'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Whipped cream cake

There's this saying that people are either cooks or bakers, and that they're entirely different breeds. My first attempts at preparing food was of course cooking rather than baking. When I attended boarding school in Wells, England, the food served at the dining hall was so appalling that I just had to cook something, even though my cooking was probably no better. I remember the very first thing I cooked was 'lemon chicken' - I chopped up chicken breasts crudely, threw it into the wok, and then added this synthetically fluorescent bottled lemon sauce into the wok. Easy accomplishment, I thought, but my momentary self-inflation came to a halt when I put the first bite in my mouth. It was dreadful. I realised there and then that cooking was nowhere as easy as I had imagined. Since that first failure, I cooked almost every day when I was at boarding school (and therefore stank the entire boarding house) and gradually got the hang of it. It wasn't until I moved to London for my undergrad, though, that I learnt about Chinese cooking more systematically by reading excellent food writing and recipes by 江獻珠 and Fuchsia Dunlop.

Moving to London, I occasionally dined at French restaurants which offered cheap lunch deals. A favourite restaurant I used to go in my first year was Deca in Conduit Street near Oxford Circus. Even more than the appetisers and the mains, I was truly captivated by the wonderful world of French desserts. I still remember how unbelievably fresh and fruity their sorbets were - they tasted more 'real' than the real thing! There was also this heart-shaped white chocolate mousse which was encased in tempered chocolate that was just immaculate. A three-course lunch at Deca cost £12.50 so long as you stuck to tap water and avoided wine, which was incredible value for the level of cooking . I got more and more interested in Western desserts, but I didn't start giving a go at baking until my third year of undergrad. The very first dessert recipe book I baked from was Gordon Ramsay's Just Desserts. While it's full of gorgeous recipes, it focuses mostly on restaurant-style, high-end desserts and wasn't so helpful for a novice baker like myself.

Looking back, I was really a terrible baker. It's true that with baking if you have a good recipe you're almost halfway there, but you do need to understand the basics of what works and what doesn't, the why's of things. While in cooking you can rely a lot on intuition, the same doesn't quite go for baking. We rely on precise proportions of different ingredients and try to suspend them in perfect emulsions and have them coagulate at the right temperatures. It's a very finicky process, and I can understand why many excellent cooks tend to shy away from baking.

Thankfully, not all baking is so nerve-racking, and this whipped cream cake is a great example of how simple and basic baking can be. It is an unusual recipe because, while having the velvety texture of a butter cake, it has no butter at all, and has whipped cream as the main ingredient. After you whip the cream, you add eggs, sugar and flour. Mix. That's it. You are rewarded with a moist, golden crumb and a delicious creamy flavour in a cake that takes 5 minutes to put together (really!). I urge you to give it a go even if you don't bake normally.

Whipped cream cake

Both Rose Levy Beranbaum and Nick Malgieri have their own versions of this unusual cake. I've fiddled with the amounts of sugar and flour to suit my own taste. I'm making a pure unadorned version here and baked it in a bundt cake pan, but you can follow Malgieri's recipe and bake it as a layer cake filled with caramel whipped cream. Use a good cream that is not ultra-pasteurised if you can.

350ml (1 1/2 cups) double/heavy cream, cold
2 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
1/2 tsp salt
280g (2 cups) all-purpose or cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
130g (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar
3 eggs

A 9-inch bundt or tube pan, sprayed with non-stick baking spray

Put a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 170C/325F.

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and sugar to combine evenly. Sift the mixture if you want.

2. In a big bowl, whisk the cream - by hand, eletric whisk, Kitchen Aid - with the vanilla extract and salt to a stiff peak.

3. Using a wire whisk, mix in the eggs one by one until combined and homogeneous. It will have the consistency of mayonnaise.

4. Add the flour in three additions, stirring in circular motions to mix the flour into the cream. The batter will be quite thick.

5. Spoon the batter into the prepared cake pan and use a spatula to smooth the top. Bake for about 50 minutes till golden and the edges come away slightly from the sides of the pan. The centre should be spring back lightly when pressed.

6. When you think the cake is done, remove from the oven and leave to cool for at least 15 minutes. You can invert now or or wait till it's completely cool. I think it's best when eaten within a few hours, when the crumbs have a lovely warmth and the edges are still crisp.

Inverted and dusted with icing sugar

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