Yup, it's cooked!
At this point, other people would proceed with steaming the second layer, but not me.
Snip, snip, went my scissors, then I popped a small piece of single-layer kueh lapis in my mouth.
Ouch, ouch, it's hot . . . . Mmm, not bad!
The recipe was from Cooking for the President, which has become my go-to cookbook when I need help with local recipes.
After making sure the kueh lapis wasn't too hard, too soft, too sweet, too lemak, or too bland, I steamed the second layer, then third, fourth . . . .
Uh oh, problem!
Each layer took five minutes to cook, leaving me idle inbetween after I cleaned up the kitchen as much as possible. I got bored, so I kept lifting the lid on the steamer to have a peek, and poke the kueh a bit.
The kueh lapis was a flop. The layers didn't stick together and each one, except the bottommost, was hard at the bottom. I threw away the kueh, reread the recipe, and realized I made two mistakes.
First, the kueh cooled down a bit whilst I was peeking and prodding. When that happened, the top surface lost its stickiness, so it couldn't stick to the next layer. No peeking, in other words, or at least peek and then reheat the steamer thoroughly, before making the next layer.
Second, the layers I made were too thick. As a result, they took too long to cook, staying liquid long enough for the rice flour in the batter to sink and form a hard bottom for each layer, except the bottommost. Why was the first layer spared? Because it didn't have any cooked layers at the bottom, acting as a heat shield, so it thickened and cooked through more quickly.
Kueh lapis, take two: I followed the recipe exactly, and got myself something to read whilst each layer was being steamed. This time, I had a taste only after all nine layers were done.
Piping hot and soft, the kueh lapis seemed like a great success. Once it was cold, however, two problems were apparent. First, it didn't have the stretchy, elastic texture it had before it cooled down. Second, the layers weren't sticking together properly – again.
Kueh lapis, take three: The recipe specified 80% tapioca flour, which stretches like Elastigirl after it's steamed, and 20% rice flour which doesn't. For the third attempt, I omitted the rice flour and used only tapioca flour. And when I topped up the steamer, I added boiling water from the kettle, after the previous layer of batter was cooked. I then let the steamer heat back to a rolling boil before making the next layer.
In take two, I added batter and topped up the steamer at the same time. Even though I used almost boiling water, the steamer stopped boiling for maybe 20 seconds. That was enough to make the layers separate.
Why didn't I put lots of water in the steamer so that no topping up was necessary? Because the pan for the kueh, before it had enough batter to weigh it down, would bob up and down if the bubbling water was too high. Lastly, I steamed each layer a little thicker than in take two – 3 mm instead of 2 mm – because the pesky rice flour was out of the way.
With the three amendments, my kueh lapis finally had nicely formed layers and the right texture. This time, I gave it several hours to cool down and set before having a piece.
Kueh lapis, take four . . . . Hang on, wasn't take three just about perfect in every way? Um, no. I used a brand of tapioca flour which I'd never tried before. The kueh lapis made with the flour left a chemical aftertaste and dryness in my mouth. It was so bad that after eating one piece, I threw away the rest of the kueh. I also binned the remaining flour and went back to the brand I'd been using before. This one was bleached, like the one I chucked. But, maybe because the bleach used wasn't as strong, the chemical taste was quite mild. I could detect it but that was because I was looking for it after the bad experience. I hadn't noticed it previously, to be honest.
I can finally make kueh lapis that I'm quite happy with. Gonna die in peace now . . . . Just kidding.
If there's a take five, I'll try replacing the tapioca flour with unbleached sago flour that is, I hope, completely free of chemicals. But it's not happening any time soon 'cause I've got kueh lapis coming out of my ears!
Kueh lapis usually comes in rainbow hues of bright red and green. Like the proverbial rainbow, the colourful Nyonya kueh hides a pot of gold. Unfortunately, it's not gold that glitters. Instead, it's black gold because more often than not the colours are man-made. Artificial green food colouring has tartrazine, whilst red has ponceau 4R. These wonderful chemicals are refined from coal, and they're dissolved in propylene which is refined from petroleum.
Petroleum and coal, or bunga telang? I'll take the organic and FOC blue pea flowers, thank you.
31 October 2012 Update
My step-by-step video:
|KUEH LAPIS (九层糕)|
Source: Adapted from Cooking for the President
(Recipe for 10 pieces)
4 pandan leaves, wash and cut 10 cm long
185 g sugar
⅓ tsp salt
400 ml freshly squeezed coconut milk, undiluted
200 g tapioca starch
50 fresh bunga telang (blue pea flowers)
rinse gently and remove ants if any; drain, then blot gently with paper towels1 piece parchment paper, 15 x 15 cm
Pound flowers finely. Strain to yield 2-3 tsp juice. Set aside. Discard pulp.
In a small pot, make pandan water by gently simmering pandan leaves for 5 minutes, covered, in just enough water to cover. Discard leaves. Measure 160 ml from the pandan water and discard excess, or top up with water as necessary if you're short. Put pandan water back in the pot, along with sugar and salt. Stir till salt and sugar dissolve, over low heat if you like. Add coconut milk and stir till even. Add tapioca starch and mix thoroughly. Strain into a mixing bowl. Push undissolved starch through strainer.
Measure 270 ml from the batter. Add flower juice. Stir till colour is even.
Bring kettle to the boil and set aside.
Rinse 15-cm square cake tin to make it wet. Line bottom with parchment paper. Bring steamer to a rolling boil. Pour enough white batter into cake tin to form a layer 3 mm thick, about 100 ml. Place tin in steamer. Steam 5 minutes over rapidly boiling water. Steam another layer of white, then blue. Repeat the white-white-blue sequence twice, making 9 layers in total. Other than the first one, each layer needs about 90 ml batter. Stir batter to mix starch evenly before measuring each round of batter. Have measured batter ready before lifting lid on steamer. Once lid is removed, quickly pour batter into cake tin and cover steamer. Every layer is steamed 5 minutes except the topmost, which gets 10 minutes.
Make sure steamer doesn't boil dry. To top up steamer: 1) wait till previous layer of batter is cooked; 2) reboil water in kettle; 3) add boiling water to steamer as necessary; 4) bring steamer back to a rolling boil, covered. After step 4, proceed to steam more layers as described above.
When all 9 layers are done, remove kueh lapis to a wire rack to cool down completely and set, about 3 hours.
To unmould kueh, loosen edges with a knife. Cover top of kueh with parchment paper to keep it clean, then turn cake tin upside down and knock firmly against chopping board till kueh falls out. Discard top piece of parchment paper. Cut kueh by pressing knife downward, i.e. do not saw. Discard bottom piece of parchment paper.
Serve kueh lapis as a dessert, snack, or for tea. Leftovers should be refrigerated. Steam on a perforated tray till just heated through, then cool to room temperature before eating.
To best enjoy kueh lapis, you should peel off a layer, tilt your head back, say 'Aaah!', and then pop the layer in your mouth. If no one is looking, let the kueh lapis hang from your mouth for a few seconds so you look like you've got a very long tongue. Shake your head to make the tongue flop from side to side before enjoying the chewy texture and coconut fragrance.