When a food critic turns the poison pen on herself

Noelle’s 3rd birthday cake November 8, 2010

Filed under: Birthday cakes — crummb @ 10:42 am
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Kids birthday parties are absolutely exhausting. Last Friday, when my daughter E’s party was winding down to a close, I actually slumped into my sofa and, with mouth slightly ajar, fell asleep when there were still two guests left in the house.

It wasn’t even a big party. All the food was ordered in, and I had my mum and aunt to help with the serving. What made it draining, I realise, was the pressure of wanting to throw a better party than last year’s; this inner competition where I wanted to out-Martha Martha. So I went about making 15 huge paper pom-poms, which took close to 5 hours, to hang all over the house. There was this lovely cascading cluster over the dining table, and a few other explosions at various corners of the house.

There was also a theme. Since E loves to play waitress, we got godma C to make her little menus listing the food to be served at the party, so she could go around asking the guests for their orders. We put on her the most waitressy outfit we could rustle up from her wardrobe, and made a waitress name tag to go with it too.

As for the cake, ahem, I do believe that I outdid the one last year. And I humbly give credit to Naomi of Hello Naomi and Louise of for the inspiration. It had a giant strawberry, a giant swirl of whipped cream, and giant sprinkles all made out of sugar. Some of the kids thought the cake was a toy. Success!

When the party was over and we were clearing up, I turned to my husband Z and asked, “How many more birthday parties are we gonna throw for her?” Because, I cannot imagine outdoing myself every year. Before you know it, I’ll be hiring the entire Cirque du Soleil, and making a cake with a cannon inside that will shoot fireworks into the night sky.

“For as long as she wants to spend her birthday with us, I s’pose,” Z replied. And sigh, he’s right. There are only so many years E will think it’s cool to have her parents sing Happy Birthday for her, before she starts shopping for barbecue gear so she and her friends can have overnight cookouts at a Changi chalet. Which means I have only a handful of years left to make her cakes, fuss over the food and devise costumes. So I’m still game. Next year, I will make 20 pom-poms.



Kids Cakes October 13, 2010

Filed under: Birthday cakes — crummb @ 2:05 pm
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If you ever want to make me nervous, just ask me to make a kid’s birthday cake. But if you want me to really tremble in my housewife’s slippers, tell me it is for a boy.

You see, I don’t have a son. I have no idea what makes them tick (or tear down the house). I think Thomas & Friends is the nuttiest TV show on earth. I mean, talking trains? What’s so fun about that? Or dinosaurs? Or cars? Or anything that moves fast and puffs smoke? They’re noisy and they smell.

So thankfully, when M asked me to make a cake for her son Ollie’s 3rd birthday, she had only one criterion. Ollie loves gummies and so she wanted them on a cake. Okay, this I can do. I’ll put them on bamboo skewers and stick them into a little balloon cart, my tribute to the animation movie Up (if you haven’t seen it, the 4-minute montage of a lifelong marriage is worth an Oscar by itself).

But man, it was hard work. It took hours to cut, texture and stick together the cart. The little helium canister threatened to drop off, the cart started falling apart, the wheels couldn’t support the weight, the gummy sticks kept tilting downwards. By the time M came to pick up the cake, I looked like I’d just walked through a car wash.

Cakes for little girls, on the other hand, are a complete breeze. You just make cute little strawberries, cut out little flowers and leaves, stick them on the cake and that is it. After S came to pick up this 3-tier cake for her daughter Jayna, I could actually go out to attend a wedding like a normal person and even emitted no foul odours.

I know I’m probably scaring off all my friends who have sons. But don’t worry (especially Clara, Yee Hwa, Jo and Hun Ching!), I will always make your boys’ birthday cakes if you want.

There are always sedatives (for me, not your sons).


My first cake order August 27, 2010

Filed under: Birthday cakes — crummb @ 10:43 am
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In my former life as a journalist, I had this internal switch that I turned on each time I stepped into an interview to profile a personality. In an instant, I’d become chatty, full of questions, thoroughly interested, and dripping with charm and good manners. It was all necessary if you are to probe the inner psyche of a complete stranger.

But 15 years of practice couldn’t obscure this fact: I was, and always will be, an introvert. I’m incurably shy when it comes to meeting new people, and I will always need a legitimate licence — such as a journalist’s badge — before I dare poke a toe into someone’s private life.

But, as I happily found out last week when I delivered my first cake, my second career can also usher me into strangers’ lives — this time, no charm offensive needed.

The venue was a gleaming, immaculately renovated studio apartment in the heart of CBD, and the occasion was a surprise birthday party for a girl named C. As I assembled the cake on the swanky kitchen countertop, I could hear the whirl of excitement all around. Friends chatted, new people were introduced, music played, drinks circulated.

“It’s like we can gatecrash parties all the time now,” I whispered excitedly to husband Z, who was my co-deliveryman. But instead of having to do the dreaded small talk, I was left alone to do my work. I was invisible, but privy to all that was going on. A bit like a taxi-driver, I thought.

I was curious about the birthday girl, whom we didn’t meet because we had to leave before she arrived. Clearly, she was very well-loved. She is a hobbyist painter and had drawn many paintings for her friends over the years. So as a surprise for her birthday, her friends gathered all the paintings she had given away and displayed them at the party as like an art exhibition. There were canapes, uniformed waitresses and, of course, a three-tier cake made by me.

The cake was designed to hopefully appeal to the bubbly, artsy girl. The three square tiers were stacked off-centre, and each layer was decorated with different sugarpaste motifs in bright, happy colours.

But the evening ended on a sour note for me. Halfway through my set-up, Z poked me in the ribs and pointed at the countertop. After turning the cakestand round and round so I could coax the chocolate fondant into shape, I had left ugly streaks on the spotless stainless steel surface. I placed a rag under the cakestand and tried rubbing away the scratches, but it was too late. They were permanent.

No words could describe how gutted I felt. If someone had done that to my kitchen countertop, I’d be pissed. But the homeowner was totally gracious about it. And to remedy the situation, I have sent my contractor over to polish down the damage.

The repair job will cost me the price of the cake and then some. So this is one hard, expensive lesson learnt. You can bet that every time I go on a new job from now on, I will not need that internal switch. I will bloody need a rag.


Guilt-free Chocolate Chiffon Cake March 1, 2010

My husband Z turned 33 last week. When I asked him what cake he wanted as a present, he said a chocolate cake that’s “not too rich”. Ever heard of a chocolate cake that wasn’t rich? I haven’t. It’s like asking for steak without meat.

But that’s what you get when you suddenly find yourself with a health-conscious, iron-pumping husband in the house. It all started when a few of his b-boy friends dropped by a few weeks ago. Believe it or not, Z was a founding member of Radikal Forze, a pioneering breakdancing crew that started when hip-hop first took root in Singapore 10 years ago. He and his posse of breakers used to spin holes into the dancefloor in Zouk, sporting oversized jerseys and baseball caps way before it became standard attire for teenage boys everywhere.

He quit the group after two years but a few of the members carried on. F, who is now group frontman and one of the most respected b-boys in Asia, came by our house with three others for a visit. Because they pretty much make a living out of breaking, they have bodies as tight as pitbulls and, as Z described, rare muscle groups that were last seen on Brad Pitt in The Fight Club.

“Imagine if I’d continued with them,” Z said after they left, regaling me with tales of their conquests of overseas competitions and easy girls. And, as if to make up for the lost years, he started lifting weights every night, huffing and puffing in front of the bedroom mirror. In between sets, he would turn to me with triumphant shouts of “Bam!”

I’d ignore him, but inside, I found this recapturing of a former life a bit unsettling. Blame it on my postpartum hormones, but I began to wonder, could Z be regretting the life he chose when he married me? After all, I met him when he was only 26 and about to leave for London for an unscripted life of adventure. I was a greenie to his world of clubbing and all-night raves, an older woman with “Baggage” written all over my forehead. And yet, to borrow an expression from Beyonce, he liked it enough to put a ring on it.

He cancelled London and all of its freewheeling possibilities. Now, seven years later, he is leading a far less glamorous life with me, changing diapers and coaxing our kid in an Elmo voice to finish her food.

“What do you think would have happened if you went to London?” I asked him the other day.

“I’d become a rock star,” he said.

“No, seriously,” I said.

“I’d probably end up dead,” he said. Okay, that was a bit morbid. But I took it that he prefers the life he has now. There are no regrets.

So anyway, about the cake. I actually found a recipe that met his odd request – a guilt-free chocolate chiffon cake taken from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible. Because it contained no butter, it carried only 110mg of cholesterol. Moist and light as air, it was absolutely delicious taken with some mascarpone whipped cream. Z has been wolfing down big slabs of it every night after his workouts, pleased as punch about this healthy birthday present.

But the cake is really just a red herring. Z has often grumbled about how I always make fun of him in my blog. So this year, my real birthday present to him is this rare public declaration of affection. Happy birthday, Ah Chut. You’re my hero and I’m glad you took the detour.


Lollipop Garden Cake November 11, 2009

Filed under: Birthday cakes — crummb @ 1:22 pm
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bday cake

For my daughter E’s first birthday last year, I came up with the idea of making a mini bundt cake tower. For one whole year since then, I’d had this question niggling at the back of my head: What clever cake can I come up with next year?

In the end, her 2nd birthday came last week and I found myself doing the ultimate loser thing: I copied a design from Martha Stewart. Why? Because this cake is just the cutest darn thing I’ve ever laid my eyes on.

noelle and cake

I mean, look at it! It has colourful lollipops stuck all over like little flowers, and even frilly grass creeping up from the sides. Forget about being original, man. This is one copy-cake I wanted to eat.

But mind you, mimicry is an art.

There was a  lot of walking back and forth between kitchen and balcony – where there was direct daylight – before I could colour the buttercream the exact same shade of green as the original.

And I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took quite a few teaspoonfuls of green colouring to achieve it – so much so that I was afraid our guests who ate it would look into their toilet bowls the next morning and wonder if they had overdosed on vegetables.

There was also much fussing over the size and colours of the gummies that were to be skewered with satay sticks and stuck on the cake. I even went out especially to buy the right sized leaf piping tip so that my grass sheaves would look nothing short of perfect.

The verdict? When E’s de facto godmother C first saw the cake, she cried: “It’s just like the real thing!!” And my husband Z, no doubt inspired by the piped-in muzak we always hear in supermarkets, proudly declared to his friends that I am a “cover artiste”.

Me? For someone who has never bought a fake good in her life (never bought a branded good either), I’m totally pleased about my counterfeiting prowess. If I were a city, my name would be Zhen. Shenzhen.



Dad’s 80th birthday cake October 8, 2009

Filed under: Birthday cakes,Inane stuff — crummb @ 9:01 pm
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test bday

I made a two-tier cake for my dad’s 80th birthday last month. But this post isn’t about how much he loved it (which I’m sure he did, even though crusty, conservative Teochew men like him don’t often express their feelings), or how much my relatives loved it, or how my 23-month-old daughter E wolfed down an entire slice all by herself, this being her very first taste of her mother’s baking (we decided that we’ve deprived her the sinful joys of fat and sugar for long enough).

No, this post is about the miracle of how I even managed to make the cake in the first place.

You’ve been fooled if you think that I stopped baking over the past five months because I’m pregnant and that my apartment was under renovation. Friends, there was actually a more sinister, diabolical force at work – my husband Z.

Let me put it this way. I am married to a man who has turned my pregnancy into an oppressive in-house military camp. Much like how life in the army barracks is governed by an inexplicable set of rules that makes sense only to the sergeant who created them, so is my life ever since Z knocked me up.

Here is Z the Pregnancy Nazi’s edict:

I cannot eat instant noodles or canned soup. Zero nutrition.

I cannot eat sausages. You don’t know what goes into them.

I cannot stand near the microwave oven, let alone eat anything that has been microwaved. He gave me the reason but it was so deep it slid right over my head.

I cannot carry my 11-kg daughter. Too taxing.

I cannot reach my arms up to take anything that is taller than me. I could overstretch.

I must flee at the slightest whiff of cigarette smoke, paint, detergent or fumigation (but strangely, his noxious farts are okay).

I cannot shower in the bathtub. I could slip and fall.

Every other day, he will check if I have been faithfully taking my dietary supplements. Every time I eat an apple, or any produce that may have come in contact with pesticides, he asks sternly: “Did you wash it?”

A few weeks ago, in a haze of renovation fever, I returned to my apartment with our maid so she could glue on a piece of laminate in the kitchen. I only supervised; I didn’t do any of the work. But when Z found out that I was actually within sniffing distance of glue for 15 minutes, he refused to talk to me for one full day.

So go ahead, ask me if I’ve been baking. And I’ll roll my eyes and tell you: “And incur the wrath of Lord Z?” No, I have not been baking. Because I don’t want to whisk an egg and have him scold me for potentially breaking my hip, thereby making childbirth more difficult. I have not been baking. Because I don’t want to sift flour only to have him accuse me of triggering premature labour.

But I had a rare reprieve last month as my dad’s birthday approached. He was turning 80, a grand, celebratory milestone by any standard, and I wanted to bake him a cake, something I had never done before. It was a proposition that even Z, a complete softie when it comes to parents and family, could not turn down.

So I baked the butter cakes in my spanking new 90-cm Ariston oven back in my apartment (more about my wonder oven in another post), then completed the frosting (whipped cream with mascarpone cheese) and decorations (strawberries, raspberries and blueberries) at my parents’, where a party for 30 relatives was to be held.

The cake was a hit. Dad’s four grandchildren helped him blow out the candles, and a photo of that moment now serves as wallpaper in his iPod, our birthday gift to him. I’m just glad that Z the Nazi didn’t deny me the pride I now feel for making the cake. Because if he did, I would summon some of this watermelon belly and heavy-artillery papaya boobs to unleash some major Allied forces on him. Ker-pow!


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.