It's that time again, when Biren and I put on our thinking caps, crank up the stove or oven and start rifling though our recipe notes to bring you another Nona Nona collaboration! This time round, I said "Chinese kueh"! And of course, Biren being the trooper she is, immediately said "yes!", even as she was probably thinking, "Oh boy! What crazy sounding substitutions will I have to make this time??!"
Well, I don't know, because haven't you heard? Biren and I jump into each Nona Nona episode with nothing more than an idea, theme, ingredient or cooking style in mind, always not knowing what the other will come up with!
Will we both do the same thing? Will we go the other way and come up with shockingly different takes?!? The tension and uncertain, is surprisingly, one of the most fun aspects of our joint monthly undertaking!
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And yes, it makes for some anxious moments, but we wouldn't have it any other way, would we, Biren? ;)
Generally, wherever you find a thriving Cantonese community, you will find Ma Lai Koh or Ma Lai Go. Ma Lai is Chinese for "Malay" and koh is "cake", so "ma lai koh" is Malay cake. Yes and no. Make no mistake, this is a Chinese cake but the Chinese have named it Malay cake in reference to the beautiful honeyed brown skin tones prevalent in the Malay community. A nicely turned contradiction makes my skin tingle, but then I'm geeky like that, aren't I Rube? ;)
There are several versions of ma lai koh out there, yeasted, unyeasted, light and dark. I have opted to make the dark and unyeasted version, because I don't fancy babysitting a yeasted batter for anything up to 3 days and I like my cakes dusky, rather than pale. The traditional yeasted version is unbelievably tedious, but I must concede it has an amazing honey combed texture and an intriguing flavour begotten of a long and slow fermentation.
The Cantonese favour a pale golden cake, coloured only by egg yolks, but this darker version made with brown sugar and often, dark soy sauce (yum!) is increasingly popular, and as you now know is, in my humble opinion, the better rendition of this old school treat. You may disagree, if you are a ma lai koh purist, but here, we will have to agree to disagree; I am quite intractable when it comes to my soy sauce, and as much as I will wait hours or even overnight for my yeasted wheat loaves, when there's cake to be eaten, I won't wait a minute longer than I have to!
It may sound strange to add something so clearly savoury as dark, salty soy to a sweet cake, but the soy adds an intriguing and contrary savoury, malty note that I find wickedly addictive. I did tell you about my contradiction fetish didn't I? Really, it's not so strange when you start thinking about salted caramel, pretzel cookies, chocolate dipped potato chips or candied bacon, is it?
You don't have to add the soy if it truly freaks you out, but I never make this without it and it really, really (cross my heart and hope to choke on a slice) is wonderful with the vanilla. You have to whisk the living daylights out of the eggs to get a really good, thick foam and a high rising cake, and please use cake flour if you have it. I ran out and used regular flour, so sadly, I didn't get my usual sky high rise :( If you don't have cake flour on hand, use 1/3 corn flour or custard powder and 2/3 plain flour. Believe me, much as I hate fussy recipes, in this case it makes a difference!
I ate tons of ma lai koh as a kid, especially during the weekly pasar malams (night bazaars) on Thursday evenings in Kampung Eunos, where I grew up. My grandmother and I would do our usual "cake walk" up and down the row of kueh sellers, hawking their treats under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent light tubes which probably made everything look ghoulishly bright to the adults, but called to me, like a dancing flame to a moth!
I almost always pointed at the puteri salat (steamed glutinous rice topped with coconut, pandan and egg custard) and ma lai koh slabs. Every time I steam a tray of this, it takes me right back to my 7 year old self, nose pressed up against the glass display case, willing the pandan, coconut and dark sugar scent molecules to squeeze themselves through the glass so I could breathe in their rich, heady bouquet! Hmm....seems like I may have more than just the one fetish ;)