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).


Whipped Cream Layer Cake November 20, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes — crummb @ 4:39 pm
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OKAY, it’s confirmed. I’m a cakezilla. And I knew when I started having violent thoughts about Nick Malgieri.

This guy is a revered American baking expert who had written books called How To Bake, Perfect Cakes, and Perfect Pastry. With titles as audacious as these, you’d expect his recipes to be  workable, yes?

Well, no! This is what happened.

My boss asked me to review his latest book, The Modern Baker, for the newspaper. And I was bordering on delirious when I scanned the contents and came across this recipe – Whipped Cream Layer Cake. Regulars to this blog would know by now how much I love whipped cream. And this cake has another ingredient that stirs my loins – caramel. Whipped cream and caramel in one cake! It’s like Christmas every day!

The cake itself went really well. Whipped cream is used in place of butter to provide tenderness and it emerged from the oven firm yet moist. But trouble brewed when I tried making caramel, which is to be whipped into the frosting.

The recipe says 1/2 cup of sugar to 1 teaspoon of water. Mix it up and heat it until it caramelises. Problem is, there’s too little water so instead of caramelising, it crystallised and turned back into coarse sugar.

But this cannot be. We’re talking about Nick Malgieri – graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, pastry chef of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, winner of numerous James Beard Foundation awards, named one of the top 10 pastry chefs in America by Chocolatier magazine, and 1996 inductee into the Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. How can Nick Malgieri be wrong?

So I tried again. And again. Five times I heated the sugar and water and five times I got the same blood-boiling result. 

With steam shooting out of my ears, I turned to another cookbook for a proper caramel recipe. I whipped up the frosting, covered the cake, and it tasted absolutely divine.

But still I was mad. While washing up, wild thoughts ran amok:

Call yourself an award-winning cookbook author? Can’t even make bloody caramel!

Charge US$35 for that cookbook? Use summa that to hire a recipe tester!

Look at all these sugar I’m throwing away. Those sugar canes died for nothing!

Don’t let me meet you in person, Mr Malgieri, or I’m gonna smear all that rock sugar on your bearded face. Take that for James BEARD!

Husband-photographer Z came home and told me about his day at work. Mmph, I responded. He told me a joke. Mmph, I attempted a laugh. My baby daughter could have launched into a Riverdance routine, executed a 2-half somersault in pike position and a perfect landing, and I would’ve just said, Mmph. I was that grumpy.

I am cakezilla. Hear me roar.


P/S: On a completely separate note, can somebody please drop a comment about how gorgeous this photo looks? I mean, it is pretty damn good, right? I think husband-photographer Z did a great job. But hardly anyone ever paid any attention to his photos. And he is sad. Every time I check in for stats and comments, he’d go, “No one say anything about my photo?” I’d look at him in silence,  he’d look back, and we’d hear crickets chirping from a faraway distance.

C’mon guys, show him some lerv.


Banana Caramel Cake September 11, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes — crummb @ 2:24 pm
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AFTER that catastrophic brush with banana cake in my last entry, you’d think that I’ve sworn off bananas for life, yah? You’d expect me to ban the fruit from my kitchen, withhold it from my 10-month-old baby even though it’s her favourite, and forbid anyone to utter those three damned syllables in my presence, yes?

Well, no!

For my next cake, I’d gone right ahead to make another banana cake, this time from the hallowed recipe troves of Martha Stewart.

I had to review her Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook for work and, after a quick skim, I thought, Hoi! how come no one told me about this? The baking compendium has recipes and photos that look so unspeakably gorgeous I could lick the pages. It’s the only cookbook I’ve ever come across that made me wanna make every single one of its recipes. Yes, even blueberry muffins – and I hate muffins.

I couldn’t wait to make her banana cake because this recipe is (a) frosted with whipped cream, and y’all know I’ll eat a toy tractor if it comes with whipped cream; and (b) filled with bananas cooked in caramel, which is unusual.

Making the various components took an entire afternoon, but when it was ready, it rocked. The whipped cream, made deeper and more stable by an addition of mascapone cheese, cut through the richness of the cake. And the mushy banana filling gave an added texture to the overall taste. After one bite, I moaned and thought, This is not just cake. This is dessert.

I was not alone in my adulation. My mum loved the cake. Even my husband Z, who pretty much doesn’t enjoy food full-stop, said it was “very good”.

So, Martha, allow me to express my newfound devotion to you. I don’t care how your TV shows are so darn boring, how you should really lighten up about cutlery placements, or how, beneath that very proper The Hamptons exterior, you are – according to that unauthorised biography – really a sex fiend.

I salute you because you helped me overcome a rabid fear of banana cakes. You are, as you often say, a ver-rry Good Thing.


Banana cake with white chocolate and cream cheese frosting September 4, 2008

Filed under: All-occasion cakes — crummb @ 3:17 pm
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Good morning, boys and girls. For today’s lesson in confectionery arts 101, I shall expound on this very important principle: DO NOT bake when you are in a hurry.

Take a look at Exhibit A. It is a standard two-layer banana cake filled and coated with cream cheese and white chocolate frosting. It looks perfectly fine, yes? All that soft-focus camera angling even makes it cookbook-worthy, yes? But no. It could have been much better.

Look closely at the cake layers. Each one could’ve been at least 1cm taller, had the baker – a certain Ms Crummb – bothered to wait until the butter had softened properly before creaming it with sugar. See how the cake texture looks horribly compacted and dense? It would’ve been avoided if Ms Crummb had remembered to take the buttermilk out of the fridge and let it to come down to room temperature. Room temperature! It is essential that liquids like milk, buttermilk, sour cream and the like be at room temperature when they are added to a cake batter. This is a basic cake-making principle.

Now, I quizzed Ms Crummb about the cake’s texture as I noticed a rather hard, plasticky sheen on the smaller slice. And lo! She admitted that she had taken the cake out of the fridge just moments before she frosted it. So it was still unpalatably chilled at the time of photography. Now, I don’t want to go into the importance of realism in cake photography, since I’ve already covered that a few lectures ago. But let me stress at least this: Your cakes must be completely consumable even at the photoshoot! Do not lie to your audience by skimping on butter or sugar or presenting it at some odd temperature. Unlike ads for KFC and Pizza Hut where dry ice and hairspray are used with mindless abandon, every bit of fakery shows up in cakes!

I managed to get to the bottom of Ms Crummb’s lacklustre effort. Between sniffles and sobs, she confessed that she had made the cake in a hurry. She said she had only one hour to bake this cake because her 10-month-old was awake, her babysitting mother couldn’t stop the baby from crawling all over the walls, and she had to get everything done before her husband/photographer got home from work. Her husband, she cried, is a very busy man. He can only set aside one night a week, and only two hours each time, to shoot her cakes. Which was why she didn’t have time to thaw the butter, the buttermilk and the cake. She had to do everything chop-chop.

Well. That would explain why the frosting was slapped on in such a sloppy, haphazard manner, wouldn’t it? Look at how messy the strokes are. They look like wet cement dabbed on by a  construction worker who has a broken wrist and a blindfold on.

Boys and girls, cake-making is an art! It requires time, care and your full attention! Did Da Vinci rush through Mona Lisa so he could attend to the Sunday roast? Did Rodin take breaks from sculpting The Thinker so he could do some leisurely loin-cloth weaving? No! They were fully and unwaveringly committed to the cause!

So if you don’t have the time, don’t bake at all! Or you’d end up with this monstrosity of a cake.

Tomorrow, I’ll expect all of you to hand in your essays on sifting mechanics. I will punish latecomers by force-feeding them a piece of this cake.

Okay, class dismissed.


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!