March 15, 2009
Sweets and meats
Versatile Karen Yap can go from making beautiful cakes to Shanghai-style braised pork belly
By Huang Lijie
Ms Karen Yap once spent a week building a castle.
Not the lofty sort among clouds, but an edible one made from butter cake, coloured fondant and royal icing.
The almost 50cm-tall castle-shaped cake, which weighed a few kilograms, was for her daughter Dana's seventh birthday last year.
Ms Yap, 38, says: 'I had trouble finding a special birthday cake for my daughter so I researched online and learnt about art cakes, cakes with beautiful decorative designs that are very popular in the United States, Britain and Australia.'
Smitten with the gorgeous-looking creations, the doting mother decided to bake one for the birthday party even though the last cake she made at the age of 14 failed to rise in the oven.
She tried her hand at baking several cakes embellished with fondant flowers first, which turned out well, before attempting the seven-day masterpiece.
The favourable outcome of the art cakes made her realise her talent for making them and prompted her to pursue it as a passion.
She bakes between one and three cakes a month for occasions such as birthdays of friends and employees of the GPA Dental Group where she is the director.
Her husband, Dr Wilson Goh, 41, is the founder of the dental group with outlets in Parkview Square, United Square and Balmoral Plaza. The couple have a son, Brendan, nine.
While decorating the art cakes is a painstaking and lengthy process that involves baking and carving the cakes as well as moulding the fondant, she toils away gladly.
She says: 'To me, buying someone a gift is not as thoughtful as making something. My cakes are made out of love and as an expression of appreciation.'
This labour of love is not lost on the recipients of her gorgeous sugar creations.
Two of her employees almost burst into tears last month when they saw the cake she made for their birthdays, which was shaped like a basket filled with hearts.
She says: 'They were touched because they've never had a boss bake a cake for them. This helped us bond and grow closer. Money can't buy this kind of feeling.'
That said, she sometimes spends as much as $300 a month on recipe books, moulds, cutters and ingredients, which she buys online, to make the art cakes.
On whether she feels a twinge of sadness when the stunning cake sculptures are cut apart and eaten, she says: 'Yes. Friends always ask me 'Are you sure you want us to eat the cake? It's so pretty.'
'But I tell myself there's always another cake to be made, so it's okay.'
Her next project will be cakes shaped like handbags and shoes for her fashion-forward friends.
Ms Yap, who is the principal of Tanglewood Music School in Robertson Walk and a professional cellist, also enjoys cooking.
The self-taught home cook whips up five-course dinners for friends and business associates at her colonial-style bungalow in the East Coast every month.
These fine-dining meals are a fusion of Asian and Western cooking and the dishes are often personal creations inspired by memorable meals that the foodie has eaten both here and overseas.
An example is the Shanghai-style braised pork belly, which she shares the recipe for below.
She says: 'I never liked pork belly but on a business trip to Shanghai last year, my manager, who is a food lover, said I had to try the braised pork belly. I did and it was melt-in-the-mouth good.'
When she returned to Singapore, she relied on her memory of the taste, as well as her manager's tastebuds, to come up with a recipe for the dish.
Her flavourful rendition of it was a hit among guests. One of them is a dentist from Shanghai who said her version was 'better than his mother's' and even asked for more.
Besides its winning taste, she also enjoys serving the dish because it can be presented in a variety of ways.
To give it a Western twist, for example, she wraps it in an egg crepe. For an Asian take, she suggests using popiah skin or pairing it with a bowl of steaming white rice.
Other well-liked dishes in her repertoire include cold cha somen (tea-flavoured Japanese noodles) with pork in special sauce and multi-vitamin vegetable soup, which is a yummy blend of veggies, such as zucchini and green peppers.
On what dish she plans to create next, she says: 'My husband doesn't like celery and brinjal, so I would like to create a dish that makes these vegetables taste good enough for him to want to eat them.'
MAKE IT YOURSELF: SHANGHAI-STYLE BRAISED PORK BELLY
500g pork belly, cut into 3cm cubes
2 tsp black rice vinegar
1 tsp shao xing wine
3 tsp dark soya sauce
3 tsp sugar
1-½ tsp five spice powder
½ tsp ground white pepper
2 cloves garlic, halved
6cm ginger, cut into thick slices
1. Scald the pork belly cubes in a pot of boiling water for one minute. Drain and place in a medium saucepan (photo A).
2. To the pork belly cubes, add black rice vinegar, shao xing wine, dark soya sauce, sugar, garlic, ginger and 250ml of water or until the water just covers the pork (photo B). Cook over medium heat until it reaches a gentle simmer.
3. Lower the heat and cook for another 20 minutes. Add more water if necessary to ensure that the pork belly cubes are covered by the sauce (photo C).
4. Lower the heat further and continue braising for 30 minutes or until the meat is tender.