'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.'

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Black sesame pound cake

The virtue of frugality

I still remember the first time when I made 賽螃蟹 (a Chinese dish of stir-fried egg whites) back in boarding school, a friend of mine asked alarmingly, 'What are you going to do with all those egg yolks?' - and we're talking like 9 yolks here. 'To the bin, of course,' I replied, imperious and supremely confident in my own logic. Those poor egg yolks did end up in the bin of course, and ooking back I'm totally appalled by my attitude and ignorance back in those days. I secretly think that I inherited some of that 'wastefulness' from my mum, who never hesitated to throw away leftovers at dinnertime, even when my grandma wanted to save some tidbits for the next day.

I continued to cook like that for the first few years of my 'cooking life' (starting in boarding school) but gradually I started to think more (and harder) about where food came from. Not just where this particular sea salt was harvested, or whether my chicken is a Bresse - it's thinking about the lives of the animals who sacrificed themselves (unwillingly) for our sustenance and carnal pleasure; those farmers, fishermen and workers who worked an imaginably hectic life day and night so that we can just buy our food instead of having to hunt/fish/butcher/grow our animals or produce. It dawned on me that making the most out of one's ingredient is almost a moral imperative - a Kantian categorical imperative even.

So, I gradually tried to make the most of what I had. When I buy a whole chicken, I would save the feet, wing tips and head for making stock; I would save rendered chicken, pork and beef fat in individual containers so that I can cook with them; I would save grated ginger from squeezing ginger juice for frying rice with later; I would save excess tart crust for nibbling; I would add the peel when I poach apples or pears; I would try to pack most unfinished dishes when I eat out, and so on. Not only is it a healthy thing to do, being thrifty with every bit of your ingredient also means that you gain extra flavours at no additional cost. All those skins, peels and rendered fat can 'add' to your dishes in myriad ways and could have much, much better use than a knee-jerk tossing to the bin.

Of course, this is not to saying that I've reached the point where I would try to turn all those unused egg shells into something else - I heard that they are actually pretty good for you, by the way. But I do try to exhaust an ingredient as much as I can. This week I made some black sesame soup (芝麻糊), which is basically black sesame pureed with water and sweetened. Since I had to pass everything through a fine muslin cloth to remove all the 'bits', I was left with a lot of ground sesame. I then used this leftover sesame paste to make a black sesame pound cake. The leftover paste still had some moisture in it and helped keep the cake moist as well.

It's actually the first time that I used leftover black sesame paste for a cake - the original recipe was one I developed for an almond pound cake utilising leftover almond paste from making almond soup (杏仁茶). I said to myself, why can't I do the same with black sesame paste? And it worked. I reckon this recipe would work with any leftover nut paste - cashew nuts, almonds, sesame seeds, peanuts, etc. - any leftover nut paste after you've made nut milk out of them. You'd be surprised by how much flavour this leftover stuff packs! If you don't have leftover nut paste, you could substitute with nut butter or ground nuts. The texture might end up slightly different, but there's no need to be so awfully exact every time we eat, right?

Black sesame pound cake

115g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
115g (1/2 cup) vegetable shortening (or all butter)
1/2 tsp salt
135g (3/4 cup minus 1 tbsp) granulated sugar
200g black sesame paste (sorry, no cup measurement!)
4 eggs
240g (1 3/4 cup) all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
125ml (1/2 cup) milk, at room temperature

Set a rack in the lower third of the oven, and spray a 9-inch tube or bundt cake pan with non-stick baking spray.

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F.

1. In a large bowl, mix together the flour and baking powder with a whisk to combine and loosen the mixture.

2. Cream the butter, shortening, sugar, salt and sesame paste in a large bowl for 5-8 minutes at medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Adding the sesame paste at the beginning when you cream the butter helps distribute it evenly into the batter.

3. Add the eggs one by one to the butter mixture. Beat well between each addition to ensure proper emulsification.

4. Add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk in two additions: Dry-Wet-Dry-Wet-Dry.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top using your spatula.

Don't be disappointed by the grey colour at this point: the colour will darken and the full aromas of the sesame released after baking.

 6. Bake in the preheated oven for about 60 minutes or until the top is springy to the touch and the sides start to shrink away from the pan. Remove from oven and let cool for at least 15 minutes before inverting/removing. Serve at room temperature or reheat in the microwave for 20 seconds before eating to bring it back to life again

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