Monday, September 6, 2010
Through thick and thin
WHY do some recipes work and others don't? Have you ever followed a recipe, word for word, step by step only to fail? Well, that's my puzzle this week. I decided to make Spekkoek, or the famous Indonesian layer cake as it is one of my favourite cakes. After browsing through several recipes online, looking through the ingredients and the instructions, I concluded that it wasn't too difficult to execute. Sure, it called for a lot of time and patience -- it isn't called "thousand layer cake" for nothing. Though way less than a thousand, the cake has many thin layers (about 40) that have to be grilled one by one. Each layer is about 1mm thick, no more. But, apart from having to spend a couple of hours literally in front of the oven, the cake seemed simple enough to make. True?
OF COURSE NOT. Making Spekkoek proved to be one of the most frustrating experiences I've had in the kitchen.
I had to make this cake five times before it turned out decent. Five times! Ordinarily, I would have given up after attempt No. 3 but I was making it for this month's Don't Call Me Chef column (which comes out today) so I had no choice but to complete it.
I must have gone through at least a dozen different recipes for Spekkoek. I studied each one, wondering why my cakes looked nothing like the Spekkoek you buy in the shops. The taste was pretty similar but that was as close as I seemed to be getting.
With the Spekkoek, looks matter you see.
I followed the recipes to a T and yet my cakes were dry, my layers too chunky. I didn't get the fine brown layer. I couldn't get moisture in the cake. Nothing seemed to work. ARRRRRRRGH.
Finally, after five attempts I baked a cake that looked authentic. My cake was still not moist enough. It wasn't dry but if you've tasted a good Spekkoek, you'll know that it is really quite moist and very rich. My Spekkoek was nice and fragrant and tasty too but, darn it, it still was nothing like the Spekkoek I look forward to eating at my friends' houses every Raya.
I don't think I will be making any more Spekkoeks anytime soon but I did learn a few things in the process which will, hopefully, make me a better baker. Still, I was proud of my Spekkoek.
I learnt some valuable lessons making the cake and this is what I want to share. (For the recipe per se, you can read the column here). Some of the lessons I learnt may seem pretty obvious (to me esp, on hindsight) so, bear with me.
LESSON 1: The layers in the Spekkoek may look like interlying layers of two different types of batter (one light, one dark; one spiced one not) but THEY AREN'T! The first recipe I tried, had me alternating between a plain butter batter and a spiced batter (Pic, top left). Maybe this is another version of the cake but the authentic cake calles of layering just ONE BATTER over and over. The brown layer you see in the cake is because the cake is GRILLED, so the top of the cake browns while the rest remains pale.
LESSON 2: Spread the layers really thin. About four tabelspoons per layer in a 6 inch X 6 inch pan may seem too little but believe me, it's being generous. For my first attempt I decided to double the amount. The result? See the pic above. The batter rises.
LESSON 3: The recipe requires you to separate the egg whites from the yolks. Some recipes use only the yolks, some use both the yolks and the whites (though always more yolks than whites). Some require you to whip the whites to a meringue. My conclusion: use yolks only. If you want to use a couple of egg whites, DO NOT whip them too much or your cake will be too airy, too dry. I don't know if my conclusion is right though. Would appreciate some feedback. Please?
LESSON 4: Grill NOT bake. This was my mistake. All the recipes call for the cake to be GRILLED. The first time I made it however, I somehow didn't register that command and so I BAKED the cake. The result? No browning of the top and so, no distinct brown layer (See pic below). Also, I forgot that to grill in the oven, I'd have to shift my rack right to the top. DUH!
LESSON 5: The recipes uses a lot of butter, presumably to make the cake nice and moist. Butter alone didn't work for me. I even substituted oil for butter a couple of times. Still, I couldn't get a moist enough cake. My last recipe used condensed milk + icing instead of granulated sugar and that worked better. Suggestions, anyone?