SINGAPORE - Taste and aroma might seem paramount in judging how good a dish is, but I would argue that texture is just as important.
Deflated potato chips spark no joy, but a QQ handmade fishball gives waves of it.
This is not something everybody gets.
In his review of a Chinese restaurant in London years ago, the late restaurant critic A A Gill describes the horror of eating abalone and compares the shellfish to, well, the most polite description I can come up with for a family newspaper is lady parts.
I am outraged and lose complete interest in anything else he has to say about food.
How can he and his dining companions, sophisticated eaters I would assume, not appreciate the many splendours of abalone? Braised for hours, dried then rehydrated abalone has a beautiful chewy texture that releases flavours from the braising sauce with every bite. Fresh ones steamed for eight hours in their shells, then served in thickish slices, have a finer, less dense texture and are springy. Thin slices swished quickly in hot broth put up a little bit of a fight, but you, discerning eater, will win the battle every time.
As with a lot of things, a life without abalone is going to work out just fine. Besides a whiff of the sea, it is hard to pinpoint its flavour. But we sometimes eat things just for the pleasure of their texture - spongy slices of fish maw or, if money is no object, gelatinous chunks of the high grade stuff; sea cucumber, flabby at the edges, firm in the middle; jelly-like goose blood curd; crunchy bamboo pith.
On the more flavourful end of the scale, the voluptuous wobble of pannacotta makes it impossible for me to stop, until I spoon up the last quivering bit. A plate of stirfried mushrooms might yield a meaty texture from fresh shiitake or eryngii; silkiness from strands of enoki and velvety softness from oyster mushrooms.
And of course, there is bubble tea. I am sceptical when my colleague describes the texture of Tiger Sugar's signature brown sugar milk tea with a mix of large and small pearls. Until I try it myself. Every bite is unpredictable because of the different sizes. How far will my teeth sink into the pearls before they bounce back up? I am enchanted, delighted. Pity the drink is so sweet my teeth threaten to fall out after two sips. For too many minutes, I contemplate the cup, wondering if I should pour out the liquid and just attack the boba. Alas, restraint wins.
All of this is a roundabout way of talking about this week's recipe, for Hawaiian Butter Mochi Cake. It is all texture and, as a bonus, has plenty of flavour too.
I have never had it before but see on social media the rave reviews for a butter mochi cake mix from grocery chain Trader Joe's in the United States. My friend is visiting San Francisco and I ask if he will get me a box. It is sold out. But then his sister in Texas finds some in her neck of the woods and comes back with some boxes.
It is, I must say, excellent. The mix yields a cake that tastes homemade, and my friends happily demolish it at the tail end of dinner.
But to hedge my bets before the mix arrives, I try making it from scratch. This is a classic dump-and-stir cake (dump ingredients in, stir) - beyond easy, and using everyday pantry ingredients. It is likely to be the easiest kueh you are ever going to make.
Yes, it has the elastic texture of kueh that we are familiar with. The cake is not as dense as kueh bingka ubi, nor is it as airy as kueh ambon, with its honeycomb interior. These are made with variations of tapioca.
Butter mochi cake is made with glutinous rice flour. Regular rice flour will not work, so look for the glutinous rice version, available cheaply in supermarkets. For my first attempt, I use Koda Farms' mochiko, a brand of glutinous rice flour that my friend brings back from San Francisco. I know I am on to something when one of the friends I give it to says she cannot stop eating it.
It is hideously expensive from Amazon, so I use Thai and Vietnamese brands on subsequent attempts. They work very well. I have also adapted the recipe to suit the cans and packs of coconut milk and evaporated milk we get here. And of course, I tried cutting the sugar but the cake loses its character.
What's important is to whisk the batter until it is smooth. With wheat flour cakes, over-mixing the batter overworks the gluten in the flour, resulting in a cake with a tough crumb. But glutinous rice flour is gluten-free, so whisk away.
If you like the cake, there are ways to gild the lily: add matcha or cocoa powder to the batter; stir in some freshly-extracted pandan juice; or mix in shredded, unsweetened coconut. You might be tempted to top the cake with the shredded coconut before baking but don't. They fall everywhere but in your mouth.
One day, I shall go on a butter mochi cake tour of Hawaii. I know I will find other textural delights there too.
HAWAIIAN BUTTER MOCHI CAKE
- 125g salted butter, melted
- 300g sugar, plus extra for greasing pan
- 1 tsp coarse sea salt (if using regular salt, use 1/2 tsp)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 4 60g eggs
- 1 390g can evaporated milk
- 1 330ml pack coconut milk
- 500g glutinous rice flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
1. Preheat oven to 180 deg C.
2. Butter a 33cm x 23cm baking tin. Line it with baking paper, with a 2cm overhang on the long sides of the pan. The idea is to create a sling to make it easy to remove the cake from the pan later. Butter the paper. If you do not have a rectangular pan that size, use a 23cm x 23cm pan, with a 2cm overhang of baking paper on two opposite sides.
3. Place the butter, sugar, salt and vanilla extract in a large mixing bowl, whisk to combine thoroughly. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking to combine after each one.
4. Whisk in the evaporated milk and coconut milk.
5. Sift the glutinous rice flour and baking powder. Add to the mixture and whisk thoroughly, making sure there are no lumps.
6. Pour into the baking tin. If using a 33cm x 23cm pan, bake for 50 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. If using a 23cm x 23cm pan, bake 60 minutes or until the skewer comes out clean. The smaller pan will make a taller cake.
7. Place the tin on a cooling rack and let the cake cool completely. Lift it out using the paper overhang. Slice and serve. Store leftovers in the fridge and reheat in a toaster oven before eating.
Serves eight to 10
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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