Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake: A Toast to Art, Life, Yaddo

Chocolate mayonnaise cake has been on my mind recently.

It’s not so much the cake itself — delicious as it is — but rather, what it symbolizes.

This time last year, I was nestled amid 400 acres of woods in Saratoga Springs, New York, ensconced in a cozy writing studio with little more than a pesky woodpecker for company all day and a big deadline looming ahead of me. The deadline was terrifying — it was for my very first book. And it was, for various reasons, not the sort that can be pushed off for months or years. This book was coming out in February 2011 come hell or highwater — there was simply no changing it.

And so I packed up my laptop, my notebooks, letters and diaries. And I left the intense social pressure and the cacophony of New York City, fleeing upstate to Yaddo, a storied artists colony that I had long dreamed of attending. I had read about this Yaddo — a place of extreme quietude run by a non-profit corporation that devotes itself to providing literary non-fiction writers, novelists, poets, painters and composers with a little hideout away from the crazy world outside, a window of calm to create.

Among these studios and woods, a shimmering roster of artists has passed through. It was here that Sylvia Plath penned the poems that would form the backbone of her first volume of poetry, “The Colossus.” Patricia Highsmith completed “Strangers on a Train,” her first book, at Yaddo. It’s also where Carson McCullers wrote “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.” John Cheever practically lived at Yaddo for chunks of his career; and other artists who have spent time at there include Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, composer Leonard Bernstein and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

As a big McCullers and Plath fan, it was humbling for me to be invited to Yaddo to finish my book. (It is hard not to begin your writing day feeling the eyes of those before you scanning your screen, probably thinking, “You really gonna write that?”) More important, however, it turned out to be essential help at a crucial time. I was given a comfortable room, a lovely writing studio, three meals a day and an embarrassment of riches in time and solitude to peck away at my memoir.

Earlier this year, “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family” hit bookstores. That the book managed to make its way out into the world on time is a testament to this warm little place in the woods that gave me peace and fed me well. It was here that I wrote my book, yes, but it was also here that I had my first sliver of chocolate mayonnaise cake at dinner one night.

Both events, I will never forget.

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Caramel-Walnut Upside-Down Banana Cake: Doctor’s Orders

There are many perfectly lovely blogs out there that extol the virtues of healthy eating. Page after page will be filled with photos and recipes of jazzed up salads and low-calorie sweets, all nudging you to at least try to live a better life.

This blog, dear readers, is not one of them.

Yes, there has been the recent issue of the doctor’s concern. But when this concern has somehow led to an untouched mound of rapidly browning bananas sitting on the kitchen counter (because the doctor has ordered the consumption of a banana a day), something has to be done.

Not that this leads to any bananas actually getting consumed, mind you. Instead, a recipe is found — one that calls for ripe bananas that will be turned into a banana cake topped with a thick, hot layer of sweet caramel and walnuts.

The recipe oozes decadence and sin. But it does have a saving grace — there are bananas in there, after all. Isn’t that what the doctor ordered?

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Prosperity Cakes (Fatt Gou): Ushering In A Rich Tiger Year


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You will have to excuse the radio silence on this blog. 

Between stuffing myself with pineapple tarts and cooking up a storm in Singapore, there simply hasn’t been a spare moment since the Chinese year of the Tiger began on Sunday to sit down and pen an intelligible sentence.

Amid the bacchanalia, however, some lessons have been learned. The deeper ones — about family, love and the enduring power of ancestral lore — I won’t go into. (You’ll just have to buy the book.) 

But the Chinese new year recipes — usually designed to conjure success, prosperity or love — now those, those I’m more than happy to share.

Over the last few days, I’ve had the good fortune of spending quality time in the kitchen with Auntie Hon Tim, the Colorado-based mother of my dear Auntie Donna in Singapore. Now, Auntie Hon Tim used to own and run a Chinese restaurant in Lakewood, Colo. — so she’s got some serious cooking chops. 

Besides teaching me the quickest way to skim fat off a pot of stew and how to rapidly chop carrots without slicing off my fingernails, Auntie Hon Tim has been showing me how to make some of her favorite lunar new year recipes.

On her must list every year is fatt gou, or prosperity cakes — cupcake-sized desserts that she makes to send friends wishes of riches and sweetness in the new year. 

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Apple-Cornmeal Cake: A Reason To Celebrate


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A dear friend recently asked me what my ideal birthday cake would be.

My immediate answer was a pure pipe dream (in the U.S. anyhow) — a durian cream cake in which the sliver of cream wedged between two layers of pound cake is flecked with hefty chunks of creamy durian, a pungent, Southeast Asian fruit that’s hard to find in New York.

Now, if I can’t have durian cake, my second choice would be a vanilla cake coated with a creamy guava or passionfruit icing.

I know, I know.

I have been told I can be hard to please.

Having no durians, passionfruit or guava at hand, however, I set about making myself one of my absolute favorite fall cakes — an apple-cornmeal upside down cake that is so simple and can be assembled so quickly that I’ve set it out for more Thanksgiving and autumn meals than I can count. 

In fact, it’s what first came to mind when my Let’s Lunch group, a bunch of intrepid cooks around the world who have a standing monthly lunch date, decided to do a fall dessert for November.

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Lime-Coconut Cake: Conjuring Summer


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Yes, I realize with great sadness that summer is no longer with us.

But having grown up in Singapore, where it’s generally about 90 degrees all year round, I’ve always chosen to regard this little “four seasons” concept as more of a state of mind.

And my state of mind all year round tends to veer toward clear blue skies, suncreen and sand-between-my-toes kind of weather.

Which is how I found myself thinking about tropical lime-coconut cake all morning.

And, just when I thought I was being silly and a little too wistful about bygone pie-filled, scorching-hot days these sage words popped up courtesy of Gwen, a chef who blogs at Pen & Fork: “Ignore the calendar. Proceed full speed ahead with ‘put the lime in the coconut’ cake and eat it all up.”

Sound words indeed.

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