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.

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