When a food critic turns the poison pen on herself

Queen of Sheba July 23, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes — crummb @ 11:18 am
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I THINK I’m the only person I know who doesn’t like chocolate.

In a food column I used to write for the newspaper, the signature question I asked the subject every week was “What would your last meal be?”. Many of them said chocolate, and I never understood it. What’s the big deal about chocolate? If I were to answer the same question, I’d say anything with whipped cream or butter.

Anyway, there is one chocolate item that I really like – my auntie’s Queen of Sheba.  I don’t know why it’s called that, my auntie doesn’t either – she adapted the recipe from some baking class she took ages ago. But it was the first chocolate cake I ever liked.

I think it’s because it’s so moist and rich in butter, with spots of grated chocolate bits scattered throughout, that it’s in effect a chocolate chip butter cake. Not surprisingly, it’s a bestseller in her bakery in Kota Kinabalu.

The good news is, I’ve learnt how to make this cake on my trip to KK two weeks ago to visit my auntie. No more asking my mum if she’s brought back any Queen of Shebas every time she returns from a holiday there. I can make it myself now.

And I must say, it is a curious recipe. As far as I know, it breaks three basic baking rules: Use cold, hard butter, use cold eggs, and whip eggs whites beyond stiff – till it’s clumpy and almost dry. Somehow, the cake still emerged super moist, super tender and with a great crumb.

How does it work? I don’t know. I just eat.


White chocolate mousse cake with summer berries July 20, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes,Birthday cakes — crummb @ 12:23 am
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I’VE had it with whipped cream. Why is it so difficult to make? All it takes is one stroke of the whisk to turn what promises to be a luxurious, velvety cream into a grainy puddle.

It happened again today when I made this cake for R’s birthday party.

The white chocolate mousse frosting seemed so easy to make. Just bring double cream (which has a sinful, artery-clogging 48% of butterfat) to a boil, pour over white chocolate chips, stir till smooth, chill and whip.

I was so determined not to overwhip and curdle it that I used a hand-whisk. After every few strokes, I would stop and bring the bowl up my eyes to check for signs of curdling. If it looked okay, I’d carry on whipping, then stop to check again. When the cream formed soft yet firm peaks, I told myself to stop. This is it. Time to slap it on the cake.

But then, it looked just a little too soft. It may not be thick enough to spread on the cake. So, what the heck, I gave the cream one more swirl of the whisk. That should do it.

Suddenly, the cream appeared a little dull. There was no more of that wondrous sheen that was there before. Then, right before my eyes, it started to sprout a million little dots, like confectionery rashes. Dem.

To see if the entire bowl had curdled, I gave it a stir to bring up the bottom, inadvertently whipping it some more. If it wasn’t curdled then, it sure was curdled now. Dem dem.

It was too late (and too expensive) to go out and buy another three tubs of double cream. Since R and almost everyone else at the party were close friends, I went ahead and used the curdled mess. They’d be forgiving.

But what about the photo for this blog entry? I wanna show everyone what happened, but not so explicitly that y’all would stop regarding me as a baking genius in the making.

So when husband/photographer Z came home from his weekly bike ride, I showed him the cake – frosted with the grainy mousse and sitting in the fridge – and asked: “Can you somehow shoot it without showing how grainy it is?”

“Can,” he deadpanned. “I shoot this lah,” he said, randomly pointing to a space outside the fridge.

“Tsk. How about focusing on the berries so the mousse is all fuzzy and no one can see?” I persisted, pointing to the berries drying on the kitchen counter.

“Can. I just shoot the berries lah. The cake stays inside the fridge.”


In the end, the graininess was ironed out a little. When the cake was taken out of the fridge, the chilled mousse could thankfully be smoothened slightly with a palette knife. So the final photo turned out quite well.

But graininess was the least of my problems. There were more setbacks to come. By the time we lugged this cake to the party venue, the sides of the cardboard box had dredged two clumps out of the cake. Then, after R blew out the candles, bits of mousse on top melted. And to top it all off, when I removed the berries so the cake could be cut and served, they dragged away chunks of mousse, leaving behind huge potholes.

It was seriously the ugliest cake I ever saw.

Our friends, as always, still had nice things to say about the cake. But I just sat glumly in one corner and thought, Not only have I made what is possibly the fattiest cake on earth, it looked a right Quasimodo too. Unhealthy and unappetizing.

I am so not making this again. Hmph.


The Perfect Butter Cake July 13, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes — crummb @ 9:27 pm
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Ladies and gentlemen, I believe I’ve reached another career milestone. I have perfected the butter cake.

It’s probably the most basic of all cakes. But for the life of me, I could never get it right.

Blame it on these three words: Light and fluffy.

Almost all butter cake recipes call for the creaming method, which means – according to Secondary One home economics – beating the crap out of butter and sugar. (There were no electric beaters way back in Marymount Convent School, so creaming involved using a wooden spoon and beating the crap out of butter, sugar and sweat.)

But here’s the catch. The instructions always say cream until “light and fluffy”. So my question is, what the hell does “light and fluffy” mean? Does “light” refer to the colour, or the texture? And as for “fluffy”, how can this word ever be applied to cooking?

So I had never succeeded in making a cake that required creaming-till-light-and-fluffy. Either I didn’t beat it enough, or I beat it too much, because the cake always turned out dense and heavy. It had gotten so bad that I developed an aversion to recipes that required creaming-till-light-and-fluffy. And, believe me, that’s about half the global population of cake recipes.

But a twist of fate came in the form of that cookbook review I was writing for the newspaper. Like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, I culled various tips for butter cakes from different sources, and it resulted in a stupendous cake I made a few days ago – so light, buttery and meltingly soft that it was almost out of this world.

So for the sake of posterity (and opening my million-dollar-raking, award-winning bakery, ahem), here are the magic steps to creaming-till-light-and-fluffy. It’s for the classic recipe that requires equal parts butter, sugar and flour:

1. Beat butter (softened) till smooth before adding sugar.

2. Add sugar bit by bit, so that the butter is not “choked” by it. When “light and fluffy” enough, the mixture has the colour of cream cheese. Also, your electric beater lifts off easily from the batter when you raise it, and it leaves feather-like peaks on the surface.

3. Add beaten eggs (at room temperature!) bit by bit, beating all the time. Stop the moment it is combined.

4. Fold in flour gently.

5. Add enough milk (at room temperature!) until the batter drops from a spoon by the count of three.

The final step is, I think, the crucial one. So many times in the past, I’d followed strictly the amount of milk dictated in the recipe, but the cakes always turned out stodgy and dense. But this time, when I added enough milk that the batter drops off the spoon by the count of three, its consistency is like a thick custard – resulting in a cake that’s beautifully light. So the problem all these years had been a simple lack of moisture! Ah-so!

I cannot wait to make another one.