Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Baking

When I went to the Peranakan Museum after Hungrygowhere's Big Eat Out, I spotted something in the "Junk to Jewels" exhibition which I did not come across in my first, rather rushed visit to the Museum. It was a nonya's recipe book - not a published cookbook but a series of recipes which she had collected and copied into an exercise book. The originators of the recipes were also faithfully recorded as well, eg "Mrs X's Fried Chicken".

I smiled when I saw that because it reminded me of my mother's well-worn "Mrs Handy's Cookbook" (2nd Edition). These cookbooks probably started off the same way, when women recorded their favourite recipes in exercise books together with the source of the recipe. Finally, of course Mrs Handy published her cookbook with its references to "Kwa's layer cake" (for eg). These cookbooks also had no photos at all (hard to imagine today), and empty pages in each section. Why? Of course, the answer is so that ladies have space to insert their new additional recipes! My mother was certainly no exception. Her "Mrs Handy's" is bristling with additional recipes, cut out from magazines (or off the backs of those soup and carnation evaporated milk tins) or copied from other sources.

I must now admit that my mother and I just love reading cookbooks and collecting recipes. But we have only ever tried out a small proportion of these recipes. One of my projects, indeed, is to cook through more recipes from our cookbooks. The problem is that the rate we acquire cookbooks seems to be far greater than the rate at which we try out the recipes in them. Having said that, there is one tried and tested recipe amongst the many my mother has copied into her "Mrs Handy's" - for Shortbread Biscuits.

I remember as a child my mother happily making preparations for Christmas - the Christmas tree, the presents, the food. She would bake trays of these shortbread biscuits with her two young children "helping out" along the way. She did the heavy work (creaming the butter and sugar) whilst we assisted with cutting out the biscuits, pricking the tops with forks or toothpicks and making little snowmen out of the remnants of the dough. And eating bits of the uncooked dough as well (it was so rich in butter and sugar). We'd then put them in the oven and the smell of the baking would fill the house. The biscuits were better than any commercial shortbread. They were a big favourite with visitors because of the way they just melted in the mouth.

For various reasons, we'd stopped baking for Christmas for a few years. But this year, I had started baking again. It seemed only natural that we should bake a batch of shortbread again this Christmas. And yes, the uncooked dough was as good as I remembered...
So here's the recipe (and you know it is pretty old because it is all in ounces). Be thankful, it is at least in weight measurements and not volumes:
8 oz butter
6 oz granulated sugar
10 oz flour
2 oz cornflour
1. Cream butter and sugar till white (or light)
2. Sift the flour, and fold into the creamed butter and sugar to form the dough.
3. Roll the dough out to a thickness of about 1/3rd inch. Cut out the biscuits using cookie cutters. Prick holes on top using a fork/toothpicks.
4. Bake for about 15 minutes in preheated oven (temperature of about 180 degrees C).
5. Dust with icing sugar.
A lot easier to bake than pineapple tarts, too!


  1. I love this post - thank you for sharing. These old cookbooks are almost autobiographical aren't they? It's a real priveledge to have access to them.
    I cannot wait to visit Singapore again and satisfy my curiosity about all things Nyonya - my heart has been captured :)

  2. Dear Rosie,
    You'd be most welcome here! Would be happy to take you to the museum too.

  3. Now there is something to look forward to and sustain me! My MA dissertation will be coming up end of the year/2010 and I am determined to concentrate on Peranakan culinary culture/history.
    Soooo...that has to mean at least some research time in Singapore doesn't it? LOL

  4. G'dai, came across this site while looking up my old school KC. I left in 1958.

    I too own Mrs Handy's cookbook which I bought in 1971. It's much treasured among my other books, but I have at times "adjusted" some amount of ingredients (after all receipes are not set in concrete)to suit my family's tastes

  5. Hi there,
    You would have crossed paths with my mother as she left KC in 1959 - one year your junior. She was a prefect, pretty active in the oratorical competitions, and wd have participated in other plays/performances etc. If you would like to get in touch with her do leave a contact email add and I will delete it off the blog as soon as I've passed it on to her!

  6. Dear Katong Gal
    Thanks for taking the time to reply. There are a a few ex-KC"girls" here in Australia. Perhaps you could give me your mums first name. She may already be in contact with the other ladies here and if she is, her email would be in my list.

  7. Hi, my mum and I stay in Singapore :-)

  8. Happy Easter Katong gal and mum. Still cannot guess who mum is



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