Cooking lessons in a chocolate mousse pie

Cheryl Marie Cordeiro

A chocolate mousse pie laced with Irish cream measured to ‘a lot’.
Text & Photo © JE Nilsson, CM Cordeiro, Sweden 2015

After four years of a bottle of Baileys Irish cream sitting in the liqueur cabinet – because anything Baileys is not the thing to bring home to your husband, and because women like me buy alcohol based on the design of the bottles – I decided I could as well do something with it.

So, chocolate mousse pie infused with Irish cream liquor it was to be, on this Scandinavian late summer’s afternoon, noted by the meteorological station as one of Sweden’s warmest summer days this year. I already had some nice dark hazelnut chocolate cake that I could use for a pie crust for this project and some Valrhona Abinao, that I thought could add in a nice way with some tempered eggs. I managed to convince myself the refreshing lightness of this pie is but disguised, in the heavy dark chocolate of it all.

Occasionally it sometimes is that after I’ve served up a dish for a meal, the question comes, “That was not bad – what went into that?” followed by, “How did you make that?”

It’s here that I find myself halting in mid-sentence, trying to recall what went into the dish and how it came to be.

In the event of making this chocolate mousse pie, I caught the words, “and you do it like this, like this, like this…” echoing through my mind whilst I was folding in the soft whisked egg whites into the chocolate ganache that made the main body of the pie.

I couldn’t help but laugh at this realization, because therein was why I was often so slow in coming up with exact ingredients and recipes for things that I had just two minutes ago placed on the dining table.

The words were so often spoken in varying contexts of cooking lessons as a form of oral-visual instruction in the kitchens in Singapore, that they were innocently routine, yet devastatingly brainwashing at the same time. With this realisation, I wonder now if I could ever share with another individual, the details of how to put this pie together, or anything else culinary for that matter. But below, is a story in some form of variation of what I have experienced whilst growing up in Singapore.

The story, like this

“Eh, I told grandma you’ll be over at her house today at two o’clock for cooking lesson.” It was my mother on the mobile phone. It was her second time calling me in under half an hour, her voice was without amusement.

“Grandma? Which grandma?” I asked. As life’s circumstance would have it, I had three grandmothers, so it was sometimes a confusion. There was also a great-grandmother, but she would’ve been referred to as great-grandma, so that option was not included here, that much I knew.

“Not that one, the other one!” My mother offered as answer in the highly contextual society that is Singapore.

“Oh.” I replied. So that meant I was to head west of Singapore that day. It would take a good forty-five minutes by MRT alone. And then, fifteen minutes to walk to that grandmother’s apartment.

“But this afternoon, I’m playing —“

“No, no, no! I all-reh-dyy told your grandma you’ll be there. So you better make sure two o’clock, you’re there ah! She’ll be expecting you!” My mother cut in. Before I could offer more reasons for not going to my grandmother’s, the line on the other side of the mobile phone went dead. Yes, well, it’s a perfectly understandable situation. I had better turn up at my grandmother’s apartment as agreed between my grandmother and my mother above and beyond my head, or else it would reflect poorly upon my mother’s upbringing of me, and that in turn would reflect poorly on my grandmother’s upbringing of my mother, the conclusion from this merry-go-round logic would not sit well with my grandmother at all. To prevent the two women from further disagreements in life, I will turn up at my grandmother’s apartment at two in the afternoon. So no volleyball session today at the beach with the boys from across the Love Bridge then. I will need to inform the other girls whom I think hardly minded my absence, especially if Andrew Hogan was going to turn up. I made a mental note to chalk up this incident as one more social intervention activity that I could use in argument of when in ten years, I was still not married, and when all relatives demand an explanation.

As I made my way on the west bound MRT, I brightened at the thought that there was a bread bakery located just under my grandmother’s block of HDB apartments. They baked their breads at around four o’clock in the afternoons. Their breads were baked in traditional manner, stacked loaves of bread tins fired in charcoal ovens that let off a most wondrous aroma when done. The breads when done, would come out charred at the tops and the bakers would slice off the charred tops to produce a perfectly soft white loaf for grabs. Looking at this afternoon’s plans, it seemed likely that I would be just in time to grab some fresh baked bread after leaving the cooking lesson with my grandmother. The afternoon could be a plus experience after all.

As I approached the elevator to the block of apartments, the flashing red lamp on the door signaled that it was out of order, so it was a walk up eleven flights of stairs then, with my schoolbag and two subject files, one for physics and one for chemistry. Rounding the corner bakery, the aroma of fresh baked orange butter sponges wafted through the air and I took the opportunity to peek into their shelves. Gorgeous fluffs of yellow sponge cakes greeted my eyes. I’d get some of those too on my way home.

I had hardly approached the gate to her grandmother’s apartment when I heard her voice. In a mixture of Baba Malay and English, she greeted me with arms outstretched, ready to give me a hug:

“Ah, sayang-kesian!” In all my years in Singapore, I have never heard that grandmother call me by name. There was always a pet-name or a term of endearment used instead. “You’re here, bagus! I thot if I wait one more minute, the sky come down and my vegetables I buy this morning from market start to rot!”

After unhooking from the hug, I reached into my blue pinafore pocket and pulled out my mobile phone for a check, it said 13:54 hrs for time. As my grandmother pulled back from the hug, she proceeded to straighten the kerosang on her kebaya, finishing with tapping her short permed hairdo. The amethyst stone set in a gold ring that my grandfather had bought for her sat glinting on her finger. I thought she looked fetching.

“Halimah!” my grandmother shouted into her kitchen, “Halli! Come meet my cucu!” After a second more, she added, “Cepat lah, we dun have all afternoon to waste! Chap ji kee four o’clock, Mrs Tam’s place, cannot miss!”

In a shuffle of sarongs, a woman of small shoulders and neatly bunned grey hair came out from the kitchen to greet me.

“Sayang-kesian, Auntie Halli will teach you to cook today, okay? She my neighbour, live nearby, two floors downstairs only.”

I was only half surprised at the suggestion of a substitute teacher that day. Halimah seemed almost the same age as my grandmother and from the manner in which she was dressed in a green-brown batik sarong with a green-pink kebaya, I gathered that they were both off to play chap ji kee at four. She extended both her hands towards me in greeting, to which I reciprocated on slight bended knees, “Nice meeting you Auntie.”

With the brief greetings over and done with, I was whisked into the small kitchen at the same moment my bag and files touched the ground. I was shown the array of ingredients to be used for the cooking lesson, listing intently as their use was explained by Halimah:

“Ah, this dish very easy to cook. No need for strict measurement. But you must balance ingredients, no balance, not nice tasting. Not too much onion, not too much garlic, you see here” Halimah pointed to the bowls of ingredients, my eyes followed and I nodded. “You see here I use this kind of onion, cannot use too young and too small. Too small not enough. Too young no taste. You want enough and you want sweet. And you see here?” She pointed to the garlic, “Use this much garlic. For about this much meat here, you see here?” I nodded. “Ah” Halimah continued in acknowledgement, “Then you use this amount of garlic. But you must see the garlic must be slightly lesser than the onion. Tidak banyak ah! Understand? And now, you put these two in a blender and blend to make the rumpah.” I nodded, somewhat thankful that it was not a session of prolonged pounding of ingredients in a stone pestle.

After a half cup of peanut oil stood heated in a steel pot, Halimah drew my attention again to the cooking technique:

“Now you start to fry the rumpah. You can smell the rumpah right? Very fragrant right?” I nodded. “But” Halimah continued, “must make sure you don’t burn. You want the nice smell, but you don’t want it burn. Burn awreddi, tak bagus. And the colour also tak cantik, you want not too dark brown. Just nice. So you stir, like this, lembut lembut, like this. Don’t stir until all over the place ah! Then you have to clean up the kitchen, tolong, the walls all very dirty. No. You stir, you see here?” She threw me a glance to see if I was watching. I nodded. “Ah, like this, slowly…”

“Auntie” I asked, my voice tentative, “I try to stir can?”

“No, no need. Sayang, you today just stand and watch, okay? Ah, Auntie show you. Like this, now you see coming away from the side of the pot awreddi. So when the rumpah get this colour, you see here?” I nodded. “Ah then you add in dark soya sauce, light soya sauce and thick soya sauce and the tau cheong. Again, you agak-agak. You see the amount of meat here? Ah, you just balance the ingredient lah. You go home do yourself lah. You do awreddi, you will know. You no need practice. Just everyday everyday do, can!” Halimah said. I nodded.

Standing behind Halimah and I was my grandmother. She made sure not to stand too close to the edge of the pot, avoiding any splatter of oil or worse, fried rumpah on her kebaya. She looked pleased after a glance at the bracelet watch she was wearing, given to her by my grandfather. It was her cunning at cherki and chap ji kee that kept that bracelet watch from the pawn shops, a feat not seen by many of her orang khaki, who had resorted to pawning their jewellery to keep up with the games. She was also pleased the cooking lesson was proceeding in good time. The meat was finally added as the last ingredient and the pot covered to stew. That pot would feed about four to five persons and it would be perfect for my grandmother to bring to her chap ji kee friends that afternoon.

“Thank you Auntie, for teaching me this dish.” I said, after Halimah’s last instruction on letting the pot sit and stew. Walking out of the kitchen and into the living room, I gathered my bag, readying to leave.

“Sayang-kesian, tell Mummy dun forget this Saturday Doris daughter birthday ah. Eleven o’clock can go over. And Auntie Halli just now show you how to cook this dish right? Ah, you and Mummy cook this and bring to Doris’ place okay?” I looked at my grandmother. As if anticipating my question, my grandmother continued, “The usual, about thirty persons lah. Uncle Tong not here, he working that afternoon, but his family coming, so only one person less. Thirty persons lah can count. Or, better make more, so people not hungry after eating. Make forty persons lah.” my grandmother continued, with eyes lit and smiling.

Halimah nodded, “Panday la lu, sayang. You can do it! No need practice, you see! Like I said, you just do and keep doing, Saturday good chance for you to do. Baiklah, selamat jalan! And say Hi to your Mummy for me, last I met her was two years ago at Auntie Stella’s place.” I nodded and turned to leave.

As expected, my grandmother’s chap ji kee timing proved perfect for me to grab that loaf of bread and those orange butter sponges I wanted at the corner bakery. Wrapped securely under my arm, the aroma of sheer heaven kept me company for the hour’s journey back home.

Once home, I bounced into the kitchen where my mother was standing preparing dinner for the family, poured the orange sponges out and placed the bread on the kitchen counter:

“And what did grandma say this time?” My mother enquired, not looking up from her task. “And how did the cooking lesson go?” She continued in near monotone, “Wait, let me guess, it’s “you do like this, like this, like this” and then, “like that, like that, like that”, and she never tell you how much of anything to put in, right?”

I smiled. “Yah.” It was a bafflement to me how my mother had ever learnt to cook under such instructions. “Grandma said Auntie Doris’ place this Saturday. Juni’s birthday party.”

“Yah, I know. Eleven o’clock right? I was thinking of going later.” my mother finally looked up from the kitchen counter, “I’m on a diet, I dun wan to each so much. Also, I can’t be bothered to talk to them. Every time I see them, we talk the same thing only. And your grandma will tell me she got pain here, pain there and no money!”

“She wants us to bring the dish she taught me today, for forty persons. Uncle Tong will not be there, but his family will still be there.”

My mother resumed her task, rolling her eyes heavenward, “Hmf. As usual. And what dish did she teach you today?”

“Actually, she didn’t teach me. It was Auntie Halimah who taught me.”

“Auntie Halli? Small size lady, look like rat, one of grandma’s neighbours that asked to borrow our set of cutlery from two years ago and then never returned them?”

I nodded.

“Aiyoh, cekek darah! These people are vampires I tell you! Suck your blood until no more but still sucking!” After a slight pause to recover her breath and bring down her sudden rush of high blood pressure, my mother continued, “So what dish are we supposed to bring? No, dun tell me. I know. Ayam Ponteh (chicken stew). Grandma told me she’ll teach you that. I forgot.”

It was here that I raised my eyebrows, “Wait, what? I thought it was Ayam Oh (a different chicken stew) or maybe it was Itik Tim (duck stew) – I couldn’t tell from the meat.”

“So”, my mother’s voice sharpened, “You mean I now have to call your grandmother and ask her which dish she meant?” I was silent. My mother continued, “I pur-pose-ly send you to her so I dun have to talk to her, eeyer you ah!” leaving her task at hand, she walked into the living room and reached for the land line phone, placing it firmly in my hand.

You call her and ask.” my mother said, exasperated.

“No, you call her, she’s your mother wat.” I said, trying to hand over the phone to my mother without success.

Exactly, and then she will start complaining to me already before Saturday. No, you call her.” My mother’s tone of voice was final, but I could not not give it a last try, “No, you call her. I was just there, she will be insulted I didn’t listen to her.”

“I dun care, you call her and ask!”

I was about to dial my grandmother’s number when I stopped. “Ah. I know.” I said in a tone of resignation, “She won’t answer the phone now.”

“Why?” My mother shot back. But as quickly as she said that, came the lightning realisation, and we both voiced:

“Chap ji kee!”

Back to the present, back in Sweden, I’m staring at this finished chocolate mousse pie made with a lacing of Irish cream measured agak-agak to ‘a lot’. I didn’t quite make half as much a dent in that bottle of Baileys as I had hoped.

Well, perhaps if I had some chap ji kee khaki, …?

Cheryl Marie Cordeiro

A dark hazelnut chocolate cake, crumbled to make the pie crust.

Cheryl Marie Cordeiro

Whisked egg whites to be folded into the chocolate ganache.

Cheryl Marie Cordeiro

Krusbär or gooseberries from the garden to top the pie.

Cheryl Marie Cordeiro

Served, with a side of Baileys.