Monday, February 1, 2016

Variations on a Suzhou theme

So, last Friday we had the basic recipe for Suzhou-style year cakes. Here are four absolutely stunning variations on that basic theme. 

Also, please be sure to check out that other post I did the same day with lots of menu suggestions for Chinese New Year, which starts on February 8 and continues for two weeks. Fourteen days are a whole lot of reasons for dining well, so take advantage of this well-deserved reprieve from whatever diet you're on. 

A Daiso gift bag
I have to tell you, we just delivered some of these traditional Suzhou sweets to Chinese friends, and they flipped out. The reasons are simple: you can't find them anywhere unless they're homemade, and they are just plain delicious. 

If you're are going to divvy up your bounty (and the tightness of my jeans pretty much demands that this be done in my house), wrap up each slab in plastic wrap and then stick them in a fancy bag. 

I get the ones at Daiso (the Japanese dime store) that have fractured English on them, like the one on the right. I love that place to pieces. And how can you argue with the logic of "with the delicious cake which I made heartily, have happy time"? It says it all.

A fabulous alternative to the simple cornstarch coating I suggested in the previous recipe is an egg batter. Here's the easy recipe for that, as well as those variations I promised:

Egg batter for year cakes
4 large eggs
½ cup all-purpose flour, or as needed
Oil for frying
White sugar for sprinkling, optional

1. Slice the rice cake into thick strips, and then cut each strip widthwise into ½-inch pieces. Mix together the eggs and as much flour as needed to make a thin batter.

2. Heat about ¼ inch of oil in a flat skillet over medium high heat until a bit of the batter dropped into pan immediately sizzles. Dip each slice of rice cake into the batter so that it is lightly coated. Arrange as many of the slices in the pan as will fit without touching, and fry on both sides until golden. Repeat with the rest. Serve immediately as is, or with a sprinkle of sugar.

Black sesame year cakes
Hēimá niángāo 黑麻年糕

1. Add 1¼ cups ground toasted black sesame seeds to Step 1 and proceed with the rest of the recipe. You’ll end up with a deliciously ebony sweet that has the toasty nuttiness of sesame.

2. If you want to toast and grind your own sesame seeds, see Step 3 in this recipe. Pulverize small amounts of the cooled seeds in a spice grinder or blender so that they don’t turn into sesame paste.

Year cakes with red bean filling
Dòushā niángāo 豆沙年糕

1. First prepare the filling: Pour 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil into a wok or frying pan set over medium heat before adding about a generous 1 cup red bean paste (about a 15 oz/430g can) and ¼ teaspoon sea salt if you want less of a sweet edge to the filling. Use a silicone spatula to stir the paste around, scraping the bottom often, until it absorbs all of the oil. Remove the bean paste to a bowl and let it cool down completely so that it keeps its shape easily.

2. Next, wrap this bean paste in the dough: In Step 4 of the basic recipe, use a lightly oiled rolling pin to roll the dough out on an oiled surface into a large rectangle about 5 inches wide and 18 inches long. Place the red bean paste evenly down the center of the dough and pinch the edges of the dough closed around the bean paste. Pat the filled paste into an even rectangle as directed above. This makes a much larger cake than the other variations, so trim off about 3 inches from each end for yourself, and then cut the pretty middle section crosswise into 4 even pieces for giving away as gifts or serving to guests. A handful of chopped toasted walnuts or pine nuts, or even chopped cooked chestnuts, can be added to the filling, if you like.
Unexpectedly sensuous

3. As for the red bean paste, the Japanese brand Ogura-an is quite good and has a nice, chunky texture, but use what you like, and of course homemade is always wonderful. Whatever you use, the bean paste will fry up deliciously crispy and serve as a textural counterpoint to the soft and chewy rice paste.

Brown sugar and walnut year cakes
Hēitaáng hétáo niángāo 黑糖核桃年糕

Use dark brown sugar instead of white sugar in the basic recipe. Reserve 4 pretty halves from 1 cup walnut halves and pieces as decorations, and then lightly crush the rest of the nuts. Pulse these lightly into the dough in Step 3 so that you end up with walnut pieces no larger than ½ inch across. Proceed with the rest of the recipe and decorate the top of each finished cake by pressing a toasted walnut half into its center. 
Better than candy

Walnut and rose year cakes
Hétáo méiguí niángāo 核桃玫瑰年糕

1. Toast 1 cup walnut halves and pieces. Reserve 4 pretty halves as decorations, and then pulse the rest of the nuts, 1 tablespoon rose water (or to taste), and optional 2 drops red food coloring lightly into the dough in Step 3 so that you end up with walnut pieces no larger than ½ inch across. 

2. Proceed with the rest of the recipe and decorate the top of each finished cake by pressing a toasted walnut half into its center. Be sure and use white sugar for this recipe if you add the optional red food coloring.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Your very own Chinese New Year recipe guide

Photo courtesy of Food52
Chinese New Year is on the immediate horizon, so as a friendly service reminder, I thought I’d provide you with this handy dandy guide. All of these (in my humble opinion) are fantastic recipes that will help make your celebrations complete. Most are from this blog, but you’ll also find links in there to recipes published in such places as Food52, Zester Daily, Swallow Daily, and The Huffington Post. And, come August, just about every one will be included in my upcoming All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China (McSweeney's + Ten Speed, 2016).

And, to get you in the mood, here's an article that just went up on Food52 called “How to Eat with the 24 Chinese Seasons.” 

Yunnan's mushrooms


Smoked amberjack collar

Veggie jiaozi and homemade wrappers
New Year jiaozi
Shunde fish puffs

Sides and starches:

Laughing doughnut holes
Sweet rice dishes:

Cakes and pastries:


During your kitchen breaks, relax with some fun stuff. Here for your entertainment are some things I’ve posted over the years...

My short story “Monkey Eve” was published in Alimentum and then was included in Best Food Writing 2015.

"Monkey Eve"

Ever heard of dragon whisker candy? You'll find that this a very fun video on a truly amazing sweet.

Dragon whisker candy

Finally – and I admit this has zero to do with food – we have here   a video I made a couple of years ago of a murmuration of starlings up in California’s Wine Country.
Nature can seriously blow your mind at times

Best wishes for the New Year!

Except for the top photo by Food52, all other photos and illustrations are copyright (c) 2016 by Carolyn Phillips 

A Suzhou sweet for the Year of the Monkey

Chinese New Year is just around the corner. This time it's the Year of the Monkey, which begins on February 8. Time to get started in the kitchen! 

Called the Spring Festival (Chūnjié 春節) there, this is a two-week celebration that kicks off with New Year’s Eve (Chúxī 除夕) and keeps on going until the first full moon, which is the holiday known as the Lantern Festival (Yuánxiāo 元宵). 

I got my initial taste of the Spring Festival back when I was a first-year language student in Taiwan. Living in Taipei during the Seventies and Eighties was a blast, especially around Chinese New Year. The island at that time was packed with folks from the lower Yangtze River region because Chiang Kai-shek came from there, and so many of his officers and troops relocated to Taiwan with him in 1949. As a result, by the time I had arrived on the scene, restaurants, bakeries, sweets shops, mom-n-pop delis, and street hawkers were offering enticing tastes from such places as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Hubei, and Shanghai.
Fried-up niangao

Suzhou is one of Jiangsu's oldest and most beautiful cities, and it is also an acknowledged food capital along the Yangtze. It should probably come as no surprise that it is therefore home to one of my favorite cuisines. I love their way with seafood and freshwater fish, as there's a delicacy at work in the way ingredients are handled, while the textures in all their dishes seem to blossom into brilliant combinations that endlessly please. Certain dishes like Suzhou "smoked" fish and these sweet tamales are good examples of this brilliant way with food.

I learned very quickly that I was addicted to their way with “New Year cakes,” the ridiculously stupid but more-or-less accurate translation of the Chinese niangao 年糕. The problem with the translation is that these aren’t cakes in the Western sense of the word: These are much much much closer to Japanese mochi, as they are made of ground sticky rice that is steamed and then sweetened and flavored. 

Traditionally, these are made by pounding cooked sticky rice into a paste, which is then sweetened and steamed, and then it is formed into whatever shape you want. Cantonese year cakes, which you can find in most Chinese grocery stores this time of year, are steamed in deep-dish pie tins. The latter are all right in a pinch, but I tend to find them relatively tasteless and way too sweet. My heart and mind and mouth always return to these Suzhou delights.
Cut the cakes into slices

Like mochi, these are sticky, but in a totally different way. The Japanese sweet is made of a thin layer usually coated in starch with a ball of filling in the center. Suzhou's niangao is heftier and generally has lots of flavors and textures weaving through it. It's also not meant to be eaten as is, but rather lightly fried so that there are even more layers of flavors and textures in each bite. This is serious Nirvana food for me.

Over the years decades, I’ve messed around with this recipe quite a bit in order to come up with combinations of flavor and texture and color that please all the senses. Today we will look at the basic recipe so that you can read it through and start gathering your ingredients. Then, on Monday we will begin making some of my favorite variations on this delicious theme.

You’ll find two different ways to make these sweets: traditional and modern. The traditional way is fun and a bit more time consuming, but good to know in case of the Zombie Apocalypse and/or the ascension of Skynet. The modern way that I’ve figured out over time allows you to put this recipe together in record time - all you need is a food processor and a microwave with a turntable. Directions for both are included below.

One thing you should keep very much in mind if you go with the modern method: Put only small amounts of the hot rice paste in your food processor at a time. If you add too much or the paste is too cool, you’ll quickly burn out the processor’s motor. So, add only about a quarter of the boiling hot paste with all the sugar, and then stop as soon as the machine starts to balk.

We have ten days until Chinese New Year on February 8 this year. Let’s get cooking! 

A note on the amount of this recipe: I usually keep one of these slabs to enjoy with my family and give the rest to friends. Just like Christmas cookies, this is a great time to hand out food gifts and share the joy.

Happy Year of the Monkey! 

Chinese New Year cakes Suzhou style
Sūshì niángāo 蘇式年糕
Makes 4 slabs (a little over 2 pounds total) 

Basic recipe:
A California favorite
1 pound (1 box) Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour, or 1 pound of your favorite brand of sticky rice flour (nuomifen, also called “glutinous rice flour”)
1¾ cups boiling water
1¼ cups sugar or 1¼ cups packed brown sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
Toasted sesame oil, as needed

To serve:
All-purpose flour
Peanut or vegetable oil

A. Traditional method (kneading + steamer):

1A. Place the rice flour in a medium heatproof bowl and stir in the boiling water (chopsticks work well here) so that you have a relatively lump-free dough. Allow the dough to cool down a bit until it is easily to handle. While the dough is cooling down, set up your steamer: you will need 2 baskets and 2 pieces of cheesecloth or steamer cloth. Rinse the cloths in tap water, wring them dry, and lay them flat in the baskets.

2A. Lightly oil a smooth surface and a silicone spatula, and then scrape the warm dough out onto the oil. Lightly oil your hands and a pastry scraper so that you can knead the dough until it is smooth. Divide the dough in half, place them in the steamers on the cloth, stack, cover, and steam for about 30 minutes, until the dough is cooked through and translucent. Remove the baskets from the steamer and let the dough cool down for about 5 minutes so that you don’t burn your hands when you work with it.

3A. Sprinkle a clean, smooth surface with the sugar and salt to form a thick layer, and then place the warm dough on top. Lightly oil your hands and pastry scraper as you knead the sugar and salt into the dough to form a smooth paste. (Continue with Step 4 below.)

B. Modern method (food processor + microwave):

Easy easy easy
1B. Place the rice flour in a food processor equipped with a metal blade and add all of the hot water. Process these until a sticky dough is formed.

1B. Oil a 4-cup microwavable work bowl and silicone spatula, and scrape all of the dough into the bowl. Cover the bowl lightly and microwave it at half power for 3 minutes. Use the spatula to stir it thoroughly (turn the dough over on itself a couple of times from the center out to the edge so that it cooks evenly) and then cook it covered again at half power for another 3 minutes. Stir the dough and take a taste: There should be no raw flavor of rice in there. If there is, microwave it at half power for a minute at a time until it’s cooked through. Proceed immediately to the next step while the dough is still piping hot.

3B. Dump all of the sugar and the salt into your processor in order to protect your blades. Then, add a quarter of the dough to the processor and process it until the dough is smooth. Scrape in the rest of the hot dough a quarter at a time (microwaving it as needed to keep it hot and on goopy side) in two or three more additions. Process it or pulse it as needed to prevent the motor from jamming. Stop as soon as the blades start to stick.
Microwaved dough

Traditional and modern method conclusion:

4. Have a silicone spatula, pastry scraper, ruler, and oiled baking sheet ready. Sprinkle some sesame oil on a smooth work surface – this will prevent the dough from sticking too much. Use the spatula to scrape the dough out onto the oil-covered board. Lightly oil your hands and shape it into a fat rope about 1 inch high and 2½ inches wide. Run your hands up and down it to make it as smooth as possible. Even up the ends and then cut the rope crosswise into 4 even pieces. Let these cool on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and then refrigerate to harden them up before storing them in plastic bags.

5. My absolute favorite way to serve this sweet is to slice the slabs into pieces about ¼ inch thick, lightly dust them with cornstarch, and then sauté the slices in a slick of oil over medium heat until both sides are browned (see Tips). Nothing else is needed, as they will be crispy and chewy on the outside, while the insides will turn molten and creamy. Serve hot with tea and fresh tangerines as the perfect ending to a New Year meal.


The food processor and bowls will become intensely caked with the paste, so here are a couple of suggestions:

On Monday: some amazing variations!
If you are making more than one batch of the year cakes, start with the lighter colored ones and proceed through to the darkest (which is usually the one with ground black sesame seeds). This way, you do not have to clean your equipment between batches and thus save lots of soaking time in the process.

Once you're ready to clean up the mess, soak the processor bowl, blade, and so forth in very hot water. (Be careful of that processor blade while you're at it.) Wash them by hand once the paste is easy to remove before you consign them to the dishwasher, as you do not want that paste to harden on your equipment. (Of course, don't soak things like metal pastry scrapers or other things that can rust, or wooden items like rolling pins that might swell and warp.)

Leave plenty of space between the slices when you fry them, as they will puff up and expand. 

When you sauté the slices, you will invariably end up with a starchy sludge in your frying pan. For this reason, I usually use a smaller frying pan and only as much oil as is absolutely needed. That way I can toss out the sludge when it begins to get annoying, which tends to be every two batches. Tip the frying pan to one side as you fry to encourage the sludge to gather on one edge of the pan so that your slices stay clean.  

(To be continued on Monday!)