One Hungry Student:
Online Editor Harry Caton explores the wonders of the traybake.
Let’s talk baking. Specifically, that nebulous realm of the “traybake”. A curious portmanteau of a utensil and the preferred method of its treatment, the whole enterprise implies something straightforward. Bland, even. But there’s a complexity, in both definition and make-up, that often goes ignored. How is a traybake actually put together? What does that word’s distinction, separating it from the more simply-put “bake”, really mean? Admittedly, I’m not sure the inventor of the term (whether crazed culinary experimenter or bored cook) really had much in mind regarding either of these questions. But despite traybake being a catchall term – defining edibles that (of course) come baked in a tray – it interests the baker in me for its principle of flexibility. What are its limits, and what necessarily comes under it? Just how left-field can it get?
the shape of the traybake indicates a sort of stackable gluttony.
There’s a deal of complexity to the traybake within that simple definition. The thing is defined and limited by the presumptions that come with it. For a start, the “tray”. I’m not sure how it was deigned that a tray – to my mind, a flat surface – would mean a particularly high-edged tin, but here we are. More bluntly, the shape of the traybake indicates a sort of stackable gluttony. Likewise, the “bake” part. In the classic fashion of English cookery, we’d prefer just to leave it in the oven and forget about it. And in principle, that’s okay! You can find nuance within these (quite lazy) parameters. But you can also start to think about how you bake: when to put it in, when you take it out, if you add to it, and if it’s a multi-stage process. As a whole, the term offers you space to experiment. Limiting yourself is a valid tool in cookery. The traybake might mean something quite straightforward, but you’ve got scope within that.
Think of the potential – a “brownie traybake” implies more than just a flat, thin base of brown. You invent and improve; perhaps you smash several things together. Cookie dough, Oreos, and the eventual brownie mix topping. Or maybe go plain, topping it with only some icing and walnuts. The simplicity of the traybake is to its advantage: almost everything must go in at once, or in a staggered fashion – but the process is still very linear. Likewise, each bite you take gives you the whole spectrum of flavour.
Take the best ideas from more individual recipes – the aforementioned cookie dough, flapjack mix, fruit cake, crumble – and start to think a bit laterally. Combine them; work out what tastes good with what. Principally, sweet works with sweet, but you might want to offset it with a layer of salted toffee – a caramel flapjack, with chocolate marbling. Or you might come in from some rogue angle – Christmas cake and lemon curd, rounded off with whipped cream after baking. It’s a case of the particulars. Look up individual parts, find some happy medium between their potentially-disparate cooking times (part-bake each layer, one at a time, if needed), and then work out how and if things will fit together.
the form of the traybake, being so ephemeral, allows you so much freedom within its constraints
Part of the charm to be found here is not only experimentation, but also accessibility. Each of the individual parts you’re putting together often involve quite simple ingredients: cookie dough is chocolate chips, eggs butter, sugar, flour and so forth; for brownies, add cocoa powder; while shortbread is much the same composition of ingredients as these other two. All are ingredients to be found in the casually-stocked shelves of an ordinary baker. The difference comes in the application, naturally. Of course, that’s not to say you can’t get weird. Perhaps a flapjack base. Maybe a layer of icing, generously sprinkled with desiccated coconut. You could throw sense in the proverbial bin and grill a waffle layer on top for a soft finisher. The point is, a traybake allows you to mediate what you’re doing. The individual parts, bouncing off one another, allow a great deal of chopping and changing. Seriously different combinations are within perfectly accessible grasp.
So that’s my take on the humble traybake. But this also only begins to open up the topic; the form of the traybake, being so ephemeral, allows you so much freedom within its constraints. Experiment. Get strange. Go places that might challenge the normality of the form – perhaps a baked lemon sponge, with a grilled topping of orange waffle, decked with icing. There’s so much scope. But there’s space to get lazy, as well: maybe a batch of plain brownies is your choix du jour. It’s a manner of baking that boils down the complexity of culinary adventure to an easily-navigable shorthand of layer and space. So use that. Explore bakin’ in trays, improving upon your combos, until the world is your oyster.
Or, perhaps, until the world is your traybake.