When a food critic turns the poison pen on herself

25 Random Things About Food February 19, 2009

Filed under: All-occasion cakes,Inane stuff — crummb @ 4:16 pm
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strawberry-dome-loFor four long years, I asked this question every week for a Sunday food column I used to write: What would your last meal be? Invariably, the personalities I interviewed would give some blah answer, like Teochew porridge or their mother’s steamed egg or some such boring throwaway.

If I were asked this question, oh-ho-ho, I would say: A ginormous strawberry shortcake that I could jump into and eat from the inside out. When I’m done, I’d throw myself into a bath-tub filled with Thai chilli-and-lemon dried cuttlefish, Kettle’s honey and dijon potato chips, honey cashew nuts and sticky barbecue fish sticks. Then, I would lock myself up in a Nonya buffet.

I could go on and on. Which is why I’ve always secretly wished that someone, anyone, would ask me this question for a change, so I could unleash my long pent-up list.

Well, since we’re in the season for lists (you know,  the pandemic spread of self-love in Facebook known as “25”) , I thought I’d just help myself and publish it for all to peruse.

Here is my “25 Random Things About Food”.

1. The best strawberry shortcake in the world can be found in Tampopo Deli in Liang Court.

2. The best French fries in the world can be found in your neighbourhood McDonald’s.

3. Nothing, nothing, is worse than undercooked red beans in ice kacang.

4. I can eat raw oysters, raw fish, raw prawns and raw beef, but never raw beansprouts.

strawberry-inside-lo5. If my house were on fire, the first thing I’ll grab (other than husband Z and baby E) is my Ruffles cakestand, which Z ordered from the States as my Christmas present last year. (See photos – ain’t it pwetty?)

6. If I were the Prime Minister of Singapore, I would decree that the annoyingly floppy thick noodles in laksa be replaced by beehoon. No more stains!

7. In an ideal world, all grapes and watermelons are seedless.

8. Cornflakes are best eaten at night.

9. If I were stranded on an island, I could live on canned sweet corn alone – yummy, fibrous, and no need to cook. 

10. I bear no shame for cooking with Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce. It really does make everything taste better.

11. Yes, there is something even better than Maggi chilli sauce. Its name is Lingham’s.

12. If I could choose which country I could be born in to enjoy the national cuisine, it would be Thailand, Indonesia or Japan (in this order).

13. If I can have only one accompaniment to rice, it would be sambal fishcake.

14. The Japanese do everything better – the best ribeye steak (Angus Steakhouse), the best curry rice (Tampopo), the best pasta (mentaiko spaghetti), and the ultimate best salad dressing (sesame flavour by We Love Salad! brand).

15. But if there’s one thing the Koreans do better than the Japanese, it is instant noodles (spicy mushroom flavour).

16. I have a secret weapon when it comes to stir-frying kangkong. It is called Cantonese XO sauce.

17. Three things I must always have in my fridge: Eggs, cold water, Nestle’s mango lassi drink.

18. Things I eat because of the dipping sauce: chicken rice, oh luak (oyster omelette), yong tau foo.

19. When I was on a 7-day detox fast a few years ago, the first thing I hallucinated about was nasi padang.

20. To me, the holy trinity of fruits is Mountain King durians, ‘harumanis’ mangoes from Indonesia, and ‘lor mai chee’ lychees from China.

21. Of the tiresome appetiser platter that’s served at ALL Chinese wedding banquets, I actually quite like the prawns in mayo sauce.

22. If the secret to good skin is not water, but Ribena, I could run for Miss Universe.

23. I’ve taken the dump in the toilet of Phoon Huat (bakery supplies store) in Holland Village four times – more than in any retail shop on earth – because I’m always very excited when I’m there.

24. Bovril in rice porridge is totally underrated.

25. I always wanted to marry someone who can cook. Z can’t cook. But he can dance. So that makes up for it.

PS: Okay, now it’s your turn. I’ve always wondered who you people jacking up my hit counter are. So drop a comment about your last meal (or anything at all). Just don’t say it’s Teochew porridge.


Strawberry Shortcake June 19, 2008

I never thought I’d say this, but could making a genoise be this easy?

I’m currently reviewing four baking cookbooks for the newspaper, and – since I have time – I’m trying out one recipe from each title to value-add.

Just Desserts by Bakerzin’s founder Daniel Tay has a recipe for strawberry shortcake that I just had to try. It appeared to be the least complicated recipe in the cake section and, besides, strawberry shortcake is my favourite cake. But there is a snag: I’d have to revisit the genoise, a word that sets me trembling to my very foundations.

Genoise, which is the French style of sponge cake, is notoriously hard to make. Like all sponges, it gets its aeration and volume not from baking powder, but from whipping the hell out of eggs. Then, you’d have to fold in flour and melted butter with the dexterity and speed of a kungfu pugilist. A heavy hand or a few seconds too long and you’d end up with a rubber mat of a cake.

I tried to master the genoise last year after I bought Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible. And, I tell you, that lady made me go through hell and high water to attain her vision of the perfect genoise.

To make her genoise, I had to prepare my own beurre noisette (snooty term for clarified butter) by heating butter to boiling point then straining the burnt milk solids. I had to balance a bowl of eggs over a pot of boiling water, then, risking life and limb, beat the eggs for 10 full minutes with a hand-held electric mixer. Then, to effectively fold in the flour without upsetting too much of the testy air bubbles, I bought the biggest whisk there is, at 16 inches long – all at Beranbaum’s behest.

And what did I get after at least five attempts? Greasy countertops, egg foam everywhere, a bloody baseball-bat of a whisk that cannot fit in any of my drawers, and sunken-in cakes.

So when I tried Tay’s recipe, I half-expected it not the work. He didn’t call for the heating up of eggs to achieve maximum volume, which was unusual. Instead, a helluva lot of egg yolks were needed – at least six, plus another three whole eggs – which were beaten for a good 20 minutes. Presumably, this is to stabilise the air bubbles so the batter becomes more tolerant of rough handling.

At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I took the cake out of the oven. It didn’t sink. I gave it another 15 minutes on the counter, and still it stayed put. Then, I bent down and peered at it at eye-level – the top was perfectly level. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe I have a miracle.

Making the chantilly cream was even easier. I only had to whisk together whipped cream, mascarpone cheese and sugar, and I was soon licking this utterly delicious concoction off my fingers.

Okay, so the finishing was a little rough. I unmolded the cake a little too soon (the book didn’t specify how long it should be refrigerated – their fault!) so it didn’t look as polished as the photo in the book. But it tasted so good. It wasn’t quite like my Holy Grail, the unrivalled Scoop Cake from Tampopo Deli in Liang Court. But it was pretty dem good for a first try. And so easy too.

Yay, Mr Tay.


My Wedding Cake June 11, 2008

Filed under: Cupcakes,Wedding cakes — crummb @ 2:00 pm
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I’m going to make a lot of strawberry shortcake and write all about it in this blog because it is, hands down, my favourite cake in the whole wide world.

As far as I’m concerned, chocolate fudge cake, tiramisu, brownies – or whatever most people say is their ultimate confectionery sin – don’t even come close.

I love strawberry shortcake so much that I had it made into my wedding cake two years ago. And I asked the place that makes the very best, Tampopo Deli in Liang Court, to do it.

I first tasted their so-called Scoop Cake about a year before, and instantly swore that I would never write about it in my articles for the newspaper.

It was so good that I didn’t want hordes of readers going to order it and lowering its standards, or worst, have the pastry chef poached somewhere else where she couldn’t be found or didn’t make the cake any more. Nope, this find was mine.

It’s called Scoop Cake because it’s made in rectangular foil tubs where portions are scooped out and served. Each comes with two layers of incredibly soft vanilla sponge cake that’s smothered under this blanket of toe-tingling, absolutely divine whipped cream. It is topped with juicy chunks of strawberry and orange that – over the three years that I’ve had it – are always off-the-farm fresh.

When I told Tampopo’s owner Mr Takagi about my proposition, he said no problem, and promptly ushered out his pastry chef to discuss the details. Akemi, the sweet-faced and super talented chef who had previously worked for the fabulous Provence bakery in Holland Village, was so obliging it almost hurt.

I want the cake put inside cupcake cases. Hai! I want the same two layers of vanilla sponge and two layers of whipped cream. Hai! I also want the same strawberry and orange on top, with the same sprig on mint and silver dragees. Hai! Hai!

The only problem, she said, was that I would have to source for the cupcake cases and cupcake stand myself, since they don’t normally cater to weddings. No problem, I said. It suited the exacting, detail-obsessed bridezilla in me just fine.

As it turned out, it took me close to two months before I found the cupcake case. Akemi said it’d have to have sturdy sides – not the usual fluted ones – to hold in the soft cream. I combed through just about every baking supplies store I knew, and even went on the Internet to check out overseas suppliers, before I settled on the one in these photos. It was actually a little too ubiquitous for me – many cafes use it for muffins – but for lack of other options, I took it.

When it came to the cupcake stand, there was no way I was gonna borrow one of those widely available, cheapo-looking acrylic ones (yes, I am a cupcake stand snob). Instead, I want the cupcakes to be placed on a towering four-tier cake dummy, just like the one I saw in Martha Stewart Weddings. So I asked the only person I knew who could make it for me, an executive pastry chef from a hotel.

The tiers were to be made of styrofoam, then covered in white fondant. Before I gave the chef the dimensions, I even cut out the exact sizes of the four tiers from newspaper just to make sure it looked right. It’s gonna be one unusual, unforgettable cake, I thought smartly.

Well, it was unusual alright. It was so unusual that most of my wedding guests didn’t know it was the wedding cake. When I entered the reception hall where they were tucking into buffet after our church ceremony, the cakes were largely untouched and I had to tell people to eat it. Those who did couldn’t stop raving. My brother Pete ate four in a row. And to this day, it remains a mystery who took home the biggest tub on top of the cake. That one was supposed to be for me.

A few months ago, I was going through my wedding photos when I came across these same ones of the cake. I e-mailed them to Mr Takagi to thank him and Akemi for a job well done. Then, a few weeks later, I was walking pass Tampopo Deli when I saw the photos blown up to the size of movie posters and pasted on the shop window.

It’s funny. I had no hand in making the cake. But right then, as I stood in front of the shop, was one of the proudest moments of my life.