Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Baking Blues

An Oxford graduate, the multi-talented Nigella Lawson once said "baking demands mathematical respect".

When I was much younger, I used to diligently follow recipes to a T; on the other hand, recipes back then weren't so liberal with the quantity of sugar, butter or cream. Maybe it's part of aging or just too much healthy living but these days, I dislike the heavy feeling butter leaves on my palate. Further, fats such as butter, cream and cocoa butter trigger a mild skin irritation in Guillermo.

With reading and practise, I have gone beyond following sets of mathematical formulae in baking to actually understanding the function of each component and therefore, able to swap them around to address our dietary sensitivities.

Guillermo and I both prefer my yoghurt cake for it is light and moist in texture and not too sweet in taste. Firstly, the cake has much less fats than a butter-based one. Secondly, I have replaced whatever amount of butter still needed with sunflower oil and reduced the sugar by half. This recipe has become a blue print to which I add flavourings such as lavender or pistachio and lime.

I have also transformed with much success Bill Granger's chocolate chip banana bread using sunflower oil, wholemeal flour and much less sugar. When I have walnuts around, I replace sunflower oil with walnut oil and chocolate with a handful of walnut halves – health food shouldn't be allowed to taste this good.

Then one day, I realised I not only know a Génoise sponge from a Joconde but feel quite at ease in making them. Génoise is a classic European sponge without the use of leavener and Joconde is an almond sponge cake, named after the Mona Lisa, which is known as La Joconde in French. That is where baking ends and patisserie begins...

Unwittingly I began swimming in uncharted waters when I started to feel I can also manage preparing a dacquoise (nut meringue), pâte à bombe (custard based on egg yolks, sugar and cream) and praline.

Inspired by the exceptional Keiko of Nordljus and her version of the French classic Miroir Cassis, I attempted a blueberry bavarois with a sponge cake base.

Bavarois is a cream-based mousse set with gelatin; the most common being a fruit mousse. Since I still have a supply of gelatin leaves brought over by friends from London and punnets of blueberries, I was itching to play in the kitchen.

Post experiment, I have more than doubled my already enormous respect for pâtissiers. Their art is a combination of not only culinary skills, patience, and mathematical prowess but handicraft.

It will be a while before I make another attempt but I've accidentally discovered the surprisingly pleasing combination of blueberry and rosewater. I added a few splashes of the scented water to my fruit purée and magically the taste of blueberry intensified multi-folds. For the sceptics, we couldn't taste the actual rosewater in the bavarois. I suppose this is a classic case of 1+1= so much more than 2 ;-)

Another surprisingly pleasurable pairing is that of lime and pistachio. We discovered this after tasting my lime and pistachio yoghurt cake.

For the cake:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup ground almond
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup sunflower oil
1 cup of whole milk plain unsweetened yogurt
Grated zest and juice of 1 large lime
1/3 cup finely chopped pistachio nuts

For topping (optional and replaceable with a lime drizzle icing):
2 tbsp icing sugar
Juice of 1 lime
60g toasted chopped pistachio nuts

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F. Grease a 7" round cake tin/ medium loaf tin and dust lightly with flour.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar till fluffy and pale. Add the grated zest, lime juice and nuts and stir in.

Sift in the flour, baking powder and baking soda and stir till incorporated. Last of all add the oil and yoghurt and mix well.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 45min or till the cake tests done. Remove from the pan after 10 minutes and let cool completely on a wire rack.

To make the topping, stir the lime juice into the powdered sugar till smooth and then add nuts. Cover the top of the cake with the topping and let it dribble down the sides at random.

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