We love a good Taiwanese-style castella cake. The steaming, billowy, chiffon-esque confection that’s taken Singapore by storm. However, unlike a chiffon cake which must be cooled down before it’s eaten, the Taiwanese castella offers instant gratification — it tastes best devoured hot from the oven. We’ve test driven and tweaked countless recipes over the past several months. And while a few were gems, none got our hearts racing. Until now.
We’ve pimped up our favourite cheese castella recipe to include chopped bak kwa for a deluxe Chinese New Year twist. Yes, it sounds a bit strange, but no, it doesn’t taste odd. In fact, it’s bloody delicious. Imagine the Asian version of caramelised, smoky bacon bits with gooey cheese trapped in a light, feathery sponge. This is fusion food at its best, baby.
Here's what makes this castella great:
· Low protein top flour is used for a finer crumb. It’s mixed with hot oil to ‘cook’ the dough. Cooking flour in hot oil makes it unable to form more gluten, which results in a smoother, softer cake (gluten has a rough texture).
· The egg whites are whipped till it reaches firm peaks (see below pic), just before it hits stiff peaks. So it’s sturdy enough to provide some structure, yet not so firm it doesn’t allow the cake to wobble sexily.
· Minced — not sliced — bak kwa is used for a more tender bite.
· Grated parmesan is added to the batter to give the sponge an umami kick — something most castella cake shops don’t do as they use the same bland sponge base for both their plain and cheese versions. Finely grated parmesan instead of the powdered kind adds a nice crunch to the crust.
· The cake is steam baked for extra moistness and even cooking — its tin is placed just above a tray of water, and separated by a metal rack instead of being submerged in water, preventing a, ahem, soggy bottom.
· The baking tin is lined with aluminium foil-wrapped cardboard pieces for gentler heat distribution so the sides of the cake don’t dry out before the sponge is fully cooked.
BAK KWA & CHEESE CASTELLA CAKE
Makes an 8-inch cake
Level of difficulty: Intermediate
45g sunflower or corn oil
113g top flour, sifted
23g finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for sprinkling (try Perfect Italiano brand)
7 egg yolks (weighing 55g or 60g each in shell)
8 egg whites
¾ tsp cream of tartar
120g caster sugar
4 slices cheddar cheese
1 slice minced bak kwa, finely chopped
1. Cut out 4 pieces of cardboard to fit the sides of an 8-inch square baking tin. Wrap each piece tightly in foil, shiny side up.
2. Line baking tin with parchment paper taller than the height of the tin and cardboard.
3. Preheat oven to 150°C. Place a baking tray (that comes with the oven) on the lowest shelf. Place a metal rack that fits snugly atop the tray. Fill tray with boiling hot water till half full.
4. Heat milk in microwave oven for about 35 seconds, or till warm. Set aside.
5. Heat oil in microwave oven for about 60 seconds, till hot but not bubbling. Pour oil into a mixing bowl.
6. Add flour to the hot oil and whisk till the flour dissolves.
7. Add warm milk and grated parmesan cheese. Stir till cheese melts.
8. Add egg yolks and whisk till mixture is somewhat smooth. Set aside.
9. Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites on medium-low speed till slightly frothy. Add cream of tartar. Continue whisking at medium speed, till thick and foamy.
10. Gradually add sugar in 3 additions. Increase mixer to medium-high speed and whisk till the meringue just achieves firm peaks (it should curl slightly like a bird’s beak when the whisk is overturned).
11. Add 1/3 of meringue to the yolk mixture and fold with a whisk. Repeat with another 1/3 of the meringue.
12. Pour yolk batter into remaining meringue and fold again. Finish off by scraping bowl and folding with a spatula, till just evenly mixed. Work quickly and don’t over-mix, or you’ll deflate the egg whites.
13. Pour batter into the cake tin till it’s about 2/3 full.
14. Place sliced cheddar cheese on the batter.
15. Sprinkle half of the chopped bak kwa evenly. Top with remaining batter.
16. Jiggle tin to level batter, and smoothen top with a spatula. Tap tin against worktop to get rid of large air bubbles.
17. Lightly sprinkle grated parmesan cheese and the remaining bak kwa (you may not use all of it) on top.
18. Bake for 70 - 75 minutes, or until cake is golden-brown and springs back to the touch when gently prodded with your finger.
19. Remove cake from the oven and allow to cool for 3 - 5 minutes, on a rack.
20. Remove cardboard pieces. Remove cake from its tin, onto a cutting board.
21. Peel off parchment paper, slice and serve immediately.
This castella is best eaten warm. Store leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a day. Reheat leftovers in the microwave oven till cake is just warm and cheese softens.
Not a fan of bak kwa? Simply omit it — this recipe works well without it, too.