IT analyst sets up hawker stall for mum to sell cakes and Hong Kong desserts
“It’s good that my son set up this stall for me, otherwise I may get dementia from sitting around at home,” said 73-year-old Liew Pick Choo, who makes everything from scratch herself at Mama Cakes at Golden Mile Food Centre.
Throngs of dessert lovers have been descending upon Golden Mile Food Centre lately, eager to get their hands on baked goods from Cat In The Hat, a new stall serving cafe-style pastries at hawker prices.
Rather overlooked is an obscure dessert stall called Mama Cakes, tucked away at the basement level of the hawker centre. Unlike Cat In The Hat, its name is not as catchy. The shop display is sparse and no-frills, and its signboard is slightly confusing – although it specialises in Western-style cakes, the signage advertises “Authentic Hong Kong Dessert” as it also offers a small selection of tong shui, the collective term for a sweet soup or custard dessert.
STALL RUN BY MOTHER AND SON
The hawkers running this stall are not from Hong Kong, though the tong shui recipes they use are from family friends who are Hong Kong-based chefs. Mama Cakes was opened by 40-something IT analyst Desmond Chia, who set up the business in 2013 so that his Kuala Lumpur-born mum Liew Pick Choo, 73, could have something to do with her free time. In 2017, they moved their home-based operations to a hawker stall at Golden Mile Food Centre.
Whenever he has time off from his day job, Chia helps his mum at their stall. “She wanted this stall, so I set it up for her. I said this is your second home,” he told 8days.sg.
Liew added: “I was feeling bored at home and wanted to make something nice for people to eat. I just ‘play play’ lah (laughs). It’s good that my son set up this stall for me, otherwise I may get dementia from sitting around at home.”
But Liew admits that she has had her share of work-related arguments with her son when they run their stall together. “He would say things like ‘never mind lah, just do it’, but I’m very particular,” she laughed.
Mama Cakes initially sold a Polish-style cheesecake called sernik from home, which is a classic treat in Poland. While the popular American cheesecake is creamy and rich, sernik is lighter and has variations like no-bake.
The recipe came from a Polish man who is a friend of Chia’s brother. “It is his family recipe that is almost 100 years old,” Chia told 8days.sg. While the original recipe has a bread dough base, Liew adjusted it to be less labour-intensive so that she can cope with the workload as a mainly solo hawker.
Her version is oven-baked, with a crushed lemon wafer base instead of the usual shortcrust or graham cracker base. “Lemon wafers are more fragrant,” she noted. The cheesecake is topped with a chunky blueberry compote (the Polish also make sernik with a base like shortcrust, decorating the cheesecake with other toppings such as chocolate ganache, meringue, nuts or crumble).
Customers can order the eight-inch Polish cheesecake whole (S$50, yields 10 slices), or buy it by the slice, which comes plain with no blueberry topping (S$5.20 each). Do note that the sernik is only available on weekends for walk-ins (preorder in advance if you want it on other days, as Liew can only make a limited number of cheesecakes by herself).
It took her almost a year to perfect her sernik, burning about 20 cheesecakes in the process. She has Polish customers ordering her cheesecake for their birthdays or other special occasions, but she highlights that the dessert is ultimately a product of her own experimentation and not a strictly conventional sernik like what you’d find in Poland.
Chia stressed: “We are not Polish people, so we don’t want to offend anyone by saying that we are selling [authentic] sernik.” Due to supply constraints, Mama Cakes’ cheesecake is not made with the traditional twaróg, a well-known Polish cow’s milk cheese that is characterised by its firm, curd-like texture and slightly tart flavour. The recipe that Liew got from her son’s friend replaced twaróg with another kind of “similar” cheese, which Chia has declined to reveal.
As the sernik is extremely sensitive to temperature, Liew's oven can only bake one cake at a time. The baking is done in her home, where she has a large German-made oven that couldn’t fit in her stall. “We tried to bake a few cakes at the same time, but there were always cakes that didn’t turn out right,” said Chia, who noted that his mum has “very high standards”.
Unlike a New York-style cheesecake, which takes around one and a half hours to bake, sernik’s baking time is a whopping three hours. “And you have to adjust the oven temperature seven to eight times throughout the baking process to prevent the cheesecake from burning,” said Chia.
Other than Polish Cheesecake, Liew also offers nine other types of cakes. They are sold in slices or whole in an eight-inch size, such as Longan Walnut Rum Cake (S$37), Pandan Coconut Cake (S$25), Cavendish Banana Walnut Cake (S$35), Black Sesame Walnut Cake (S$32) and an interesting Salted Egg Wintermelon Cake (S$37). Prices for a slice range from S$3.50 to S$5.20.
Unless you preorder a whole cake, what you get when you drop by the stall depends on what Liew makes that day. Her daily menu is random, as she bakes about three cakes a day to sell by the slice. “I just see what ingredients are available that day, like whether my bananas are ripened enough,” she explained.
Other than cakes, she also makes Cookie Egg Tarts (S$3 for two) and Musang King Durian Tarts (S$5 for two). And five types of tong shui including Gingko Red Bean Paste (S$3), Black Sesame Paste (S$3), Almond Paste (S$3.50) and Gingko Beancurd Skin Barley (S$3). Other than the randomised daily menu, what we also find frustrating about this stall is that the tong shui has a minimum order of five bowls.
POLISH CHEESECAKE, S$50 WHOLE
This Polish cheesecake slice is packaged in a plastic box, which comes with a label that earnestly reminds customers to eat the cake in “small bites”. The reason being you can savour its flavour better than shovelling the cake straight into your gob.
We have not tried an original Polish-made sernik, so we cannot ascertain how authentic this is. But as far as cheesecakes go, this one is pretty good. We usually avoid New York cheesecakes for being too jelak (that feeling when you've had enough of a particularly rich food), but we can easily finish a slice of Polish cheesecake.
The one that Mama Cakes offers is not as creamy and rich, with a delicate crumbly texture and cheesy flavour with a fragrant lemony tang (which we suspect is to make up for the sourishness of twaróg). The more we ate it, the more appetising it became, and we found ourselves working through the whole slice in no time.
It goes very well with a strong cup of coffee. Which, coincidentally, you can get from gourmet coffee stall Kopi More in the same hawker centre. “A lot of our customers get coffee from Kopi More, then come here for our cakes,” said Chia.
LONGAN WALNUT RUM CAKE, S$37 WHOLE
The Longan Walnut Rum Cake here is also very good, loose-crumbed and studded with crunchy, juicy bits of dried longan and chopped walnuts. There is a good boozy hit from the rum. We would buy this sophisticated number for a house party.
CAVENDISH BANANA WALNUT CAKE, S$35 WHOLE
One of the newest additions to Liew’s menu is this banana walnut cake. It’s fab when we toast it so it’s warm and the banana chunks turn slightly caramelly. A good teatime snack with a cup of coffee.
COOKIE EGG TART, S$3 FOR TWO
Compared to the cakes, the egg tart here is not as tasty. We find its cookie crust underbaked, and the egg custard sunken-looking. That said, the custard is very smooth, silky and rich, which could account for its sinking (to achieve a velvety texture, the egg and milk mixture typically has to be liquidy, which would create a steam bubble during baking that causes the custard to collapse and sink).
What is interesting is that Liew, a KL native, was inspired by the soft, bouncy texture of min jiang kueh sold by a famous pancake hawker along Jalan Petaling when she was refining her egg tart recipe (read more about this fascinating hawker here).
GINGKO RED BEAN PASTE, S$3
The tong shui recipes here came from Chia's aunt, who migrated to Hong Kong and befriended a few local chefs there. We are particularly fond of Liew’s gingko red bean paste, which she painstakingly grates to create a smooth paste that is not too sweet, but somehow flavourful and comforting.
It is a pity that Mama Cakes’ branding is not as attention-grabbing as its counterparts; we can foresee this underrated stall truly taking off if it has a consistent menu, attractive cake display and cohesive signboard. That said, we recommend being patient with the kind, placid Liew, who is a relatively new hawker with the Zen-like temperament of a Japanese artisan. We like that the desserts here go easy on the sugar, but are still toothsome enough for us to reach for a second helping.
Mama Cakes – Authentic Hong Kong Dessert is at #B1-03 Golden Mile Food Centre, 505 Beach Road, Singapore 199583. Open daily, Mon-Fri 9am-4.30pm, Sat & Sun 9am-7pm.
This story was originally published in 8Days.