I never had the chance to meet my real grandmothers.
My dad’s mum passed away from throat cancer when he was merely 20 years old, and the only picture I have of her is an old black-and-white newspaper cutting from the Straits Times’ orbituary section. My mum’s mother died when I was three, and I can barely remember how she looked – except for a faded memory of a her in a lilac top and with curly grey hair.
But even despite never getting to meet my real grandmas, I’ve never lacked the grandma experience.
My paternal grandfather, Ye Ye (“grandfather” in Mandarin), re-married, and his second wife became my Nai Nai (“grandmother” in Mandarin) – the grandmother I would know and love.
Nai Nai was the one who took care of me when my mother went back to work, and I spent many of my childhood days entertaining myself in the confines of my grandparents’ house, playing with my Aunties Esther and Jasmine. Nai Nai would take me by the hand as we crossed the busy street to get to the shops on the other side of the road, and she would indulge me with sweets and savory snacks after I got back from my kindergarten classes. She would also talk to me about my Kindergarten friends, with the Chinese melodies from the radio drifting around the house, as she busied herself preparing lunch or dinner.
When I grew older and no longer spent as much time at my grandparents’ house, I would visit once in a while, and have sleepovers with my siblings at my grandparents’ house to spend time with them. During those sleepovers, my siblings and I would wake up to the smell of fried carrot cake, or bee hoon with orange sugar, all of which Nai Nai and Ye Ye had bought from the market nearby.
Food is Nai Nai’s way of showing her love, as it is for many grandparents.
For many years during each Chinese New Year, Nai Nai would be the one in charge our reunion dinner for Chinese New Year’s Eve, in which she would make handmade meat rolls, and prepare delicious soup stock for the base of our steamboat dinner. Days before our reunion dinner, Nai Nai would start preparations, buying ingredients, cooking dishes and cutting meats. Reunion dinners were always associated with my grandparents’ house and Nai Nai’s steamboat.
Her kitchen is tight and small, but it is always cosy and filled with aromas of the latest dish she was cooking.
Be it stir-fried prawns, curry chicken, or plain pink and white dumpling in sweet soup, Nai Nai’s kitchen has been the scene in which so many memories of us crammed at the small round table have been based.
Nai Nai also makes her specialty almond cake once a year.
It’s a cake whose preparation involves hard work and many hours of effort – an almond cake which consists of four layers of cookies made from crushed almonds, with almond cream spread between each layer. On the top cookie layer, a topping stained with green dye is spread over, with whole roasted almonds used as decoration. Nai Nai is the only person I know who makes this cake – in fact it’s been a few years since she’s made this cake – and it has always been an item of covet among my family members.
My mum recently sent me Nai Nai’s recipe for this amazing almond cake – but it looks intimidating and I think I’ll wait to make it with my mum when I’m back in Singapore. It’s still beyond my expertise.
More than the cake though, it is Nai Nai’s love for us that I have always felt comforted by.
Being so far away from Singapore, I miss hanging out and having meals with her, or just chilling the day away, chatting in her kitchen, talking about everything and nothing in particular.
I think everyone has a similar experience with their grandmas, and because of this, I am always enchanted when I hear stories about other people’s grandmas, who all seem every bit as lovely as mine.
I’ll be honest.
I was initially more interested in her childhood story and her relationship with her grandmother than the lemon squares.
The history behind the lemon squares was really what drew me to them – the tale which made them legendary.
And because the lemon squares looked so lovely and easy to make, I bookmarked the recipe, just in case.
Not too long after, I whipped out the recipe and made these lemon squares…and fell in love with them!
And so it is… just like they said it would be….
LEMON SQUARES (Makes 36 small squares)
Adapted from Bite by Michelle’s Lemon Squares recipe
1) 1 1/4 cup of graham crackers crumbs (or digestive biscuits crumbs)
2) 1/4 cup (60g) of butter, melted
3) 1 can (around 500g) of condensed milk
4) 2 eggs
5) 2 lemons, juiced
1) Process crackers or biscuits until you get fine crumbs
2) Combine cracker/biscuit crumbs with melted butter and mix well to achieve homogenous mixture
3) Distribute crumb mixture on a bottom of a greased baking pan, using the back of a spoon to flatten mixture evenly
4) Mix lemon juice and condensed milk together
5) Add in eggs, one at a time, and beat till mixture is frothy and thick
6) Pour batter over crumb mixture
7) Sift some additional cracker/biscuit crumbs over the batter
8) Bake in pre-heated oven at 180 deg cel for 15 minutes (or until batter is no longer liquid)
9) Cool for 20 minutes then chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour before serving