Friday, January 29, 2016

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!)

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