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Mastering Malaysian

Monday, May 31, 2010

No way you can stop at just a small handful of these... Come on, I dare you
When I started this blog seven months ago, I hardly ever cooked Malaysian food. It was too easy to just stop by at a hawker stall or restaurant and get a good fix of briyani, soto or Hokkien noodles.

I would even avoid making everyday dishes to eat with rice such as oyster sauce beef, chicken curry or sautéed cabbage. Since you could get them anywhere, I would make less available dishes at home, like pastas, hearty soups and gourmet sandwiches ­­– mostly Western-type food that I knew I could make better than any chain restaurant.

I think, in a way, I didn't feel confident cooking Malaysian. If I couldn't get my fish curry to taste like my mother's or the dish at a good restaurant, then why bother, I told myself. That's changed in the last few months. Since writing this blog as well as the Don't Call Me Chef column (see tab above), I've come to know local food more intimately, and now we have a better relationship. I don't simply consume and fulfil my own need, I genuinely want to find out what the dish goes through as well.

Carol Selva Rajah's new cookbook, Malaysian Cooking: A Master Cook Reveals Her Best Recipes (here's the link to my review in The Star, "Scents to savour") is one of those books that have helped me realise there's no need to fret over making local everyday dishes. A lot of cookbooks are written by celebrity chefs and have beautiful pictures ­­– Selva Rajah's book, published by Tuttle Publishing with photography by Masano Kawana, is no different. Not every writer, however, gives instructions and recipes that are easy to follow and, more importantly, work. In this regard, Malaysian Cooking is a joy to read and cook from.

Just as I got better at cooking foreign food and making bread by reading up what master cooks have written about it, I'm confident cooking local food will also come naturally in time, even if I never become a master myself. And a book like Malaysian Cooking helps tremendously.

Here are more recipes from the book.

* * *
As I said in the post before this one, this ikan bilis snack (pictured above) is absolutely moreish. Instead of chilli powder, I used smoked paprika. Use the smaller variety of peanuts instead of the large ones I have used here. (Yes, I know, they're a little burnt!)

Serves 4-6

250g (2 cups) dried baby anchovies (ikan bilis) or whitebait, heads and veins removed, rinsed and drained
2 teaspoons rice flour, for dusting
1½ cups (375ml) oil for shallow-frying
1-2 teaspoons ground red pepper (chilli powder), or to taste
1 teaspoon thick sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
200g (1 cup) dry-roasted unsalted peanuts

Sugar Syrup
50g (¼ cup) sugar
¼ cup (60ml) water
  • Dust the dried anchovies with the rice flour. heat the oil in a wok until very hot ­­– it is ready when bubbles form around a skewer dipped in it. Fry the anchovies over medium heat until golden brown and crispy, about 1 minute. Remove them from the oil and drain on paper towels.
  • Make the sugar syrup by combining the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Allow it to boil and simmer for about 1 minute to thicken the syrup slightly. Remove the syrup from the heat, pour it into a clean wok and heat over medium heat. When the sugar syrup bubbles, add the fried anchovies, ground red pepper and sweet thick soy sauce, and toss well to coat the anchovies with the syrup. Stir in the peanuts and remove from the heat.
* * *
Carol Selva Rajah writes that this is a quick and easy curry to make, and it is. I'm not keen on canned sardines but the gravy was delicious. In the future, I'll make this with fresh fish and add crushed tomato and tomato paste.
Tinned sardines are a store-cupboard staple in many homes, which makes this a quick dish to prepare for unexpected guests, Selva Rajah says
Serves 4

2 tablespoons oil
¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk curry leaves, plucked and chopped
1 green and 1 red finger-length chilli, halved and deseeded
3 ripe tomatoes, quartered
2 tablespoons tamarind pulp, mashed with 1 cup (250ml) hot water and strained to obtain juice
3 tablespoons fish curry powder
One 450g can sardines in tomato sauce
Salt, to taste
  • Heat the oil in a saucepan and sauté the fenugreek seeds for a few seconds. Add the garlic, onion, curry leaves and chillies and sauté until golden and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato and sauté for 1-2 more minutes.
  • Pour in the tamarind juice and add the curry powder, then cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the sardines and continue to simmer uncovered for 3 more minutes. Season with salt to taste and remove from the heat. Serve immediately.
    * * *
      Fresh... wonderful with tosai or idli

        Makes 1½ cups

        1 tablespoon oil
        1 onion, chopped
        2 cloves garlic, sliced
        12mm fresh ginger, cut into thin shreds
        4 green finger-length chillies, deseeded and sliced
        2 tablespoons dried unsweetened grated (dessicated) coconut, dry-roasted until golden brown
        80g (2 cups) fresh mint leaves, washed and dried
        Freshly squeezed juice of 2 limes
        Salt, to taste
        • Heat the oil in a wok and stir-fry the onion, garlic and ginger over medium heat until golden and tender. Add the chilli and coconut and stir-fry for 1 minute, then remove from the heat. Process the coconut mixture with the mint leaves in a food processor until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and add the lime juice and salt to taste. Cover and chill until ready to serve. It keeps refrigerated for 3-4 days. 
        * * *
        There wasn't enough space in the papers, so I omitted the recipe for green onion curls that are used to garnish the Ginger Soya Chicken with Rice Wine featured in the article. Here's how you do it:

        2-3 green onions
        Bowl of iced water

        • Trim off the bulb of each green onion at the point where the stem begins to turn green. Slice the leaves into 10cm lengths. Using a sharp knife, slice each length into thin strips lengthwise. Soak the strips in a bowl of iced water and refrigerate until they curl up.

        Heads up for anchovies

        Saturday, May 29, 2010

        Pull off the fish's tiny head, split its tiny body, dislodge the tiny entrails...
        What's wrong with this picture?

        Well, nothing really. The problem is with the person whose hands are in the picture.

        WHAT WAS I THINKING? Why am I cleaning out the gunk from these ikan bilis (anchovies) when I could have got the ones already picked through by someone else?

        Well, it doesn't really take a lot of effort. So, maybe the smell lingers for a while on the fingers, but it's no big deal. In fact, this is what little children were called on to do many years ago when they were not too pampered by their parents to be given household chores and didn't have PlayStations as toys.

        These dried salted fish make one of the simplest snacks. After they're cleaned, toss them in a little rice flour (or not) and fry in hot oil till crisp ­­– a minute is all it takes. My mother used to sprinkle sugar on them when my siblings and I were little, and that kept us happy for a while. A good reward for having to clean the darn things.

        When I was in school, I had a teacher, an American man who was with the Peace Corps. The Girl Scouts had a cookout one day, and one of the things we were going to fry up was ikan bilis to put into a sambal and eat with nasi lemak. (Well, my troop mates were, anyway. I couldn't and didn't like to cook then.)

        So the teacher ­­– I forget his name now ­­– got a little campfire going for us and we set about heating up some oil and frying the ikan bilis, which he had never eaten before.

        When it was done, he tried one, and then another, and then some more, and by the time, we had got the sambal ready, he had polished off half the fried ikan bilis!

        I got these anchovies for a snack recipe to feature in the next post on Monday as an extension of the review of Malaysian Cooking by Carol Selva Rajah which I am doing for The Star that will come out on the same day (a link to the pdf page will also be given in the post; the published recipes are for a chicken and a vegetable dish). The snack is really good and just like my teacher from all those years ago, I finished off half of it before I even took a picture and had to make another batch! Do come back if you'd like this and other recipes.

        Daring Bakers: Pièce Montée

        Thursday, May 27, 2010

        Profiterole anyone?
        The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a pièce montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri.

        With so little time left after I returned from my trip to Morocco and deadlines to meet at work, I knew I wasn't going to be able to do a good job of the challenge. Sure, I managed to build the pièce montée but it's nothing impressive ­­– not like some of the other Daring Bakers' works.
        Two types of filling: Vanilla and coffee
        But when I finished making the pièce montée and there was one profiterole left, I didn't want to just pop it in my mouth. I was suddenly inspired to put my manikin* into the picture.
        Just one more...
        That was the fun part. I had a problem with the pâte à choux. Eyeballing the mixture as I whisked in the egg with an electric hand mixer, I held back on using all the egg as I thought it might make the batter too runny. But I guess it was anyway since it spread out after piping.

        I could only get 20 blobs out of the batch ­­– actually I think I could have squeezed out another two pieces, but there was no more space on the tray, so I just added the last bits in the pastry bag to some of the smaller pieces already piped.

        Halfway through baking time, the pastry looked like it might rise after all, but no, the pieces remained flat. Worse, when I turned them over, the bases had all curved upwards leaving an indentation.
        First batch (from left): piped; and baked. Flat and pathetic, with concave bases. A failure!
        Well, there was nothing I could do about that. They came in handy in the centre of the pyramid to hold it up, and I ate them with jam the next day. (They were delicious, by the way.)
        But this was a Daring Bakers challenge and I would not hand in shoddy work! So I gave it another try.Again, I didn't add all the egg. Instead, I used only the white from the last one for a stiffer batter and whizzed it up in a food processor (instructions from a Baking Illustrated recipe which I normally use). I am a lousy piper, so I used two teaspoons to shape the pâte à choux, and voilà!
        Second batch (clockwise from top left): shaped into smooth blobs with two teaspoons; puffed and browning in the oven; and cooling. Success!
        While I won't be winning any prizes for my pièce montée, using the manikin was interesting. 
        Aww, he thinks he's the Golden Globe statuette....
        The profiterole, however, was inedible by the end of the photo shoot.
        * Manikin = mannequin/artists's dummy

        Pressed to the nines

        Sunday, May 23, 2010

        A sub from the sea. Peppery shrimp and surimi sandwich, thick and oozing tartar sauce
        How great is it that you can throw whatever food you have between two slices of bread and come up with something quite delicious (almost) every time.

        The filling in the sandwich above consists of just four ingredients: prawns, seasoned with salt and Schezuan pepper and flash-fried (it takes seconds), imitation crab sticks, slivers of cucumber and tartar sauce. The bun is homemade but if you get your bread from the store, the hardest thing about making this sandwich is peeling the prawns.

        Slivers of cucumber, I think, are much better compared with thicker slices. You can still put a lot of it into the sandwich if you like, but the texture is different and there's little chance of the cucumber shooting out between the two slices of bread as you bite down. I've used Japanese cucumber here, so of course, it has to be cut with a Japanese slicer/grater – well, not really, but the packaging for the gadget with a blade and grooves, presumably for grating horseradish into wasabi, came with Japanese script. It's just one of those common plastic slicers, and not just made in Japan.

        Can this sandwich be improved without adding anything else? Yes, and here's how: toast and press.

        Same sandwich, except now it's been toasted and slightly flattened, but for the better
        Toasting adds texture, crunch and taste and if you use a grooved grill pan, you get the desirable grill marks. Compressing it holds in the filling better, making it a sandwich that will travel well, you can eat it with one hand and there's no fear of the contents spilling onto your lap as you take a bite.

        There are special electric grilling machines to do the toasting and pressing, but if you just look around the home, you will find simple and cheaper alternatives.
        • Put the sandwich in a hot pan and place a heat-proof dish on it. Place tins of food into the dish to add weight. The sandwich will take only a few seconds to toast. Remove tins and dish, turn sandwich over and repeat.
        • A clay/cement brick covered with aluminium foil also makes an excellent weight. It can be placed directly on the sandwich.

        A drink to get hooked on

        Wednesday, May 19, 2010

        Whether you have it by the pot...

        ...or by the glass...

        ...Moroccan mint tea is the perfect panacea for all ills.

        I am not a tea drinker. Maybe some herbal or floral tea now and then, but green or black tea I only consume when I have an upset stomach. I wasn't keen on drinking thé à la menthe in Morocco initially; I thought, tea is tea, how good can this be? But I do love mint as a herb and it smelled good, so I gave it a try.

        * * *
        Hello everyone. My name is Marty and I am a mint tea addict.

        The first time I was exposed to Moroccan whisky as it's called, the beverage was piping hot and I could only manage to wet my lips; that was all it took to put me on the path of eternal fixation. My brain was hijacked, my emotions running riot. I could not speak; all I could murmur was mmmmmmm and grin like Priscilla Presley's botched perpetual Joker face.

        Thé à la menthe is tooth-gratingly sweet and heady, highly perfumed and the most comforting beverage I have ever drunk.

        It has been almost 48 hours since my last real fix. Sure, I brought home a sack of dried mint-green tea mix and had a small brew earlier today, but it's not the same without the fresh herb or the authentic touch of the dada (Moroccan cook).

        * * *
        Latifa Bennani-Smirès writes in La Cuisine Marocaine that in Moroccan homes, the tea is usually made by the matriarch of the household. The taste of mint tea depends on the quality of the tea and mint leaves. She says the best mint comes from Meknès, in northern Morocco, which is strong and highly aromatic.

        Mint tea is the beverage of rich and poor, and is served at all times of the day, for all occasions and "is offered with a smile, to a friend, parents, a travelling stranger... It is part of the legendary hospitality of Moroccans."

        Here are Bennani-Smirès' instructions for making mint tea for guests:

        • Rinse a metal teapot or samovar (which holds about 750ml) out with boiling water. Put 2-3 teaspoons per person of green tea into the pot and fill with boiling water. Add lumps of sugar according to taste. After the tea has steeped slowly for a few minutes, stir it with a spoon, taste, appreciate and half-fill a glass. After the guest has tasted it and complimented you on the tea, it is time for the second pot of tea with the addition of mint.
        • Into the teapot, in which the first (plain) tea was brewed, push in a handful of mint leaves. Fill the pot with boiling water. Ensure that the mint leaves are submerged or they will not scald, cover the pot and let the tea steep slowly.
        • Then, stir vigorously with a spoon, bruising the mint. Serve after you have decided on the right proportions.
        • Alternatively, you can also infuse the tea with absinthe (wormwood) and for amateurs, other aromatic plants like verbena, marjoram and basil.
        To serve the tea, hold the teapot at a height and pour it into the glass to create a bit of foam on the surface of the tea. This, however, should only be done by expert tea pourers. Amateurs are likely to burn themselves or waste tea by spilling it on the table.

        I don't know about the diabetes rate in Morocco, but I do know that if you throw a dirham in any direction in the country, it is sure to hit at least one dental surgery and probably a dentist as well (there are a lot of lawyer's offices as well for some reason). Morocans take lots of sugar in their tea and coffee. Coffee comes unsweetened and you add sugar to taste, but as you can see from the recipe above, the mint tea is brewed with sugar and is served with more lumps of it. None of that "teh satu, kurang manis" over there. The thing is, the sweetness seems to enhance the taste of the mint tea or coffee (very good, thick French or Italian roasts).

        Moroccans, especially the women, also love their sweets, and you can find a lot of patisseries selling French-style gateaux. These layer cakes are cut into small portions, usually 3cm x 6cm bars, and set out in neat rows in display cabinets. Western-style confectionery are usually huge puff pastry treats, while the smaller Moroccan sweets, many of them filled with almond paste, always attract not only those with a sweet tooth but also swarms of bees! (Unfortunately, I didn't get a good picture, sob...)

        I left my heart...

        Sunday, May 16, 2010

        I heart Morocco
        When the young man at the cafe along the Rue Bab Agnaou, a road just off the Djemaa el Fna square (for some reason, the place doesn't have a name) brought me my prawn panini and I traced its obvious outline with my fingers, he gave me a pat on the back and smiled quite affectionately. Not a come-on at all -- everyone's sandwich was plated the same way.

        It's just one of the reasons I have fallen in love with Morocco.

        I leave this country tomorrow. It's been an amazing visit to Casablanca and Marrakech, one filled with loads of wandering about and sight-seeing, quite a bit of shopping and copious amounts of eating (all of which I have documented!). When I get home, there will be more on Moroccan food to write about and many recipes to try. These are just a few of my culinary memories.

        The Hanging Gardens
        Hanging up fruit, nuts and vegetables from the rafters is a common way to store the items
        Hanging up fruit, vegetables and bags of nuts from the rafters of is a common way to store the items. This picture was taken at the same cafe where I had the sandwich above. For some reason, the cafe doesn't have a name. Just look for the one on left as you stand in front of the doorway to Ryad Omar. The servers there are very sweet and the food -- quick kebabs, wraps and sandwiches -- is simple and very good. The prawn panini was simply some little prawns, or crevettes as they're called in French, and mayonnaise in a bun cooked in a panini grill. Delicious!

        Finger Food
        Good to eat with your fingers... or did these come off actual hands?
        Merguez sausages contain lamb, sometimes also beef, and spices like paprika, harissa and red chilli paste which give its red colour. These fingerling sausages are eaten as a snack on their own, stuffed into a bread roll, or cooked together with couscous or in a stew. We had these sitting under the trees on the pavement outside a little shop that was obviously where locals ate -- no pretension or fancy decor. They were grilled by a sweet, soft-spoken young woman who had probably never had Asian customers before.

        Do The Twist
        Puff pastry twist, sprinkled with a lot of sugar
        This pastry stick was slightly stale and looked sad along with two other pieces in the display cabinet at one of the cafes in Casablanca, but I couldn't resist getting it because it's so appealing. Look at it! Doesn't that just call to you?

        Lend Me Your Ears
        Corn with monster-sized kernels
        These corn on the cob stopped me in my tracks. They were only about three to four inches long but the kernels were as big as hazelnuts! A vendor was boiling them in a large pot and when you asked for one -- or did as the locals and select the one you wanted yourself -- he would put it in a piece of paper and season it with lashings of coarse salt by actually throwing the salt at it. The taste and texture reminded me of corn from my childhood -- the kernels were sweet and firm on the outside but soft with a bite. Best jagung ever!

        Not your garden variety soup

        Thursday, May 13, 2010

        If snails make you squeamish, turn away now...
        Enjoying escargot at the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech
        Oops, too late.

        Right, if you're still with me, let me tell you this: forget those creepy crawlies in your garden (they don't bite anyway; shame on you!) and imagine a succulent, slightly chewy meat cooked in a flavourful spiced broth and you have snail soup at the famous Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech.

        A number of identical stalls sells the soup at the square, with a friendly looking man behind a huge steaming vat. The aroma alone will draw in the crowd. Adventurous eaters will sit down at the few benches around each stall, while curious onlookers will talk among themselves as they wonder if they're game enough to try the delicacy.

        The soup comes in 5 or 10 dirham portions (RM1.80-RM3.60; the picture is of the more "expensive" bowl). You poke in a toothpick and spear the snail to fish it out of its shell. Whatever liquid is left in the shell, you tip into your mouth or pour back into the bowl and then after you're done with the meat, you drink up the remaining broth.

        Here's a recipe I found online for snail soup. The broth, seasoned with spices like thyme and wild mint, is cooked for a couple of hours and you really can taste all that loveliness.

        These gastropod are not cooked like the French escargot, where the snails are boiled, the meat taken out of the shell, cleaned, put back into its shell and cooked with a butter sauce or another way. After the Moroccan snails are cleaned in their shells, they are cooked in the broth and eaten. I'll let you make whatever you want of that bit of information.

        Mr NoTime and I ate them two days ago and we're still standing.

        Greetings from Morocco!

        Tuesday, May 11, 2010

        Looks like I couldn't keep away. The food here is just too good and I have to say something about it! Landed in Casablanca on Saturday morning, settled in at the hotel and then off to lunch at a hole-in-the-wall place. This is what Mr NoTime (who will make time for a good meal) and I had:
        Clockwise from left: Moroccan bread, chilli sauce, yellow rice, lamb tagine and vegetable soup.
        The tagine was highly spiced and the first taste of the gravy almost made me fall off my chair! I knew it would be delicious from the aroma, but never suspected how fantastic it would be. The vegetables in it were potatoes, carrots and peas. This next picture is not very clear, but it gives you an idea of the tagine.
        Lovely, lovely lamb tagine
        The soup was just as delicious. Filled with vegetables and noodles, it was really comforting after the long flight from KL via Abu Dhabi. But non-meat eaters have to be careful. Although it is a vegetable soup, it is not vegetarian as the stock is probably made with the nasty, but most flavoursome bits of whatever animal is on the menu, like the gizzard, heart and liver. I had a bit of liver (can't tell from what animal) in my bowl.

        I don't know what you actually add the chilli sauce to. It was very sour and a little hot, but nothing else on the table seemed to need it, so I left it alone.
        The Rialto cinema now shows silly Hollywood movies like that Gerard Butler-Jennifer Aniston flick,  The Bounty Hunter
        After walking around for a while and doing a few touristy things like taking a photo of the famous Rialto theatre where the film Casablanca was shown (audiences walked out puzzled since none of the locations looked familiar to them; in actual fact the film wasn't shot in Casablanca!), we stopped for coffee. Whether black (noir) or with milk (cafe creme), it is delicious.
        Frothy cafe creme. Add plenty of sugar like the Moroccans
        The cafes are completely French-ified. You can sit out in front at little tables facing the passers-by, the majority of them in the jellaba (long tunic) but many also in Western garb, although with long sleeves and pants. Casablanca is more traditional that way, unlike a city like Marrakech, which is filled with tourists and where I am writing this now.

        I haven't said anything yet about the mint tea, and I will later on because it deserves its own post. It is the most wonderful brew I have ever tasted. No wonder it is called Moroccan whisky.

        One banana colada, please

        Friday, May 7, 2010

        Eat the Coca, Cocabanana...
        This will be my last post for a while. I will be travelling for a bit and will be home on the 18th. My trip will take me to a fascinating country with lots of good food and I'm sure I'll be yammering on about it when I get back, probably in several posts, so I'll spare you all my gushing about it now.

        In the meantime, there were a few things in the fridge to use up and everything seemed to point to some kind of confection ­­– overripe bananas, sour cream, fresh young coconut and a couple tablespoons of poppy seed filling
        Fresh young coconut in the shell, known as 'kelapa botak', Malay for bald coconut - for obvious reasons
        Scooping out the tender flesh
        I bought the fresh coconut to enjoy in this hot weather but I thought slivers of the young flesh might go well with the cake ­­– and it did. However, when I took the cake to work yesterday, Blessed Glutz sniffed at the open container and said the coconut might be getting a little funky, so I scraped it off the top and discarded it. (Later. she changed her mind and I was left with an unadorned bald cake. I'll get her back...) 

        The cake was baked in a 30 x 10.5cm fluted loaf pan (I know there's a name for this sort of pan and the cake made in it, but for the life of me I can't remember it. Anyone?) It is non-stick but I still greased it really well with oil using a pastry brush to get into all those crevices. The quantity of batter, however, is sufficient for a 900g loaf pan, 17cm fluted ring/Bundt pan or a dozen ½-cup capacity muffin moulds.
        Use a fluted pan for a cake with a pretty top
        In the recipe, I've replaced nuts for the poppy seed filling which I used because how many people have that sitting around in their fridge? The sour cream adds a delicious tanginess and though I wanted to add some coconut water as well as bits of coconut flesh, I thought the batter might become too wet and come out with the texture of a muffin rather than a sponge cake.

        Tell me what you think. For now, toodleloo!

        Serves 12

        2 cups all-purpose flour
        1 teaspoon baking powder
        ½ teaspoon salt
        6-8 tablespoons caster sugar (depending on sweetness of banana)
        6 tablespoons butter, softened
        4 tablespoons sour cream
        1 cup mashed bananas (about 3 medium bananas)
        ½ teaspoon vanilla or coconut extract
        ½ cup chopped toasted nuts
        • Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and line a 23 x 13 x 8cm loaf pan.
        • Sift flour, baking powder and salt together.
        • Using an electric mixer or wooden spoon, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in sour cream until combined.
        • With a large metal spoon, fold in flour until combined. Stir in mashed bananas, extract and nuts.
        • Spoon into prepared pan, smooth the top and bake for 45-50 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool on a metal rack for 5 minutes, then remove from pan and allow to cool completely. Can be frozen for up to a month (wrap in double layer of cling film and place in a freezer bag).
        Coconut Syrup
        1 cup coconut water
        ½ cup caster sugar
        Young coconut flesh, cut into slivers
        • Place coconut water and sugar in a small pan over low heat. Swirl the pan occasionally until sugar dissolves, then turn up the heat to medium and allow mixture to thicken until syrupy. Take off heat and stir in fresh coconut slivers. Cool, then use to garnish top of cake.

        Crêpe lapis*

        Monday, May 3, 2010

        Like a many-tentacled being making its way out of... er... forget that and just enjoy the cake. 
        (* lapis = Malay for layer)

        The picture of Martha Stewart’s Darkest Chocolate Crêpe Cake has haunted me since I first saw it in her January 2006 issue of Living magazine. It’s a 32-layer tower of thin chocolate-flavoured pancakes filled with hazelnut cream and enveloped with chocolate glaze, then adorned with dramatic looking caramelised sugar-coated hazelnuts. (You can see the cake, embellishments and how to make all the components here.)

        The recipe seems a lot to handle and I have been too intimidated to try it. Also, the cake was a previous challenge on Daring Bakers and the reviews were not encouraging. Apparently, the recipe didn't work well.

        But when the egg challenge came along for the Don't Call Me Chef column (see tab above; the link to the pdf file with the recipe will be up soon is now up; click here), my mind immediately went to that impressive cake. A similar version is called a Mille Crêpes, or Thousand Pancakes. Apparently, Nadese Patisserie in Malacca and Humble Beginnings are some cake businesses in Malaysia that specialise in these cakes.

        But after reading several recipes, I knew there had to be any easier way to make the confection. And so I fiddled around with tried and tested recipes and made it easier on myself. The crepe recipe is from Wicked Sweet Indulgences, from the Australian Women's Weekly cookbook library (a good series to have), and the pastry cream is from Joe Pastry (the measures are converted to metric and I made only half the amount).

        I don't think the cake is difficult to make yourself although standing at the stove to cook 20-25 pancakes is a bit of a pain. Each one takes only seconds to make, though, so it's tolerable. And the vanilla pastry cream recipe is straightfoward. Use vanilla beans if you can (I got my supply at Bake with Yen in Petaling Jaya for RM1 a pod some time ago; I don't know how good they are but they do have a nice smell) for the tiny black specks and true taste of vanilla.

        The caramelised hazelnuts, however, took a bit of work. It requires cooking sugar, not always an easy task, and things can go wrong in the blink of an eye. If you look at Martha's and compare her garnish with mine, you'll see that mine is darker. That's because I kept the sugar too long on the heat (read that as I burnt the sugar). The ones on Martha's cake have long, straight ends but mine are squiggly because I didn't let the caramel-coated hazelnuts drip enough before allowing the sugar to harden. But they have a certain charm, don't you agree? Like Medusa's snaky tresses.

        Go on, count them. Not a thousand layers, but 23 is a good number to have. (Wasn't that Michael Jordan's jersey number when he played for the Chicago Bulls? This is almost as airy.)