Category Archives: narcissism

The God of Cake: an interview with Ryan, baker extraordinaire

I’m setting out to make the most delicious Rice Krispy Treats the world has ever tasted. You can follow my pursuits at Treatified.

Why am I doing this, you might ask. For one, Rice Krispy Treats were my go-to for birthday gifts throughout high school and college, where I’d melt the butter and marshmallows in a microwave in my dorm room (it’s a miracle I never started a fire). I’m well out of school, but why stop now?

I also find myself constantly inspired by people who are virtuosos of specific kinds of food – Eric Ehler of Seoul Patch, who is a master of Korean-American fusion cuisine, and my friend Ryan, who bakes the most amazingly delicious and visually stunning cakes out of anyone I know. Case in point:

Ryan's Hyperbole and a Half Cakes

Ryan baked these two cakes for my roommate Anita’s birthday and decorated them with depictions of characters from Anita’s favorite online comic, Hyperbole and a Half. I was floored. Not only were the cakes impeccably beautiful (and so perfectly suited to the birthday girl), they also tasted like heaven. One was a maple walnut cake, chewy and nutty, and the other was a spiced cake, soft and fragrant.

Read on to find out how this unlikely baker learned his craft, and how he manages to concoct such delightful sweets even though he’s diabetic.

Jen: What’s the first thing you ever baked?

Ryan: It was probably something boring like yellow cake with buttercream frosting.

Jen: Since I’m a baking newbie, I already have a question about the basics: What makes a yellow cake yellow?

Ryan: It’s a combination of having butter and egg yolk. It’s harder to make a white cake because there’s not as much butter or egg yolk. I’m not sure I’ve even made a white cake from scratch before; it’s a more complicated recipe.

Jen: Is cake mix completely foreign to you because you’ve always made your own cakes?

Ryan: A friend of mine actually baked something from a mix one day, and I was like, “This actually turned out pretty good and it was a lot simpler…why I am spending all this time baking my own cakes?” I still prefer to have something homemade from scratch, especially if it’s for someone else. I try to do the best that I can when baking for others.

Jen: How did you learn about the techniques and sciences of baking?

Ryan: It was a combination of my mom telling me these things because she’s been baking cakes for so long. But also, someone can tell you to do it this way, and you say, oh, that makes sense, I’ll try that. You don’t really know until you don’t do it, and the result isn’t good, for example, “I mixed it too much, and it turned out too dry.” Sometimes I learned things from my mom, and other times, I learned from some sort of mistake that I remembered to fix next time.

Jen: Was there ever a time when you had an epiphany about baking tools or techniques?

Ryan: One of the biggest things was when I realized how big of a difference having good quality cake pans had in baking a cake. I was never that picky to begin with; when I was five, having a little bit of a dome on top was fine. However, layered cakes would always turn out a little odd. I was really glad when I finally found some good pans (unangled edges without nonstick coating). It’s kind of a hassle, but once you make that mistake and the cake turns out over-domed, you remember to do it right next time.

Jen: That’s definitely a good lesson! So it sounds like what you learned about cake pans was more of a trial-and-error thing rather than something you read about or talked to someone about?

Ryan: It sounds like trial-and-error, but my mom really did have a lot of influence. It would be the kind of think where I’d try something, and then it wouldn’t turn out quite right, so I’d call my mom, and she’d say, “Oh yeah, that’s happened to me before, and this is what I did for it.” It was really a combination of the two. If it’s something I’ve never done before, I’ll call her up ahead of time to get a few basic tips from her. For example, the pork buns I made – I’d never actually made bread before, so about an hour before I started making the bread, I called her and asked her how to make the bread just right. My mom’s experience helps a lot and having confidence helps too.

Jen: How did you come with the idea for making pork buns?

Ryan: I was making a lot of egg tarts for a while, and then I started thinking…what else do I love about dim sum? Pork buns! It’s not sweet, but it’s still a baked good. Someday, I want to learn how to make all my favorite things from dim sum, and have a big dim sum party at my place sometime.

Jen: What else would be at this party?

Ryan: Wonton wrappers with various fillings. I haven’t gotten around to actually planning everything yet.

Jen: How do you find recipes for all these different items? When you look for a recipe, are there triggers for what will turn out well?

Ryan: I just search on Google, and it’s hard to say how I find what looks like it will be good. I think both the pork buns and the egg tarts are from someone’s blog. I find that there are lots of people who want to do what I’m doing, and usually if you find someone’s blog, they say “I searched all the web, and here’s the one I found that is better than all the rest.” This seems a lot more reputable than just a random recipe posted online somewhere.

Jen: That’s a really good point – it seems a lot more curated when it’s on someone’s blog.

Ryan: Right – you actually get someone’s opinion on a recipe.

Jen: How did your mom learn how to bake? Is this knowledge something that’s been passed down for many generations in your family?

Ryan: The impression that I got is just that my mom has been baking for at least as long as I’ve been alive. She’s had a lot of time; she’s even more adventurous than I am about trying new things, so she learned mostly on her own. She’d watch TV shows that taught her how to bake things.

Jen: Which TV shows?

Ryan: Both of us like watching “Good Eats” a lot. So when we’re talking about cooking something, we’ll both reference stuff we saw on “Good Eats.” And it’s great because it’s a scientific approach to cooking. She’ll watch other stuff too, like Martha Stewart.

Jen: Speaking of the scientific approach, do you think that your engineering background has shaped the way you bake at all? Or is your baking hobby completely separate from your career in engineering?

Ryan: I like to think that baking is more scientific than cooking, but still, I don’t think of it as an engineering, especially when it comes to frosting and finishing. It’s sort of a nice break for me to get away from tough problem solving. I’m sure there is some influence of engineering in it. I’ve baked cakes enough times, so it comes sort of naturally. My mind almost turns off a lot of times I’m doing it. I bake pretty much when I want to relax. Although cleaning up the mess at the end stresses me out, so in the end, I’m not sure how much it really relaxes me. I’m not a super clean, organized baker, but the result is usually good enough.

Jen: What about ovens? How do you control for different oven settings, and what’s the difference between a convection oven and a regular oven? I feel like the more I read about it, the more confused I become.

Ryan: I’ve never had a convection oven, but from what I understand, a convection oven always blows
hot air, so it keeps the air more consistent, and it tends to bake things faster, so I have no idea how to adjust to that.

In terms of regular ovens, I just use trial and error. In theory you’re supposed to be putting a thermometer in the oven. What do now is keep a pizza stone in the oven. The pizza stone absorbs a lot of heat. It helps maintain a consistent temperature in the oven; without it, the oven gets hot and turns off; gets hot again, and turns off. That tip actually came out of a cake decorating class I took last November.

Jen: Interesting! I had no idea that pizza stones could do that. Where did you take the cake decorating class?

Ryan: It was at Michael’s. I happened to walk in one day to buy a cake box, and I saw that there was an ad for a class. And it was actually a really fun class! It was once a week for four weeks. Every class was two hours. We started out with basic tips for making a cake; then, we frosted cookies, learned the basics of the making the first cake layer, and made frosting flowers. We got to design our own cakes on the last day. I made a cake with a panda holding a flower.

Jen: I have heard that you make amazing panda cake pops.

Ryan: Yes, that was something I did at some point. My friend started telling me about something called cake pops, and she really thought that I should try making some. I got a book, but I didn’t really like any of the ideas I saw in the book, so I just took some leftover cake that I had, and crumbled it up into balls. I really like pandas, which are easy – just different layers of white and dark colors. The hardest part about the whole thing was getting people to eat them, because no one wanted to bite into a cute panda.


Jen: That’s exactly how we felt about Anita’s Hyperbole and a Half cake too!

Ryan: I’ve learned really think I should stop putting cute things on cakes; people just don’t want to eat them. Eating a flower is different, but eating something that is staring at you is kind of sad.

Jen: Do you have a favorite cake to bake? Your go-to thing?

Ryan: I do. The problem with having a favorite cake is that I tend to make it more often, so I kind of make too much of it. There’s a recipe I got from my mom called the perfect chocolate cake. It’s an amazingly good three-layer chocolate cake with a whipped cream filling and a chocolate ganache frosting on the outside. It’s a cake that my parents had several times when I was growing up. When I first learned that I could make it, and it wasn’t too hard to make, I made it over and over again. It’s still good, but I’ve almost gotten tired of it.

Jen: Is there anything you’ve aspired to bake but you haven’t gotten around to it yet?

Ryan: The one thing that I haven’t been able to make quite yet is the amazingly good strawberry pie that my mom made when I was growing up. I’ve tried making strawberry pies, and they never turn out anywhere near as good as hers. I really wish I could…I can never get the crust right, I never have enough strawberries, the filling’s just not quite right…I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. But nothing ever seems to be as good as the one that my mom made. The crust in particular is really hard to get right. I just really need to visit my parents and get an idea of how to make a good crust. I think it’s a good technique worth having.

Jen: As a diabetic, how do you reconcile your dietary restrictions with your passion to bake sweet things?

Ryan: I use an insulin pump, which is a very flexible way to manage diabetes. So long as I have a rough idea of how many carbohydrates I’m consuming and how it affects my glucose, I can just adjust my insulin pump. It’s not nearly as much of an issue as one might think. It doesn’t really affect me that much.

Jen: Any pieces of advice for someone who’s just starting out?

Ryan: Be fearless! I think what holds me back the most is just being unsure of myself to the point that I don’t do it. I hesitate. It’s good know that you’re going to have mistakes. The results are usually good enough anyways.

Ginger: My Mr. Darcy

I have many childhood memories of shoveling my mother’s homemade Korean food into my mouth until BAM: I hit a chunk of what I thought was a lovely water chestnut or bamboo shoot when in fact, it was a piece of ginger. Gross. No matter how much good food I ate after that, it seemed like I could never get the sting of ginger out of my system. By continually popping up in my mother’s otherwise delicious chicken soup and potstickers, ginger ruined many a childhood meal for me.

To be fair, ginger was far less intimidating and even inviting when ground up into a powder and mixed into sweet drinks and baked goods of the Western persuasion. Still, I stood by my opinion on ginger, even when gingery treats lured me outside my home. Whenever I was on the verge of enjoying a glass of ginger ale or a gingersnap cookie, the rebel inside me would exclaim, “No! I’m not supposed to like this…it’s the medicinal herb that Mom forces me to eat!”

Ginger finally wooed me in the form of the Dark and Stormy cocktail at Twenty-Five Lusk in San Francisco. This was my gateway drug to ginger: dark rum, lime, and ginger beer. The fizzy combination of sweet and spicy drowned out all echoes of my mother cajoling me to eat more potstickers. How had I thrived four years past the legal drinking age without discovering the Dark and Stormy?

Jen and Anita at Twenty-Five Lusk drinking the Dark and Stormy

My roommate Anita and I enjoying Dark and Stormies at Twenty-Five Lusk

Forget the cosmo – the Dark and Stormy is the truly cosmopolitan drink, with a history that spans generations and cultures. Ginger has its roots in Asia, having been used in Asian cuisine and medicine for over 5000 years. In 13th and 14th century England, ginger was so sought-after that a pound of it cost as much as a sheep. Thanks to the ginger plant’s affinity for the Caribbean climate, the Dark and Stormy has become regarded by many as the national cocktail of Bermuda. Lounging with my drink at Twenty-Five Lusk, I had no idea the brown liquid in my frosty glass had such a colorful history, but I knew for a fact that I was hooked on ginger from that moment on.

The Dark and Stormy is just the beginning of what’s possible with ginger-based beverages: Pimms cup (the drink of choice for English cricket matches and Wimbledon), Moscow Mule (dark and stormy with vodka instead of rum), cider-based drinks, spicy mulled wine. All these would make for a rousing house party.

I’m still not a fan of finding large chunks of ginger in savory dishes, but I now love anything flavored with ginger juice, and I can eat ginger candies, cookies, and cakes by the bucketful (arguably not a good thing; I try to focus on the health benefits of ginger). A true chameleon, ginger is as complementary to garlic as it is to vanilla. A pinch of ginger can enhance foods as different as fried chicken, pumpkin pie, agedashi tofu (a savory Japanese fried tofu dish), and yes, even my mother’s potstickers. By learning to like ginger, I know I’m giving my parents some degree of satisfaction, but I relish the fact that it took an alcoholic beverage to awaken my inner ginger beast. I’m sticking to my subversive guns.

Dark and Stormy
Recipe and photo courtesy of Esquire

2 ounces dark rum (Gosling’s Black Label if possible, but any dark spiced rum will do)
3 ounces ginger beer (for sufficient spiciness, make sure it’s ginger beer and not ginger ale)
1/2 ounce lime juice (optional)

Combine the rum, ginger beer, and lime juice in a tall glass full of ice cubes. Stir.

Apparently, it’s an American thing to add lime – no Bermudian would dare add it to their Dark and Stormy. Like a true American, I prefer mine with lime.

Why I love japchae

Ready to nosh on japchae I made with my mom.


For Mother’s Day, an homage to my mother’s japchae, with a recipe:

In my book, no celebration is complete without japchae, a Korean stir-fried noodle and vegetable dish. According to Korean tradition, you’re supposed to eat noodles on your birthday because the long, continuous shape is associated with a long life.  My mom’s japchae is extraordinarily tasty, so it has become my family’s noodle of choice for birthdays and special occasions. Famous for their length, japchae noodles have extended into all my life’s formative stages, and they continue to connect me back to my Korean heritage, even as I feel myself becoming more and more American.

The first vivid memory I have of japchae is from my younger sister Christina’s doljanchi (an elaborate traditional first birthday celebration). For a brief moment, she looked elegant and regal in her colorful striped hanbok (traditional Korean dress), sitting behind a table of delicately stacked rice cakes, fruits, and side dishes. But within seconds of being seated, Christina proceeded to roll up her sleeves, crawl onto the table, grab fistfuls of japchae, and stuff her face. As the noodles slid down her chin and onto her hanbok, the guests roared with laughter. Even at the age of one, Christina understood that it was worth looking ridiculous in order to enjoy my mom’s japchae.

Fast forward a few years, and my pimply twelve-year-old self was in the kitchen with omma (my mom), watching her make japchae. She used seven main ingredients: dangmyeon (sweet potato noodles), green bell peppers, onions, garlic, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and beef, cutting out the spinach and excess sugar that ruins restaurant japchae. Once each ingredient was properly cooked and seasoned, she’d mix them together by hand, wearing loose plastic gloves to protect her soft skin from the smelly onions and garlic. To save time, she conducted all taste tests by scooping up some of the japchae with her gloved hand and holding it in the air expectantly. “Try this, and tell me if you think it needs more soy sauce,” she’d say. If I scrambled to find chopsticks, she’d get impatient. “Just eat it out of my hand!” I’d do so begrudgingly, getting sesame oil all over my blemished chin and realizing that I’d be in for another fresh crop of chin acne the next morning. It was worth it though. The japchae was irresistible: chewy noodles, flavorful mushrooms, tender vegetables, and fragrant sesame. Like Christina at her doljanchi, I was willing to look ridiculous (acne is pretty traumatic for a seventh grader) after I’d had the privilege of tasting a handful of omma’s japchae.

Japchae continues to make me look ridiculous to this day. When I set out to make japchae for this blog post, I found myself with no plastic gloves for proper hand-mixing; heck, I didn’t even own a single set of chopsticks. What kind of Korean was I? Who did I think I was, trying to cook japchae out of my decidedly gringo kitchen? It wasn’t easy, but I did it. Chopping the bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms took forever. Even with the expertise of instructional videos from YouTube, my vegetable pieces ended up clumsy and inconsistent (thank goodness the grocery store sold pre-shredded carrots). Mindful of vegans (in actuality, feeling lazy and exhausted), I skipped the beef. Mixing the noodles and vegetables with a fork was like torture: it took all my upper and lower body strength to evenly incorporate the soy sauce and sesame oil-based marinade into the noodle and vegetable mixture. As I struggled to stir, I tried to compensate for my lack of upper-body muscle with exaggerated arm movements a la David Brent’s fusion of Flashdance and MC Hammer from the BBC’s The Office. Again, I looked ridiculous.

Japchae I made on my own. Note the pitifully chopped vegetables.

I started thinking: how does omma make this look so easy? Well, she’s been doing this for longer than I’ve been alive, and per her own words, “Korean housewifery is my major.” Of course, this is a figure of speech: she graduated from Ewha University in South Korea with a degree in mathematics and had aspirations of teaching. But when my father’s software engineering career brought her to the United States, she found herself faced with an enormous language barrier and refocused her efforts to homemaking. My birth solidified her position in the family as the master of all things home-related. In the kitchen, she barely even needs a cutting board anymore, and she can cook anything from the familiar japchae to lasagna, which bears zero resemblance to anything remotely Korean.

Unlike omma, I fully intend to stay in the country of my native tongue and pursue a career outside the home. This is what she wants for me as well: as much as she’s enjoyed taking care of her home and her family, she often speaks wistfully of how nice it would be to have more independence and a source of income outside of my dad’s. I look forward to having a degree of independence that my mother doesn’t have, but I know that my japchae (or anything else that I cook, for that matter) will never be as good as hers.

Or maybe it will be, if I can just position myself in the right industry, per the history of japchae. A liege named Yi Chung first created japchae in the early 17th century at a party for King Gwanghaegun. The king liked the dish so much that he promoted Yi Chung to the position of Secretary of the Treasury. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work like that anymore; no matter how delectable my japchae becomes, it probably won’t get me promoted in my current Silicon Valley tech job. But that’s not going to stop me from trying to live up to omma’s japchae greatness, no matter how ridiculous I look in the process.


Omma’s Japchae

Ingredients:

  • Starch noodles (“dangmyun”)
  • 150 grams of beef
  • 1 medium size carrot
  • 1 medium green pepper
  • 1 medium size onion
  • 5 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • soy sauce, salt, sesame oil, sugar

Makes 4 servings.

How to prepare your ingredients before stir frying:

  1. Soak 5 dried shiitake mushrooms in warm water for a few hours until they become soft. Squeeze the water out of them and slice thinly.
  2. Cut the carrot and bell pepper into thin matchstick-shaped pieces 5 cm long.
  3. Slice one onion thinly.
  4. Slice 150 grams of beef into thin strips.

How to stir-fry:

  1. Boil 2 bunches of noodles in boiling water in a big pot for about 3 minutes. When the noodles are soft, drain them and put in a large bowl.
  2. Cut the noodles several times by using scissors and add 1 tbs of soy sauce and 1 tbs of sesame oil. Mix it up and set aside.
  3. Add ½ tbs soy sauce and ½ tbs sesame oil and mix it and place it onto the large bowl.
  4. On a heated pan, put a few drops of vegetable oil, a few shakes of salt, and your carrot strips. Stir with a spatula for 30 seconds. Put it into the large bowl.
  5. Place a few drops of vegetable oil on the pan and add your sliced onion. Add a few shakes of salt. Stir it until the onion looks translucent. Put it into the large bowl with your carrots.
  6. Place a few drops of vegetable oil on the pan and add your beef strips and your sliced shiitake mushrooms. Stir it until it’s cooked well, then add 3 cloves of minced garlic, ½ tbs soy sauce, and a pinch of sugar. Stir for another 30 seconds and then put it into the large bowl.
  7. Add 2 tbs of soy sauce and 2 tbs of sesame oil to the large bowl. Mix all ingredients.

Meals 107: Remembering my grandparents

portraits of Jen Lee's grandparents

Portraits of my grandparents, and the meal we offered to them

My dad was only ten years old when his father passed away. His mother, on the other hand, saw him through college, marriage, and the birth of his first child (thaaaat’s me!). Healthy as a horse, she was constantly cooking, shopping, traveling, nagging, pinching our cheeks. I thought she would outlive all of us.

Incense for Korean death anniversary ceremony

My dad preparing the incense

My grandparents passed away on the same day in late January, but forty years apart. Every year, we commemorate my grandparents’ death anniversary with a small ceremony at home. My dad prepares a speech with family updates, and my mom cooks up edible spiritual offerings, which we eat after the ceremony. The ceremony evolves a bit each time – for example, accordingly to tradition, we’re not supposed to offer pork to the spirits, but this year, my dad insisted that we serve sam gyup sal (Korean pork belly meat – see my previous post for a picture) to my grandfather, as it was one of his favorite foods. I can only wonder how my sister and I will adopt this tradition when we’re old enough to be concerned with commemorating death anniversaries.

I love reconnecting with my Korean roots at the end of the day, even though I consider myself first and foremost American.

breakfast with salad and cereal

Breakfast: Salad, Puffins cereal with soymilk

CL3 ham and cheese sandwiches, salad, broccoli

Lunch: Ham and cheese sandwich corners, broccoli, mixed greens

dinner with fish, sam gyup sal, seaweed soup, kimchi

Dinner: Pan-fried fish, sam gyup sal (pork belly), seaweed soup, kimchi

Dessert: Gigantic strawberries

My mom, admiring the strawberry

Meals 102: Sightglass Coffee + Nicholas Kristof

I went to Sightglass Coffee for breakfast and ran into Daniel, the barista who put Bitter+Sweet on the map with his red velvet latte. It was serendipitous because I was in the middle of telling Anita and Karen that Sightglass Coffee is served at Bitter+Sweet, which prompted Daniel to exclaim, “THAT’s why you look so familiar!” Now that I’m no longer living in SF, Bitter+Sweet (in Cupertino) is where I get my Humphry Slocombe ice cream fix, and I guess I’m there often enough that the staff can recognize me, even outside their shop.

In the evening, I went to a talk at Stanford by Nicholas Kristof, columnist for the New York Times, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of Half the Sky. His work is centered around human rights abuses, and for this event, he focused on oppression against women. His speech was moving and empowering: Kristof broke down the looming problem of gender oppression into tangible issues that ordinary citizens like me can relate to and help resolve. An act as simple as providing menstrual pads for girls and women in developing countries has the potential to help them stay in school – currently, many of them opt to stay at home during periods because of inadequate sanitary protection, and they fall behind in classes as a result. At the same time, the act of giving someone a pad may sound simple, but building a sustainable supply chain of pads in a developing country is no small task – there are innumerable logistical and political hurdles. Admirably, organizations like Sustainable Health Enterprises are working hard to solve this very problem. More comfortable periods = more girls with consistent class attendance. And education – not condoms or pills – is the best long-term birth control solution, according to Kristof. I’ve never thought about girls’ education this way, but it totally makes sense. Like other women in developed countries, I’m too quick to take something like menstrual pads for granted.

I felt silly and frivolous eating colorful chewy macarons after such a moral imperative-inspiring event. But I can’t deny that they were delicious.

Ginger scone and Colombian coffee from Sightglass Coffee

Breakfast from Sightglass Coffee: Ginger scone and Colombian coffee

Chicken salad from Shana Thai

Linner from Shana Thai: Chicken satay salad

Pistachio, rose, chocolate cherry, green tea, and cassis macarons

Dessert: Pistachio, rose, chocolate cherry, green tea, and cassis macarons