By Robyn Eckhardt
Here in the Klang Valley it’s a lot harder to stick to a diet than it used to be. Twenty years ago players on the dessert scene pretty much consisted of kuih muih and Indian sweets makers, with the other butter cake bakers. Even eight years ago, ‘there wasn’t much going on, really no standalone dessert shops,’ recalls Nigel Skelchy, co-owner of Just Heavenly and Pleasures, the specialoccasion cake company’s Plaza Damas takeaway outlet. ‘Alexis was the prime mover, there was Secret Recipe, and then you had hotel desserts in the fi ne French cuisine mould.’
My, how times have changed. These days you can’t walk half a block without being beckoned by a pyramid of prettily frosted cupcakes, bumping up against a fudgy wedge of mud pie, or getting splashed by a chocolate fountain. The Valley’s yen for sweets is insatiable, and every other week it seems, a new outlet pops up to cater to it. Malaysians may not have been born with pudding spoons in their mouths, but they’ve taken to Western-style desserts with a vengeance.
After devoting several weekends to a survey of the Kuala Lumpur sweet treats landscape (reader, be advised:this investigation has been by no means exhaustive; I would have risked falling into a diabetic coma had I attempted to mount a full assault on every sinful dessert sold in our fair city) I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to our dessert scene, the lay of the land can be summarised thusly: chocolate, cheese, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, and chocolate. Cacao may be native to Latin America, the Swiss may be master chocolate makers,and Hershey (Pennsylvania) may smell like the inside of a chocolate bar wrapper, but when it comes to a frenzied appreciation for the chock-full-of-anti-oxidants black gold, nobody but nobody beats Malaysians.
But let’s save the best for last, shall we? First up is bananas, another naturally good-for-you foodstuff that’s been combined with variations on the caramel theme and transformed, by local dessert masters, into something to eat with a tremendous load of guilt on your shoulders. I have no idea what ‘banoffee’ means (banana and coffee? Banana and toffee? Coffee-flavoured toffee and bananas?), but since touching down on KL terra fi rma it’s spread like a contagion. When it’s good, it’s very good. Take Bisou’s ethereal banoffee pie, for instance. I know that charming little bake shop on Heritage Row serves oodles of other sugary items, but every time I walk in the place I only have eyes for its swoon-worthy banoffee pie, comprised of caramel-encased banana slices on a Digestive base topped with layers of dark fudgy chocolate and cool espresso mousse. In other hands, however, banoffee doesn’t always fair well. Marmalade’s banoffee cheesecake, while chock full of the fruit and plenty cheesy enough, arrives marooned in a puddle of saccharine sweet butterscotch. And while Delicious’ banoffee piefor-one is cute as can be, with its little banana logs neatly stacked on a layer of dark chocolate in a biscuit crust, the pool of toffee sauce it fl oats in is woefully lacking in the sort of caramelised sugar fl avour that should characterise anything claiming to be of the toffee genus. If it’s something made of the monkey’s favourite snack that you seek at this restaurant, better to stick with the banana pudding, which is really more of a very moist cake. Boasting lots of banana fl avour, it’s served warm with vanilla ice cream and a bowl of that regrettable toffee sauce, which can safely be ignored.
Let’s not dwell on Delicious’ sauce though, because it does rather better
with its chocolate pavlova, all crunchy meringue hiding a chocolate centre crowned with whipped cream and berries. This homely Aussie favourite is so light and fresh tasting I could almost delude myself into believing it’s good for me. Almost. Ditto Delicious’ lemon meringue pie (for amateur bakers an airy-not-rubbery meringue is notoriously diffi cult to master; someday I’ll tell you about the time my mother chucked a failed attempt at meringue into a running garbage disposal and it bounced out). While I can’t say I love its pale, crumbly crust that’s a smidge too thick, the lemon curd (which is really the star of the show anyway, as far as I’m concerned) has got plenty of pucker, an attribute you won’t come across too often when traversing the KL sweets terrain.
Home-style desserts, in fact, seem to be increasingly popular. Perhaps it’s a rejoinder to the local dessert industry’s early-days fascination with fancy pastries, but more and more shops are Offering the sort of sweets your grandmother might whip up, if she were Betty Crocker. There’s Marmalade’s steamed orange ginger cake, which is pretty to look at and nicely fragrant with orange zest, but lamentably dry. The outlet redeems itself though with an old fashioned carrot cake to die for. Served in stately wedges, its gingerhued layers, separated by cream cheese frosting, scattered with pumpkin seeds and crowned with a small mound of bittersweet marmalade-d orange peel slivers, it’s subtly spiced, exceedingly moist, and not too sweet. Red velvet cake is a legendary American creation whose pleasingly moist crumb is variously attributed to odd ingredients like mayonnaise and tomato juice. The version sold by Pleasures incorporates nothing so strange; it’s simply a delicious light chocolate-enriched sponge (tinted red with food colouring) iced with properly tart cream cheese frosting. (Take note: store this scarlet treasure in the fridge, but serve at room temperature or risk drying out the sponge) The same outfi t dishes up a Madeira sponge that, sheathed in its crinkled paper cup and sporting a ruby red raspberry coulis, looks much too elegant to be down-home in taste, but the light-of-crumb cake and fresh tasting coulis remind me of raspberry shortcake at the height of a Midwestern American summer. And desserts really don’t get much more gramma-style than The Pink Sage’s single-layer blond cake sporting a wonderfully tart lemon rind-fl ecked glaze.
Cheese and chocolate have already made brief appearances in this round up of where to get your cavities on in KL, so we might as well jump in with both feet. I’ve asked around, yet to date no Malaysian has been able to account for the local fascination with cheesecake and tiramisu. They’re everywhere, in all forms. La Manila combines the two in a tiramisu cheesecake. While its strong coffee flavour is a plus in my book,the slabs of butter cake or lady fi ngers embedded in the cheesecake left me cold. A better variation on the theme is Alexis’ tiramisu cake. Just ignore the pool of strawberry coulis it’s served in and concentrate on the fl uffy layers of cognac-soaked sponge studded with shards of dark chocolate and crowned with nutty praline. But don’t dally with this refrigerated dessert if you’re sitting at an outdoor table; several minutes after being laid before me it began to sag and slump in the heat. Alexis should serve that strawberry coulis, by the way, with its strawberry mascarpone instead. The über creamy wedge of kind-of cheesecake isn’t quite as tangy as one might hope but is probably a good choice for those who shy away from full-on cheesecakey tartness.
When it comes to expertly balancing sweet and sour, Pleasures does a little single-serving lemon passion cheese (baked lemon cheesecake with passion fruit coulis) that, especially when compared to many other cheesecake derivatives in town, really hits high notes. It’s all at once sweet and tart, lush and light, small but satisfying. Marmalade’s Oreo cheesecake is really more chocoholic than cheesecakeaholicfriendly, sporting, as it does, a chocolate biscuit crust, Oreo halves decoratively arranged on its surface, and lashings of chocolate sauce. It may take you a while to come down from the sugar high you’ll get from ingesting this exercise in excess. A more restrained cheese and chocolate combination can be found in Pleasures’ aptly named ‘cheese and choc’.
Judging by the number of ‘Death By’ desserts out there, many Malaysians would love nothing more than to overdose on chocolate. In the course of my investigation I nearly did, so difficult is it to avoid when sampling the wares of local bakeshops. ‘Chocolate and chocolate variants are our biggest sellers,’ says Pleasures’ Nigel, and top of the tops is its opulent chocolate ganacheglazed, chocolate sponge-encased coffee chocolate mousse. Death By Chocolate indeed. At the other end of the scale is Alexis’ understated steamed chocolate pudding, a dense but very lightly sweetened cake with a discreet chocolate flavour that doesn’t hit you over the head and scream ‘Chocolate Bomb!’ Forgo the ice cream it’s usually served with and ask for a pitcher of pouring cream instead.
It was perhaps inevitable that, given the local love for both chocolate and the King of Fruits, the two would eventually be married in a dessert. Durian cream puffs abound in this town (I quite like the sumptuous mini puffs sold at a little outfi t in Chinatown called Happy Meal Trading; they’re made with real cream and boast a high stink factor), but I predict the coming year will see an explosion of durian-chocolate creations. For now, however, in the Chocolate-and-King of Fruits sweepstakes the prize must be awarded to Pleasures, for its chocolateglazed chocolate sponge fi lled with fresh durian, boiled with a little cream. Inspired by a chocolate-and-chilli dessert that Just Heavenly’s Nigel and his partner Allan Yap shared at a hotel dining outlet, this opulent treat should be declared a national treasure. Don’t like durian? You don’t know what you’re missing.