Monday, May 02, 2005

making cakes

Last night, our two girls were busy in the kitchen. Yati was teaching them how to make cake. Later Atin and Alia proudly offered their first cake to me. It’s a little too sweet for a cake but I kept my mouth shut. No adverse comments on their first effort. There were no comments from the normally sarcastic brothers too; they were already asleep in front of the TV.

The word cake brings two things to my mind. The cake making in the days when I was younger and the famed Mary Antoinette’s ‘Qu'ils mangent de la brioche’ / ‘Well, let them eat cake’ statement. I’d be dealing on the former but let’s touch on Mary’s first.

For those clueless on history, Mary Antoinette was the Austria born queen of King Louis XVI. She was married to the future king at the age of 14. Life in the palace since such tender age certainly had blinded her from the reality of the world and the turmoil of the French populace.

In 1789, French populace had begun a revolution against the King. They had little or nothing to eat while the royals and nobles were having a ball of their time. A ‘ball’ both literally and figuratively speaking. Watch movies like Three Musketeers or Tale of Two Cities and you’ll see the recreated opulence of the time. Then was also the high season for arts and architecture – just looking at the Palace of Versailles. Mary was the earliest of a woman’s (lib)erator. She was the source of French support for American Independence in 1776 to 1789 so much so that France was said to bankrupt for financing America’s war. Perhaps the lady of The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to America was Mary. That economic disaster led to longer queue for food. When told that the long queue was due to shortage of bread for the people, she remarked the famous ‘Well, let them eat cakes’ remark. That quote was plastered all over Paris the next day. It agitated the people so much they revolted and Mary Antoinette lost her head at the guillotine. At least that was how the history was written.

Now for the history of cake making as I know it.

For Alia and Atin, to make a cake, you pop open a box of ready-mix flour, pour into a basin, add water, stir a little and place in the oven. Check the temperature setting and after a while, ting!, and hey presto, a cake is done.

It wasn’t that simple then.

Che’, our grandmother baked ‘baulu’ (Malay cake) a few times in a year – mostly on the the two Hari Rayas and Chinese New Years. Chinese New Year baulu was meant for Ah Kuang, Aki’s bus conductor, Ah Juat, Mek Kiat or the other Chinese in the village as ‘balasan’ (return gift) for ‘kuih bakul’ (mooncake). The baulu making at any time was for us an event.

The process for baulu making began with collecting ‘sabut’ and ‘tempurung’ (coconut husk and shell) in addition to ‘arang’ (charcoal). These are for the cinder. The cake process in itself began with sieving the flour. Those days flour came in ‘guni gandum’ - big white cloth sacks with a lot of impurities. It starts with beating the eggs. Only egg-white was used. The yolk would be for some other delicacies especially ‘Tok Aji Serban’ or ‘serawa’. The beating was a favourite thing for us. It was a joy hearing the sound of the ‘kepok’ in the batter and watching it ‘naik’. Because the ‘kepok’ must be done in a single direction, Che’ kept a watchful eye over us lest the ‘kepok’ circle goes haywire. Then the flour was added to the egg to complete the dough. When the dough is done, Che’ will carefully pour them into the ‘sarang’ (mould) made of brass. It was time to bake the baulu. To ensure consistent golden crust to the baulu, the brass mould is placed on the ‘tungku’ and heated both from above and below. The cover of the mould was shaped in such a way that cinder could be placed on top. Baking was an important part of the process. Che’ just seem to know the exact time to place the cinder or to extinguish the fire. Anytime sooner would make the baulus uncooked and anytime later would make it ‘hangus’. We kids would pray that it was hangus because the baulus then would be for us. Waiting for ‘kuih hangus’ (burnt cakes) seems to be a universal phenomena. I saw that on some advertisement, on Hollywood movies and whenever Yati baked something. The love for ‘kuih hangus’ must be a universal human experience.

Of cakes and breads, I think it’s interesting to note the difference of terminology between a Terengganuan and Kedahan. We Terengganuan call bread, ‘roti’ and biscuits, ‘biskut’. Kedahan call both bread and biscuit - ‘roti’. My kids would always laugh at their Kedah grandmother whenever she serves them biscuits but call out to them to eat the ‘roti’.

Mary Antoinette must have meant something else when she told the French to eat ‘cakes’. French must then be extremely humorless. They could have laughed at her mistakes but then they had preferred her head.

No comments: