Problem one: I’ve made a meringue but the liquid is seeping out of it and it’s falling apart as it cools – how can I stop this happening?

Richard's solution: This can be a right nuisance, especially when you’ve just monopolised the oven for two hours! I find the most common reason for meringues collapsing is that the temperature of the oven is just too high. Remember, when you’re baking meringue, you are drying it out. Try to make sure you don’t bake them any hotter than 110C and don't over-whisk your mixture either, or you will lose volume. You shoudl also avoid oil and grease - greasy bowls or bits of yolk in your egg white will stop the meringue from achieving volume.


Problem two: I’m making a layered cream cake and I need to slice sponges horizontally – what’s the best way of doing it evenly?

Chocolate layer cake with passion fruit icing and piping on the top

Richard's solution: To slice a cake evenly you need one of two things - either a very steady hand or a cake cutting wire (I use the latter). This is a very easy tool to use and works like a horizontal hacksaw. You can adjust the depth of your cut according to the height of your cake, resulting in no wastage.

Place your hand on top of your sponge and gently saw away at the edge of it with your cake wire. Keep turning your cake as you cut, so you are working towards the middle of the cake, rather than sawing from one side to the other (the cut will be neater this way). If you can’t get hold of a cake slice, then use a long, serrated knife and cut in the same way, remembering to keep an eye on the height of your cut from your work surface, and keeping the knife as horizontal as possible.

Problem three: My soufflé hasn’t risen – classic kitchen fail. How can I stop this from happening?

Richard's solution: Flat soufflés are a bit of a kitchen nightmare cliché, and as such many people balk at them, leaving the happy few who know the knack to look like kitchen magicians. They are not. The most common reason soufflés collapse is that you have over-folded your egg white into your base and knocked out all the air that you vigorously whisked in. When folding, do it gently by cutting in from the centre and bringing it up, turning your bowl slightly and repeating until the egg white has just incorporated. Also, as with meringues, be sure not to over-whisk your eggs, and keep them at room temperature – cold eggs don’t whisk up as easily.

Problem four: I’m terrible at piping – what’s the trick to mastering simple decorations?

Dotty iced round biscuits in a tin

Richard's solution: I love a bit of piping, but it can be a tense affair, considering that it’s the last stage in what can sometimes be a long process. The most important thing for me is to plan and practice. If I’m piping words, or an image, I’ll work it out on paper first to make sure I space things out evenly. I’ll also do a bit of practice piping on the work surface, just to make sure my icing is of a good consistency and I’ve got the right sized nozzle for the job. After that, comfort is the most important thing. Try to sit, so you’re looking down at the surface to be piped, but can still steady an elbow or a finger to stop you wobbling off course. Finally, don’t get too worried if what you’ve piped isn’t exactly what you’d hoped for – nobody can see the picture in your head, as long as you’ve spelled your words correctly, and put the correct number of heads/arms/legs on, what you have made will be gratefully received.

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Problem five: My trifle has lost its form and I’m left with serving spoons full of mush – how can I ensure it has defined layers?

Richard's solution: While I still like the taste of a trifle that has turned to mush, I do understand that it could look more refined. I am a jelly man when it comes to trifle, but this is often where mush problems occur. Don't be tempted to put booze in your jelly – it will affect the setting (sadly). Also, remember that any fruit you put in also has a water content of its own, so try to adjust the amount of water you add to your jelly accordingly. Use a decent sponge layer to soak with whatever booze you see fit, and remember not to add anything on top of the jelly layer until you’re sure it’s set.

It’s always fun to see what combinations people come up with in trifle booze! For the custard layer, I always like to make my own crème pat (hints to be found later in this article). It’s easy to make, and more importantly, you can control the consistency. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of carton custard every now and again, but unfortunately, consistency wise, that can often mean a mashed up, mess of a trifle! Whip some cream, sprinkle some flaked almonds on and you’re sorted. Happy trifling!!

Problem six: The top of my baked cheesecake has cracked – what did I do wrong and what’s the best way to disguise it?

Baked raspberry & lemon cheesecake on a white stand

Richard's solution: Cracks happen in baked cheesecakes when they have been baked for too long. Too much of the moisture has evaporated out of the cake, and the surface shrinks and eventually cracks. This is not fatal though; the cheesecake will still taste delish. If I crack a cheesecake (and I have done every now and then) I let it cool in the fridge, then work the crack closed with a warm spatula. Dip the spatula in a cup of hot water, then wipe dry. The warm spatula will liven up the surface of the cheese cake enough that you can close the crack. With practice, you can leave a smooth surface that looks fine. You can also decorate with sliced fruit or whipped cream to hide the crack too!

Problem seven: My caramel is gritty – what have I done wrong?

Richard's solution: Once your caramel has gone gritty, you pretty much have to scrap it and start again. Top up your saucepan half way with water and leave on the hob to simmer. This will dissolve the sugar and allow you to pour the sugar away. Caramel will go gritty for a few reasons that can easily be avoided. Firstly, you need to use the heaviest pan you have in the kitchen; heavier pans will heat up more evenly than lighter pans, making your caramel easier to control. Secondly, make sure your pan is completely clean; any tiny bits of dust / food/ spices will accumulate sugar crystals and leave a gritty caramel. Thirdly (and this is where people go wrong most of the time) never stir your caramel! This will almost always cause the sugar to go gritty. Instead, swirl the pan gently as it begins to colour to disperse the caramelised sugar. Lastly, if you get un-melted sugar sticking to the sides of your pan, you can brush it down into the pan with a wet brush. Follow these tips, and your caramel will go well.

Problem eight: I can’t quite master crème patisserie – what consistency am I looking for and how do I achieve it?

Richard's solution: At home, I regularly make crème patisserie along with loads of other custards. Rarely can you open my fridge without finding a cooling bowl, or half-filled piping bag of the stuff. Ideally, your crème patisserie should be very dense and thick, so you can pipe it into swirls without it collapsing. I like to use cornflour (although some people use plain flour) in my custards, usually at a ratio of 2 teaspoons of cornflour, to 1 egg yolk, to 90ml milk, to 20g caster sugar. You can scale this up as required and add flavours too as you simmer the milk. Be sure to bring your milk to almost simmering before you mix it in with your egg yolk, sugar and cornflour, then return to the saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring continuously to prevent lumps. The starch in the cornflour prevents the milk from splitting at this heat and allows it to set. Whilst cooling, lay some cling film directly on to the surface of the custard to stop a skin forming. I then turn this into a crème pat by folding in lightly whipped cream (about 75ml to the quantities above) to the cooled custard to make it a consistency to pipe. But make sure the cream is whipped as adding more liquid can make it too runny and you can’t thicken it back up.

Problem nine: My meringues fail to rise – what am I doing wrong?

Rainbow coloured meringues on a white lace cloth

Richard's solution: If your meringues won’t rise, it’s usually because you have overwhisked your eggs. Whisking puts air into the mixture, making it firm. Once the mixture has reached this firm structure, continued whisking will cause it to collapse and become more liquid as the air is beaten out of it. This is not repairable, so watch out. A little cream of tartar will help meringues achieve and maintain structure too.

Problem 10: I made Italian meringue buttercream but it’s split. What do I do now?

Richard's solution: If you have achieved all the steps to make Italian meringue buttercream only to have it split at the last minute, don’t worry! It’s easily redeemable. Simply take three to four tablespoons of the split mixture and microwave on full power for 20 seconds, then beat back into the split meringue. This will bring it back almost every time. If you want to avoid having to repair your Italian meringue in the first place, try adding your butter at room temperature rather than cold. This will make your mix much more stable.

More troubleshooting articles...

Baking SOS: How to fix 10 common biscuit problems by Jo Wheatley
Baking SOS: How to solve 10 common bread problems by Luis Troyano
Baking SOS: How to fix 10 common cake problems by Jo Wheatley
Baking SOS: How to fix decoration problems by Kimberley Wilson

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Have you had a dicey experience when dealing with desserts? We'd love to hear your common complaints...

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