When a food critic turns the poison pen on herself

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.


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!