Friday, April 13, 2012

Creamy sweet walnut soup

We don't have too many sweet soups in the States, and I never even knew they existed until I went to Taiwan. But boy, was I missing something good!

Hot sweet soups are served throughout the day during cold weather, while the cold ones refresh during summer's heat. Both can be nourishing, complete meals if done right, as with today's recipe for Creamy Sweet Walnut Soup.

This Beijing specialty is truly luscious and hides all sorts of good things under its calm, beige exterior. Walnuts are of course the main ingredient here, and rice is the thickener, but jujubes, or Chinese dates, are lurking in here, as well, to add a rich, fruity under note. Honey is my preferred sweetener, making this the perfect way to begin the day and end the evening.

This is food for the soul and the stomach.

Putting this together is a snap if you have a blender, and it only requires a bit of time to soak the ingredients before they are pureed and then cooked. So consider this whenever you are in the mood for something sweet and very Chinese.

Blender full of goodness
You can use other nuts instead of walnuts -- almonds are a traditional favorite. Just be sure to soak the nuts, especially if they are like almonds and have skins, since you can rub off most of the bitter red skins with a towel. Soaking the nuts, rice, and dates makes them grind up into soft bits that crumble rather than crack, and that gives you a silky texture without any rough edges. Also, soaking the walnuts in boiling water leaches out the bitterness in the skin and leaves you with plump, pale nuggets.

And speaking of rough edges, be very careful with the dates. Cut them open -- even if they come already pitted -- to ensure that every bit of the pit is removed. Small pieces of pits will survive even the most virile blender and make their way into your most important guest's mouth. Don't ask me how I know this; I just do. The same goes with the walnut shells. So if your nuts come already chopped, look them over carefully to fish out any shells, and avoid the dust at the bottom of the bag.

Rock sugar is what is usually used as a sweetener here, but I've found that honey goes perfectly with the walnuts; their warm and comforting aromas just seem made for each other. Another secret trick of mine is to add a bit of salt at the beginning, as well as some walnut extract at the very end. Both of these help to balance out the flavors, the salt by counteracting the sweetness and the extract by boosting the richness.

If you want to go all nouvelle chinoise here, swirl in some thick cream at the end. This, as you might surmise, is particularly yummy. Although Creamy Sweet Walnut Soup is actually part of the great Chinese pantheon of dianxin, or snacks, I like to serve it at the end of a banquet. 

Anyone who is bucking for culinary immortality should consider using this soup as the white half of the lovely Yin Yang Sweet Sesame Soup, where it complements the black sesame soup really nicely. It is hot and soothing, and it gets demolished even when guests swear they can't eat another thing. 

Just like Jello, only better.

Rich & lovely
Creamy sweet walnut soup -
Hetao lao 核桃酪  
Beijing
Serves 6 to 8 generously

2 cups broken or chopped walnuts (see Tips)
20 (or so) small jujubes (Chinese dates)
Boiling water as needed
1 cup raw white glutinous rice
Cool tap water as needed
6 cups filtered water
1 teaspoon sea salt
Honey, rock sugar, or agave nectar to taste (see Tips)
1 cup heavy cream, optional
A few tablespoons chopped walnuts for garnish, optional

1. Sort over the walnuts and pick out any bits of shell; discard the dust, too. Place the walnuts and jujubes in a heatproof boil and cover them with boiling water. Leave the bowl to cool. While the nuts and jujubes are soaking, place the rice in a bowl and cover it with cool tap water for at least an hour to soften the grains.

2. Scoop the jujubes out of the now very tan and muddy water; rinse, drain, and place them on a cutting board. Cut each jujube in half and either remove the pits or carefully inspect them for any crushed pits. Rinse the walnuts in a sieve and place them in a blender along with the halved jujubes. Drain the rice and add it to the blender along with 3 cups of the filtered water. Blend these on high speed for a couple of minutes until absolutely smooth and silky. Pour the puree into a 2 quart heavy saucepan. Add the rest of the water to the blender, rinse it around, and pour this into the saucepan, too. Add the salt, as well as the rock sugar, if you are using it. 

Cook until thick and creamy
3. Use a wire whisk to continually stir the soup as you bring it to a boil over medium heat. When it comes to a boil, it will have thickened considerably and should have the texture of sour cream. Lower the heat and continue to cook it for a total of about 10 minutes. Taste the soup; it should have no raw rice taste. Sweeten to taste with honey or some other sweetener if you haven't used the rock sugar, and add a bit more salt if you think it needs it.  (The soup may be made ahead of time up to this point and reheated right before serving.)

4. If you are adding cream to this, pour it into the soup and heat the soup thoroughly again. Serve in individual bowls, if you wish, and garnish with a couple dots of the cream and/or a swirl of honey and/or some chopped nuts. (Any leftovers can be stored in the fridge and heated up later.)

Tips

Fresh nuts are absolutely essential here. Find a store with a fast turnover where they have the most likelihood of being a new crop. They should smell sweet and feel oily when you crush them between your fingers. Taste one, if you can, to make sure they are perfect. Store in a cool place in a closed container and use as quickly as possible, or freeze.

Use whatever you like to sweeten this. We have great local honey, and I like to show it off here. But add whatever you like. Do be forewarned that regular white sugar sometimes leaves a sour aftertaste, while rock sugar doesn't. Chinese cooks swear by this.

Be sure and stir the soup as it heats, since it will form lumps if left unattended and may even burn. If that happens, immediately remove the pan from the heat. Taste the soup, and if it has a burned flavor, toss it out. If there is only a slight toastiness, you might be able to save it. Just pour the soup through a coarse strainer into another pan and continue cooking, this time stirring very carefully the entire time.

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