Friday, January 25, 2013

Ellice Handy's Cookbook

Recently, I added a few more titles to my bursting-at-the-seams cookbook library.  I had purchased the classic "The Great Book of French Cuisine" by Henri Paul Pellaprat - complete with the most astounding photos of French dishes intricately plated out.  I had stumbled on this old copy at a specialist bookstore in Midtown for US$45.  What a steal.  Another recently purchased book, hand-carried from Singapore, was the latest edition of Ellice Handy's 'My Favourite Recipes".  Guess which book got my first-class treatment of plastic cover wrapping?  Mrs. Handy's.

Ellice Handy's cookbook is a permanent fixture in a Singapore kitchen.  Not exactly a Julia Child or Elizabeth David - these two focused on one particular cuisine - Mrs. Handy is more of a Fannie Farmer who had culled a collection of recipes that exemplify the average national palate comprising of Eurasian/European, Chinese, Malay and Indian dishes and desserts. Much like Fannie Farmer's American book would feature sauerbraten, hollandaise sauce and Lady Baltimore Cake, you would find Steamed Crab in Chili Sauce, Babi Tauyu and Mulligatawny Soup in 'My Favourite Recipes'.  Another good comparison could be 'The Joy of Cooking'.  What all three cookbooks left as a  phenomenal legacy was to teach generations of women how to cook a wide repertoire of dishes that reflected a span of cultures.

My mother based several of her daily home-cooked meals on 'My Favourite Recipes', tweaking them to suit herself as evidenced by the pencil markings in her old copies.  Eventually, these recipes evolved into her own interpretations.  She had several editions of the book - one had a cover featuring chili crab, another of laksa with fish balls. Naturally, I took a copy back with me to New York and looked forward to the latest edition.

I read the new book diligently each night.  I came away with mixed feelings.  Indeed, the book was everything that I had anticipated.  It had the look and feel of nostalgia (retro 1950s) and authority, designed to look seamless with other reference cookbooks on a well-used kitchen counter.  Imagine an Asian Betty Draper in a full skirt poring over the book figuring out how to make coconut candy.   The book frames a generation in time - my mother's and her friends'.  Those ladies in the black and white pictures, circa 1954 in cheongsam and horn-rim glasses, trimming recipe columns from magazines at the patio on a breezy evening.  Not much was edited or updated from the original book.  The measurements and ingredients were pretty much the same, a smart and convenient move on one hand judging from the challenges I had faced in working on my mother's cookbook.  (See blog entry "Why and How I Wrote 'Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen'".) Yet on the other, dicey because it leaves one to judge what a 'teacup of coconut milk' is or differentiate a dessertspoon from a measuring tablespoon.  A more experienced cook would be more well-versed to 'agak', especially as ingredients have changed in quality over time.  

I guess I had all along overlooked individual recipes until I read this new copy because I stumbled on 'Baked Prawns with Cheese',  'Salmon Rice', 'Duck Pot Roast', 'Kiam Chye and Chicken Curry' and 'Cabbage Sambal'.  I never recalled eating these for dinner or seeing them in any food outlet.  And I have yet to ask if my friends grew up on those dishes.  I remain emboldened to try the recipes out.  Yet, where the mixed feelings comes from is the fact that in modern Singapore, we eat less and less like that....especially outside the home.

Whether we will go back to that same palate, it's hard for me to tell.  Perhaps the book will serve us the memories of a bygone era, and a yearning for a time when things were simpler and more cherished.

Also check out,  Singapore's Pantheon of Cookbook Legends

Monday, January 14, 2013


There was a week in December when the word 'kaya' popped up at least three times.  On one occasion,    I had attended an evening soiree - a book talk by a young writer.  She extolled the wonders of a dish by Susan Fenniger.  It was a stylized version of a Ya Kun breakfast - a poached egg atop kaya toast, drizzled with soy sauce and sprinkled with ground pepper.  Then, I met an old Singaporean friend twice at the doctor's office.  She asked if I could make some kaya because she loved and missed it.

Kaya is this wonderful custardy jam made of eggs, sugar, coconut cream and infused with pandan essence.  It is a ritual to have it for breakfast, spread on toast or smeared on buns, often dipped in a saucer of swimmy half boiled eggs doused with soy sauce and a dash of white pepper.

Recently, our friend sent us a carton of fresh organic eggs.  About three years ago, he had moved upstate and become a gentleman farmer with a ranch full of cattle and chickens.  His eggs looked so shockingly wild! There was no doubt that they were never tainted by chemicals.   I decided to make kaya out of them.  It was just as well.  Last week, my father was hospitalized for a spinal injury and underwent surgery.  Eggs, proteins and muscle-building came to mind.  What better than sweet kaya to perk him up as he goes through rehab.  So I made my egg jam and packed a bottle for my husband to courier back to Singapore.  Alas, it was confiscated at the departure gate for security reasons.

Kaya also means 'rich' and once, while my mother was making it, we talked about what we would do when we became 'kaya'.  We would immediately hire our gardener Muthu to become our chauffeur.  Kaya - the stuff of sweet dreams.  

10 eggs, room temperature (allows for sugar to dissolve more quickly)
3 cups sugar
¾ cups thick coconut cream
4 pandan leaves, rinsed and tied into a knot

In a metal bowl, whisk eggs together.  Add sugar a bit at a time and continue to whisk to dissolve sugar.  
Stir in the thick coconut cream well. 

Bring a small pot of water to a boil.  Lower the heat so that the water in the pot is just below boiling point.  Rest the metal bowl of egg mixture on the rim, over the pot and whisk continuously until the mixture thickens.  
[This is an adapted method to cook the mixture and dissolve the sugar without curdling the eggs.]

Strain the mixture with a sieve into a heatproof bowl, preferably with side handles.  
Add the knotted pandan leaves to the mixture.  Crush the leaves gently with a spoon to release the flavors.

Place a metal stand in a large or Dutch oven pot.   Fill the pot with cold water, almost up to the height 
of the stand.  Bring to a gentle boil.  Wrap the lid with a kitchen towel to absorb water condensation 
droplets which may fall on the kaya jam and impact the texture.  Place the heatproof bowl on the metal stand.  

Whisk or stir mixture frequently for the next quarter to half an hour to break up any clumps. 
[At this point, skim the top of the mixture with a slotted spoon to remove lumps.]

When the mixture begins to thicken, cover and simmer for another half an hour to an hour.    

Replenish more hot water to the pot if necessary.

Turn off the heat when the jam mixture becomes firmer.  Leave the jam to cool completely before storing in air-tight containers. Discard the knotted pandan leaves.  Refrigerate the jam if you wish to keep it for a few 

Indonesia in Amsterdam

For years, my daughter had wanted to visit Amsterdam. We were cautioned by friends that parts of the city - particularly Dam Square - m...