Crazy Little Thing Called Anxiety.

Funny that ever since I developed the ED about 9 years back now, I also developed with it a sense of anxiety towards the unfamiliar. Or perhaps it became more pronounced because I know that since I was little, moving from country to country, hence new school to new school, meant constantly being thrown out of my comfort zone. It meant being the new girl and having to meet new people who would over time become new friends to me. Yet, I still recall that as frazzled as I would be on my first day in school, I would face my nervous apprehension and suck it up. I would enter class and have my entire day pass by in a blur, but as with everything, the unfamiliar would become familiar and I would always come to have a close circle of friends around me over time… Only to be yanked out of the country to start over again after a couple of years.

While I sometimes feel envy over friends who have known each other since Kindergarten and then grew up together, I don’t look back at my childhood with resentment. I honestly feel blessed to have been able to go through the experience of growing up in different environments and meeting friends from all over the world. I also feel that having been in the British-education system allowed me to grow a lot more as an individual which explains a lot of how much I struggled to fit back in and adjust back into the Singapore-system of education when we finally returned for good.

Upon reflection, I think I was a lot more hardy as a child and somehow, the ED gave me impetus to be more timid in tackling obstacles that I feel more uncomfortable with – simple things for most people such as meeting new faces, entering a new workplace, trying new foods… Rather than face them head-on as I used to in the distant past, I try to shy away from them and unbeknownst to me, I often end up feeling out of sorts without realising that the basis of those feelings stem from anxiety.

Yesterday was one of those days. I woke up with the case of the grumps and I couldn’t fathom why. I was texting F and kicking up a tiny fuss over random things and as he tried to reassure me, I found myself wondering why I was feeling that way. I began to realise that a part of me was anxious to meet his sister, who had just arrived from Germany Friday evening, as well as his friends. As a result, it made me reluctant to want to go out. It was like I was being tugged from under my safety blanket while I was all warm and comfy underneath.

But I did go out and I did meet Naima and all that nervous energy flew right out of me the moment I met her. She was amazingly easy to get on with and our conversations flowed smoothly with us sharing quite a few laughs together as well. If ever I could choose myself a sister, it would be her. Naima, F and I spent a couple of hours trawling through Orchard’s shopping malls before we slowly made our way to our dinner venue to meet F’s friends.

Christmas is in the air 🎄


Dinner was at one of my favourite brand of restaurants – Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck. Yes, the superlative ‘Super’ is definitely in there for good reason because they serve peking duck cooked with love, rendering the skin to a fine crisp crackling while still keeping the meat moist and juicy. That being said, their beef served with garlic chips was beyond amazing. Everyone at the table was mind-blown at the explosion of flavour and tenderness retained by the thick slabs of beef cooked perfectly pink in the middle. But I digress…

Meeting F’s friends turned out to be good fun too. I felt just as I did before I had the ED. I was able to chat with them, laugh with them, and feel at ease being myself amidst people I had only just met. I didn’t have to worry about talking too much, or saying the wrong things, because I know that F accepts me for who I am and loves me anyway, even if I do talk too much sometimes, or even when I put my foot in my mouth when I speak before thinking. I didn’t feel any pressure to be anything other than who I am and I felt free. I felt happy!

In fact, I even managed to get on the good side of one of the managers there who sweetly obliged to my request for Liu Sha Baos to round up our dinner even though they are really only available at lunch. He kept insisting that I return for dim sum at lunch another time and cheekily whispered that he will make sure I get dessert on the house. And as we left, he quickly came to the entrance of the restaurant to bid us all goodbye, inviting us to visit again soon, and that he would definitely remember me for my hair. Hmm… Not sure how that works! He does get extra bonus points for calling me ‘mei nu’ (pretty girl) several times though – I’m so easy to please.

It’s interesting I find, how many top Chinese restaurants in Singapore often have male managers who appear to be a little effeminate. I think that’s their strength because they’re able to banter with aunties and tai tais without being a threat to their husbands. Their PR skills tend to be top-notch which keep the ladies of leisure coming to dine at the establishment. And while I am not a tai-tai, nor an aunty (give me at least another 30 years please!), I’d seriously go back just for him because his service was on point!

With happy bellies, and F’s friends having to go their own way post-dinner, Naima, F and I decided to unwind at Chijmes since it was a nice, cool night. Also, we thought that Naima would enjoy seeing Chijmes and how pretty it is, having formerly been a convent and now, a site renovated and filled with food establishments. We had a drink each before we decided to call it a day. And I tell you what, I’m glad I pushed ahead and met Naima and F’s friends because I ended up having one of the best evenings I’ve had in the longest time!

Speaking of facing the unfamiliar, when I’m in the kitchen, I enjoy playing around with ingredients and trying to make unusual flavour combinations work together. The methodical nature of baking often serves to calm my nerves and sooth my temper as well – which is exactly how I ended up pottering around the kitchen before preparing to go out yesterday.

Seeing that I had leftover ground hazelnuts and fresh basil at hand, my kitchen experiment ended up featuring Hazelnuts, Basil and Chocolate. The basil within the cake gave it a refreshing herbaceousness that broke through the deep, dark richness of the chocolate and the earthy tones of the hazelnuts. I piped some Hazelnut Mascarpone cream on top and garnished it with Candied Basil Leaves, Caramelised Hazelnuts and cubes of Espresso Brownies for that extra indulgence.

So if you’re feeling a little adventurous and up for a taste of something different, this is my recipe for…

Hazelnut Basil Chocolate Torte (Yields 1 x 8″ Round)

125g dark chocolate
125 cream
Handful of fresh basil leaves 
1 tsp vanilla

100g ground hazelnuts
65g cornstarch
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
90g icing sugar

4 large eggs, beaten

1. Preheat oven to 175 deg C.
2.Melt dark chocolate with cream, vanilla and basil leaves in a bain-marie, or microwave in short bursts of 20 seconds until chocolate is melted. Strain mixture if you prefer a lighter basil flavour – I chose to blend the basil into the ganache mixture for a stronger flavour. 
3. In a separate bowl, whisk ground hazelnuts, cornstarch, baking soda, salt and icing sugar together. Then incorporate into chocolate mixture. 
4. Fold eggs into the batter until just mixed through. 
5. Pour batter into lined 8″ round tin and bake for 35-40min or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. 

You can sieve icing sugar on top to finish, or glaze it with chocolate ganache and toasted hazelnuts. Have it any way you like, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it either way because I did! I can assure you too that any anxiety you might be facing will drift away with each mouthful of this delightful cake.

Thinking back to yesterday re-emphasized to me the need to break away from my comfort zone and challenge myself from time to time. It also reminded me that within this present person of mine that has been weakened over the years by the ups and downs of ED, there is still a Natalie. A Natalie that is strong-willed, optimistic, people-loving and bubbly. She does appear from time to time, but if she can break through this cast that ED has built around her, she can be free. Totally free. It’s just… fears.

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At the Heart of Baking

As much as I enjoy taking amateur-trying-to-pass-off-as-a-professional photos of my finished bakes, what is presented to the world, or really the Instagram/Facebook/Blog community, are only the cakes and pastries that turn out successful. Failures of my bakes can range from underbaking, overbaking, failure to rise, undesirable marriage of flavours… And the list goes on.

When my first attempts at macarons failed.. Lol.

What do I usually do with poor outcomes? My first instinct is always to throw them away, but Mum always finds a way to save them by exclaiming that they taste amazing still or that they are not at all bad, although there have still been some that even Mun couldn’t rescue and were destined for the bin. It never sits well with me when there are bakes in our home that are not up scratch and I hate to think that they might be given away even though they fall far short of my standards. So usually, I tell Mum not to let me know what she’s doing with them or whom she is giving them away to. It’s true, ignorance is bliss. Sometimes.

So burnt cookies get binned; underproved bread with a dense crumb get a second chance and are often devoured by my bread-loving mummy dearest; odd flavour combos get redistributed to friends and around the neighbourhood; and the good stuff go into the homes, and stomachs, of families celebrating special occasions, or for no good reason at all apart from the fact that there can never be too much cake!

***

A couple of years ago, I began to bake once-a-weekly at a cafe/bistro that champions the cause for autism by hiring and training autistic staff to serve within their dining establishment. They had wanted to make a shift from ordering wholesale cakes to having freshly-baked in-house cakes. They also had a boy who had some baking experience so they wondered if I might be able to teach him the recipes for the range of cakes I would be baking for them.

I have never worked directly with an autistic person before and while I was open to the idea, I was apprehensive about how to go about doing so.

QJ, at first meeting, was quiet but eager. Over the weeks, he began to get more familiar with me and often jabbered on about something or other, usually the same things each time. He had an enthusiasm that impressed me because even when he made mistakes and I told him off for them, he would come the following week, rubbing his hands in anticipation for the baking session to start.

The most difficult part of training him, for me, was the need to repeat myself a lot of the time. Weeks turned into months and what he learned in those months was what most ‘normal’ (according to most of society) people would have learned in weeks.

It was frustrating for me at times but it also made me reflect and realise that I needed to exercise an extra portion of love and patience towards QJ. I admired his child-like excitement whenever he stepped into the kitchen, and how much he loved being able to do something, anything to help with baking, be it weighing flour, preparing baking tins, or simply setting the timer. It was humbling for me to take a step back and acknowledge that as much as I was supposed to help hone QJ’s baking skills, he was in fact teaching me how to be a better human being.

QJ has since returned to his usual duties within the bistro and doesn’t work with me much anymore. Yet, whenever I see him, he calls my name and asks each time when we will be baking together again. When I say that I love to bake, I don’t think it is anywhere near QJ’s love for baking.

Whenever I have a baking flop, I surrender myself to the baking gods and not only feel annoyed with myself, but start to question my baking abilities. I get distraught and down-trodden when I mess up or when my bakes don’t turn out the way I envisioned them. Then I look at QJ and how he keeps trying to pipe shells, or remember the right steps to making a chocolate sponge, or check to see if a cake is baked through. Every. Single. Week. And I cannot help but feel ashamed at how easily I give up sometimes.

Failure is relative. And what I deem as failure may be someone else’s success. I guess that’s why even cakes or pastries in imperfect states can still be salvaged. Like an apple, you can cut away the portions that may be underbaked for example, and still eat the parts that are baked. It’s all about looking at a problem and figuring out a solution or how we can make best of the situation.

In the end, the heart of baking is really just baking with heart. And no matter the outcome, those who receive it will somehow be able to tell that the main ingredient in those bakes is love – and that, really is the most important ingredient!

What Makes You Buzz?

About 3 years ago, my parents and I went to visit Kor in Australia where his company had sent him for a short work stint. One of the days during our two-week holiday, we took a day tour along Melbourne’s picturesque Great Ocean Road, all the way to the 12 Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge and Gipson Steps. 

Our tour guide was witty, informative and I remember him sharing with us about how taking visitors out to tour Melbourne gave him a thrill, a buzz, that made him want to jump out of bed every morning to share the beauty of his country with them. He not only loved being able to show off Australia’s gorgeous landscapes, he also relished being able to meet people from all over the world and interact with them, albeit for just that one day.

Just this afternoon as I was taking a swim, I suddenly thought back to this man and this idea of getting a buzz out of doing something you love.

All through my childhood and teenagehood, it never crossed my mind that I would ever enter the world of baking. It never seemed to be in my blood. Sure, I could cook an egg, whip up a pot of instant noodles, and make pasta – not necessarily from scratch. I never showed much flair for cooking or baking during the home economics classes we had to attend back in Secondary School. I remember making curry puffs with my partner and not cooking out the spices enough so they still tasted raw. I recall making mini sponge cakes that tasted incredible, only to find that swallowing them almost choked my friends and I as it was drier than the Sahara desert. And our pancake session resulted in the guys having a pancake flipping competition, so of course my partner eagerly entered himself into the impromptu session of pancake tossing.

Not quite grandma’s pandan chiffon cake but rather, mine! 😝

It was only during my A levels when I was in London living with my grandparents that my interest in baking picked up. Grandma’s lighter than air pandan chiffon cakes always carried with them a comforting sense of nostalgia as the familiar sweet pandan flavour weaved through their crumbs. It tasted of home for me.

So one afternoon, as grandma plodded around the kitchen collecting her ingredients to create some of her kitchen magic, I watched. Observing her whisk and fold and pour the batter into the cake tin, then seeing the fruit of her labour come into fruition as the cake rose magestically in the oven and its fragrant aroma punctuate the air piqued my interest. How could eggs, flour and sugar – elements entirely separate, come together to form something so wonderful to eat?!
The first cake that grandma taught me to make was the butter cake. I know now that my initial attempts at this cake weren’t close to perfect, but they were edible and the joy it brought me bringing my bakes to school and sharing them with my friends was immense. From baking butter cakes, I delved into grandma’s plethora of baking books and began to work my way through them.

When I returned back to Singapore, my interest wavered and it was when I fell into the ED and had to take a semester off school that I began to bake again. I started at first, to bake because I found it therapeutic following one step after another, weighing each ingredient with precision and putting everything together to create something edible. We often had too much cake and cookies left around the house so Mum and Dad would distribute them to our neighbours, share them with our security guards, and take some to church for the aunties and uncles to eat. They would come home and tell me how much everyone enjoyed the sweets. It was only when I began to attend church again and had the uncles and aunties gush to me about which cakes they loved or which cookies they devoured, did I actually believe what my parents had told me. That spurred me on to bake simply because I could see how my baking could put a smile on people’s faces. That, was my buzz.

Over the years, there have been periods where I question my decision to go into baking instead of taking up a ‘proper’ job in the office. I wonder how much more financially stable I could be if I had a regular income with a career ladder to climb. But then I ask myself if I would be happy. Perhaps.

I have seen grandma throw away cakes that didn’t make the cut – cakes that didn’t rise, cakes that turned out overly dense, batters that weren’t mixed properly. I know and understand that feeling now because I have done the same. It is that desire for perfection especially when something means an immense amount to you. It is that desire to present the very best to the people around you. It is that desire to marry both passion for baking and love for people so that the people I love receive the bakes I am most proud of.

The buzz I get when I get feedback from delighted customers; the buzz I get when I see children’s faces smothered with frosting while digging into my cakes; the buzz I get when I hear laughter and see smiles surrounding the cakes I bake… These things keep me going. These things keep me buzzing whenever I think of baking. And I cannot wait to pass my love for this art to my future children in whatever ways I can, just for them to be able to experience a little of how much of a joy baking is. Even better if that joy blossoms into something more! 🙂

So tell me, what makes you buzz?

Where There Is Cake…

​Where there is cake, there are always happy smiles!

This is my mantra when it comes to baking. I remember about 4-5 years back, when I was still in London and A came home asking me if I would do a cake for his colleague’s son. The story goes that in the years prior, she had always bought her son cakes from the supermarket and as he always had shared parties with a couple of other boys, they would always have awesome 3-D cakes that outshone his, leaving him quite disappointed. So that year, Connor his name was, was to turn 6 years old and his love for cars had his mother request an F1 designed car cake for him.

Having never made a 3-D cake before, let alone a racing car one, I was stumped. Yet, before I could think through the possible challenges of creating this cake, I accepted the order, only to find myself in a bit of a panic 3 days before the birthday. Thank God for Google because I ended up having to learn quickly how to sculpt a racing car cake, and how to then apply fondant. I was adamant about not using inedible parts, so I resorted to using pretzel sticks to attach the wheels to the car.

It was a painstaking few days but when the cake was delivered and presented to the birthday boy, he was over the moon about it that he refused to allow his parents to cut the car. In the end, they had to eat the cake around it and made to store the car in their fridge. I wonder if it’s still there…

I remember the thrill as my brother relayed this to me and it made me all the more sure of why I wanted to complete my patisserie diploma and embark on a career in cake. It wasn’t about the money – anyone in this industry can probably vouch for that. It was simply the desire to help create happy memories for people through cake! I hope that when Connor becomes an adult, possible a father himself, that he will reminesce back upon his 6th birthday, when he insisted his parents keep his precious F1 car cake forever after.