When a food critic turns the poison pen on herself

Honey and buttermilk cheesecake August 27, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes — crummb @ 4:48 pm
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THERE’S a saying about cookbooks which I realise is quite true – the fewer the pictures, the better it is. 

You’ve been there before. You buy this gorgeous cookbook that has a photo for every one of its recipes. Each picture is meticulously styled, right down to the soft-focused, artful flicks of frosting. It makes you pronounce, “I, too, can be Nigella!” That’s until you actually try out the recipe. It doesn’t tell you when to stop whipping. A listed ingredient isn’t mentioned in the method. Or the oven temperature is wrong.  When the cake emerges, looking like it was trampled over by your dog, you realise: You’ve just been suckered by another Bimbo Cookbook.

It hardly ever happens with plain, no-nonsense books like Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible or my fave, Allysa Torey’s More From Magnolia. Maybe their recipes are so fail-proof, they don’t need photos to sell the books. Possible, yes?

Anyway, may I suggest another dictum in predicting the efficacy of cookbooks: The scarier-looking the author, the better it is.

I am currently testing out recipes from this book I’m reviewing for the newspaper, Mary Berry’s Ultimate Cake Book. It’s one of three cookbooks I’m covering under the theme: baking books by famous kitchen doyennes. The other two are by Martha Stewart and Julia Child. And, believe me, I wouldn’t have picked Mary Berry if not for the fact that I really couldn’t find another household-name doyenne to complete the package.

Look at the book cover and you’d know what I mean. There’s a small photo of her on it and she’s not smiling. Berry, a British food writer who hosted a few TV series on the BBC in the 1980s, has silver hair and the thin, sculpted face of a disciplinary mistress. Her lips are stretched into an uneven arc that is part-sneer, part-taunt. It is a Clint-Eastwood look that says, “Go ahead, buy my book.”

There is a bigger profile photo of her inside and it’s no better. Her facial expression is the same one I have after I’ve spent three hours stirring up a whirlwind in my kitchen and still the cake came out like a crater. It’s a look that channels exhaustion, disorientation and “I wanna kill somebody”.

Why the glum face, I don’t know. Maybe she’s got bad teeth. But one thing’s for sure, her recipes work. I tried her honey and buttermilk cheesecake – because I love anything with honey in it – and it turned out like a dream. The cheesecake is so smooth and light it was almost like a mousse. Unlike many Western recipes, this one wasn’t too sweet. In fact, her recommended drizzle of honey over the cake wasn’t just for show or a better photo op – the jolt of sweetness lifts the taste from pleasant to  decadent.

After this experience, I am a sucker no more. No book with mere megawatt styling and photography is gonna fool me. And if Salman Rushdie were to write a cookbook, I’ll be the first in line.


Sponge cake – Test me, I’m positive August 21, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes — crummb @ 1:29 pm
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YESTERDAY, I made a sponge cake that was cottony soft, gorgeously tender and didn’t sink. But I wasn’t elated. It was – indulge me, since we’re in the thick of Olympic season – a cake that tested positive.

Let me explain. For as long as I remember, the epitome of a great cake is the sponge cake. Don’t talk to me about butter cakes, and how rich they taste or how firm and biteworthy their texture. Butter cakes aren’t special. You can find them in any neighbourhood bakery or mama shop. My mum, and just about any housewife/auntie with an oven has tried, and succeeded, in making it.

But sponge cakes are different. When I was a kid, sponge cakes were held with the same esteem as, say, molten lava chocolate cakes today. Just say the name and a chorus of oohs and aahs are sure to follow.  Who could resist a cake so soft, it literally melts in your mouth?

Added to its mystique was how difficult it is to make. I vividly remember my mum, seated on our kitchen floor, sweating buckets as she hand-whipped egg whites because she was told that doing it by hand was the secret to making a sponge that wouldn’t sink. It was a lie. My mum, who for a few weeks was obsessed with cracking the secret sponge code, ended up throwing away three or four botched, sunken-in cakes a day. I used to think, Man, that’s a lot of unborn Kentucky Fried Chickens in those eggs.

These days, there’s only one source I turn to for my sponge cake fix – Polar. Their sugar rolls, so bouncy and cushiony soft – are the way to my heart. The other day, a banker friend of ours came to our house to sell an insurance plan for En En, and wisely brought along a box of eight Polar sugar rolls. Since neither my husband Z nor my mum are huge fans, I ate one that night and saved the rest for the office the next day. At the office, I shared them with no one. That’s how much I love ’em. And we bought the plan too.

So on my holiday back to Kota Kinabalu last month, the biggest item on my to-do list was to learn how to make this sponge cake from my aunt, a professional baker. She bakes hers in huge square tins, and she’d halve them into sheets and lather yam paste between them. Absolutely yummy.

But, in her bakery’s kitchen for a hands-on lesson, I was shocked when I finally laid eyes on her recipe. Along with regular superfine flour, she uses a sponge mix flour. A sponge mix! That contains emulsifiers that stabilises the batter so it wouldn’t sink! The same cheater, short-cut stuff used by only lazy hobbyists who do not care about making cakes with honesty and integrity. A sponge mix!

“Isn’t there another recipe that doesn’t use sponge mix?” I asked, no, pleaded, my aunt.

“Yes, but they wouldn’t produce the same result. The texture would never be as fine,” she replied.

Like a bolt of lightning, it hit me that all commercial bakeries use emulsifiers. I recalled that when I took a baking course in a well-established bakery school last year, their recipe for a Polar-like sponge cake also included “sponge gel”, a cake stabiliser.

I was crestfallen for the rest of the trip. I couldn’t believe that my favourite sponge cakes, like Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, had been chemically powered. I thought to myself in a tortured whisper, All this time, I was eating a lie.

I was still mulling over the deception yesterday when I tried to replicate my aunt’s recipe. There must be another recipe using natural, God-given ingredients that produces the same results, I muttered, as I piped on Swiss meringue buttercream and stuck on some strawberries. One day – one day! – I will create a recipe that is chemical-free, au naturel and safe for all to consume!

Then, I broke off one slice and shoved it into my mouth. It was so moist and miraculously soft, it was dreamy like a baby’s bottom. And I thought, Just eat lah.


Chocolate glazed marble cake August 13, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes — crummb @ 12:42 pm
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I DON’T care what anyone says about the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. I thought it was amazing. Okay, the segment where the baseball-capped performers formed a flapping dove was a little too camembert for me. But that phenomenal opening act with the drummers – how can anyone not get goosebumps?

So I set out to make a cake to celebrate the Olympics. For even to a non-sports fan like me, the Olympics is a very special time. I’d watch pretty much any event on TV. During these two weeks, I am not a cynic. I totally buy the whole notion that sports promotes world peace, harmony and all that Hallmark stuff. And I’d tear every time they play the national anthem of whichever country just won gold. My mum is the same. The only sports she’s ever interested in is the obsessive cleaning of my kitchen countertop. But come Olympics season, she’s all spread out across my sofa and watching equestrian.

I was thinking about what to make for my Olympic cake and, no, I’m not making five cupcakes with the five Olympic rings on top. I am a woman of subtlety, folks. I decided on Tish Boyle’s Orange And Cream Cake because it required several back-breaking steps – making the genoise cake layers, the orange sugar syrup, the orange mousse, and lots of grating of orange zest. Since it calls for so much time and hard work, I’d qualify it as my “marathon cake”.

But to cut a long story short, the cake was a disaster that scaled to, well, Olympic heights. It started with me, with one eye fixated on women’s synchronised diving on TV, adding twice the amount of sugar to the mousse. Then, I forgot that my 9-inch loose-bottom cake tin was not water-tight, so when the cake and mousse were placed in it before chilling, the mousse leaked.

I don’t even wanna talk about how I tried to rescue it. (Well, okay. I tried taking out the cake layers – all mushy and soaked in mousse – with my bare hands, hoping to move them to another tin. Needless to say, they broke. What was I thinking.)

I was cranky for the rest of the day (“Hi, I’m Pau Lin,  and I’m a cakeholic…”). To make myself feel better, I made another cake the following day. This time, a simpler-to-achieve marble cake, also from Tish Boyle’s The Cake Book. This one turned out beautifully – so tender and with a fabulous crumb. It’s perfect as it is, but I drizzled over some chocolate glaze to satisfy my chocoholic readers out there (Hello, Zann and Daphnee!). The things a blogger has to do to get hits.

Still, I was a bit miffed that this cake didn’t look or feel very Olympian. But that’s until
I sliced it up for the photoshoot and saw the cross-section. Doesn’t it look like a very lyrical tree in a very Chinese painting? (Shut up, those of you who say “Looks like a kidney, what.”) It’s poetry in confection, I tell you.

Go, Beijing!


Peaches and cream tart August 5, 2008

Filed under: Pastry — crummb @ 12:35 pm
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WE’VE been married for over two years now and it still shocks me just how incompatible my husband Z and I are with regards to food.

I love to eat. He doesn’t.

Food makes me happy. He just wants to get it over and done with.

I like roti prata kosong. He must have his with egg.

I like my pasta tomato-based. He hates pasta, but if coerced, goes for carbonara.

I can finish an entire durian by myself. A mere whiff gives him a headache.

I think it’s offensive to add Maggi chilli sauce over fried rice. He thinks it’s haute cuisine.

Recently, he stunned me when he said, “I don’t like tarts.”

What? How can anyone not like tarts? What’s not to like? I love tarts. I love how, when you take a bite, your tongue twirls around the creamy filling and your teeth hits an occasional crack of pastry. I love how it’s gooey and crusty at the same time. If it’s a fruit tart, even better. I love how the fruit adds mushiness to the whole shebang.

When I first saw this recipe in Allysa Torey’s More From Magnolia, I wanted to make it straight away. It has all the great stuff that I love – sugar cookie crust, filling made of cream cheese and heavy cream, and peaches. The recipes calls for fresh peaches, which is seasonal (I wanna make it now!) so I substituted them with canned ones. Besides, I don’t care too much for fresh peaches. I unashamedly declare that I’m a huge fan of canned peaches and other sugar-loaded, chemically modified fruits (especially lychees, longans, and – right on top of my list – rambutans stuffed with pineapple! Is anybody with me?)

Anyway, this tart was a breeze to make. And when I took my first bite, the crust was so light, crumbly and unbelievably good that I could enter it in some competition. The filling, though, was a little too cream-cheesy for me. It was so rich it kinda left skid marks on the way down my throat. (But my mum thought it was perfect). Still, a good attempt, I thought.

Dutiful wife that I am, I broke off one chunk and offered it to Z, who was messing around on his laptop as usual. He swooped it up in one mouthful, paused, pause some more, then scrunched up his shoulders like he was half tickled, half doing the electric boogaloo.

“No good?” I asked.

“I don’t like peaches.”

What? He doesn’t like peaches too? Good grief. This relationship is probably surviving on good looks and humour alone. It sure ain’t the food, man.


Chocolate mayo cupcakes with caramel buttercream August 1, 2008

Filed under: Cupcakes — crummb @ 12:46 pm
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I JUST wrote about how I can’t stand chocolate in my previous post. So what am I doing making another chocolate cupcake? Because this one contains an ingredient that might make chocolate more tolerable – mayonnaise.

I love mayonnaise. I love anything that has it – sandwiches, potato salads, burgers, Japanese pizzas, California maki, mentaiko pasta, and now, maybe even chocolate cake.

I’ve seen mayonnaise being used to make chocolate cake in several different cookbooks. Apparently, they’re all adapted from a classic recipe by Hellman’s, a mayonnaise brand. Replacing butter in a recipe, mayonnaise supposedly offers an unrivalled moistness to a cake.

And it’s true. My cupcakes turned out really tender, moist and really black, like devil’s food cake. To my warped disappointment, there was no taste of mayonnaise at all. But its vinegar content nullified all the sugar, so what was left was just a taste of plain chocolate in a cupcake case.

Which was might as well. Because another highlight of this recipe is the caramel-butterscotch buttercream. And I love, love, love caramel and butterscotch. These recipes are taken from Jill O’Connor’s Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey, a gorgeous desserts book I’m reviewing for the newspaper. She highly recommended that this plain cake be paired with this frosting, presumably because the bland chocolate is given a heady boost by the fragrance of burnt brown sugar in the buttercream.

I must say, though, making the buttercream wasn’t a walk in the park. First, there was the making of caramel sauce, which required careful stirring of sugar syrup till it turns just the right shade of amber before you add cream. I left it boiling for a little too long, and when it cooled, I got not caramel, but toffee. (Thankfully, it could be turned back to caramel by just heating it with some water – but not before I flicked huge blobs of toffee, which I also love, into my mouth.)

Then, there was making the butterscotch buttercream, which involved whisking eggs and dark brown sugar over dangerously simmering water, sticking in a candy thermometer to see that it gets up to the right temperature, before transferring the mixture to my Kitchen Aid for more heavy-duty whisking.

But after butter was added and the watery mixture emulsified into a luxurious, glossy buttercream, it tasted glorious with this rich, mellow undertone. Mix in the caramel sauce, and it was heaven on your finger.