Articles by Sandra Wu
During each of my last two trips back to Taiwan, Da Jiu Ma (my mom’s older brother’s wife) supplied me with 20 pounds of what looked like pure wax, packed so tightly into 2-gallon Ziplock bags that the contents nearly burst from the seams. My prized loot? Pineapple paste, purchased in bulk from a local bakery supplier, and very difficult to find Stateside.
This moist, sweet, golden paste is used in feng li su, or Taiwanese pineapple cakes. Despite their name, the “cakes” are actually square, jam-filled buttery shortbread cookies that loosely resemble Fig Newtons. Available year-round, these pastries are especially popular for gift-giving during special occasions and holidays, including Chinese New Year, which this year falls on Valentine’s Day.
In the States, you can find feng li su individually wrapped in beautiful paper and gold elastic bands for about $1.25 a piece at select Chinese bakeries, or, on the low-end, stacked in packs of 8 to 10 in see-through plastic for less than $3 in the cookie aisle of most major Chinese supermarkets. I prefer mine fresh, minus all the preservatives and fake flavorings, so I either go the bakery route or bake my own, based on a recipe I learned from Da Jiu Ma.
This year, despite the vacuum-sealed bags of pineapple paste still sitting in my refrigerator and freezer, I decided to figure out how to make the filling from scratch. (I didn’t want to have to wait three to five years for my next supply.)
Having grown up eating these pastries and developing a taste for the filling, it never occurred to me how subtle the pineapple flavor was. Only recently did I learn that pineapple paste actually contains very little pineapple. I felt duped. It’s actually mostly winter melon, a bland, flavorless vegetable also known as white gourd that’s often used in soups, like a sponge, to soak up all the other flavors. However, when I tasted a paste made from 100% pineapple — black as tar and just as thick — I didn’t likeit. All the balanced nuances of the fruit that I enjoy so much in its fresh state — sweetness, acidity, floral notes — were amplified to the point that the paste tasted almost…artificial. Without the flavorless white flesh of the winter melon, the sugars in the pineapple caramelize like crazy (hence the black color) and the flavor becomes super-concentrated. With the winter melon, everything is tamed and brought back into balance. It’s not, it turns out, just a cheap filler.
Pineapple paste is simply pureed pineapple and winter melon flesh cooked down slowly into a thick goo which is then sweetened with granulated sugar and maltose syrup and cooked down further into a pliable jam-like consistency.
The outer shortbread “crust” of the feng li su consists of cake flour (for a fine, almost powdery crumb), a teensy amount of leavening (I’m not sure it’s really necessary but it works) milk powder for enhanced dairy flavor; a combination of butter and shortening for flavor and a soft, crumbly texture; confectioners’ sugar; and egg yolks for richness and color.
Assembling the cookies is a little like molding with Play-Doh: Roll the dough into balls, roll the pineapple paste into balls, smash the dough into disks, put the paste in the center of the disks, then bring the edges up together and roll between your palms so that the paste becomes entirely encased in the dough. Next, press the filled dough into square pineapple cake molds, which aid the browning of the sides of the cookies (I found comparable molds here. They’re about an inch taller and a smidge wider than what I use, but should work just fine.) If you don’t have these specialty molds, gently press and form the cookies into squares by hand. Finally, bake the cookies on parchment-lined baking sheets, turning them over halfway through baking so the tops and bottoms of the cookies are equally browned. The last part is infinitely the hardest: waiting for the cookies to cool before taking a bite.
Makes 24 pineapple cakes.
2½ cups cake flour
⅛ teaspoon. baking powder
⅛ teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons nonfat milk powder, passed through a fine mesh sieve
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into ½-inch pieces
¼ cup shortening
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 egg yolks
1 recipe Pineapple Paste (recipe follows)
- Adjust oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and milk powder together in a medium bowl; set aside.
- Place the butter, shortening and confectioners‘ sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on low speed until just combined, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg yolks and beat on medium-low speed until just combined, about 1 minute.
- Stop the mixer and add half of the flour mixture. Beat on low speed until most of the flour has been absorbed. Add the remaining flour and beat until all of the flour has been absorbed, 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium and beat 1 minute. Divide the dough into 2 even pieces and roll each piece into a 10-inch log. Wrap each log tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, 1 hour.
- Cut each log into 12 even pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Use a tablespoon measure to divide the pineapple paste into 24 evenly sized 1-tablespoon balls.
- Place a dough ball in the palm of your hand and flatten into a disk. Place a pineapple paste ball in the center of the disk, bring the edges up together and pinch shut. Roll between the palms of your hands until the seams are no longer visible. Press into 1¾-inch-wide square pineapple cake molds or gently shape into squares by hand.
- Place the pineapple cakes 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes, turning the cakes over once and rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom halfway through baking. Place the baking sheets on wire racks to cool 10 minutes before transferring the cakes to the racks to cool completely.
Makes 1½ cups pineapple paste
This pineapple paste is more intensely pineapple-y than the filling in commercial pineapple cakes. If a milder flavor is desired, reduce the amount of pineapple and increase the amount of diced winter melon by the same amount. Winter melon and maltose syrup can be found in most large Asian markets.
¾ cup granulated sugar
- Place the pineapple in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until pureed, stopping and scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally, 18 to 20 pulses. Pour into a Dutch oven.
- Place the winter melon in the food processor and pulse until very finely shredded, 20 to 22 pulses. Transfer to the Dutch oven.
- Cook the combined mixture over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the winter melon begins turning translucent, about 20 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to medium, add the sugar, and cook until the mixture has thickened, about 8 minutes.
- Stir in the maltose syrup and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is very thick, sticky, and uniformly light amber in color, 10 to 12 minutes.
- Transfer mixture to a shallow bowl and refrigerate until cool.
Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.
Buttery Taiwanese cookies are tender on the outside, sweet and chewy on the inside. All photos by Sandra Wu.
Photos by Sandra Wu.
Moon cakes are the traditional pastries eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhong Qiu Jie), a Chinese holiday which falls on Sept. 22 this year. While many people may be familiar with the Cantonese version of moon cakes — the rich, chewy-skinned square pastries filled most commonly with lotus, red bean, or date paste and salted egg yolk — other regional versions of this “Chinese fruit cake” exist. One such type is lu dou peng, a Taiwanese variation known for its delicate crust and sweet-savory mung bean paste filling.
To get the proper flaky texture, these Taiwanese moon cakes utilize a lard or shortening-based laminated dough formed by combining and rolling two separate doughs together. The “outer dough” has water added to it, providing the steam needed to get the pastry to puff up and separate into thin layers. The “inner dough” has a higher ratio of shortening (or lard) to flour, which gets encased in the outer dough and becomes layered throughout the dough through the process of folding and rolling. Before the moon cakes are baked, they are sometimes brushed with an egg wash or finished with a red-inked stamp designating the baker’s surname.
The filling itself is traditionally a sweetened mung bean paste with a slightly sandy texture. Because Taiwanese cuisine often offers a juxtaposition of salty and sweet flavors, a savory mixture of curried or five spice-flavored minced pork, shiitake mushrooms and shallots is often placed in the center of the sweet filling. These days, whether because of issues of perishability or mass production and convenience, many bakeries have resorted to replacing the fragrant filling with pork sung (a fluffy, dried pork product) instead. Even the “plain” and “sweet” moon cakes without the meaty centers have a hint of something savory to them. The steamed, mashed mung beans are sweetened with sugar and cooked in oil that is gently infused with the flavor of sauteed shallots. Sneaky? Maybe, but it works.
While these moon cakes do require a fair bit of time and effort to make, they’re well worth it for this once-a-year occasion.
Taiwanese Moon Cakes
For outer dough:
For inner dough:
- To make the outer dough, place the shortening, flour, milk powder and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on low speed until clumps the size of peas form, stopping to scrape down the paddle and sides of the bowl as necessary, about 2 minutes. Add the water and beat until just incorporated, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the mixture comes together and has the texture of soft cookie dough, about 30 seconds.
- Use a tablespoon measure to divide the dough into 12 evenly sized 1-tablespoon balls. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
- To make the inner dough, place the flour and shortening in a medium bowl and mix with a rubber spatula until well combined and the texture of a stiff frosting. Cover and refrigerate until slightly firm, about 30 minutes. Using a teaspoon measure, divide the dough into 12 evenly sized 1-teaspoon balls.
- Working one piece at a time, flatten each outer dough ball into a disk and place 1 ball of the inner dough in the center. Bring the edges of the outer dough up together, pinch shut, and roll between the palms of your hands into a ball.
- On a silicone mat or plastic wrap-lined work surface, roll each dough ball flat with a rolling pin. Fold the dough into thirds, then roll flat. Turn the dough 90 degrees, fold into third, then roll flat again. Roll the dough up like a jelly roll, then set aside. Repeat with remaining dough.
- Preheat an oven to 375 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Working with one piece at a time, roll the prepared dough flat and place in the palm of your hand. Place 1 piece of mung bean paste in the center of the dough, then bring the edges of the dough up together to cover the paste, pinch shut, and lightly roll between the palms of your hands. Gently press the top of the moon cake to flatten it slightly and place it, seam-side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough and mung bean paste, spacing the moon cakes evenly apart. Bake until pastry is opaque and very lightly golden, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.
Mung Bean Paste
Makes about 2¼ cups
¼ cup vegetable oil
- Place the mung beans in a medium bowl and add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Cover with plastic wrap and soak 4 hours; drain in a colander. Spread the beans in an even layer on a large plate.
- Set a steamer rack into a wok and fill with enough water to come halfway between the bottom of the wok and the top of the rack. Alternatively, fill the base of an 11½ – to 12-inch tiered steamer pot halfway with water and place a perforated steaming tier on top. Place the plate of beans either on top of the rack in the wok or into the top layer of the steamer pot; cover. Bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat and steam until the beans are tender, about 20 minutes.
- Set a ricer over a medium bowl and pass the steamed mung beans through in batches.
- In a wok or large skillet, warm the oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and saute until golden and fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the shallots; discard or set aside for another use.
- Add the riced mung beans, sugar, and salt and cook, stirring frequently with a rubber spatula, until the mixture forms a soft, pliable paste, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Roll the paste into 12 balls, each about 3 tablespoons in volume.
Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.
Photo credits: Sandra Wu
Thanksgiving may be an American holiday, but the foods that define it are definitely privy to regional and cultural interpretation. For many years, Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house consisted of a mashup of classic menu items combined with Chinese dishes that my mom would make or that our relatives would bring over. It was never clearly one way or the other: It was always both.
Next to the roast turkey, there would either be a roast duck, soy sauce chicken or drunken chicken (didn’t matter that it was Thanksgiving, and poultry was obviously covered). Sometimes, we’d also have a brown sugar-glazed ham, but someone would bring roast pork anyway. Our vegetables of choice were rarely green beans: Instead, there was bok choy or gai lan. In proximity to the stuffing and mashed potatoes would be — you guessed it — a bowl of steamed rice. The cranberry sauce almost always went untouched, as few of our guests were ever adventurous enough to try it. At the end of the meal, along with the requisite pumpkin pie, we drank oolong tea and had fresh fruit (often Asian pears).
I’m pretty sure my family’s early experiences with the holiday aren’t unlike those of many other immigrant families. Thanksgiving was a time for everyone to get together around a celebratory meal, so who cared whether some of the items on the table might have seemed incongruous with the others.
This year, I decided to come up with an alternative to the typical roast turkey that could also work other times of the year. My inspiration: tea-smoked duck, but without all the complicated steps and work.
Instead of a whole turkey, I worked with a bone-in, skin-on turkey breast half, which makes more sense for smaller gatherings (the recipe is easily doubled for a whole breast) or for those who don’t like to have a ton of leftovers. To infuse the bird with deep, smoky notes without actually cooking it over smoldering tea leaves, I utilized one of my favorite shortcuts: a potent brine. Flavored primarily with Lapsang Souchang, a black tea with an intensely smoky profile, the brine also contained the requisite salt and sugar components, as well as soy sauce, star anise, and black and Sichuan peppercorns.
To further enhance the sweet-smoky flavors of this turkey, I added a honey-soy-five-spice glaze, brushed onto the skin during the last half hour of roasting. Reminiscent of a traditional Chinese banquet dish, but adapted to use a traditional Thanksgiving bird, I’m pretty sure this smoky tea-brined turkey will be a hit in our household. I’ll just have to make sure to tell my aunts to bring something else instead of an extra chicken or duck, like, say, ginger-scallion crab.
Smoky Tea-Brined Turkey
Serves 4 to 6
To adapt this recipe for use with a whole 6- to 7-pound turkey breast, simply double the recipe for the brine as well as the glaze.
- In a 4-quart saucepot, heat the water, salt, soy sauce, star anise, black peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns and brown sugar over high heat until the salt and sugar have dissolved, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in the tea leaves. Let cool to room temperature.
- Place the turkey breast in a large bowl or pot and pour the brine on top. Cover and refrigerate 4 to 6 hours.
- Preheat an oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and set a wire cooling rack on top. Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse thoroughly under cool water. Discard brine. Pat turkey dry with paper towels and place on the prepared baking sheet, skin-side up.
- Roast the turkey 45 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare the glaze: Whisk together the honey, five-spice powder, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar in a small bowl until smooth. After the turkey has roasted 45 minutes, brush it with the glaze mixture. Continue roasting until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the turkey registers 165 F, about 30 minutes longer, brushing the turkey every 10 minutes and tenting the turkey loosely with foil if it begins looking too dark.
- Transfer turkey breast to a cutting board and tent loosely with foil. Let rest 20 minutes before carving.
Photo: Applying the honey-soy-five-spice glaze. Credit: Sandra Wu
Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant’s combination of modern cuisine and majestic views is so popular that the celebrated Taipei hot spot is once again moving to a larger venue.
As the ever-popular Taiwanese restaurant undergoes its second move in 13 years to a larger space, my family and I are marveling at how lucky we were to have gotten a coveted reservation at its soon-to-be-shuttered Yangmingshan location. After three weeks of continuous phone calls during our recent trip to Taipei, my uncle finally got 10 of us in for a multi-course lunch at the calm mountainside retreat, which closed its doors in the middle of December.
Shi-Yang was founded in 1996 by former architect Lin Pin-Hui in Xindian City. In 2005, after outgrowing its modest teahouse setting, the restaurant moved to Yangmingshan, where its popularity as a tranquil, getaway dining destination continued to grow. With only two seatings daily — at lunch and dinner — long waits for reservations are typical. Weekday reservations should be arranged at least two weeks in advance, while weekend reservations should be made more than a month in advance. With no online booking system, all reservations must be called or faxed in.
Xizhi City: Shi-Yang’s New Backdrop
The new location, in a mountainous part of Xizhi City, opened recently. Situated between Keelung and Taipei and about a 40-minute drive from central Taipei, the Xizhi City location will offer more seating and scenic views, including waterfalls and small mountain streams. Meanwhile, the Yangmingshan restaurant is fully booked for the next few weeks, with only one of its dining rooms currently in operation. Fortunately for my family, our plans came together just in time.
Late last fall, as we drove in traffic for nearly an hour up winding roads, I looked out of the window of my uncle’s Toyota Wish and watched the scenery gradually change from urban congestion to an idyllic, forested terrain. The mist of a light fog hung over the trees as we approached the entrance to the expansive grounds. Two long, flat-roofed structures housed three separate dining areas on the premises, each with floor-to-ceiling windows that brought the sweeping views and verdant outdoors in.
At Shi-Yang, the leisurely meal lasts about three hours—from the first sip of tea to the last bite of dessert. Both lunch and dinner are set menus consisting of a series of courses presented artfully in a hybrid style that combines elements of a Japanese kaiseki meal and a traditional Chinese banquet. At a cost of 1,100 New Taiwan dollars (about $36) per person for the standard set or about $31 for a vegetarian version, diners get a variety of healthy, seasonally inspired dishes incorporating a variety of local produce and seafood.
Upon entering our assigned building, we removed our shoes and placed them in a set of wooden shelves, walking barefoot on the cool, tatami-lined floors. With three sides of the large room completely framed in walls of glass, I felt like I had stepped into the Zen-modern tree house of my dreams. Large, white paper lanterns hung from the ceilings, and long tables displayed Buddhist scrolls and small twinkling tea lights. Mesh screens, hanging wooden grids, and white paper partitions separated us from other diners sitting only a few feet away, creating a sense of privacy without eliminating the feeling of openness in the room.
After enjoying a cup or two of High Mountain Tea, our first course arrived: A trio of starters each with distinct flavor profiles that alternately complemented and contrasted with one another surprisingly well. The small rectangular block of house-made peanut tofu had a panna cotta-like texture and mild nutty flavor that was accented by a dab of fresh wasabi and soy sauce. A duo of chilled roasted eggplant and crunchy string beans offered crisp texture and clean flavor, while a smoked salmon roll topped with salmon roe packed a salty, punchy finish.
Small earthenware cups of pureed strawberry soup garnished with passion fruit seeds provided a refreshing transition to the next course: A platter of steamed prawns accompanied by lotus root and anchovy-stuffed inarizushi (fried tofu pouches). At various stages in the meal, fragrant house-brewed drinking vinegars—made with ingredients like plum and rose petals—were brought out to cleanse the palate.
Three or four times during lunch, the sky turned gray and a fast and furious rain fell, only to give way minutes later to sunshine.
“This is how it is in the mountains,” declared my uncle each time, as my other relatives nodded in agreement.
A Taiwanese delight, course by course
The food at Shi-Yang is made up of flavors that are generally accessible and familiar to the Taiwanese palate, but many have touches of whimsy that add unexpected and delightful touches. One of my favorite courses was the simplest: A steamed egg custard. Typically a home-style dish, this version was wonderfully silky in texture and topped with a beautiful white mound of grated Japanese mountain yam that hid the surprise of dried scallops underneath. My least favorite course was one that went the fusion route: Individual balls of glutinous fried rice wrapped in salami resembling nigiri. The most theatrical course of the afternoon was the last savory item of the meal: A lotus, mushroom and chicken soup that inspired “oohs” and “ahhs” around the table as well as clapping from a table of well-heeled ladies on the other side of the room. After placing the clay pot on our table, our server gently lowered a dried fragrant lotus flower into the broth as we watched it slowly open up as if in full bloom. Magnificent.
Our lunch was brought to a close with a fruit plate of wax apple (a crisp, juicy pink-skinned fruit with a mild sweet flavor and a watermelon flesh-like texture) and papaya, followed by a rich taro dessert with a light, syrupy broth, sweetened kidney beans, a sprinkling of barley, and a gold leaf garnish. After a few more cups of tea, we slowly stood and got ready to leave. My stomach was pleasantly full as we walked around the property, taking pictures and admiring the views. I didn’t know when I would be back in Taiwan again, but whenever that next time was, I had a feeling I would be paying Xizhi City a visit.
Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters. For more information on the restaurant, visit www.shi-yang.com.
The combination of sweet and salty flavors has been irresistible to me as long as I can remember. Chocolate-covered pretzels? Love them. Chicken and waffles? Bring it on. Salted caramels? Ditto. Don’t even mention kettle corn: I can eat my way through a whole bag of the freshly popped stuff while strolling through the farmers market.
With holiday cookie swaps happening left and right, I wanted to re-create that sensation in the form of a cookie that was mostly sweet, but with an unexpected savory twist that would take it dangerously close to — but not quite at — cracker territory. My goal was something that would feel just as comfortable sitting on a plate of appetizers as on a plate of desserts.
Shortbread, buttery but not overtly sweet, is rich, but often boring. It was the perfect cookie for my makeover. Unlike chewy drop cookies (chocolate chip, peanut butter or oatmeal), shortbread doesn’t taste better when underbaked. It only develops complexity when it’s allowed to stay in the oven for a longer time than most cooks would consider comfortable, and baked at a lower temperature so the cookie is browned inside and outside. Some call these cookies dark; I call them deeply caramelized.
I started by browning the butter, a process that separates the fat from the milk solids (sugars and proteins), giving the butter a warm, nutty flavor. Next, I added the first of three savory elements: fresh sage leaves, cut into a chiffonade and fried in the brown butter. To further boost the caramel notes of this cookie, I substituted dark brown sugar for granulated.
My game-changing ingredient? Bacon. In a span of a couple of years, bacon has gone from dessert taboo to super-trendy ingredient in everything — chocolate bars, doughnuts, brownies, ice cream, bread pudding and cupcakes. I’m an avid believer that bacon makes (almost) everything better, so I was more than willing to jump on the salted pork bandwagon, even a little late. Cooked up super crisp, roughly chopped and folded into the dough, it provided sharp jolts of smoky, salty goodness.
The final touch: Sprinkling the shortbread with fleur de sel just before baking. It provided an initial hit of saltiness on the tongue that the cookies needed.
An hour later, as my house filled with an unusual and wonderful combination of aromas that would make both a sweets-lover and bacon fiend cry, I knew I had a winner.
Brown Butter Bacon Shortbread
Makes 20 shortbread cookies.
2 tablespoons very thinly sliced fresh sage leaves
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup coarsely chopped crisp-cooked applewood-smoked bacon (6 slices)
Fleur de sel, for sprinkling
- Place butter in a large light-colored (not nonstick) saucepan and cook over medium heat until brown flecks appear on the bottom of the pan and butter releases a nutty aroma, 6-7 minutes. Off heat, add sage and stir until shriveled and crisp, about 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate until almost firm, about 1 hour.
- Preheat an oven to 300 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, confectioner’s sugar and salt; set aside. Place butter mixture, brown sugar and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping sides and bottom of bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add flour mixture and beat on low speed until just incorporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, fold in bacon.
- Place dough on the prepared baking sheet and press into a 6- by 10-inch rectangle about ½-inch-thick. Using a sharp knife, score the dough lengthwise down the center. Score the dough crosswise at 1-inch intervals. You should now have 20 scored rectangles. Lightly sprinkle the top of the dough with fleur de sel.
- Bake until the shortbread is golden brown and set, 55 to 60 minutes. Set the baking sheet on top of a wire rack to cool 10 minutes. Gently transfer the parchment paper to a cutting board and carefully cut the shortbread into pieces along the scored lines. Transfer the shortbread to the wire rack and let cool completely, about 2 hours.
Sandra Wuis a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.
Photo by Sandra Wu
Chinese New Year is just around the corner. A large part of the holiday includes giving and eating a host of traditional foods meant to impart good luck and fortune. Noodles and garlic chives represent a long life, dumplings and oranges symbolize wealth, a whole fish stands for prosperity, and tangerines bring luck. The granddaddy of them all, however, is gao, or rice cakes, a broad category that encompasses many different varieties. Perhaps the best-known type is nian gao (literally translated as “year cake”), a dense, sweet, sticky dessert with a multitude of symbolic meanings. The round shape of the cake represents family reunion or togetherness, the word gao (a homonym for “higher”) implies prosperity (as in, every year, higher and higher) and the sweetness symbolizes a sweet life. For nonbelievers, gao represents something much simpler: tasty Chinese food.
While I didn’t grow up eating sweet nian gao (my mom wasn’t fond of it: “too sticky, too boring”), my family definitely didn’t skimp on any of the other New Year’s fare. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the merits of the sweet and chewy rice cake. For better or worse, I learned ways of changing the recipe (adding eggs and oil for a baked alternative with a “custard” top, replacing the water with coconut milk, or including unconventional add-ins like chocolate) to make it a little more interesting. This year, however, I decided to go back to a more basic version with a little twist: A steamed traditional cake with an unexpected stripe of sweetened red bean paste in the center. Thinly sliced and pan-fried with a lacy coating of beaten egg, what’s not to like?
Despite my lack of early exposure to nian gao, savory rice cakes were another story. Whenever I’d go to dim sum with my family, I would constantly be on the lookout for my favorite dish: luo buo gao (lo bak gao in Cantonese). In English, it’s known as daikon cake, radish cake or — erroneously — as turnip cake. After one of us flagged down the right server, I’d watch, transfixed, as the steamed white rectangles of daikon cake were magically pan-fried to a golden brown in front of me, on a cart! Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside and studded with delectable (but, sadly, often nearly undetectable) bits of Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms and tiny dried shrimp, they were the perfect package of texture and flavor. I vowed that one day I would learn to make them. Recently, after an initial investment in a large steamer pot and several trial batches, I found success. When my friends come over to sample the appetizers for our New Year’s Eve dinner this Saturday, they won’t need magnifying glasses to see all the good stuff.
Crispy daikon cakes (Luo buo gao)
The dried shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, lap cheong, daikon, fried shallots, rice flour, oyster sauce and sweet chili sauce can be found at most Chinese markets. Do not substitute glutinous rice flour for the rice flour: The cakes will turn out dense and chewy. If you’d rather not use packaged pre-fried shallots, you can certainly make your own. Stainless steel and aluminum steamer pots are available in the housewares section of most large Asian markets.
Serves 8 to 10 as an appetizer
- Place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with hot water; soak 1 hour.
- Drain, squeeze out excess moisture, and chop fine. Place the dried shrimp in another small bowl and cover with warm water; soak 30 minutes. Drain and chop fine.
- Combine mushrooms and shrimp; set aside.
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the sausages until browned and fat renders out, 6 to 8 minutes.
- Add the mushroom-shrimp mixture and cook 2 to 3 minutes stirring constantly.
- Stir in the daikon, salt, fried shallots and 1½ cups of the water and simmer until almost all moisture has evaporated and daikon is tender, about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove from heat; let cool 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, set a steamer rack into a wok and fill with enough water to come halfway between the bottom of the wok and the top of the rack; cover. Alternatively, fill the base of an 11½- to 12-inch tiered steamer pot halfway with water and place a perforated steaming tier on top; cover. Bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch round nonstick cake pan with oil.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the rice flour, the remaining 1½ cups water, the oyster sauce and the white pepper until smooth. Stir in the mushroom-sausage mixture. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan. Set the pan on top of the steamer rack or in the steamer pot; cover.
- Steam the radish cake until set, about 45 minutes, adding water to the bottom of the wok or steamer pot as needed to maintain steam. Carefully transfer to a cooling rack and let cool 1 hour. Pour off any condensation that has accumulated on top of the cake. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
- Run a small rubber spatula along the sides of the cake pan to loosen the daikon cake. Carefully invert onto a cutting board. Cut the daikon cake into ¾-inch-thick slices, then cut again crosswise into 2½- to 3-inch-long planks.
- In a large nonstick skillet, warm 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, pan-fry the daikon cake slices until crispy and golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes per side, adding more oil to the pan as needed. Serve warm, with sweet chili sauce or oyster sauce alongside for dipping.
Chinese New Year Cake (nian gao) with red bean filling
Glutinous rice flour is also known as sweet rice flour. Do not use regular rice flour. Sweetened red bean paste is available canned in either smooth or partially mashed consistencies. Both glutinous rice flour and sweetened red bean paste can be found in most Asian markets. The nian gao can be served while it is still soft and sticky: slice and serve after cooling at room temperature for 1 hour instead of refrigerating and pan-frying. It can also be pan-fried plain (without the egg wash), if desired.
In a small bowl, stir the brown sugar and boiling water until the sugar is completely dissolved; let cool completely.
Set a steamer rack into a wok and fill with enough water to come halfway between the bottom of the wok and the top of the rack; cover. Alternatively, fill the base of an 11 ½- to 12-inch tiered steamer pot halfway with water and place a perforated steaming tier on top; cover. Bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch round nonstick cake pan with oil.
Place the glutinous rice flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in the brown sugar water and cold water. Stir with a rubber spatula until the mixture is completely smooth.
Pour half of the mixture into the prepared cake pan, smoothing it with a rubber spatula so that it coats the bottom of the pan evenly. Add the red bean paste on top in an even layer. Pour the remaining batter on top and smooth it out with a rubber spatula. Scatter the sesame seeds on top. Set the pan on top of the steamer rack or in the steamer pot; cover.
Steam the nian gao until set, about 45 minutes, adding water to the bottom of the wok or steamer pot as needed to maintain steam. Carefully transfer to a cooling rack and let cool 1 hour. Pour off any condensation that has accumulated on top of the cake. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Run a small rubber spatula along the sides of the cake pan to loosen the nian gao. Carefully invert onto a cutting board. Cut the nian gao into ¼-inch-thick slices, then cut again crosswise into 2½- to 3-inch-long planks.
In a large nonstick skillet, warm 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium heat. Beat the eggs in a medium bowl. One at a time, dip the nian gao slices into the egg and place in the skillet. Pan-fry until just golden, about 40 seconds per side, adding more oil to the pan as needed. Serve warm.
Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.
Photos of crispy daikon cake (top) and cross section of red bean paste-filled nian gao, by Sandra Wu
On Cortland Avenue in the heart of San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, a small French-Japanese bakery offers its customers the familiar and something different alongside their morning cup of (locally roasted, individually brewed, single-drip) coffee. At Sandbox Bakery, the usual suspects — fruit-studded scones, cheesy herbed biscuits, flaky sweet and savory croissants, cookies, and sticky morning buns — are beautifully presented in a large glass display case alongside an assortment of soft and airy brioche- and challah-based kashi pan (sweet Japanese filled breads) that nod to chef-owner Mutsumi Takehara’s heritage.
For someone who came to the United States to become a veterinarian (“That didn’t last long,” she says) and ended up taking a baking class for fun, Takehara has come a long way. After learning the basics of French bread and pastry baking in the kitchens of East Bay institutions La Farine and Chez Panisse, Takehara moved on to become the pastry chef at Rubicon and then the Slanted Door, where she worked for 10 years before opening up Sandbox Bakery in December.
The original concept for Sandbox was to create a kid-friendly cafe where moms could hang out, but that idea was scrapped as the business expanded. More and more space became dedicated to the bakery’s kitchen, where Takehara also oversees a wholesale business that provides pastries to several cafes in the city. With no seating inside except for a lone chair in one corner, most of the loitering now happens waiting in line or on one of the two wooden benches outside of the store where urban hipsters, families, and young couples with dogs sit down with their coffee and pastries.
Pans, sweet and savory
All the items in the bakery are made daily in small batches using local and organic ingredients whenever possible. Most pastries range from $2 to $3. Among the more traditional choices for sweet kashi pan is a slightly dense, eggy, pastry-cream-filled cream pan and a traditional red bean paste-stuffed an pan. For something a little more unusual, try the yuzu marmalade and sage pan, which is glazed with a bright, citrusy swath of the bittersweet preserves and garnished with fresh sage leaves.
The kashi pan also come in several savory varieties. Negi miso pan is a beautiful braided knot with interior folds that reveal a delicate smear of miso paste and chopped green onions (negi). The corn bechamel pan is just as it sounds: a rich, creamy well of white sauce dotted with sweet corn kernels. The curry pan is not to be missed. Most traditional versions are deep fried, resulting in something that tastes like a curry-filled donut. Takehara’s version is lighter, a baked triangular bun coated in a delicate layer of crispy panko and filled with a generous amount of fragrant Japanese beef curry. If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive just as the warm buns get pulled off the speed rack.
In addition to the baked goods, sandwiches are available for lunch (after 11 am) in limited quantities. Occasionally, daily specials pop up, including okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes) and onigiri (rice balls) and, more frequently, some sort of rice burgers using rice patties in lieu of hamburger buns. Be advised: The offerings change daily, so call or stop by to see what Takehara has on the day’s menu.
Four months since Sandbox Bakery opened, business seems to be doing well. The bakery has a strong neighborhood following, and many of the locals stop by and say hi to Takehara, who is around more often than not (she and her husband live upstairs with their two young sons). She has plans to add pizzettas, salads, and even gluten-free dog biscuits to the menu, but it’s the promise of two crusty loaf breads—a demi-baguette and pain de campagne—that has customers buzzing.
As soon as she can get the bread recipes to work consistently in her convection ovens, Takehara says she will extend the bakery’s hours to 6 p.m. (the shop currently closes at 3 p.m.). In the meantime, the biggest winners may be Takehara’s French neighbors, who have volunteered their taste-testing services while she perfects the bread. Just a guess: They won’t be disappointed.
Sandbox Bakery 833 Cortland Avenue, San Francisco, www.sandboxbakerysf.com
Photos of Sandbox Bakery display case (top) and an pan by Sandra Wu.
Food as subject matter has inspired artists for centuries: How many times have you seen a bowl of fruit immortalized in drawings, paintings and sculptures? In recent years, however, edibles have moved beyond the realm of fine arts and into the world of crafting and toy making. Playthings mimicking items found at farmers markets, restaurants and butcher shops have a surprisingly wide fan base that includes suburban mommies, designer-wearing bobos, comic book geeks and foodies alike.
Both manufactured and painstakingly handcrafted items can be found anywhere from craft fairs to boutiques. But the biggest hub for food toys? The Internet. On etsy.com, food toys are so popular they’re actually sub-categorized: crocheted, dessert, felt, fruit, knitted, vegetable and wooden. “Play food” is a popular search term that encompasses everything from crocheted cupcakes to felted sushi to plush fried chicken. If it’s edible, it’s likely someone has made a stuffed version.
From teddy bears to plush steak
One designer who takes her food seriously — but not too seriously — is San Francisco-based Lauren Venell, whose Sweet Meats line of plush toys includes spot-on renditions of a T-bone steak, bacon, whole ham and pork chop. Each has its own cheeky name, and can even be gift-wrapped in butcher paper. The relatively simplistic, somewhat pop arty look of the toys belies the amount of time and research that goes into depicting each one accurately. Transforming a piece of meat with so much marbling and texture into a two- to four-color form isn’t easy. According to Venell, the T-bone steak (now in its fourth iteration) “originally looked like a uterus, then a heart” before she got it just right. With the maiden name Fleischer (“butcher” in German) and as the granddaughter of butchers on both sides of the family, it’s not surprising that the source of Venell’s inspiration is a 4-H pocket guide to identifying different cuts of meat.
Once a hobby, now a thriving business
For many crafters and designers, the art of making cuddly facsimiles of food started off as an individual project or hobby, which then expanded into cottage industries or full-blown businesses as interest in the genre has grown.
When crafter Karen Duncan of Rochester, N.Y., started a Weight Watchers program a few years ago, she had to give up most of the foods she used to love. To get her “fix,” she began making amigurumi (the Japanese art of knitting or crocheting small stuffed animals or toys) play food and selling it on etsy.com and at local craft shows. While strawberries are her bestseller, she sometimes starts a project based on things she makes for dinner, such as tamales or spaghetti and meatballs.
“When I started dieting again, I noticed everything [I crocheted] became more sugary,” said Duncan, whose newest addition is a set of gas station desserts: a snowball and two Swiss cake rolls (chocolate and jelly-filled).
Unlike most designers, Beijing resident Julie Hu isn’t interested in making anything more than once. A mechanical engineer by day, Hu sells the patterns for a large assortment of felt food that she designs under the name Fairyfox on etsy.com. Getting into the craft started with the birth of her daughter, for whom Hu wanted to make toys that were safe to play with. For the sake of her own creative standards, however, getting the pieces to look realistic — both in color and texture — was just as important.
According to Hu, “fake food” seems quite popular in her native China, but most are made of resins and plastics and are cheap, mass-produced toys. In her opinion, only a small portion of the population there has a deep appreciation for homemade crafts. Part of the reason she has done so well here in the United States is the resurgence in the DIY trend.
“More and more people are interested in making things by themselves,” said Hu. “They want to make them as gifts or toys for their babies or friends. It is easy for beginners to use felt, and felt toys look so real.”
Why toys? Because food makes people happy
Sarah Jo Marks, an avid collector of plush food who happens to distribute designer toys globally for a living, believes the popularity of food-themed toys is due in large part to their universality.
“People really respond to it,” said Marks. “It’s certainly something that everyone can relate to. You don’t always get to eat the donuts and cupcakes and ice cream,” but having the toy version is a fun alternative. “It’s cute and it’s harmless.”
Marks owns 100 or so food-themed toys — all plush, most with faces — that are showcased in a china cabinet in her dining room. One of her favorite pieces is a bacon-wrapped enoki mushroom on a skewer. Her love of these types of toys is so great that she even put together a plush food exhibition in Los Angeles called “Stuffed” in 2007. She is planning a sequel in the near future in the form of a large-scale installation show, and has also been busy working on a book about plush food slated for 2012 publication.
Stuffed toy food, like edible food, comes in many different styles, flavors, and price points. Whether you collect them for their kitsch factor, as an alternative to stuffed animals or as a way to enjoy certain “bad foods” every day without actually ingesting them, they definitely encourage behavior that is otherwise mostly frowned upon: playing with your food.
Photos, from top: Crocheted cheeseburger. Credit: Courtesty of Karen Duncan
Sweet Meats’ plush T-bone steak. Credit: Sandra Wu
Crocheted pizza slice. Credit: Courtesy Karen Duncan
Felt dim sum and Chinese sweets. Credit: Courtesy of Julie Hu