When we were young, there were hardly any bakeries and very few people had an oven at home. Birthday cakes were very rare. My mom improvised, influenced by her best friend Mrs Teo (whose daughter Daisy is mom's god-daughter), and she would make agar birthday cakes for us, with matchsticks for candles. If that's not creative!! The flavoring was usually Milo/Ovaltine and sometimes coconut milk.
Another thing we got on our birthdays was a whole boiled chicken drumstick. In those days when people struggled to feed a family, the Chinese way of serving plain-boiled chicken all chopped up into small pieces made sense. I always looked on longingly as mom chopped up the chicken, wishing that she'd leave the drumstick whole like those in cookbooks or the movies but she'd chop, chop, chop! all the way. On our birthdays however, the birthday person gets a whole unchopped drumstick and that really made the birthday person real happy as he/she chomped into the drumstick while the other siblings looked on jealously.I tried to continue this practise with my kids but they all refused to eat a whole drumstick. Like it was poison. This generation is just too well-fed.
And so, on my 40 + x birthday today, I proudly present my mom's agar cake. She can't remember she made these 'cakes' for us (so long ago), but my bros and sis and I had a wonderful time reminiscing about our cakes last night as we got together for a steamboat dinner. Sis insisted that her cakes were plain-clear (think lab agar in petri dishes!) with sugar but me and my younger brother remember brown Ovaltine cakes so we concluded that we were more favored, or mom got more creative :)
You can use Milo, but for this 'cake' I used cocoa and coffee powder.
Mocha N Coconut Milk Agar
2 pkts Swallow Brand white agar powder
850 ml water
1/2 cups white sugar x 2 (minimun is 50 g sugar per 850 ml for those who dislike overly sweet taste)
2 coconuts, grated
3 T cocoa powder
1 T Nescafe instant coffee
1. Put 850 ml of water into a small pot together with 1 packet agar powder and 1/2 cup sugar and set over low heat, stirring all the time till it begins to boil. Remove, add the cocoa and coffee powder, whisk vigorously and strain over a metal sieve into a wet bowl.
2. Let the agar cool and set at room temperature. Do not set in fridge at this point or the two layers will separate later when agar is served.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the coconut milk by adding 1 1/2 cups water to the grated coconut and massage it well. Then squeeze out the milk into a measuring jug with a sieve set over it so that the milk will be devoid of coconut bits. Add another cup of water to the squeezed grated coconut and extract enough milk into the jug to make 850 ml. If you don't get 850 ml, add some water to make up.
4. When the first layer has set about 90 to 95% (when you press the center of the agar, it is almost set but still soft), put the coconut milk into a small pot, add the 1/2 cup sugar and the 2nd packet of agar powder and whisk over a medium fire till the mixture begins to boil.
5. Carefully strain the hot coconut milk mixture over the set cocoa agar, moving over the surface as you pour the hot milk in so that no one spot gets dissolved by the hot milk. Let agar cool totally before putting into fridge to chill.
Note: If the coconut milk layer is not set enough, the hot cocoa agar will dissolve it and seep into it. If too set (as in very cold weather), the layers will not attach well and will separate when it thaws a bit upon serving.