Mrs Ng SK’s Butter Cake… an Échiré Extravaganza
“Nostalgia” is a word which I find myself using and abusing quite frequently of late. More often than I’d hoped to, I find myself taking long walks down the memory lane (such a cliché I know!) time and time again, revisiting the sights and smells of yesteryears quite literally, through the numerous bakes and makes which I’d undertaken over the last year or so. Memory is such a powerful tool, using one’s not-too-distant past to fuel one’s present and possibly the future, more often than others, in a reflective and contemplative mode, a tell-tale sign of age and hopefully wisdom. After all, collective memories of a concerted groups is the basic foundation of “heritage”.
Alas many of these flavours and smells have become a thing of the past. Changing palates and tastebuds, more generous offering of options and choice, an almost deliberately played out sense of propriety towards being more health conscious, are just some of the proponents and culprits which led to the “extinction” of many of the “childhood” flavours.
Truth be told, when Wendy from Table for 2 or more posted a recipe of a butter cake shared by a fellow church mate from her hometown, I was quick to dismiss it as a rather rustic-looking, and probably run-in-the mill buttercake, like many of its predecessors over Google. It was raved as being soft and fluffy and most important of all, crack-free, but I remained unfaltered. It was only when more praise of it poured in from all over the baking bloggers’ circle when I’d realised how “significant” this cake is to many folks out there. Its certainly not just about how fuss-free it looked or how buttery it tasted, but the sense of nostalgia which was invoked in those who tried it. To them, it was a flavour of the past coming to life again and that most certainly struck a chord in me and got me very curious.
It is a rather no-frills butter cake using the “chiffon method”, where the whites and yolks were first separated. The whites are whisked into a meringue while the yolks worked into a batter concoction, with the final reunion of the two, when the meringue is evntually folded into the egg-flour-butter batter. Slightly more laborious than to beat in everything together in quick successions but the results yielded in terms of texture more than make up for the extra effort required.
I don’t have an 8″ square cake tin, so the recipe is “upsized” for a 9″ square one. And since its a butter cake, I’d decided to “upscale” it as well and used French beurre d’Échiré for a wholesome “Echire Extravanganza”! And to match, I’d used vanilla seeds-loaded extract from Eurovanille and 蒙牛 Monmilk from Inner Mongolia!
Mrs Ng SK’s Vanilla Butter Cake , adapted from Wendy of Table for 2 or more
for butter batter
300g salted butter, softened slightly
5 egg yolks of grade B eggs (each egg appro. 52-55g)
150g castor sugar
260g self raising flour, sifted***
2 tsp vanilla extract
5 egg whites of grade B eggs (each egg appro. 52-55g)
70g castor sugar
1/2 tsp cream of tartar (mixed thoroughly with sugar)
1. Preheat oven at 170C. Prepare a 9″square pan by lining the base and grease the sides thoroughly
2. Separate the eggs, and place the whites into a clean and dry mixing bowl. Beat egg whites until foamy and gradually pour in sugar+tartar mixture in 2-3 additions and beat until stiff peaks. Set aside.
3. Using the same mixer, cream butter with sugar until pale and fluffy and add vanilla extract and mix thoroughly. Put in egg yolks one by one and beat well after each addition.
4. Add half the flour and mix on low speed until incorporated. Add milk in 2 additions and mix until well incorporated. Mix in remaining flour.
5. Scoop half of the meringue in (2) into cake batter in (4) and mix on low speed. FOLD in remaining meringue until just incorporated.
6. Pour batter into greased pan and level.
7. Place cake pan in preheated oven and bake for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 150C and continue to bake for 25 min
8. Test that skewer comes out clean and leave the cake in the oven with door slightly ajar for 10 min.
9. Remove cake from oven. Invert cake onto a cooling rack until completely cooled down.
*** I did not have self-raising flour at home, so I made some on my own, basically by mixing plain flour with baking powder in the ratio of 1 tsp of baking powder for every 3/4 cup of plain flour. The dry ingredients were sifted numerous times to ensure that the baking powder is thoroughly mixed with the plain flour. Traditionally, self-raising flour substitute recipes calls for salt to be added as well, but I’d omitted it since this recipe uses salted butter. The salt from the butter should provide sufficient unami to the cake on its own!
Weighing the egg yolks and whites separately and yet together to make sure I get them in the right proportions…
The method of preparation I’d adopted is slightly different from Wendy’s. Whilst she whipped her cake batter and meringue simultaneously with her KA and hand mixer at the same time, I’d chosen to work on the meringue first and use the same pair of beaters on my hand blender to cream the butter and prepare the batter componenent subsequently. I was too lazy to lug out my KW mixer from storage and preparing the meringue first saves me the hassle of washing the mixer beaters. Hence, to further stabilise the meringue, I’d added half a teaspoon of cream of tartar. This method works well for me for cakes that requires the chiffon aka egg separation method.
But there is one thing one needs to note about this method, i.e. while the acidity of cream of tartar stabilises the meringue, enabling it to hold its shape for a much longer time, it would invariably activate the baking powder, which is essentially sodium bicarbonate, somewhat prematurely, once the meringue has been incorporated into the cake batter. So one has to work reasonably fast to prevent losing too much of the carbon dioxide which provides the cake the necessary lift for all the much-desired soft and fluffy textures it imbues.
As with all good butter cakes, the choice of butter is of crucial pertinence. This almost sounded like an oxymoron and somewhat anal retentive I know but this couldn’t be more emphasised. In fact, I was “prompted” into using Echire butter when I saw Ivy, a fellow homebaker used it for her Mrs Ng SK’s Vanilla and Butter Cake. I was elated to know someone else who ‘d tried and appreciated the finer qualities of this wonderful butter whilst others would probably have merely shuddered and convulsed after a look at its price tag. I guess the chinese saying of 一分钱一分货 holds true here, which is of loose equivalence to the proverbial “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. When asked where she got the idea from, she said it all started from me “endorsing the butter” on this blog! Glad to have been the source of inspiration! I’d used Echire “demi-sel” for the cake as Wendy called for the use of salted butter in this cake. So in went all 300g of good butter! As I’d only had 1 tub (250g) of Echire demi sel at home, I’d topped up the remaining 50g with the Doux unsalted one. On the whole, I still found the savouriness too overtly expressed in the finished cake, when I would have preferred it to be slightly more subtle, lending just sufficient “unami-ness” to the flavour profile but not overpowering. I would use all Doux butter for future bakes, with probably a 1/4 tsp of fleur de sel added.
On the whole, I really love this buttercake. The flavours are indeed very rustic and simple, conjuring images of the buttercakes from neighbourhood confectioneries which I’d enjoyed as a boy. It sent me straight back to my childhood and I would most certainly make this cake in the years to come, not only to enjoy all its rich buttery flavours, but also to re-live all those childhood memories over and over again.