Don't Call Me Chef

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Slab happy: A quartet of cakes

The columnists – plus guest! – bake centrepiece cakes in four flavours.

ALL the world is birthday cake, so take a piece, but not too much, said singer George Harrison. We agree, but we’re glad he didn’t specify how big a slice should be. As you can see from our pictures, we tend to be rather generous with our portions!

There’s a reason there’s cake in every celebration – it makes people happy. It’s easy to go out and buy one for a party, but a lot of people seem to appreciate homemade cakes more.

We’re not pros, but we’ve learnt a few things from baking cakes. For example, weighing your ingredients is important, and so is using the right amount of baking powder – not enough and your cake may not rise; too much and your cake may taste metallic and artificial.

While icing a cake may seem a daunting task, there are a few handy tips that can make the job simpler. Ice your cake in a cool room – this will prevent the icing from getting too soft to handle and therefore easier to spread.

Chill your cake for at least 30 minutes before icing so that it’s firmer, making it easier to glide the icing atop.

To prevent the crumbs of the cake from getting into the icing, apply a thin coat on the bare cake first – a crumb coat – and let it set it in the fridge, then apply the final coat.

Here, we feature four cakes, both simple and slightly more elaborate, in different flavours and frostings. This means you can mix and match and come up with your own special cake for any occasion.

Happy baking!

Here's a look at what happened behind the scenes at the photo shoot for our cakes.

An easy nut to crack

I used to make cakes all the time. Then I learnt how to make yeasted dessert breads – think cream-filled savarin, streusel-topped loaves and flaky Danish pastries! – and cakes were no longer appealing.

And so whenever one is necessary, as for this month’s cooking column, I choose the easiest one to make. That would be a cake where all the ingredients are beaten together in a bowl, baked and iced with the simplest frosting possible.

My preferred flavour is coconut and this one has loads of it, thanks to the milk, flesh and essence in the cake, and more of it (tinted pink) in the garnish. If this cake is for those who can take alcohol, I would include some coconut liqueur. 

I chose a ganache frosting because it’s fool-proof. Buttercreams are too sweet and I am hopeless at whipping cream – I never get it right, often ending up with a floppy mess, or I overbeat and it turns to butter (fortunately, that’s not a complete failure). I also don’t need to fiddle with piping bags and spatulas. With chocolate ganache, I just pour it on and let it “drape” itself over the cake. Once set, it stays that way.

Over-the-top Coconut Cake with white chocolate ganache frosting

Coconut Cake with White Chocolate Ganache
Serves 10

250g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
1¼ tsp baking powder
200g caster sugar
80ml vegetable oil
3 medium eggs
200ml fresh or canned coconut milk
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp coconut extract
30g fresh grated coconut or flaked coconut
Toasted or tinted desiccated or flaked coconut to decorate

White chocolate ganache
425g white chocolate, finely chopped
175ml heavy cream

Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and base-line two 20cm round cake tins.

Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together twice. Combine with the sugar in a mixing bowl.

Add the oil, eggs, coconut milk and extracts to the dry mix. Beat on low until combined, 30 seconds, and then beat on medium for 2 minutes. Stir in the grated coconut.

Pour into prepared pans and bake until a toothpick comes out clean, 25-30 minutes Cool 10 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a wire rack. Cool completely before frosting. If using later, wrap each cake in two layers of plastic wrap.

To make the white chocolate ganache: Place the chopped chocolate in a heat-proof bowl. Place the cream in a saucepan and heat until tiny bubbles appear at the edge (do not allow to boil). Pour over the chocolate and leave for two minutes, then stir until smooth. This can also be done in the microwave or in a double boiler.

Leave the ganache until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes, then use a quarter of it to sandwich the cakes together. Pour the remainder over the cake and let it drip over the edge. Pat coconut on the sides and top.

If the chocolate hardens before you get the coconut on, brush on some jam so the coconut will stick.

Show stoppers from home

If there is one thing that can put a smile on my face in an instant, it’s cake – homemade cake. Also Keanu Reeves, but that’s another obsession for another day. Cakes have a lot of cheer in them and although homemade ones may not be as fancy as some of the three-dimensional, multi-tiered and exotic-flavoured cakes we get at artisanal bakeries or independent bakers, home-baked cakes always take the prize.

Why? Well, when you bake at home you are baking for the people you care about the most – family and friends – and therefore, you take more care and use the best ingredients you can possibly find (within budget, of course). That’s my theory and that’s what I do. I’m happy to splurge on fresh raspberries, good quality butter or premium cocoa powder and dark chocolate because it means I get to share a great tasting cake with the people who matter most.

Apart from good, reliable recipes and solid techniques, the key to baking really tasty cakes is using really good ingredients. Which is why, iced or un-iced, lopsided or layered, truly show-stopping cakes are the ones that come out of the home.

Raspberry Cake with Lemon Curd Cream

Raspberry Cake with Lemon Curd Cream

For the cake
175g softened butter
100ml yogurt or heavy cream
2 tbsp raspberry puree (recipe to follow)
3 eggs
zest of 1 lemon
200g self-raising flour
175g golden caster sugar
2-3 drops of pink colouring (optional)

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Place all ingredients into the bowl of your electric mixer and beat till well incorporated, scraping down the sides and making sure the ingredients at the bottom of the bowl are incorporated.

Add a few drops of pink colouring if you like – the raspberry puree alone gives the cake a dullish pink hue.

Divide batter into two portions and pour batter into two greased 20cm (8”) round baking tins. Bake for 30-35 minutes or till a tester comes out clean. Allow cakes to cool.

Simple raspberry puree
450g raspberries
¼-½ cup sugar (depends on how tart/sweet you want your puree to be)
1 tbsp lemon juice

Place ingredients in a saucepan and cook over low heat until the berries break down and are mashable. Cook until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain if you prefer not to bite into seeds.

Whipped cream topping
1 cup heavy cream, cold
2 tbsp sugar (caster or icing)
3 tbsp lemon curd (recipe to follow)

Place the bowl of your mixer in the freezer for about 10 minutes. Place the cream and sugar in the chilled bowl and whisk (by hand or with an electric mixer) till soft peaks form. Add the lemon curd and whisk a minute or so longer till incorporated.

Lemon Curd (makes one small jar)
50g butter
100g sugar
zest and juice of 2 lemons
2 eggs + 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

Put the butter, sugar and lemon juice and zest in a heat-proof bowl over a pot of simmering water. Stir occasionally until the butter has melted.

Add the eggs and using a whisk, stir as the mixture cooks. It may take 15 minutes or so, keep stirring so that the eggs don’t scramble in your curd. Curd is ready when it resembles a soft custard or when it leaves a thick coat at the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and cool at room temperature, stirring occasionally.

Assembling the cake: Remove the cakes from the pans and using a serrated knife, cut the tops of the cakes to make them nice and flat.

Place a cake on a cake board or plate.

Spread the lemon curd cream generously and evenly on the cake. You can, if you have some extra raspberry puree, spread a layer on top of the cream.

Place the second cake on top of the filling and gently press down. Using a spatula, apply a very thin coat of the lemon curd cream on the top and sides of the cake.

Chill the cake for about 20 minutes before applying a thicker layer of lemon curd cream.

Earning my stripes

I am currently taken with Mari Kondo’s Life Changing Magic of Tidying, and one of her mantras is, you only keep things that spark joy. I opened my cupboard of baking utensils and they didn’t spark joy, so I should be throwing them out.

But I cling to the wholesomeness of homemade cakes and cookies, and so I continue to convince myself I will some day be a more enthusiastic baker.

For now, my cake repertoire is limited, and this zebra cake is as fancy as it gets in our kitchen. I like it because it reminds me of the simple marble cake slices sold in kopitiams and canteens.

Instead of swirling in the chocolate batter into the vanilla one, you just meticulously layer the cake batter and you get zebra stripes.

Seeing the stripes spark joy in me, so I think I will keep the baking tins for now. But that’s the limit of my baking abilities; Indramalar expertly iced the cake for me.

Zebra Cake with Chocolate Glaze

Zebra cake

Vanilla batter
400g flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
200g butter
150g sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup milk

Chocolate batter
3 tbsp chocolate powder
1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp sugar

Line a 20cm round baking pan with baking paper, and grease it. Preheat oven at 180°C.

Sieve the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In another bowl, mix the chocolate powder with the milk and sugar. Set aside.

Mix butter with sugar until light and creamy. Slowly add eggs one at a time and mix until well incorporated. Add vanilla essence.

Gently fold in the milk and flour alternately.

Take two cups of the batter and add the chocolate mixture.

Pour two tablespoons of the vanilla batter on the baking tin. Then layer on two tablespoons of the chocolate batter. Repeat until all the batter has been used. Gently tap the baking tin on the countertop to release air bubbles. Bake for 50-60 minutes until cooked.

Remove from oven and let cool for 15 minutes before removing from the pan. Serve as it is or top with chocolate glaze.

Once you go black...

I don't celebrate Halloween, but I do enjoy all the things that are associated with the day: horror movies, ghoulish decorations, dressing up in costumes, theme parties and of course, the candy.

Since making candy proved to be too troublesome for me – and the fact that I love cake more than candy – I decided to turn a red velvet cake black. In theory, it should be easy, right? All you need to do is to substitute the red colouring with black.

Well, after going through several recipes, I realised there was a little bit more to it than that. Still, I loved the idea of a black cake filled and covered in white frosting for Halloween (or in this case, All Souls’ Day tomorrow) and went ahead with it.

Black Velvet with Marshmallow Cream Cheese Frosting

Black Velvet Cake with Marshmallow Cream Cheese Frosting

280g plain flour
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
115g unsalted butter
300g sugar
2 eggs (large)
1 tsp vanilla essence
3 tbsp coffee (instant or brewed, cooled down)
1 cup buttermilk
Black food colouring
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp white vinegar

60g icing sugar, sifted
80g unsalted butter, softened
40g vegetable shortening*
60g cream cheese, softened
½ tsp vanilla essence
Half a bag of marshmallows (about 1.5 cups)
pinch of salt

Sift the dry ingredients (except the baking soda) into a bowl and set it aside. Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. While beating the mixture, add the eggs one at a time. Then, add the vanilla and coffee.

Slowly beat the dry ingredients in, alternating with the buttermilk. Make sure to start and end with the dry ingredients.

Once everything is combined, add the black food colouring until you get the desired shade. Six drops should be good enough, although you can always add a few more.

In a bowl, combine baking soda with the vinegar. It will fizz up instantly so add this mixture to the batter immediately, beat for about half a minute.

Pour the batter into two 20cm prepared baking pans and place them in the heated oven. If your oven is too small for two cake pans, you can always do them separately. Each pan should take about 20-30 minutes to bake at 180°C (do the toothpick test after 20 minutes to check).

For the frosting: While the cake is baking, prepare your frosting. Combine the butter, shortening and icing sugar and whisk until it is light and fluffly. Add the vanilla and salt. Set aside.

Place the marshmallows with a bit of sugar syrup into a bowl and microwave it for a minute on high or until it melts. Otherwise, stand an over-proof bowl in a pot of boiling water and let the marshmallow melt down into a creamy, fluffy texture. You may need to add a bit of milk or heavy cream to speed up the process. Once done, mix the marshmallow fluff with the buttercream, and then beat the cream cheese in.

* If you’re not too keen on using shortening, you can use 120g of unsalted butter instead.

Assembling the cake: When your cakes have cooled down, place a generous amount of frosting on top of one cake and smooth it out; place the second cake on top once that’s done. Slather the whole cake with the remainder of the frosting, beginning from the top and then the sides. Finish it off with some coloured sugar crystals or sprinkles.

Tags / Keywords: Don t Call Me Chef , cake , baking , black velvet , raspberry lemon , coconut , zebra cake , marble , icing

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