Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Haupia mochi cake

It is taken as gospel that none of China's many cuisines has a large dessert repertoire. And fact of the matter is, most Chinese dinners end with a plate of fruit.

However, that is not to say that everybody in the world's most populous country doesn't have a major sweet tooth.  It's just that sweets are more often served as tea snacks where their subtle flavors can be slowly savored in a more relaxing atmosphere, or else as glorious finales to gut-busting banquets.  

And to make matters worse, there's a lot of disagreement even about what the proper word for "dessert" is in Chinese, since it's a totally different concept. 

For example, tiandian are any kind of sweets and can be served with or without a meal.  These can include such things as an ice cream cone or a box of Jujubes at the movie theater, as well as accompaniments for afternoon tea, breakfast goodies, and a sweet course at a banquet that could be served at the end of the meal or even between courses.  

Dianxin aren't always sweet and actually are more often savory than not.  Dianxin include noodles and jiaozi and baozi and street snacks and Hong Kong style dim sum and anything that's eaten between formal meals.  Xiaochi are also snacks, but can include appetizers and nibbles, in addition to a spectrum of other "little eats," which is their direct translation.

But don't let the nomenclature stop you from trying Chinese style sweets.  They're delicious and they're addictive, and many of them are easy to make.

Haupia Mochi Cake, however, isn't your traditional Chinese sweet.  In fact, it's not really Chinese at all.  But it's something that every Chinese person I've served it to has loved.  Part of its appeal lies in its chewy, sticky texture.  If you like Japanese mochi (which, like this cake, is made out of rice flour and sugar), you'll happily pounce on this dessert.  Another delightful aspect of this cake is the richness that the coconut milk adds; it turns simple mochi into something that tastes a lot like the Hawaiian coconut pudding called haupia.  And finally there's the sweetened red beans and the toasted walnuts that add different layers of flavor and mouth feel to what turns out to be a very decadent dessert disguised as a simple bundt cake.

A slice
This is a spectacular way to end a fancy Chinese dinner, especially because it's so surprisingly innovative and yet strangely familiar and comforting to Chinese food aficionados.  If I had my druthers, though, I'd serve this as a tea snack in the afternoon.  Leftovers store well if wrapped well in plastic and chilled in the refrigerator, and you can have a nice big slice for breakfast the next day with a cup of coffee.  Enjoy it cold if you like, or if you like a stickier texture, you can microwave it until it softens slightly.  Either way, it's delicious.

Finally, this cake can be tossed together in just a few minutes.  Just preheat the oven, and then measure out the ingredients while you melt the butter.  Once you pour the batter into the bundt pan, dot it with bits of the sweet bean paste and the walnuts, swirl them slightly, and pop the cake into the oven.  That's it.

Haupia mochi cake 
Hawaiian Chinese, kinda
Serves 12 to 16

1 stick of unsalted butter
2 (13.5 ounce) cans of coconut milk (Chaokoh brand is good)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups (1 pound) Mochiko brand sweet rice flour
1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1 (18.34 ounce or so) can of sweetened red beans or red bean paste (Ogura-An brand is a favorite)
1 cup walnuts, toasted
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and lightly oil a 9-inch bundt pan.

2. Melt the butter and pour it into a large work bowl.  Beat in the coconut milk, sugar, salt, and eggs, and then mix in the rice flower and baking powder until you have a smooth batter.  Pour the batter into the prepared bundt pan.

3. Scoop up teaspoons of the bean paste and dab them over the top of the batter, and then sprinkle on the walnuts.  Run a knife lightly through the bean paste and batter so that they marble.  Don't add big globs of the bean paste to the batter, or else they'll drop to the bottom of the pan; you want them to remain suspended in the batter.

4. Place the pan on a cookie sheet and bake the cake for around 75 minutes.  Check to see whether the top of the cake is very firm and dark golden; continue to bake it until it bounces back to the touch and a bamboo skewer or thin knife inserted in the center of the cake ring comes out clean.  (The cooking time will depend on your oven, so keep an eye on the cake after an hour if you're not sure how accurate your temperature gauge is; cover the top of the cake with a piece of foil if it threatens to get too dark.)

5. Remove the cake to a rack and allow it to completely cool inside the pan before inverting it, as otherwise it will be too soft.  Serve the cake warm, at room temperature, or chilled.  It's always good.  Slice the cake with a thin, sharp knife.