A cake is a cake is a cake.

Sous-Bois: mousse au cassis, bavarois au Kirsch, biscuit jaconde, confiture de cassis
Sous-Bois: mousse au cassis, bavarois au Kirsch, biscuit jaconde, confiture de cassis

In one of Will Smith’s celebrated films, The Pursuit of Happyness, there was this line that I could recall:

“I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?”

Amidst an ongoing debate on the pervasive ‘paper chase’ in my country, I thought it was apt to revisit this quote. The socio-cultural sentiment, that qualifications are sieves which separate the successful from the rest, has affected me personally. I am stuck in business school, when I’d rather be in the kitchen. While I am encouraged that there is such debate, it is equally difficult to conceive any imminent change in perspectives. One step at a time, but we must also consider how we relate success to happiness. This is an age-old concern, yet we are still so blind.

Rat race or paper chase, is happiness its attainable goal? Or are we doomed to Sisyphus’ fate in an absurd pursuit, in which we must imagine ourselves happy? Who is Sisyphus anyway? Why does he have such a difficult name to pronounce?

In seeking these answers, let’s not neglect the obvious fact that Sisyphus didn’t have any cake while we do. Because if we can’t have happiness, we can have cake. Let us eat cake.

Last summer, my pursuit has brought me to Tokyo. I didn’t know much about Japanese pâtissiers; I only had chez Hidemi Sugino on my ‘must-visit’ list, thanks to his fame in the blogosphere. By little coincidence, I stayed two blocks away from his unassuming shop. On my third day in Tokyo, I decided to join the queue only 15 minutes before opening. This indifference was duly punished as the signature cake – ‘ambroisie’, was snapped up by those who came even earlier. Disheartened, but unbeaten, I chose four other petits gâteaux to share between my Dad and I. Three days later, I made another visit, only to miss the signature again, but two other cakes made up for that.

All in all, I tasted six cakes out of the 20 over that were charmingly displayed on the cake counter. (You see, I always had a thing for cake counters.) Each of the six has its own merits, but I was particularly inspired by the Framboisier. No photos were allowed, so words will have to suffice. Simply put, this layered cake accentuates our love for raspberries. Alternating layers of buttercream and jaconde offer soft and creamy textures on the palate, while the centre slice of jelly and garnishing raspberries present the refreshing and tangy aspect of this red midsummer gem. A layer of craquelin which sits atop the cake provides a crunchy distinction. With its shades and hues of red, and perfect layering, this cake grabs glances and robs hearts. As a whole, there is contrast, balance, and elegance, notwithstanding the fact that all elements comprise raspberries. Such is a dessert in which the ingredient humbles the chef, and the chef does justice to the ingredient.

The rest of the cakes were delights too. Amber Noix was a classic combination of chocolate, caramel and walnuts. Sous-Bois­ made another berry heaven. Tartelette au caramel passion, a bountiful tart of nuts and dried fruits wallowing in a smooth and rich passionfruit caramel, complemented by a quenelle of vaporous crème Chantilly. Charme was griottes, enough said, and Geometrin had an interesting, enlightening pairing of grapefruit and mint. Perhaps they weren’t all mind-blowing, but in chez Sugino I realized how simplicity doesn’t preclude ingenuity. After all, it takes most skill to execute the basics well beyond perfection.

On my first visit, Chef Sugino walked into the salon de thé from the kitchen. The gray hues of his hair suggested a certain frailty, at the same time an evidence of his dedication in decades. In his chef jacket, apron and clogs too, he glanced across the room in all modesty. He approached two boys accompanied by their mother for an afternoon treat, and they traded some words. I was too far away to hear anything, nor could I understand. Yet from the humble grin Chef Sugino revealed as he returned to the kitchen, I could imagine that to be his happiness, if not, close enough.

10 | Like a diamond in the sky.

Unearthed diamonds lie in their slumber, unfazed by the relentless passage of time. They wait patiently in the darkest depths, and in their first light, they blinds us to the blood and sweat that taint them so. Yet we are not drawn most to their shine; we are not magpies. It is their elusiveness that lay their unyielding grip on our hearts and minds.

Being elusive is what makes this coffee shop charming, like a diamond on a ring. Tucked in a residential street, Omotesando Koffee stays hidden from plain view. You will walk past it twice, only to uncover its camouflage on the third try. Step into its entrance, and the surreal greenery isolates you from the outside world, while the furnishing transports you into a timeless dimension. Designed like a traditional Japanese tea-house, its modern coffee bar stands out-of-place within its wooden interior, like a passing dream.

OMO

Style without substance also makes a passing dream, but the place has survived the test of time with great coffee and even greater dedication. The sweltering sun was the only thing that didn’t go well with the hot drink. If I did away with my persistence for hot coffee, and opted for an iced latte instead, it would have been perfect. Fortunately, the shade and the kashi – a kind of coffee custard pastry, saved the day. A few sips of my Dad’s iced coffee helped too.

It’s difficult to conclude that the coffee is ‘to-die-for’, because it is frivolous to die for any kind of coffee. Nevertheless, Omotesando Koffee is a diamond, and it will always warrant a visit, whenever I get the chance to return to Tokyo. Perhaps, in cooler seasons, this place would make a perfect sanctuary, from the blood and sweat of reality.

Sanctuary

Baby steps.

Nutmeg Bonbons

On lazy days, breakfast takes an hour. I was feeling especially lazy today and it took two. It starts with pre-heating the oven for bread, and boiling water for coffee. Meanwhile, I would be cleaning the grinder and the press-pot. Then it comes to taking a sniff out of the bag of beans, before weighing out 22g of coffee.  No prizes for guessing where the beans came from. The bread goes in the oven for five minutes, while I work on the hand grinder. The water is 95C and part of it is used to pre-warm the glass. While the water cools to 90C, the grounds are emptied into the press-pot and brewing begins with a steady stream of water. The bread is sliced and three minutes into immersion, the filter is plunged down and out comes the brew. The ritual ends with taking out a dollop of jam for the bread.

That, my lad, is breakfast.

I made myself a second cup of coffee today, because I can. As I nibbled on the crust of bread, I thought to myself how simple things intrigue me most. It might not be the best way of brewing nor the best bread, just ordinary jam and humble coffee, but it works for me. It may seem frivolous, but grant me that bit of luxury with bread, coffee and jam on my days off.

Simplicity is my most recent idée fixe. It means slowing down to appreciate the things that surround us. It is about finding coherence in the haves, instead of losing faith because of the have-nots. Our definitions of ‘simple’ differs, but it is easy to mistake simplicity for difficulty, or effort. The simplest things could be most difficult to come by. What had impressed me most during my stay in Paris was a modest tarte au citron, one that I have never succeeded in replicating it faithfully.

Due in part to the first kitchen I had worked in, plated desserts had intrigued me most. Like drawing on a blank canvas, one’s imagination is the only limit to put different flavours, textures, colours and temperatures together. Increasingly, my attention slants towards doing the simple things right – churning ice-creams, making bonbons, and in general, being positive. I can’t recall the slightest reason that has sparked this preoccupation, but it becomes self-reinforcing. Simplicity implies contentment; contentment perpetuates simplicity.

I’d always thought that the state of being content is dangerous. It breeds laziness and stifles progress. Yet, the impetus for improvement can come from elsewhere – such as the spirit of excellence or the drive of passion. Being content can be a source of strength. It’s like patting oneself on the back for making the small little steps, while not forgetting the distance ahead to strive further for. On the other hand, putting oneself down, for the sake of progress, can become toxic, and is uncalled for. As with words, simplicity is also a choice.

I like making bonbons because they are simple, but challenging. In light of the aforementioned, I am happy with these. They aren’t perfect, perhaps nowhere close, but I have found some familiarity in its execution. It was exciting too, to try out flavour combinations, and I had nutmeg, fennel, and vanilla for the ganache. There aren’t many chances to make bonbons in a proper setting for long, and I am glad that I could finish (for now) with a proper batch of chocolates.

 

04 | The audacity to love.

Monet

There is no better day than 14 February to write about love. It’s the 15th today, but for the people who work in the F&B industry, we can’t be really that calculative about special occasions. For the uninitiated, Roodelia has a vague proclivity for expositions of grandiose themes of human life. Dreams. Altruism. Consciousness. Certainly, some publication on this romantic concept is due.

Surely too, some readers would have an immediate objection that Valentine’s isn’t all about romance. It could be familial or platonic love! The handful of cynics who boycott the celebration on grounds of its dubious association with commerciality have now a bigger bone to pick, now that chocolatiers and florists are extending their scope of marketing activities beyond the romantically involved to the ‘platonically’ involved – everyone, except hermits. Yet there are even more absurd opposition. A school in Connecticut banned the exchange of candy in honor of its healthy eating initiative this year. Three years ago, a ban on this celebration was enforced in a Russian city, Belgorod, on claims that it undermines the moral fabric of society. A day in honour of an indispensable aspect of life has been marked to be too commercial, too unhealthy, and too immoral. One can hardly imagine how deprived the naysayers have been to drive them to such absurdity.

Governments can ban celebrations, but never can they reach into the hearts of the beloved and the lovers to institute a policy against love itself. I may have made an overly optimistic assertion. Consider how Room 101 tore apart the love between Winston and Julia in the Orwellian dystopia. That is a chilling depiction, but it hints at the fragility of what one could consider to be one of the noblest trait of our nature. Love manifests itself as the primary motivation of the greatest acts of sacrifice in history and/or religion, yet when turned sour, it also inspired the most sinister crimes in reality and drama. What, exactly, is love?

In true Roodelian fashion, heading down the winding path of evolutionary theories to answer this Socratic demand for definitions would be expected. Bond-pair theories, societal cohesion, and some psychological exploration. Hang on a second… surely one doesn’t need a definition to know what love is!

What’s the point of all these roundabout-bush-beating?

Cakes, of course! We don’t need any reasons to have cakes! Admittedly, they can be too fragile, too commercial, too unhealthy, or too immoral, but we still enjoy them all the same. Perhaps with some audacity. Last Saturday, after a visit to some traditional bakeries in Singapore, I made my way down to The Audacious Cakery. An apt venture in the heart of Everton Park, the patisserie brings a refreshing option to the food scene. I tried the Monet, as pictured, which combined orange flavours with champagne and Cointreau, well-balanced with tips of acidity from raspberries and redcurrants. The only thing I have against the cake would be the numerous seeds from the berries. Maybe it’s just my sour relationship with seeds; it’s personal. When I was done with that, I decided to have another cake, which was a duet between sesame and matcha. I’ve always liked the idea of using the flavour in pastries, but I’ve not found a proper way to do it. The cake, Faith, incorporated that flavor as a sponge and mousse, but it wasn’t quite agreeable because of the ‘dehydrating’ effect of matcha. Nevertheless, the patisserie makes a great addition to my list of dessert places to try, and it is heartening that more of such places are coming up in Singapore, alongside the wave of cafés specializing in coffee. Speaking of which, the patisserie’s cakes deserve much better coffee to go with. That improvement will surely bring me back again to try the other cakes and tarts, although I’ll have to save up for that!

The Audacious Cakery
2 Everton Park #01-61
Singapore 081002
T: 6223 3047
http://theaudaciouscakery.com/

03 | D is for…

Maple and Market
“1919” from Maple and Market

To say the very least, the past week has been “eventful”. Finding out how stomach-turning the allocated modules will be wasn’t a great way to start a new semester. Having two days’ worth of kitchen work, on the other hand, was consolatory. A hectic beginning and sleep-deprivation left me in a semi-mortified state, but friendly encouragement and hypnotizing myself that “every bit counts” keep me going, as always. I have complained too much about my business modules, so I’ll just mention how fortunate I am to have opted for a philosophy module. Reading Plato’s dialogues and navigating the ethical fog never seemed so interesting, and just maybe, credit goes to the bleargh modules.

“Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”  Woah… sounds like a General Paper topic. (Actually it was, they love Wilde don’t they?)

Let’s move on from the mundane stuff… to more mundane stuff? I passed by Ion Orchard yesterday night, and there was a series of charity advertisements on the walls which caught my attention. I can’t find the name of campaign on the internet (there, there… the elusive everything means nothing concept), but it pictured children sleeping in their elaborately decorated bedrooms. They had blankets printed with the figures of doctors, basketball stars, firemen etc. superimposing on their tiny growing bodies. It said “every child deserves the right to dream”.

Now… There is absolutely no bones to pick on that, but it brought me to a line from one of Neil Gaiman’s poems in Fragile Things:

“If I were young as once I was, and dreams and death more distant then,”

It’s bizarre how we regard the act of dreaming as a prerogative of the young. They would if they could and they should (this is what taking a philosophy module does to you). What I meant to say was that children dream and we don’t, or that we no longer believe in them. Some of us still do, but then there are duties, drudgery, disappointments, decay, disease, death… you get the point.

I was in a quaint café (everyone seems to be saying this these days) – Maple and Market, sitting by the window with a piccolo latte and a Kaya-Gula Melaka-Coconut cake. This pâtisserie was opened last April by Sarah Khaw, a friend of a friend. My friend told me to check the place out almost a year ago, when I was back in Paris, and I only managed this spontaneous visit until now, guilty as charged. Still the place was lovely, sitting right beside a hawker centre under the flats, seemingly out of place. The glass windows overlooked a small road alongside a patch of open green, such rarity in this sardine-packed concrete jungle. It’s not a grand surprise, but intriguing still, that cafés like this are popping up in the most unlikely places. We can learn that from ecology, about niche specialization, or something like that. Anyways, it’s a dream-come-true in that tiny ‘niche’, with her dedication and penchant for details translated into the small little things and the food. The coffee wasn’t extraordinary but the cake, it was surprising balanced. Le gateau was more amercain than français, but still I liked it. You can go really wrong with those flavors – I’m not a big fan of this combination, but it was made just right that it doesn’t run you over like a truck would.

And then it did. A truck hit me. An 80-over-year-old lady was trying to cross the small road with the help of another two. She had a walking-crutch on hand, but she didn’t use it. She was trying not to use it. Her helper and the other stranger presumably, were all hands and legs, and she herself was in pain, beyond reasonable doubt. The glass of dreamland’s windows didn’t protect me. It struck me hard, especially so when I’m having a cake and a cup of fancy coffee, with the company of a kinfolk magazine.

These days, when I see the elderly reverting to taking baby steps, or the handicap in some sort of discomfort, I am reminded of how real and how close pain can be. Not that my back hasn’t been giving me some sort of problem already. Increasingly, it is difficult not to despise how people paint lives in such romantic, dream-like ways. I never liked kinfolk. Then again, I never hated it.

Now, some of you must think that I’m not making a lot of sense. The person who writes about pursuing some dream more often than not, who composes photographs with more care than necessary, who loves Paris still despite all its grunge, is now putting down romanticism a.k.a kinfolk-iness?

It’s a love-hate relationship.

In retrospect, she was trying to walk, without the crutch. Perhaps she still dreams of walking by herself one day. Dreams, they may be luxuries for the rich, but they are also sustenance for the poor, and motivation for the rest of us. Everyone deserves the right to dream.

P.S. I really don’t mind receiving a kinfolk issue as a birthday present.

Maple & Market
34 Cassia Crescent #01-82
Singapore 559160
T: 6348 8068

http://mapleandmarket.com/