, or just starting out baking for the first time?
Follow the recipe to the letter of the law and ensure you have read it through. Make sure the ingredients are weighed correctly, using either metric or imperial, and stick to one form of measurement in a recipe – don’t weigh half of the ingredients using imperial measures and the other half in metric. Don’t forget to always ensure the oven is pre-heated. Buns and bread are the best recipes to start with as a novice baker, and then graduate to something a bit more complicated like scones.
Have you ever had a baking disaster?
Many years ago, I remember making a Dundee Cake and the fruit sank! I actually made it five times before I realised that the caster sugar I was using was too fine!
Is there anything you think is better shop-bought, or not worth making at home?
I prefer to do all my own home baking; however, the only shop-bought item I would recommend would be filo pastry. You’d nearly need professional equipment to make pastry that thin at home! I also buy flaky pastry from the shop, but always make my own shortcrust as that tastes better homemade.
What are your favourite ingredients or types of foods to experiment with?
Like most people, chocolate is a firm favourite! I also like to experiment with ingredients for special dietary needs, such as spelt flour, gluten-free flour, dairy-free ingredients, etc. I would love to spend a good chunk of time experimenting with these; we’ve come a long way with the amount of products available, but there’s still some work to be done.
What misconceptions do you think people have regarding home baking?
Some may consider home baking a chore, but when organised with ingredients to hand, it really isn’t. Many agree it’s therapeutic! People sometimes tell me they hate cleaning up after baking, but you’d have to clean off a chopping board if you were prepping garlic or onions, and those smells are actually a lot more difficult to clear out than flour and butter!
Aside from following the recipe, what other factors must you take into account before starting to bake?
For someone starting to bake, I recommend they have basic equipment like weighing scales, an electric hand-mixer and a selection of good quality baking tins. Also, it’s important to be familiar with your oven. Ovens vary so much and so many these days have been made to cook hot and fast so that meals can be ready more quickly. Unfortunately, this isn’t always a good thing with baking, especially with recipes like fruit cake that need to cook low and slow. Most importantly, you just need to have the desire to get great results from your home baking and have fun!
This interview is from the September 2015 edition of Easy Food.
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