Cooking has kept two best friends buzzing, fresh-faced, and quick to break out in megawatt smiles.
I DIDN’T need another recipe for carrot cake but went anyway to the cookbook launch of two women who are famous on the home front for their entrepreneurship and cooking savvy. Helen Read is the founder of Ms Read, a fashion label for the fuller figure woman and Abby Leong, her best friend heads the recipe development (R&D) for The Big Group of restaurants and grocer business run by Helen’s son, Benjamin Yong.
Helen’s kitchen is a virtual canteen where family and friends come to feed almost on a daily basis – and she feeds them very well on the kind of food that you see in the book.
“After this book launch, I am going home to cook – there are about 10 people coming for dinner tonight,” Helen said breezily, like it was the most natural thing to do in the world; lesser mortals would have broken out in cold sweat.
“She cooks every day and I’ll just come and eat,” quipped Abby.
So we know that Helen and Abby really know a thing or two about cooking – and eating – and feeding family and friends well. So well that friends were often inspired to ask for recipes. So the idea to do a cookbook had been on their mind for a long time. “Many times, friends asked me for recipes and I told them no – ‘you have to come to my house and watch me do it’,” said Helen. “I don’t want people to take a recipe and not do anything about it when I have spent time writing it down. I prefer to teach someone to cook – that way I know my time won’t be wasted.”
The Helen & Abby Home Favourites, The “It’s All Possible” cookbook, is out, that last declaration also a reflection of their state of mind.
Cooking is but about confidence – something Helen knows well from her work to help plus-sized women dress well – and knowing how to read a recipe.
“At some point, we all want to cook and many people really have no idea how to. So we want to tell people that we are also not trained cooks and yet we can do it because we can read a recipe and convert that into a cake or a dish. And when others tell you that your cooking is not bad, that encourages you and you will want to cook some more,” said Helen, whose passion for cooking comes from “getting married and having to cook”.
“She’s the desperate housewife!” said Abby. “My parents love to cook and are always fighting to cook dinner. We prefer mom’s cooking because my father’s repertoire was always noodles. So for me, it’s inborn as my whole family can cook.”
The two have known each other since primary school in Ipoh and reconnected at a class reunion in the mid-80s after Abby had just returned from London from her stint as a nurse and Helen had just started a small garment manufacturing company. They clicked over their common love for cookbooks and have been inseparable “twins” since. “After all, we were born just 18 days apart,” said Helen.
Just before her 60th birthday, Helen had told her son that the best present he could give her was to help her get her book off the ground. Five months later, 5000 copies of the book were printed just in time for Christmas – with a chapter on how to put together a mean feast, stuffed turkey, gingerbread house and all.
She joked about the motivation for the book being to “leave a legacy of family recipes that can be passed on to the next generation,” as “a lot of people won’t give you their recipes.”
“We have collected a lot of recipes over the years, some coming from our traditions – Helen from having a mother from Cornwall, and me being very traditional Chinese,” said Abby.
“Both of us enjoy cooking very much and find it very therapeutic and want to share this. I am at an age when my work doesn’t come first, but I know many people work and work is everything as you are building a career, but if you have any opportunity and you want to cook, great – choose a recipe (from the book), as they work,” said Helen.
There is a formula for the book: some Western, some Asian, and after each, a celebration chapter like the one on Popiah Party and Christmas, and then a section on travel where they share recipes learnt on a trip, such as Thai cooking.
Even before the ink was dry on their first book, the second book has been cooked. “Because we still have so many recipes!” Abby cried.
“The travel destination for the next book will be Tuscany. We want to go to Tuscany and learn how to make pasta from some Italian mama! Whenever we travel, we find someone to teach us how to cook the authentic regional recipes. Many people want to do that but don’t have the time or finances so we want to bring our experiences back to share.” Abby also let on that there will be recipes from her Chinese heritage, and from Helen’s husband’s baba-nonya heritage.
“Our books will always have Western and Asian recipes, festive cooking and travel; these four topics we are sure of,” she added.
What they are also very clear about is to keep the recipes simple and doable: “We don’t like complicated recipes. We look at magazines and cookbooks and when we find something that looks good, we’d try it and change it to our preference and make it simple.”
At the book launch, the media were engaged in a hands-on session to bake a carrot cake, a recipe from the book. The ingredients and equipment required were laid out at the cooking stations at the Masak-masak corner at Ben’s Independent Grocer in Publika, and we just needed to pour and mix and shove the assembled cakes into the ovens.
As the cakes started to bake, Helen whipped out a golden brown carrot cake. “See, so easy my husband baked this last night,” she said with a grin. And Abby whipped out some cream cheese frosting and laid it on thick. “This is my favourite part,” she declared, “if you like cream cheese frosting, put more; if you don’t, put less or omit it.”
Then they whipped out some orange and green fondant that “you can buy anywhere” and Abby proceeded to show us how to make decorative fondant carrots. “Instead of green fondant you can use coriander or parsley stems,” she tipped.
There are not so many kitchen tricks that you can teach an old cow like me so I didn’t learn anything new at the baking class. But it served the purpose of telling me that this recipe from the book works very well, and their carrot cake was quite good – moist, light and tender, the kind with a simple, homey taste, not the ultra-haute couture kind. And yes, the kind that anyone can produce at home if you know how to follow a recipe.
We have all heard about the story of how the 15-year-old Benjamin Yong was such an eager baker he was baking carrot cakes and selling them off to shops and restaurants. At that time – some 20 years ago – such a recipe, with cream cheese frosting and all, was considered quite rich and sophisticated. So is this the carrot cake recipe? But, yes, says Benjamin’s mummy.
So there you have it, the winning recipe that launched an entire food empire within the pages of the book – the stuff that food fairy tales are made of.
Helen & Abby is a book about friendship, family, the passion for cooking and the saying that the family that eats well, lives well. And how the can-do spirit in the kitchen can travel and infect other parts of life.
What’s admirable is that everything is made from scratch. The chicken curry for instance, does not use curry powder. In a way, it’s a real cooking lesson without shortcuts. And one of the feature of the book that cooks will appreciate is the binding that allows pages to open flat so that the 60 recipes can be easily accessed.
Their promise: “All our recipes have been tested and they work. They are recipes that we have cooked over and over again. And tested by friends.”
Helen & Abby Home Favourites retails for RM109 at Ms. Read, Dude & The Duchess, Sundays and Ben’s Independent Grocer at Publika.