Baking cakes to relax

His love of baking driven by his passion for cake, Reuben Yuvaraj, 33, is a self-taught baker with an adventurous streak when it comes to flavours - and an uncanny knack for spot-on combinations.

His daydreams are laced with lychee and roses, saffron, mango and watermelon. It's a handy way to keep awake during boring meetings, too.

But what drives him more than anything else is simply the desire to actually enjoy cake.

"I'll only bake cakes I like, and I don't like sponge cakes, so you will never find one in my oven," he says. "What I like are custardy, creamy, rich desserts. I do make cookies for Christmas, and at festive occasions, but that's really only if I have the family around to help."

Reuben only started baking when he was 20, just before he went to university in Perth, Australia.

"I had a three-month holiday, and one day I wanted cake… I told my mum that, and she said 'ok, then you bake one'!" says Reuben.

One car ride to the nearest MPH later, and Reuben was the proud owner of Crazy for Chocolate, his very first cookbook.

"Wait, I think I still have it somewhere," he says. Five minutes later, he's back at the dining table we're chatting over, brushing the light smattering of dust from its cover.

"This was the first cake I ever made," he says, his finger on a recipe for Ultra Choc-Chip Cake. "And it actually turned out so well!"

The validation couldn't have come at a better time.

"This happened at a time that I was kind of doubting my abilities, wondering what I was good at - if I was good at anything. And then I realised that maybe this was it, here was a talent I had," he says.

"Growing up, my older sister and I were very competitive with each other. She's really artistic - but she can't cook. So here's something I could do!

Reuben soon moved on to more difficult, technical and detail-oriented recipes. "I really liked making Nigella Lawson's chocolate mousse - that's my girl right there, a true domestic goddess!

"And when I finally got to Australia, it was easy to get the ingredients that you couldn't get here at that time - things like double cream and gelatin leaves, and really good quality chocolate."

By the time he came back, Reuben had honed his skills with the basic cakes - butter, carrot, chocolate, etc. Whispers of his kitchen skills had curled out, tendril-like, to family and friends, and he soon found himself with cake orders on his hands, too.

After a while, the burgeoning cookbook collection found itself neglected. "Once you get used to baking, you work with ratios rather than following recipes strictly," he says.

"I know a lot of people say baking is a science, and that's true to an extent, but I don't follow recipes exactly."

He's averse to doing things that he sees no real reason for.

"For instance, when I'm making a ganache, I don't find it necessary to use cream, since milk works just fine. And I don't use a water bath for a baked cheesecake, as per many recipes, but that also works just as well."

On the other hand, when something requires more work but it gets a better result, Reuben is all up for that - like frying the fresh coconut for his Mango Coconut Cheesecake, rather than just using desiccated.

"It makes the coconut more fragrant, and you get the oil out to help bind the base," he says. "By the way, that recipe was inspired by a holiday in Thailand. I was thinking about how I could turn the mango and sticky rice dessert into a cake."

"I never went for baking classes or anything, but I did learn from my friends' mothers, things like how to make buttercream - because my mother is a fantastic cook, but she doesn't really bake."

His mother's formidable cooking skills are also the reason Reuben doesn't really cook, as much as he enjoys it - baking was the un-filled niche in the family kitchen, and he's more than filled it.

"Of course, I did cook when I went overseas to study, simple things like pasta - but spiked with cumin and chilli powder. Just being in the kitchen was a way to keep my mum close to me, when I was homesick."

Reuben has a few emergency cake recipes he keeps on hand, to whip up any time someone calls unexpectedly and says they'll be coming to visit - these include a soft-centred chocolate cake and a deconstructed apple crumble.

"All my emergency cakes take 30 minutes or less," he says.

Baking is therapeutic, too. "Any time I have a bad day, I go to the kitchen to bake - or eat something I've already baked!"

SAFFRON CUPCAKES WITH ORANGE BUTTER FROSTING

Photo: The Star/ANN

Cupcakes (all at room temperature)

1 tsp saffron

2/3 cup hot full cream milk

1½ cups self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

250g butter

1 cup caster sugar

4 eggs

Lime curd

1 cup lime juice

1 cup sugar

3 limes, zested

2 eggs

3 egg yolks

Frosting ingredients (all at room temperature)

1 cup butter

1/2 orange, juiced

1 orange, zested

1 tsp vanilla extract

3 cups icing sugar, sifted

To make cupcakes

Preheat oven to 180°C. Soak saffron in hot milk, and set aside to cool. Sift flour and baking powder together and set aside in a bowl.

In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar together till light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, and continue to beat till well incorporated.

Pour in half the cooled saffron milk, and continue beating till combined.

Fold in half the sifted flour, then fold in the remaining saffron milk. Fold in remaining flour till batter is well combined. Do not overmix. Spoon batter into cupcake cases to a little more than half full.

Bake for 20 minutes, remove from oven and allow to cool on a wire rack.

To make lime curd

Place lime juice, sugar and zest in a saucepan over low heat; stir till sugar has dissolved.

Separately, whisk eggs and egg yolks well. Vigorously whisk half the hot lime syrup into the egg mixture. Once tempered, pour mixture into the remaining lime syrup and stir continuously till thick (about 2 minutes).

Strain the mixture and allow to cool.

To make frosting

Using an electric mixer, cream butter and orange juice till combined. Add in 1 cup icing sugar and continue beating.

Once incorporated, keep beating the mixture while adding in orange zest and vanilla extract. Continue adding icing sugar till the frosting gets to a piping consistency. You may not need all three cups.

To assemble

Fill the lime curd into a piping bag fitted with a nozzle. Insert the nozzle into the centre of each cupcake and pipe some lime curd into the centre. Frost the cupcakes.

MANGO COCONUT CHEESECAKE

Photo: The Star/ANN

Base

2/3 cup butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup digestive biscuit crumbs

1/2 cup wafer crumbs

1½ cups shredded coconut, toasted in a pan

1/2 tsp salt

Filling

680g cream cheese, at room temperature

3/4 cup caster sugar

1 cup coconut milk

4 eggs

1 lemon, juiced

Topping

2 large mangoes, skinned and diced

2 limes, juiced

2 tbsp caster sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

For the base

Preheat oven to 160°C. Line the outside of a 23cm (9-inch) springform pan with aluminium foil.

Melt butter and sugar in a saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring till it has the consistency of a caramel sauce.

Add in the digestive biscuit and wafer crumbs, shredded coconut and salt, and mix quickly till well-combined. It should be able to hold its shape when pressed together - if not, add more butter, a little at a time, until it holds.

Press the crumb mixture into your springform pan, going all the way up the sides and leaving a hollow in the middle.

For the filling

Using an electric mixer (or a wooden spoon), beat cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Add coconut milk and continue beating till well-incorporated.

Beat in eggs, one at a time, till just combined. Do not overmix. Pour in lemon juice and beat lightly.

Pour the filling into the prepared crust - don't worry if the filling goes higher than the crust.

Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes, till the filling is set with just a slight wobble in the centre. If top of the cake is browning too much, cover with aluminium foil.

Once done, remove from oven but leave cake in the pan to cool completely. Refrigerate overnight.

Run a knife around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake.

To make topping

Toss all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl and allow to sit for about 1 hour.

To assemble

Remove cake from the pan, add the topping, cut and serve.

CAYENNE AND CINNAMON SPICED CHOCOLATE CAKE

Photo: The Star/ANN

Cake

1 cup plain flour

1/2 cup cocoa powder

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

2 tsp cayenne pepper

2 tsp cinnamon powder

1 cup caster sugar

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 eggs

1/2 cup boiling water

Biscuit Topping

1/2 cup crushed digestive biscuits

1/2 cup wafer crumbs

2 tbsp sugar

1tsp salt

100g butter

Ganache

3 tbsp milk

150g dark chocolate, chopped

To make the cake

Preheat oven to 180°C. Line a 23cm (9-inch) cake pan with baking parchment.

Using an electric mixer or whisk, combine flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and soda, cayenne pepper and cinnamon powders and caster sugar in a large mixing bowl.

Add the vegetable oil, milk, vanilla and eggs and beat till smooth.

When the mixture is smooth, continue beating and add boiling water in a steady trickle till mixture is smooth but runny.

Pour the cake batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes.

Pierce the centre with a skewer - if it comes out clean, it's done. If not, continue baking and check at 5-minute intervals.

Remove from oven, and let the cake cool in the pan for about 15 minutes. Remove from the pan and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

To make biscuit topping

Combine all the ingredients and toss in a pan over medium heat till the mixture browns and has a sandy, crumbly consistency.

To make ganache

Heat milk in a bowl to a gentle simmer. Remove from heat, add in the chocolate and set aside for 1 minute; stir.

To assemble

Immediately pour the ganache over the cake. Use a spatula to smoothen the top and sides. Sprinkle the biscuit topping around the base and on top.