Saturday, October 27, 2012

Earl Grey Teacake

When I was growing up, my public school in San Leandro, California had a monthly Scholastic book club - basically, Scholastic's ingenious method of door-to-door sales aimed at kids. I'd come home with a colorful pamphlet with pictures and summaries of that month's featured books, and beg my mom to let me order a couple. Although my parents loved reading themselves, having discovered the public library system in America, my mom didn't see the point in having to buy books when we could borrow them for free. But she always let me choose one book each month and I still remember how much I looked forward to the days when the books were delivered and our teacher handed them out in the classroom. I loved alphabetizing the books by author on my bookshelf, just like a real library. What a nerd.

These days, I mostly download my books on Kindle/iPad because it's just so convenient to be able to carry a whole library of books with you on one contraption (and because in HK, we just don't have space to store books!), but I still love the tactile feeling of a physical book in my hands. 

A Kindle or iPad is no place for a cookbook though, and I'm glad for it. I love flipping through the heavy pages of a good, thick cookbook, looking at the vibrant photos and earmarking recipes to try at some point. But here's the thing about cookbooks: a lot of times, the recipes are inaccurate. Or perhaps they've never been tested in a real kitchen. All I know is that I've followed recipes to the T and sometimes ended up with a dish that has absolutely no depth of flavor or a stew that is so salty my mouth shrivels. There are three chefs whose books I trust though (and whose writing and recipes I absolutely adore): Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Gale Gand.

Everyone knows Jamie Oliver - the host and star of the Naked Chef from days back. What I love about his books are that he doesn't provide any exact recipes. He doesn't tell you to add 1/2 teaspoon of salt or 2 tablespoons of olive oil. He'll usually call for a lug or two of olive oil (exactly how much is a lug?). Or even if he does provide a measurement, he'll add some adjective that makes it not completely measurable: 1 heaped teaspoon of cinnamon, for example. While some people may not like his style because his lack of precise measurements make it hard to follow, I love it, because I think he understands that: 1) not everyone's palates are the same - some people like it saltier, or sweeter, or spicier; and 2) when cooking with fresh ingredients (as he does religiously), it's almost impossible to give exact measurements anyway because 1 medium carrot in your grocery store might not be 1 medium carrot in my grocery store. But if you follow his recipes and fiddle with the seasonings to your liking, you will almost always end up with a fantastic dish. Plus, I just love his British slang: "preheat the oven to full whack," "beat up your eggs," "scrunch and mix well."

I used to think Nigella Lawson was just a pretty face who landed a cooking show, but once I tested out her recipes, I changed my mind. Ok, to be honest, I only tested out ONE recipe of hers, but it was absolutely divine. It's the recipe for homemade danish pastry from her book How to Be a Domestic Goddess and it will ensure that you will never eat a packaged pastry ever again. It's fairly simple to make as long as you have a food processor and a rolling pin, and start the recipe the day before you actually want to eat the danishes. That recipe alone made the $25 price tag on the book worth it - you can fill it with sweetened cream cheese, canned pie filling, or even just nutella or some chopped nuts with brown sugar - it's the pastry itself that will blow you away: sweet, buttery, delicate. 

Finally, Gale Gand. I wish I could meet Gale Gand and kiss her cheeks to thank her for her wonderful recipes. What I love about her is that she has a sweet tooth, but she has a complex, sophisticated sweet tooth. Most people I know who have a sweet tooth just need sugar, and lots of it. It could be in the form of Frosted Flakes or pop tarts or M&Ms or gummy bears or soda - they are not picky about the vehicle, as long as it's packed with sugar (or more likely, high fructose corn syrup). But Gale Gand understands that not all sweet things are the same. There's cake, then there's Gale Gand's cake. I made a grapefruit cake with sweet cream cheese frosting from her book Butter Sugar Flour Eggs and knew that I had found in her a soulmate. Not everyone shared my love for the tart-sweet cake, but I absolutely loved it. Grapefruit! In a cake!

One of my favorite recipes from Gale Gand is for a sour cream cake with poppy and fennel seeds, topped with an Earl Grey tea glaze. Sour cream is magic for cake - it makes the batter incredibly moist and fluffy. The fennel seeds in the cake give it a slightly savory dimension, which I love. 

The following recipe for Earl Grey Teacake, which I used to sell at Love at First Bite (not sure if it's offered on the menu anymore), is adapted from Gale Gand's recipe. You will need an electric mixer for this recipe. All of the ingredients below can be found in Hong Kong at Oliver's in the Prince's Building.

¼ cup poppy seeds (make sure they are fresh - poppy seeds can go rancid fairly quickly)
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
scant ½ cup strong Earl Grey tea (preferably Twinings – 2 bags brewed in 1/2 cup hot water for 10 minutes)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (approximately 115 grams) unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
2 extra-large eggs
1 ½ teaspoon Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream

¼ cup strong Earl Grey tea
1 ½ cups + 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar (in HK, you'll find it labeled as icing sugar)

1.  Brew tea, remove teabags. Measure 1/2 cup of the tea and pour over the poppy and fennel seeds in a small bowl.
2.  Heat oven to 350F/180C. Grease and flour the loaf pans.
3.  Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together. Sifting is recommended in this recipe - it will make for a much fluffier cake and ensure that it bakes evenly.
4.  Cream butter with hand mixer or standing mixer. Add sugar and cream until soft and fluffy.
5.  Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each. Add vanilla and mix again until well incorporated. The mixture should look creamy and fluffy.
6.  Add 1/2 the flour mixture and 1/2 the sour cream to the butter mixture, until just incorporated. Add the remaining flour mixture and sour cream and mix, until just incorporated. Add seeds and tea and mix until batter is smooth.
7.  Pour into 2 9-inch loaf pans and bake 35 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean (I always use the toothpick test rather than exact baking times, as ovens can be different - or you could get an oven thermometer).
8.   Mix 1/4 cup cooled strong Earl Grey tea with 1 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar and whisk until smooth. 
9.   After taking the cakes out of the oven, pierce the cakes all over with a toothpick and pour half the tea glaze over the tops. The holes will allow the glaze to soak the cake evenly. 
10. Add 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar to the remaining glaze and mix until smooth and thick - this will be used as icing to top the cake. After the cakes have cooled for at least 30 minutes, take them out of the pans and put on a plate. Take the icing and drizzle over the cake. 

 The batter should look like this when it's done mixing.
 Drizzle the tea glaze over the top of the cooled cake.
 Ready to serve.
I like this cake best with a cup of strong milky unsweetened coffee or tea.


  1. so so glad you're blogging these food thoughts! one of the main reasons i was excited about tax class at nyu was the possibility of some treat from your baking sessions!

    -- gus

  2. Thanks Gus - I'm really enjoying baking (and writing about it) again!