In my Top 10 for August 2005, I list the ube cake from Red Ribbon as one of my favorites. I grew up on this cake, a staple at all family get-togethers because my lola (grandmother) was (and still is) crazy about it. The best thing about it is that the cake tastes the same now in my 30s as it did when I was a teenager, soft and gently redolent of ube, with a resplendence of velvety frosting.
Ube (OO-beh) is a purple yam, a tuber used in Filipino rice cakes and desserts. Obviously, its color tends to turn food it’s mixed in with, a Barney-the-dinosaur shade of purple. Quite unique really, since how many foods can you name that are purple?
An ube cake, on the other hand, gets its remarkable color (depending on the recipe used) from a large dash of violet food coloring, ube powder, and some of the actual rootcrop. It’s essentially a chiffon cake that has a filling and frosting made from ube buttercream, although I’ve seen some recipes that actually use melted ube ice cream or ube jam (haleya). That this cake has an intoxicating aroma of ube is another plus. Ube cake is not regularly found in local bakeshops nor is it found on restaurant menus.
So I’m ecstatic when I come across a home baker, Minnie Fong, whose specialty is ube cake, or ube macapuno chiffon cake (P500/9”) as she calls it. Minnie’s baking business, Encore! Desserts, has a limited but sufficient product line that consists of pound cakes, choco-mint cupcakes, and a strawberry cake with crÃ¨me chantilly. Of course I waste no time ordering the ube cake and the lemon pound cake with dark chocolate glaze (P450/loaf).
Refreshing in its lack of adornment, I marvel at how smooth the ube cake’s buttercream is. It cuts cleanly, revealing its thin filling of macapuno (sport coconut). The cake itself has decent flavor but its dryness mars its appeal. What ruins the cake for me however, is the buttercream. By definition, buttercream must use butter; a light and creamy frosting made with powdered sugar and a liquid (usually milk or cream) and sometimes egg yolks for color and lushness, it’s uncooked and can be flavored in a myriad ways.
So, though the buttercream used here is smooth in appearance, its taste is quite its antithesis. It coats my tongue in a most unpleasant way, conveying a feeling of pastiness. I rub my tongue on the roof of my mouth trying to diminish the unpleasantness. I suspect that since the buttercream lacks the rich flavor and melting qualities associated with real butter, I suspect that Minnie has used margarine and/or shortening instead. When asked, she confirms that she uses margarine in the buttercream and I am disappointed.
I know that some bakers don’t use butter in their buttercream for various reasons ”“ cost-cutting or the longer staying power against the humidity, especially if it’s a wedding cake, etc ”“ but it’s disappointing. Butter melts quickly and completely from body heat, so it has a pleasing mouth feel. Margarine, on the other hand, has all the disadvantages of butter without the flavor advantage, and it melts incompletely leaving nothing but a disappointing, very waxy mouth feel.
The lemon pound cake with dark chocolate glaze (P450/loaf), when cut, uncovers a striking contrast between brown and yellow, chocolate and lemon. The brightness of the yellow is almost staggering ”“ how many lemons and eggs would you have to use to achieve such a startling hue? The tight, almost stiff crumb is rendered immovable by the stern chocolate glaze. I taste nothing but an artificial lemon flavor, similar to Halls honey-lemon cough drops. Minnie says the flavor is due to lemon oil.
I’m alarmed at my reaction to these two desserts so I bring them to four foodie friends that I trust, which include a noted chef and a pastry chef in a popular restaurant. Without saying a word, they echo my sentiments.
At this point, you may be wondering why I even bother to devote a post about two desserts whose descriptions are less than flattering. My point is to be objective and honest. I’ve ordered desserts from some home bakers that were atrocious — there was nothing I could say about them because they were so bad. But with these desserts from Encore!, it’s just a matter of tweaking a few techniques, changing a few ingredients and I’m confident they’ll be a success. I also think these desserts are worth writing about because well, you might prefer margarine in your buttercream, who knows? I’ve given Minnie a few suggestions and she’s been more than receptive. She’s told me, “… future orders I have will definitely be the improved version.”
Encore! Desserts by Minnie Fong