Saturday, May 9, 2015

The sweetness of water chestnuts

I adore the delicate desserts of China’s southern regions, particularly those of Guangdong.

This might have something to do with the infamous sweet tooth my late father-in-law sported, and I guess I caught the bug from him. He was a devotee of his thin black sesame candies that he swore kept his hair black, but I’m pretty sure it was just an excuse to keep a good supply on hand.

Perfect with hot tea
I could always count on him to come up with something sweet and tasty to enjoy whenever we rambled around Los Angeles’s old Chinatown. One of his favorites was airy lunjiaogao (also known as "white sugar cake") with its winy aroma, and another was the steamed amber confection called Malagao. But he rarely beamed as brightly as when he was confronted with a plate of water chestnut pudding.

This cool sweet is perfect for afternoon tea, its softly purple and pink surfaces punctuated with crunchy bits of fresh water chestnuts. It’s a lovely way to end a feast, to nibble on as you while away an afternoon over a pot of hot tea, or luxuriate in as a late night snack.

Fresh water chestnuts are increasingly available in better supermarkets, but if they’re not to be found, please don’t resort to canned ones, which I find taste more of the can than they do of water chestnuts. Instead, hunt down a small jicama, a Latin American tuber that is almost as sweet and crunchy as water chestnuts.

Water chestnut flour is available in most Chinese markets and can be purchased online if you aren’t popping down to Chinatown anytime soon. Just be sure and crush the flour in a food processor or blender, as it tends to have a crumbly texture right out of the box. I like to add a bit of red food coloring to one layer of this pudding, as it makes it look even more enticing, but it’s not a deal breaker.

Get the real deal

Water chestnut pudding
Mǎtí gāo 馬蹄糕
Serves 6 to 8 easily as a dessert

½ cup water                            
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter or shortening
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup water chestnut flour
1¼ cups cold water

2 cups julienned, peeled fresh water chestnuts (about 16), or finely chopped peeled jicama
2 drops red food coloring, optional

1. Grease a heatproof pan (square or round) that’s 8 or 9 inches across. Prepare a steamer that easily holds this pan.

2. Place the ½ cup water, sugar, butter or shortening, and salt into a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. Whirl the water chestnut flour in a food processor until it’s very fine. With the machine running, add the water to the flour to form a thick paste. Pour this paste into the saucepan and stir everything together over medium heat until a thick, bubbly batter has formed.

3. Add the water chestnuts or jicama to the batter and then (if you’re using the food coloring) pour half of the batter into the pan, steam the pudding for 5 minutes to set it, add the food coloring to the remaining batter, and pour it over the set layer before steaming it for another 30 minutes. If you’re not using food coloring, pour all of the batter into the pan and steam it for 30 minutes.
One gorgeous dessert

4. Remove the pan from the steamer and let it cool. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and chill it for at least an hour. Cut the pudding into diamond shapes or squares and serve cold. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator in a covered container for a few days.

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