Baking the cover

I changed jobs about three months ago, and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with my working conditions. I’ve got a stupidly large desk in front of a window adjacent to a tree where various native birds have turf wars with crows, presumably for nesting spots, I find the work I’m doing is actually engaging, and my team is full of bright, fun people. Who are obsessed with cake.

Whenever anyone asks, it’s a reflex action for me to deny having any particular skill in baking. It’s not that I can’t bake, I just feel that I’m more of a cook than a baker. To me, baking feels like a science, all about precise measurement and timing, whereas cooking involves creativity and a certain amount of flair. I’ve never been very good at following precise instructions. But as you’ll see, I’m getting better at it.

One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, my boss playfully suggested that she had a new project for me. I thought she was going to ask me to re-write some content for a website or something, but instead she held up the current issue of Delicious magazine and said with a huge smile on her face, “I think you should make this.”

I’m fairly sure she was just joking, but always up for a challenge, I decided to call her bluff. Thus I embarked on a two day process that pretty much rivalled the burger cake in terms of difficulty.

First of all, the cake wasn’t a single cake at all. It was a tower of four cakes, each of which were made up of two tiers: a shell of dacquoise and a ‘filling’ of a cake with buttermilk and shredded coconut. Then there was the fact that the measurements weren’t so much in cups and tablespoons, but in grams and millilitres; that made me a little anxious.

So let’s get to the making of. First up was beating the dacquoise, which is basically a meringue with almond meal folded through it.

imageIt ends up pretty thick, so to get an even covering of each of the four cake pans, you have to pipe it in. As you’ll see, I got better at this piping thing as I went along.

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imageThen came the ‘cradle cake’, which was more meringue, with plain flour, butter, buttermilk, baking powder and shredded coconut.
imageAgain, this was piped into the cake tin, and I guess its called the cradle cake because it’s cradled by the dacquoise.
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imageThey go into the oven for 50 minutes, and then cool in the tins. At this point, I went out to the last roller derby bout of the year, had my face painted, got a little boozy, and then stopped off for laksa on the way home.
imageSo by the time I got home, the cakes were well and truly cool. Then the sandwiching began. Cake, whipped cream, sliced mango, more whipped cream, then cake. Repeat.
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imageThis then gets covered in cling wrap, and sits in the fridge overnight. The next morning, it’s time to make it look pretty. Which is a process of piping – yes, more piping – meringue around the cake stack. Now for some reason, the instructions called for the sugar to be boiled into a hot syrup before it’s added to the egg whites. I’m not sure exactly why that is – I’m sure there will be more experienced bakers out there who know – but my best guess is that it forms a harder crust when you brulee it and then let it cool.
imageOh yeah, there’s bruleeing involved. Which is awesome, because I’ve been a bit of a pyromaniac since I was a kid. Big thanks to Agnes of Off the Spork for the loan of her blowtorch for this step. I was almost going to use this cake as an excuse to buy one for myself like that time when I organised a margarita night as an excuse to buy a blender, but inexplicably, this time I showed some uncharacteristic restraint.
imageAt this point, I started to get a little excited. I thought, “Hey wow! I might actually pull this off!” Of course, there was going to be the issue of transporting the cake to work, and because I didn’t own a cake container large enough to fit the completed cake, I decided to top it once I got into the office. I was a little nervous as I boarded first the train, and then a bus to get to work. Turns out I didn’t really need to worry, because the height of the cake meant it was perfectly wedged in the container, preventing it from moving.
imageFirst, I topped the cake with what I believe Nigella would call ‘lashings’ of whipped cream, then arranged thin slices of mango on top of that.
imageAdd some halved blueberries to that…
imageAnd some little teensy young mint leaves. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any jasmine flowers, which the recipe called for, so this was my voila! moment.
imageAll in all, I think I did pretty well.
imageSo here’s what the cake looked like inside. It was an interesting cake; the dacquoise adds a nice chewy texture, and the coconut and mango are a pretty no-brainer flavour combination. The mint and blueberries gave a nice lift to the flavour too, but overall, I still felt the cake was a little too sweet. I think perhaps it would have been better if the mangoes had been less ripe, and a little more tart. Also, the cake came out a little dry. I think I’d add more cream if I were ever to attempt this again.
imageFinally, thanks to my workmate Eric for taking a proper photo with a proper camera of the cake. 😉

Pho Phi Truong

255 Hampshire Rd, Sunshine
Ph: 9311 6522

It’s taken me about a year since I moved out West, but I’ve finally started exploring beyond Footscray. It took this long partly because I’m lazy, but also it’s something of a testament to the huge number of great restaurants in my ‘hood.

So recently I was out visiting a friend on a weekend morning in Sunshine. He had to go to his parents’ place for lunch, so I wandered down to Hampshire Road, the main drag of Sunshine. I think. I still don’t really get the layout of that suburb. Anyway, I didn’t get very far before I came across a pho joint. And for me, there’s not really many better options for solo lunching than pho. It’s funny, but I tend to mostly be on my own when I eat pho. It’s partly because not that many other people have it for breakfast, but also I think it’s a subliminal thing – I tend to inhale it, and then have to sit around waiting while others finish off their bowls.imagePho Phi Truong strikes a nice balance between that slick modern Vietnamese restaurant which seems to be opening up everywhere, usually an existing restaurant which has renovated, and something a little more homely. There are still TV screens on the wall, as well as slightly kitsch Orientalist art. These things are the tropes I look for in a Vietnamese restaurant. These, the thermos of hot tea which confounds newbies due to the lack of a visible spout or opening, and of course the condiment station, which I like to peruse while I wait for my pho. Come to think of it, I think I may need to start documenting these. The staff here were also very friendly, and the waitress tried to speak Vietnamese to me – which I always take as a compliment – before I baffled her by replying “Xin loi, khong hieu (Sorry, I don’t understand)!” imageIf this bowl of pho were to be a food porn rip-off of a mainstream movie, it would be “Crunching Herbs, Hidden Offal”. The basil was super fresh and the bean shoots nice and crunchy.

imageThen the pho arrived – I ordered my usual bowl of pho bo dac biet – and I was a little underwhelmed. A healthy mound of onion and spring onions floated in the centre of the bowl, with a few islands of rare beef dotting the broth around the continental garnish. I was a little worried.
imageI didn’t need to be. There was plenty – and I mean plenty of beef and offal hiding under the onions. The broth was also pretty good – yes, there’s liberal use of MSG here, but I’ve never been averse to that – having a good balance between being beefy and warmly spiced with cardamom and star anise. My one major complaint about the pho here is that I could have done with a little more actual pho. So plentiful was all of the meat and offal, I ran out of noodles well before I ran out of the accompanying cow parts. That could just have been an unlucky one off – has anyone else who’s been there had the same experience?
imageI’m not a coffee drinker, but I am partial to some ca phe sua da (ice coffee). Phi Truong does it the ‘proper’ way – ie. the way I became accustomed to having it in Sai Gon – with crushed ice instead of cubes. I prefer it this way, because the ice melts faster, meaning even your first few sips aren’t so intensely sweet from all of that condensed milk.imageI went back a couple of weeks later with Lauren and her girls, to test out the other items on the menu. I’ve said it many times before that Vietnamese restaurants often have encyclopaedic menus, but usually only do a few dishes exceptionally well. And more often than not, pho joints are prototypical of this theory. Great pho usually means the rest of the menu is mediocre, and vice versa. Phi Truong, however, has managed to strike a balance. Good pho – though not quite great – while also serving up impressive rice dishes and salads. The bo luc lac var com chien (‘shaking beef’ with fried rice) was excellent; juicy and charred, and virtually without sauce. The way it ought to be, in my book. I’m not a fan of bo luc lac with a sauce, which is pretty common, and probably a valid way of doing it. I seem to remember that’s how Luke Nguyen’s version is, but I prefer it unsauced, with lemon and five-spice, salt and pepper to dip it in. The ‘red’ fried rice – there’s not magic ingredient here, just tomato sauce – was also wonderfully garlicky here.imageWe also shared the goi hai san (seafood coleslaw) which was light and refreshing, full of squid and prawns, and tons of fresh herbs. Surprisingly, not served with those white prawn crackers to which I’m quite partial, though.  imageLauren’s daughters shared the com tam suon bi trung (broken rice with grilled pork chop, shredded pork skin and pork/egg pate) and some salt and pepper chicken ribs. They’re still only little though, so we helped them polish both dishes off. Actually, if memory serves, we weren’t actually able to finish all of this food. The pork chop was well marinated, and still on the juicy side of well done.imageIt’s hard to go wrong with salt and pepper-dusted fried anything/ Chicken ribs are a prime example of this. These were great, though if I were to have this on its own, I’d want some more vegetables, or maybe a little bowl of chicken broth, or some lemon juice. Something to alleviate the dryness. Not that the chicken itself was dry; far from it, it was still moist and tender.imageBoth times I visited were on weekends for lunch, and both times the place was bustling with local families having lunch. Always a good sign. Interestingly though, I recently was down in Sunshine on a Friday night, and Phi Truong was virtually empty, while the place next door was completely full. I’m not sure if their kitchen closes earlier? Anyway, I think Phi Truong is worth a visit.imageAnd yeah, in case you’re that way inclined, they also have a spit for hire (I think they can arrange animals to put on it, too). There’s a big sign for it up at the counter when you go up to pay.

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