I’m a third generation baker as my aunt would call it. My aunt (my dad’s sister) and my grand-aunt (my dad’s mother’s younger sister) are home bakers. They have been in this business for decades by now. They don’t advertise but they get the word around by word of mouth. So what has this topic got to do with them? They don’t believe in sharing their recipes.
My grandaunt is rather famous for her homemade kuehs (traditional cakes from Singapore/Malaysia). I loved her kuehs since I was I was a child. I never really knew that she was that famous until I had a slice of her walnut cake at a party and when asked where the hostess had purchased it from, she declared,” There’s this lady who makes very good kuehs in Bukit Timah. she’s known as Mrs Lim from Maple Ave.” My eyes lit up! “She’s my grandaunt!”, I exclaimed. Truth be told, she does make really good kueh lapis (a yellow spiced baked layered cake), kueh lapis sagu (a colourful steamed coconut cake, some would also know it as 九层糕), kueh salat (a coconut jam custard cake with a base of glutinous rice coloured with butterfly blue pea flower), otah (a savoury fish cake in banana leaf, usually steamed then grilled) and a walnut cake (her version is made up of light vanilla and shaved chocolate sponges baked with lots of chopped walnuts on top and sandwiching jam). My grandaunt is a poster child for traditional baking. She even got my grand-uncle (or Uncle James as we would affectionately call him) to come up with a machine that would help her extract pandan “juice”, or coconut milk because it was starting to hurt her hand when she did it. She goes as far as to use butterfly blue pea flowers collected from her garden to create the marbling effect in the steamed glutinous rice in her kueh salat (most kueh salats nowadays use colouring if you see the colour blue or the rice is just left uncoloured). She even bakes her kueh lapis in small table top Baby Belling ovens. According to her, the heat in that particular brand of oven is the most even. She’s 77 years old (at the time of publication), so the question of passing down her legacy and sharing her recipes has come up. I have on a few occasions been rather audacious to ask her outright if she would share her recipes with me. For example at a cousin’s wedding rehearsal dinner, she hand carried her otah with her to Perth and it was served at that dinner. I stood next to her and while enjoying her otah, praised her culinary skills extravagantly then proceeded to ask for the recipe. She looked at me, and said,”It’s just fish and chilli.” That’s all I got out of her. On another occasion, she had very kindly put up a visiting cousin in her home, and when my cousin woke up for breakfast, my grandaunt wouldn’t let her into the kitchen to watch her bake. She is determined to take the recipes to the grave with her.
My dad’s sister (who is 75 years old at the time of publication) has been baking many of my family members’ birthday cakes since my sister and I were little. My aunt used to be a dancer in her younger days, then years later a school teacher. In her 40s, she retired, became a housewife and decided to bake on the side. When I was young, my dad would get me to help him in the kitchen but my aunt was actually the first one to teach me baking. I remembered during a school break when I was in primary school (7-12 years of age), she came over with a recipe for oatmeal muffins. She brought over ingredients, and taught my sister and I how to weigh and mix. We didn’t use any mixers then, it was all done with a spatula. When it comes to art, my aunt is a perfectionist. She would decorate her tasty cakes beautifully with buttercream flowers, patterns, and even free hand cut out and iced cartoon characters for children birthdays. I loved her swiss rolls, chocolate fudge (we used to take them to school for teacher’s day), and her soursop cake. My aunt was never mysterious or secretive with her recipes unlike my grandaunt but she always had one clause. I can never share it with anyone. Her stance on this is that most of the recipes were formulated by her, therefore her pride and joy. Also they were what her business was built upon so she didn’t want any competitors selling the same cakes as her.
I’ve wrestled with this for a while before. While I’m not exactly secretive with my recipes (having shared some with friends and family), but sharing with the general public on the other hand, I was hesitant. I’ve asked myself if there is a line that I should draw? My aunt of course does not think that I should share anything with anyone. I must keep that air of mystery around my products. Her exact words that she used were “be exclusive” and “protect your signature product”. A few years ago, a magazine editor from a NTUC lifestyle magazine (it has the biggest subscription in Singapore reaching 200,000 readers) called me, requesting for me to contribute 3 recipes to publish. I thought about it for quite a while, I could give any recipe that MilkBar doesn’t sell, or I could give them the recipe for my salted caramel sauce (which they did ask if I would). After much consideration, I decided that I’ll give them the recipe for my salted caramel sauce, a surprise tart and mille feuille that they could use the sauce as part of the dessert. After all, giving the recipe does not ensure that they would be able to execute it. So I gave the excited editor my recipes and over a span of a few months after it was published, I received emails from readers, asking questions about the recipes, and thanking me. I also shared a recipe for a coconut cake during a baking demonstration at the APS Lifestyle showroom (who are the distributors of SMEG) during my pop-up event there. It was actually really nice to meet and greet other fellow (curious) home bakers and MilkBar customers.
When I started this blog, this question came up again. Friends wanted to know if I would be sharing recipes on this website? To address the elephant in the room, the answer is yes. I believe that cooking and baking is 30% a recipe, 70% technique and the individual’s human touch. It’s quite unlikely that 2 people using the same recipe would produce the dish to the same effect. There really is no reason to be selfish. In fact, there is a lot to learn together. I don’t admit to knowing everything or am brilliant at everything, but one thing is for sure, I am on the same journey as many other cooks, chefs and bakers alike. We are all trying to hone our skills, we all want to get better because we are passionate about our craft. Making mistakes, troubleshooting and trying all over again is all part of that learning process. Having said that, this blog is the vehicle to share my experiences and if God willing, hopefully one day this blog will grow and there will be more like-minded authors to share their food philosophies, inspirations and their journeys besides mine.