When a food critic turns the poison pen on herself

Strawberry Shortcake June 19, 2008

I never thought I’d say this, but could making a genoise be this easy?

I’m currently reviewing four baking cookbooks for the newspaper, and – since I have time – I’m trying out one recipe from each title to value-add.

Just Desserts by Bakerzin’s founder Daniel Tay has a recipe for strawberry shortcake that I just had to try. It appeared to be the least complicated recipe in the cake section and, besides, strawberry shortcake is my favourite cake. But there is a snag: I’d have to revisit the genoise, a word that sets me trembling to my very foundations.

Genoise, which is the French style of sponge cake, is notoriously hard to make. Like all sponges, it gets its aeration and volume not from baking powder, but from whipping the hell out of eggs. Then, you’d have to fold in flour and melted butter with the dexterity and speed of a kungfu pugilist. A heavy hand or a few seconds too long and you’d end up with a rubber mat of a cake.

I tried to master the genoise last year after I bought Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible. And, I tell you, that lady made me go through hell and high water to attain her vision of the perfect genoise.

To make her genoise, I had to prepare my own beurre noisette (snooty term for clarified butter) by heating butter to boiling point then straining the burnt milk solids. I had to balance a bowl of eggs over a pot of boiling water, then, risking life and limb, beat the eggs for 10 full minutes with a hand-held electric mixer. Then, to effectively fold in the flour without upsetting too much of the testy air bubbles, I bought the biggest whisk there is, at 16 inches long – all at Beranbaum’s behest.

And what did I get after at least five attempts? Greasy countertops, egg foam everywhere, a bloody baseball-bat of a whisk that cannot fit in any of my drawers, and sunken-in cakes.

So when I tried Tay’s recipe, I half-expected it not the work. He didn’t call for the heating up of eggs to achieve maximum volume, which was unusual. Instead, a helluva lot of egg yolks were needed – at least six, plus another three whole eggs – which were beaten for a good 20 minutes. Presumably, this is to stabilise the air bubbles so the batter becomes more tolerant of rough handling.

At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I took the cake out of the oven. It didn’t sink. I gave it another 15 minutes on the counter, and still it stayed put. Then, I bent down and peered at it at eye-level – the top was perfectly level. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe I have a miracle.

Making the chantilly cream was even easier. I only had to whisk together whipped cream, mascarpone cheese and sugar, and I was soon licking this utterly delicious concoction off my fingers.

Okay, so the finishing was a little rough. I unmolded the cake a little too soon (the book didn’t specify how long it should be refrigerated – their fault!) so it didn’t look as polished as the photo in the book. But it tasted so good. It wasn’t quite like my Holy Grail, the unrivalled Scoop Cake from Tampopo Deli in Liang Court. But it was pretty dem good for a first try. And so easy too.

Yay, Mr Tay.


Milk chocolate peanut butter ganache June 16, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes,Cupcakes — crummb @ 10:18 am
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I’ve been dying to make this frosting since I came across it in Tish Boyle’s The Cake Book. She said: “Something downright magical happens when peanut butter and chocolate get together,” and she is absolutely right.

The saltiness of the peanut butter reins in the sweetness of chocolate. So what you get is a frosting that’s a little sweet and a little salty, and you’d be lapping up a few servings before you realise you’d better stop because it’s all going straight to your butt.

It’s so easy to make too. Just heat up thickened cream till boiling point, add peanut butter and salt, then pour it over milk chocolate droplets and stir. When combined, it takes on this shiny, silky consistency like translucent, golden caramel. It’s the new cream cheese frosting, if you ask me.


My Wedding Cake June 11, 2008

Filed under: Cupcakes,Wedding cakes — crummb @ 2:00 pm
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I’m going to make a lot of strawberry shortcake and write all about it in this blog because it is, hands down, my favourite cake in the whole wide world.

As far as I’m concerned, chocolate fudge cake, tiramisu, brownies – or whatever most people say is their ultimate confectionery sin – don’t even come close.

I love strawberry shortcake so much that I had it made into my wedding cake two years ago. And I asked the place that makes the very best, Tampopo Deli in Liang Court, to do it.

I first tasted their so-called Scoop Cake about a year before, and instantly swore that I would never write about it in my articles for the newspaper.

It was so good that I didn’t want hordes of readers going to order it and lowering its standards, or worst, have the pastry chef poached somewhere else where she couldn’t be found or didn’t make the cake any more. Nope, this find was mine.

It’s called Scoop Cake because it’s made in rectangular foil tubs where portions are scooped out and served. Each comes with two layers of incredibly soft vanilla sponge cake that’s smothered under this blanket of toe-tingling, absolutely divine whipped cream. It is topped with juicy chunks of strawberry and orange that – over the three years that I’ve had it – are always off-the-farm fresh.

When I told Tampopo’s owner Mr Takagi about my proposition, he said no problem, and promptly ushered out his pastry chef to discuss the details. Akemi, the sweet-faced and super talented chef who had previously worked for the fabulous Provence bakery in Holland Village, was so obliging it almost hurt.

I want the cake put inside cupcake cases. Hai! I want the same two layers of vanilla sponge and two layers of whipped cream. Hai! I also want the same strawberry and orange on top, with the same sprig on mint and silver dragees. Hai! Hai!

The only problem, she said, was that I would have to source for the cupcake cases and cupcake stand myself, since they don’t normally cater to weddings. No problem, I said. It suited the exacting, detail-obsessed bridezilla in me just fine.

As it turned out, it took me close to two months before I found the cupcake case. Akemi said it’d have to have sturdy sides – not the usual fluted ones – to hold in the soft cream. I combed through just about every baking supplies store I knew, and even went on the Internet to check out overseas suppliers, before I settled on the one in these photos. It was actually a little too ubiquitous for me – many cafes use it for muffins – but for lack of other options, I took it.

When it came to the cupcake stand, there was no way I was gonna borrow one of those widely available, cheapo-looking acrylic ones (yes, I am a cupcake stand snob). Instead, I want the cupcakes to be placed on a towering four-tier cake dummy, just like the one I saw in Martha Stewart Weddings. So I asked the only person I knew who could make it for me, an executive pastry chef from a hotel.

The tiers were to be made of styrofoam, then covered in white fondant. Before I gave the chef the dimensions, I even cut out the exact sizes of the four tiers from newspaper just to make sure it looked right. It’s gonna be one unusual, unforgettable cake, I thought smartly.

Well, it was unusual alright. It was so unusual that most of my wedding guests didn’t know it was the wedding cake. When I entered the reception hall where they were tucking into buffet after our church ceremony, the cakes were largely untouched and I had to tell people to eat it. Those who did couldn’t stop raving. My brother Pete ate four in a row. And to this day, it remains a mystery who took home the biggest tub on top of the cake. That one was supposed to be for me.

A few months ago, I was going through my wedding photos when I came across these same ones of the cake. I e-mailed them to Mr Takagi to thank him and Akemi for a job well done. Then, a few weeks later, I was walking pass Tampopo Deli when I saw the photos blown up to the size of movie posters and pasted on the shop window.

It’s funny. I had no hand in making the cake. But right then, as I stood in front of the shop, was one of the proudest moments of my life.



The Feeding Of The 130 June 4, 2008

Filed under: Cupcakes — crummb @ 6:56 pm
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First up: These photos were not taken by husband Z. There was no artful styling nor meticulous framing because it was not the time nor the place for it. When a cake order threatens to become the mother of all cake disasters, the last thing you think about is photos for your blog.

I’d thought the hardest thing about making 130 cupcakes for my church’s kids camp was the baking. Oh hoho, how wrong was I. The baking did take an epic 10 hours (including the time I took to walk out to the petrol kiosk to get more eggs, and the time I sat on the loo to wrestle one of those agonising, face-scrunching, knee-buckling stomach aches). It took this long because I have only a domestic oven, and inside it only one wire rack. I had forgotten to order a second rack in time for my baking marathon, which meant that I had to bake the cupcakes at an excruciatingly slow pace of 12 at a time.

When I finished at 7.30pm, I had to shift all 130 with me to my parents’ because my apartment was about to be renovated so we’ve moved there for a few weeks. How do you pack 130 cupcakes in the most efficient way? By stacking them up in three nifty boxes, of course, and putting them in the car boot.

But when I unpacked them at my parents’, this was what I found:


Seven of them were completely damaged. In my previous post, I had made a chest-thumping declaration that I’ve found the softest, fluffiest cupcake recipe on earth. Quite obviously, I forgot about it soon after. Because only a sucker would stack the softest, fluffiest cupcakes on earth on top of one another – four levels high at that.

Not only were seven of them irreparably crushed, most of them had circular indents from the weight of cupcakes above. So what started out as perfectly level cupcakes ended up looking like poorly made, sunken fiascos. Thankfully, the buttercream swirls I was to pipe the following morning would cover the multitude of sins. I’d also made a few extra pieces so I could still meet the 130 quantity.

Next problem: How do you store 130 cupcakes in a single layer overnight, such that no lizard/rat/rodent can get to them? To illustrate its enormity, 130 cupcakes cover the entire surface area of a round table that seats six people. Well, I could put 40 of them under my mum’s biggest plastic food cover, and another 36 inside cardboard boxes. But what about the remaining 54?

I was about to start foaming at the mouth when Z, putting on his Sherlock cap, looked around and said simply: “Put them in the oven lah.” Yes! The two racks in my mum’s oven could accommodate all the rest. Sorted.

At this point, I would like to sidetrack and encourage all parents of under-achieving kids with this note: There is always hope. My Z failed his elementary math at O level, but look how well he’s turned out! What a problem-solving sleuth, this hero.

Anyway. The next morning, I woke up bright and early, excited to put the finishing swirls on the cupcakes before a guy from church comes to collect them at 2.30pm. Then, the window grille man called. His four workers, along with gigantic glass windows tailored for my six rooms, were waiting outside my apartment.

“What? I thought they’re coming tomorrow,” I cried.

“Oh, sorry. It’s today. They’re there now.”

My mind reeled. I have to open the door for them and keep an eye on them all day. Which means I have to pipe the cupcakes back in my apartment, right smack in the middle of renovation chaos.

So the cupcakes were stacked up again in the three boxes (really, there was no other way) and taken back with me to the apartment. I don’t blame one of the Malaysian workers for looking confused when the foreman told him the xiaojie (me) wants a free room to “make cake”. Trust me, I could choose a better time.

So as the workers tore down my windows and grilles outside, creating what resembled a Sahara-like sandstorm, I was in my guest-room piping cakes. It was a Charlie Kaufman moment right there.

A few more cupcakes were damaged enroute, so I could produce only 127 in the end. After the church guy collected them and left, I heaved a huge sigh of relief and looked out my windowless windows. I can so not bake cupcakes for a long, long time.