When a food critic turns the poison pen on herself

A not-so Happy Birthday March 11, 2009


I could lie and say that the above is a fancy update of roti prata, but I won’t. In truth, it’s a no good piece-of-crap choux pastry I ended up making for my husband Z’s birthday last month.

Ever heard of Paris-Brest? It’s a French pastry in a shape of a wheel that was created in 1891 to celebrate some historic bike race from Paris to Brest. So how come my wheel looked like it ran over a bed of nails and emerged flatter than Gwyneth Paltrow?

I got the recipe from Young Mo Kim’s A Fine Collection Of Baking (yes, that book again, which I’m seriously thinking of burning and sending the ashes back to Korea). In the book, the wheel is perfectly round, puffed up, cut in half and filled with whipped cream, whole bananas and a hazelnut praline mousse. Sounds like heaven right?

Well, I never got to taste the divine combo because I didn’t go as far as peeling the bananas. Before I could even start work on the filling, the blurdy pastry broke into three segments while rising in the oven. Not only that, it rose so unevenly it looked like a miniature roller coaster. Then when I took it out, it fell dead flat.

What’s even more tragic, I made this damn thing three times — using choux recipes from Young Mo Kim, Martha Stewart and Pichet Ong — and they all failed. Nope, practice didn’t make perfect, folks.

So I thought, maybe choux pastry cannot sustain such a long, continuous structure – the most it could go is short logs like eclairs. So I used the leftover batter to make eclairs (which was actually Z’s original choice as his birthday treat).


Check out the end result above. Pretty nice, eh? The pastry remained puffed up, the chocolate topping was rich and glossy. Woulda been perfect if you didn’t actually have to bite into it. See below.

eclair-cu-loThe pastry cream inside — recipe taken from the until-now very reliable BakeWise by Shirley Corriher — was so stiff I couldn’t pipe it into the puffs. For the sake of photography and some semblance to a real eclair, I had to spread it onto the cavity like it was a jam.

Still, I was down but not out. Z was to have a belated birthday party last weekend so I had one more chance to redeem myself. So I decided to make something totally fool-proof, and nothing is more so than an English trifle.

bottomlayer-loFirst, you make a sponge cake (I used the fail-proof recipe by my beloved Chef Alex Goh), cut it into cubes and line a glass dish.


Then, you cut up strawberries and canned peaches and jam-pack them on top.

Next, you spoon over a layer of custard but, sorry, I don’t have a photo to show it. I was too traumatised to take any photos when my custard REFUSED, and I mean, absolutely SAID NO to setting. I think I used the wrong recipe. I used Rose Levy Beranbaum’s creme anglaise, which might have been a custard sauce that wasn’t supposed to set. Desperate, I added gelatin — twice — and still it was completely liquid. Never mind, I poured it into the dish anyway and hoped that the final topping of whipped cream would obscure it.

No such luck. The whipping cream conspired with the custard to utterly humiliate me because it, too, refused to set properly. By the time we blew out the candle, the cream melted into a disastrous puddle that looked like this.

Photo taken by me

Cake soup, anyone?

Remember, all this played out in front of about 10 guests — a few of whom read this blog and had been under the illusion that I can bake. If I weren’t so well brought up by my parents, I would’ve locked myself up in my room and refused to come out.

Z wolfed down a spoonful and said “Quite nice, what.” But it didn’t comfort me. This is a man who eats fried rice with Maggi chilli sauce — hardly an arbiter of good taste. I just wanted to wail.

The next morning, I was still smarting from the debacle as we headed out for lunch with my family. As it turned out, my brother suggested that we eat at Tampopo, the birthplace of my favourite strawberry shortcake — which I consider the best in the world. I was quite willing to abstain from this treat on this sad occasion. But my sis-in-law innocently ordered a portion for me.

So there it stood, in front of me, like a cosmic taunt. The sponge cake was miraculously soft, the strawberries were glisteningly fresh, and the whipped cream was thick, glossy, spongy and perfectly set.

Utterly defeated, I dug in. The pain was exquisite.



P/S: Z wants me to put on record that the ugly photos of the English trifle were all taken by me. He’s got a rep to protect wor.


18 Responses to “A not-so Happy Birthday”

  1. Cookie Says:

    My Dearest Crummb,
    you just have an explicable talent to make every baking disaster seemed so fun… so much so that I won’t mind eating them! 😉

  2. crummb Says:

    my dear Cookie, actually my deflated wheel didn’t taste half bad! like egg prata kosong, haha! and the trifle, after leaving it overnight in the fridge, the whipped cream firmed up and it tasted like regular strawberry shortcake – just that it’s damn ugly to look at. the eclairs, though, were beyond redemption. tough, dry and hard, i wouldn’t even give it to my dog… ;p

  3. Ah Pei Says:

    Hi Crummb !
    Hee..never mind, you could be creating the most unique prata that some prata man will sell in their stalls & will be a hit !! Who knows !?! thats how history of unique dishes are created ! Don’t despair ! I have faced worse with the skills of mine !

    Oh & thank you soooooo much for the buttercream recipe which you asked daphne to pass to me. Haven’t got it from her yet. But Thanks Thanks a lot ! I shall try it for my cupcakes !!

  4. Sooch Says:

    Ha ha, at least you still have a good sense of humour left, unlike me in my earlier days when I would mope around for days after a disaster (these days I’m too old and tired to care too much). You know what else we have in common now? Making disaster cakes for loved ones. 🙂 My mom-in-law’s cake had very sad looking collapsed chocolate decor around the sides because I didn’t temper the choc properly. And my daughter had an ugly looking cheesecake for her first birthday. Hahahaha….

  5. crummb Says:

    ah pei: you’re welcome! i’m sorry i took so long to pass it to daphne. i keep forgetting! i hope you like this recipe. the trick is to add the butter when it is still quite cold (ie, it will only leave a slight indent when you press it). then you’ll get a buttercream that’s quite stiff and will pipe beautifully 🙂

    sooch: haha, indeed! when i first started making cupcakes and they sank (yes, even my cupcakes sank!), i would literally throw myself on my bed and swear NEVER to bake again! now, i just blog about it, haha. yah, lucky our loved ones are quite understanding. in this case, it’s very helpful that Z isn’t a picky eater 🙂

  6. ovenhaven Says:

    I love the fact that you put up bad baking episodes like these. When I get disasters, they just go to the bin in record time!

    I have to say that the eclair photo looks absolutely enticing, though! For the cream pastry, give Donna Hay’s a go; it’s from Modern Classics 2 I think. That’s my go-to pastry cream!

  7. Z Says:

    3 different cakes for my birthday (yes, they all tasted great!)…
    everyone shd be so blessed…
    once, for my birthday, lady crummb actually had to bake the cake 4 times just to get it right.

    Im beginning to see a pattern here…

  8. daphnechan00 Says:

    gee u know what, it still looks yummy to me ! Keep trying !

  9. Stef Says:

    Poor ol’ Crummb!
    Just for that valiant will that never flickers out, I would have enjoyed the cake soup also….

    Better luck next time, darls!

  10. chris Says:

    don’t feel bad, paris brest is difficult with our humidity. you need the choux pastry to inflate explosively at the beginning so that it’s good and hollow, and then dry out at a slightly lower temp for a longer time, so it’s crisp enough to support itself as it cools. actually corriher’s choux pastry recipe with bread flour and extra egg whites would probably work.

  11. crummb Says:

    daph and stef: thanks sweets, muacks!

    chris: man, i am so not gonna try making paris brest anymore. thrice bitten forever shy!

  12. Thumbie Says:

    Hi, I love your site and your writing style with all your tasteful irreverance for all things gone bad! 😉 Anyway, you’re so lucky to have an avid shutterbug for a husband! I really wish I’ve a talented paetner like yours who can photograph my works and make them look so goddamn beautiful! I can tell that he has a flair for food styling and a lot of work’s been put into editing as well. Please tell him to keep the food porn coming!

  13. crummb Says:

    hello thumbie! 🙂
    thank you very much for your comments. i think my husband can’t go out of his office for lunch today – his head has gotten too big to go through the door. wahhahaha!

  14. […] under bangkok, food No Comments  You’ve heard of food blogs. You’ve heard of food disaster blogs. But have you heard of blog posts about eating well while disaster rages all around you, kind of […]

  15. William Says:

    Dear Crummb,
    Found your blog while preparing for my next baking class-Paris Brest. I am already feeling confident.
    But seriously, I agree with Chris’ comment. Check you oven’s temp. and make sure after the initial explosive beginning, prop the oven door slightly open with a wooden spoon so the steam can escape and the pastry dries. Did wonders for my second tray of eclairs made from the same batch of dough as the first tray.

    As for your trifle you should remember that the Italians refer to trifle as “zuppa Inglese” – English soup..

    Thanks for sharing your kitchen adventures, I will look in from time to time.


  16. crummb Says:

    william: thanks for the tip! sadly i haven’t had the courage to make the paris brest again. i may NEVER do it cos i am still totally scarred by the experience. haha. thanks for reading my blog. come back soon.

  17. Kaviar Says:

    Yummy recipe! :). I enjoy studying your blog. Where did you download this grateful website template from? Regards from paris.

  18. […] people’s shortcomings. But I had just recently come out of a grand, ego-bruising series of baking disasters, and seeing how even this stellar food stall could create such comical duds not only brought me […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s