Instead of making a conventional birthday cake for her friend six years ago, administrative executive Julia Sallim decided to make a savoury one.
She made a pulut kuning cake, a traditional Malay delicacy of steamed yellow glutinous rice stuffed with a layer of rendang.
The 49-year-old says: "I wanted to create a surprise to impress my friend. Having the usual sweet cake can be boring."
It caught the attention of her other friends, who asked her to make it for them too.
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These days, she spends up to four hours every weekend turning out two pulut kuning cakes, which are used to celebrate special occasions such as weddings, birthdays and anniversaries as well as ceremonial events.
The cakes are a labour of love. She moulds and layers the rice with stuffing such as sambal tumis (fried chilli paste), serundeng (grated coconut with spices) and meat floss.
500g glutinous rice, washed
2 dried assam keping
1½ tsp ground turmeric
1.2 litres water
1 banana leaf
½ tsp salt
100ml coconut milk
1 pandan leaf, cut into 5cm pieces
200g beef floss
Two hard-boiled eggs
Two hard-boiled quail eggs
2 red chilli padi
10 2mm-thin cucumber slices
18 2mm-thin carrot slices
3 bok choy stems
4 sprigs of parsley
4 cherry tomatoes
2 large red chillies
1. Place the glutinous rice, dried assam keping, ground turmeric and 800ml water in a large bowl. Mix well and set aside for at least four hours or overnight, at room temperature.
2. Drain the rice, remove the assam keping and gently wash the rice under running water. Drain and set aside.
3. Add 400ml water into the bottom compartment of a metal steamer and set it over medium heat. Line the top steaming compartment with the sheet of banana leaf. Place the drained yellow glutinous rice in the centre of the banana leaf. Cover the steamer and steam the rice for 20 minutes.
4. While the rice is steaming, mix the salt into the coconut milk and set aside.
5. When the rice is ready, transfer it from the steamer into a clean bowl. Drizzle one-third of the coconut milk mixture over the rice and mix evenly with a spatula. Repeat this step twice using the remaining coconut milk mixture.
6. Transfer the rice from the bowl back into the steamer. Place the cut pandan leaves on top of the rice and steam it for another 25 minutes. Remove the pandan leaves from the rice before proceeding.
7. To assemble, place half of the steamed glutinous rice into a 17cm heart-shaped baking tin. Spread the rice evenly in the tin and flatten with a potato masher. Spread the beef floss evenly across the rice. Add the remaining rice on top and flatten the cake.
8. Place a large cake board over the baking tin and invert the cake onto the board carefully.
9. To decorate: Make the "birds" by inserting a toothpick into each of the hard-boiled eggs. Stick the eggs, toothpick first, into the top left corner of the cake. Use toothpicks to secure the two quail eggs on top of each regular egg (left below). Use the cloves as the "eyes" and the pointed ends of the chilli padi as the "noses".
10. To make the "flowers", soak the sliced cucumber and carrot in tap water for 10 minutes. Line and roll the cucumber slices up, secure with toothpicks and stick the cucumber "flower" into the cake.
11. Line six carrot slices, roll them up, secure with toothpicks and stick them into the cake. Repeat this step twice to make two more carrot "flowers".
12. Decorate the cake with cloves, bok choy stems , parsley, cherry tomatoes and cut chillies.
Serves four to five
Her most complex cake? A 1m- tall, three-tier pulut kuning cake for a wedding centrepiece two years ago.
She spent six hours constructing the towering masterpiece, which included stirring 12kg of glutinous rice with coconut milk before sculpting them into three cakes.
Each cake layer was elaborately studded with "birds" made from eggs and "flowers" crafted from vegetables.
"It was rather heart-stopping to stack cakes on top of one another," she says with a laugh.
"It was harder to balance each layer of cake delicately, especially when you had been up cooking since 4am."
Pulut kuning, a sticky rice dish, is enjoying a revival in recent years, with more people ordering the dish for birthdays and gatherings.
Madam Julia says: "Although it is tedious work, making pulut kuning is my way of keeping Malay culture alive and letting younger people know about this tradition."
She took a year to perfect the recipe through trial and error.
The most challenging part lies in steaming the rice with the right amount of coconut milk. If too much coconut milk is used, the rice turns soggy and cannot hold together.
On the other hand, if too little coconut milk is used, the rice loses its lemak (rich) quality.
To give the rice a shiny sheen, she soaks the glutinous rice with assam skin as the natural oils from the skin coats the grains.
Enhancing the aroma of the rice are banana and pandan leaves.
While Madam Julia spends her weekends crafting intricate pulut kuning cakes, she opts for fuss-free recipes when she makes dinner for her family on weekdays.
She likes cooking one-pot dishes such as beehoon goreng, beef tomato stew and lontong goreng, which is fried with chilli padi, meat and eggs.
These items are also part of her family's iftar (a meal served at sunset to break fast) during the holy month of Ramadan, which began yesterday.
Other family favourites are steamed spicy coconut flower crabs, sambal goreng jawa and fried chicken rice.
Her husband is a 52-year-old taxi driver and they have three children aged 17 to 23.
Despite her hectic work schedule, she wakes up at 5am daily to prepare and marinate ingredients so that she can rustle up a quick meal after work.
"Dinner time is all about bonding and my children appreciate the effort of cooking for them.
"I also like getting ideas from them on what to cook next."