Monday, January 22, 2018

Lemon crunch cake for the Lunar New Year

I grew up in the San Jose area, and if there is one dish we San Joseans can call our own, it’s burnt almond cake. I have no idea why this is such a big deal there. 

A couple of local bakeries—namely Dick’s and Peter’s—now lay claim to the best of the best of the best, but in my memory, the champion cake was made by Greenlee’s.

This has a lot to do with hometown pride and neighborliness, for the Greenlee family lived a couple of houses down from my mother’s parent’s house in the Rose Garden District, right near the Rosicrucian Museum. 

A pile of gold
My mom’s family never was rolling in wealth (to put it mildly), so we rarely got to eat bakery goods. And so, it was cause for celebration whenever we actually found a paper bakery box hanging out in Grandma’s kitchen.

My favorite cake was always burnt almond, which is strange, because in all other areas I was a die-hard chocoholic. 

Something about this cake, though, was totally addictive to me: pure white cake sandwiched the custard filling, and then the outside plastered with buttercream and sugared, sliced, toasted almonds. Nothing about it was burnt, but it was sheer heaven, false advertising notwithstanding.

The start of caramelization
I was wondering lately whether I should make this cake for a trip down memory lane, but I can’t handle super sweet cakes anymore. So, I crossed those old memories with a Chinese preference for dialed-back sweetness to make something suitable for the Lunar New Year. 

I ended up with a Taiwan-style lemon chiffon cake as the base. What makes this really Taiwanese is that I added the absolute minimum sugar I thought I could get away with both there and in the fresh cream frosting. And then instead of the custard filling, we have more whipped cream. 

The result is this super light, lemony bit of fluff covered with crispy caramel shards. My husband even gave it the perfect Chinese name, which means “10,000 taels of gold,” turning this into a wish for wealth for all who get a slice. Sounds good to me...

Candy lava
In many ways, this is like the famous Blum’s coffee crunch cake. Which is wonderful, no question. With this lemon crunch cake, though, I can easily eat half of it in one go and still eye the rest of it with eager plans for it later on in the day.

This would be the perfect cake for Chinese New Year, which is coming up on February 15th this year. Happy Year of the Dog!

Lemon crunch cake chez Huang
Huángjiā huángjīn wànliăng dàngāo 黃家黃金萬兩蛋糕
Serves 6 to 8

Break up the candy into shards
1 teaspoon baking soda, sifted
¾ cup | 150 g sugar
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons light corn syrup

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons | 70 g cake flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
4 large egg whites at room temperature
½ cup | 100 g superfine sugar, divided in half
3 large egg yolks at room temperature
Fresh lemon zest
¼ cup | 60 ml flavorless oil, like canola
6 tablespoons | 90 ml water
Zest of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon lemon extract

2 cups | 450 ml chilled whipping cream
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
2 teaspoons lemon extract

1. First make the candy: Have a baking sheet lined with either Silpat or oiled foil ready. Sift the baking soda to remove all the lumps and set it near your stove. Place the sugar, water, and corn syrup in a clean wok and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring it occasionally with a silicone spatula. Boil it for a few minutes until it starts to caramelize, then swirl the syrup around and wait until it is a faint golden color. 

Lighten the batter with the whites
2. Remove the wok from the heat, wait 10 seconds, and then sprinkle the baking soda over the top of the syrup. When you stir these together, they will foam up into an impressive mound of lava, and once it starts to deflate, scrape all of it quickly and efficiently onto the waiting baking sheet. Use your spatula to smear it out into a thin layer. It will harden in just a few seconds, so don’t get distracted while you are doing this. Once the candy has hardened, break it up into small shards, but not crumbs. Pile the candy into a container, put on the lid, and refrigerate it until just before serving. Soak the wok and spatula to remove the candy residue.

2. Now get ready to make the cake. Set a rack just below the center of your oven and heat it to 350°F | 175°C. Line the bottom of an 8-inch | 20-cm tall springform cake pan with parchment paper—you don’t need to cut the paper into a circle, just clamp it onto the bottom of the pan. Do not oil the cake pan.

A super light chiffon cake
3. Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small work bowl. Use a stand or hand mixer to beat the egg whites until they are foamy, and then sprinkle in half of the sugar before beating them until they are stiff but not dry. Scrape the beaten whites into a clean bowl. In the same mixer, beat the yolks until they are light, and then beat in the rest of the sugar and then the oil, water, zest, and extract. Finally, beat in the flour mixture until the batter is smooth.

4. Fold about a third of the beaten egg whites into the batter to lighten it up, and then carefully fold in the rest of the whites until you don’t see more than a few streaks. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan, gently smooth the top, and slide this into the oven. Bake it for around 30 minutes, or until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Take the pan from the oven and invert it onto a cake rake to help prevent it from deflating. When the cake is completely cool, unlock the pan to release the sides and peel off the paper. The cake can be wrapped in plastic at this point and refrigerated for a few days, or even frozen for longer storage.
Dust the center with more shards

5. An hour or so before serving, whip the cream with a stand or hand mixer until you have soft peaks, add the sugar and extract, and then beat the cream until it is stiff.

6. Cut the cake horizontally in half with a bread knife. Spread about a quarter of the cream on the cut surface, sprinkle on the smaller shards and all the candy dust, and replace the top of the cake. Frost the tops and sides with the rest of the cream. Press the remaining candy evenly into the tops and sides of the cake. Serve cold.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Lotus leaf fried rice

Long, long ago, back when I first became entranced with the magic of China’s cuisines, this is a dish that really stood out. It is simply visually exciting. And for some strange reason it's something you rarely see.

But the thing is, lotus leaf fried rice has to be one of the most spectacular things you can spring on your dinner guests.

It is insanely easy and open to all sorts of variations, depending upon what you like and what is hiding in the fridge or freezer. I have a couple of recipes for fried rice in All Under Heaven that could easily slide in here. Lots of charcuterie would work well, too, as would a completely vegetarian filling. 

However, this time of year I like to hone in on pure comfort. For me, that means the most famous of Guangdong’s roster of ­chow faan dishes: Yangzhou fried rice, but with a couple of Hong Kong-style tweaks. 
The delicious stars of this show

Instead of ham, you get that sweet roast pork called char siu. This is balanced by fresh shrimp for sweetness and snap, a healthy dose of dried black mushrooms for their insane aroma, and nutty fresh soybeans to add more than a touch of color and a solid nuttiness. 

I do, of course, include a good amount of eggs for their yellow and their butteriness, but I cook them only partially before tossing them with the rice, so that much of the eggs end up wrapping themselves around the individual grains. 

I've changed this a bit from my previously-published recipe because I love the tidy bit of clumpiness that sushi-style rice provides here, making the serving of this fried rice from big old lotus leaves a whole lot easier. You might ask why you'd want to go to the extra step of using lotus leaves here. Well, in addition to being so unexpected and pretty, they also lend a gentle perfume to the rice, a sort of echo of summers past.

Line a bowl with the leaves
Another reason to find this recipe nothing short of fabulous is that this can be made a couple of days ahead of time. Yup. All you have to do is fry up the rice and pack it in the leaves. 

Let the package cool completely, cover, and refrigerate. Then, steam the lotus-wrapped rice about 40 minutes before you plan to serve it so that it’s hot and fresh. The only caveat is that the shrimp should only be barely cooked through, since they are going to be steamed and, thus, heated once again just before serving.

You can find whole dried lotus leaves in any good Chinese market, as well as online. They keep pretty much forever if stored in a dry, cool place. But check out my other recipes that call for lotus leaves in All Under Heaven—you’ll find that these aromatic leaves somehow disappear quickly as they scent everything from congee to chicken to pork. And now fried rice joins the club. 

Time to celebrate…
Fry eggs in the well

Lotus leaf fried rice
Héyè fàn 荷葉飯
Serves 4 to 6

About 6 cups | 800 g cooked cold sushi-style rice (see Tips)
2 or 3 dried lotus leaf soaked overnight (see Tips)
8 ounces | 225 g (3 or 4 large) plumped-up black mushrooms
Around 4 ounces | 120 g char siu (sweet roast pork)
Around 4 ounces | 120 g fresh or defrosted raw shrimp, cleaned and deveined
¼ cup | 60 ml fresh peanut or salad oil
1 green onion, trimmed and chopped
1 cup | 150 g defrosted, shelled green soybeans (maodou or edamame), or baby peas (see Tips)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
Fluffy fried rice
2 large eggs
Sea salt, as needed
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Start this at least one day before you plan to serve it, although you can also have this in the fridge ready to steam for a couple of days. This is a very forgiving and versatile and accommodating dish (see the Tips), and so consider making this ahead of time for a party. Be sure the cooked rice is fully chilled before you proceed, as this will give you much lighter and tastier fried rice.

2. Toss the cold rice with your wet hands to break down the clumps into individual grains. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and cut them into ¼ inch | 5 mm cubes. Cut the char siu and shrimp into similarly sized cubes.
Pile it into the leaves

3. Set your wok over medium-high heat, and add the oil when pan is hot. Stir-fry the mushrooms until they take on a slightly golden edge, and then use a slotted spoon to remove them to a medium work bowl. Brown the char siu before adding it to that bowl. Stir-fry shrimp for only a few seconds, until they barely turn opaque, and then add them to the work bowl along with the defrosted soybeans or peas.

4. Add the green onions to oil in the wok and quickly fry these until fragrant. Turn up the heat to high and add the cold rice. Toss it frequently as you fry it. When the rice takes on a golden tinge and starts to pop a bit, make a well in the center of the rice all the way down to the bottom of the wok. Pour the sesame oil in the bottom of the well and then the beaten eggs. Stir the eggs as they cook down then, and when they are almost set, toss the rice and eggs together, since this will allow some of the eggs to coat the rice, while other bits remain separate. Toss in the salt, pepper, and the rest of the ingredients until they are evenly distributed. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. (If you are making this ahead of time, wait until the fried rice has cooled down to room temperature before adding the shrimp. Wrap the rice in the lotus leaf as described in Step 5, cover the stuffed leaf with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it until about 30 minutes before serving.)
Poke holes in the leaves

5. Prepare a large steamer—an old wok with a trivet on the bottom works well— and have a heatproof 2-quart | 2-liter bowl ready. Wipe the lotus leaves clean on both sides. Center the leaves in the bowl (one on top of the other) with the cut stem side son the bottom and the smooth green sides facing you. Lightly pack all of the fried rice into the leaves and fold the edges of the leaves over the rice. Place an 8-inch | 20-cm wide plate over the bowl, and then flip the bowl over onto the plate. Use a chopstick to poke around 8 or so holes in the top of the leaf so that steam can escape. Set the plate in your steamer and steam the fried rice over high heat for about 20 minutes, or 30 minutes if it has been chilled.

6. To serve, cut a lid out of the top of the leaf and then set this jauntily against the rice. Serve the rice by scooping it out of the leaf at the table.

Cut open the top

Any good quality rice works well in this dish. I like California-grown sushi rice or Thai jasmine rice, but whatever you like will do. Be sure not to add any oil or butter or salt to this. You just want plain old rice here. 

Soak a couple of extra leaves here because it's hard to tell how perfect the leaves are while they're dry, and so sometimes they will look a bit ratty once they're plumped up. I like to use two leaves here just to ensure that the rice is safely contained. 

Vegans and vegetarians should feel more than welcome to substitute whatever looks good. A variety of fresh and dried mushrooms would be great, as well as braised doufu, more vegetables, and so forth. Really, just think of this as spruced-up fried rice and let your imagination take over.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Cheesy pork fluff buns

I’m pretty passionate about these savory pastries, for the Taiwanese bakeries of my well-fed Taipei years back in the seventies and eighties offered them everywhere. 

Up on the main drags and down through the backstreets, they ranged from really good to downright fabulous, depending upon the genius of the local baker.

When made with care, these are sort of like ham and cheese sandwiches that went to heaven and grew wings. For, instead of ham, you get a nice mouthful of that crunchy, porky cotton known as rousong, and instead of a boring old slice of cheese, well, the cheese is baked into puff pastry. And everything is contained in a delicious egg dough. 

I mean, am I alone in thinking that this is downright brilliant?
Everything I want in a sandwich

Now for the bad news: I just cannot find good ones in any bakery anywhere anymore. Plain old puff pastry (and not very good pastry, at that) covers the top. Boring. A smidgen of pork fluff hides inside (and not very good pork fluff, at that). Boring. The bread lacks personality and flavor. Boring. And the puff pastry is never crisp and flavorful. Sacrilege. Last time I bought one, I took a bite and tossed it out, it was that bad.

These have to be made at home, at least until we get the Taiwanese-style bakeries around here to stop fooling around and back to making these with pride. And so, in the hopes of prodding this dream into reality, here is my recipe. As usual, I went a bit nuts, but if you get a chance to make a sammie just the way you want your sammie, why would you make your sammie any way else, I ask you?
Cheese & butter!

And so, there’s lots of cheese in the puff pastry. No other recipe I've been able to find does this anymore. In fact, no cheese at all is now the standard. Goodness knows why... I mean, that's the whole point of these buns! The name in Chinese literally starts with the word for “cheese,” for Pete's sake.

I’ve looked everywhere for a good recipe, but no one uses cheese in these things anymore, just puff pastry, and so I decided to tackle this. After much experimentation, I have the answer. Two (yes, two) kinds of cheese are layered into the puff pastry along with a smidgen more of butter. This permeates the pastry with cheesiness, while the butter acts as glue and helps amp up the puffiness factor.

You can use whatever hard cheese you like here in any combination. Please note the word “hard." You don’t want mozzarella and you don’t want Brie. It has to be dry enough to grate and it also has to be something that won’t turn gooey as it melts, since otherwise you end up with pizza-like buns and soggy puff pastry. 

The bouncy bread dough
No, you want that cheese to brown into pure crunchiness and solid flavor, so go with the hard cheeses. Something flavorful is great—the sharpness of Parmesan and cheddar, for example, contrasts nicely with the milder flavors hiding underneath in the bun itself. I wouldn’t recommend using expensive cheeses in these buns, as the shredded stuff from Trader Joe’s works just dandy.

For the puff pastry itself, I went the easy route and sprang for some frozen Pepperidge Farms. You can, of course, go totally homemade, but it’s really not necessary. A good quality frozen pastry will do just fine once it’s been tweaked a bit.

Now, for the filling: I couldn’t leave well enough alone there, either, could I? So, in addition to some storebought pork fluff, I tossed it with toasted sesame seeds for nuttiness, as well as  a little bit of oil to clump things together and add a touch of unctuousness. The sesame seeds really send this over the top with their lovely little explosions of flavor and texture. I am so proud.
Pack in the filling

Yes, I am more than a little bit obsessive. But as I keep saying, I love my job…

Cheesy pork fluff buns
Zhīshì ròusōng miànbāo  芝士肉鬆麵包
Makes 16 large buns

1½ cups | 300 ml warm water
½ cup | 50 g powdered milk
1 tablespoon bread yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
4 cups | 600 g Chinese flour, plus about 1 cup | 150 g more for kneading
1½ teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons | 30 g unsalted butter, softened

Pleat the edges around the filling
1 sheet (about 8.5 ounces | 245 g) good quality frozen puff pastry, defrosted under a tea towel
A little extra flour
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened
½ cup lightly packed | 60 g grated cheddar cheese
½ cups lightly packed | 60 g shredded Parmesan cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten, mixed with 1 teaspoon water
Black sesame seeds, as needed

1 cup | 150 g toasted sesame seeds (any color is ok)
¼ cup | 60 ml peanut or vegetable oil
Butter, cheese, cheese, butter
2 cups lightly packed | 130 g pork fluff (commercial is fine)

1. First make the dough: Mix the warm water, powdered milk, yeast, and sugar together in your food processor, stand mixer bowl, or a large work bowl. Give the yeast time to wake up and become very foamy, which should take around 20 to 30 minutes. If you don’t get a good head of foam, buy fresh yeast and start over.

2. Stir the egg, flour, salt, oil, and butter into the yeast mixture to form a soft dough. If you’re using a stand mixer, use the hook attachment; use a metal blade for the food processor; or, if you’re doing this by hand, flour a smooth work surface and dump the dough out on top. Quickly knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary to keep it from sticking, until it is smooth and bouncy. Roll the dough into a ball and lightly flour it. Cover the dough with a clean tea towel, stick the bowl over the top to help keep the dough moist, and wait until the dough has risen to at least twice its original size, which will take about an hour.
16 squares

3. While the dough is rising, make the crunchy cheesy topping: Prepare a smooth, clean work surface (see Tips) and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Have a rolling pin, pizza cutter (see Tips), and flour ready. Lay the defrosted puff pastry sheet out (it will be about 9 inches | 23 cm direct from the package) on the work surface and sprinkle it lightly with flour before rolling it into a 12 x 12 inch | 30 x 30 cm square. Use your pizza cutter to cut it in half to create 2 rectangles. Spread half of the softened butter over the puff pastry. Sprinkle half of both cheeses over the right half of the dough, and then flip the buttered side of the left piece of dough on top of the cheesy side. Gently roll this rectangle out until it is more or less a 12 x 24 inch | 30 x 60 cm rectangle.

4. Again, use your pizza cutter to slice this in half to make 2 squares. Spread the rest of the butter on the right-hand square, sprinkle it with the rest of the cheese, and lay the other square on top. Gently roll this out to make it even. Cut this into 16 more or less even squares (3 vertical cuts and 3 horizontal cuts). Cover these with a clean tea towel.

First egg wash
5. Now prepare the filling: Toss together all of the ingredients until they sort of stick together. That’s it.

6. Cut the dough into 16 even pieces. Toss them with flour and cover with a dry tea towel to prevent them from drying out. Cover 2 baking sheets with either Silpat or parchment paper. Heat your oven to 350°F | 175°C and set 1 rack near the center.

7. Working on one piece at a time, and working on a lightly floured surface, roll a piece into a disc about 5 inches| 13 cm in diameter, with the edges rolled out thinner than the center. The best way to fill these breads is to pack one portion (3 tablespoons | 20 g) into a small cup. Then, with the disc of dough centered on the forefinger and thumb of your non-dominant hand, push the center of the dough down gently into your fist to make a little basket. Dump the lump of filling into the center of the dough, and press down on it so that it too sits more or less inside your fist. Bring up the edges around it and pleat them as you go to seal the filling in well. Shape the bun into a round with the smooth side on top. Repeat with 7 more of the buns and filling so that 1 baking sheet is filled. Let the buns rise for about 15 minutes.
Second egg wash + sesame seeds

8. Brush the egg wash all over each of the buns. Set a square of the topping on each of the buns and then brush these again with the egg wash. Finally, sprinkle some black sesame seeds in the center of each bun. Set the pan in the center of the oven and bake for about 18 to 20 minutes, or until the buns are a lovely golden brown. Repeat Steps 6 and 7 for the remaining 8 pieces of dough while the first batch is cooking. Cool slightly and eat. These freeze well and only need to be heated up again before serving.


This recipe is a whole lot easier than it looks. Do it once, and you will have it down pat.

Rolling pin & silicone mat
Whenever I work with pie pastry or puff pastry now, I’ve come to rely on a nonstick pastry mat to keep things corralled. These are silicone and slip-proof, plus they are all marked up with measurements, so I don’t need to whip out my ruler all the time. Highly recommended for those of you who love to bake.

Also great for these pastry sessions is a large French rolling pin. This has tapered ends, which makes it easier to direct pressure in certain areas as you shape a big piece of dough. Again, this is something you should consider adding to your culinary arsenal.

Use a pizza cutter for slicing up the dough, rather than a knife. Only light pressure is needed, which will save your work surface, especially if you have opted to use a silicone mat.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Florence Lin

Happy New Year to one and all! I hope that 2018 will bring you luck and love and lots of good things to eat. 

Thank you so much on endless loop for reading my blog, sending me notes, and letting me know I'm not just writing on the wind. You all are the best!

Today there won't be a recipe. Instead, I'd like to tell you a bit about someone very special to me and to the world of Chinese culinary knowledge.

Auntie Shen cooking at her home in Rossmoor
My lovely friend and mentor, Florence Lin, just passed away. I wrote about her last week, in a strange bit of coincidence. This wonderful old lady I called Auntie Shen was as delicate as a bird and not much taller than my ear, but she vibrated with life, had an outsized personality, and ate with a happy passion. Her life was an ode to living large.

Auntie Shen refused to marry the guy her family had selected for her. Instead, she joined the Chinese army during what we call WWII and what the Chinese call the War Against Japanese Aggression--both sound about right, fwiw--and carved out her own path as a modern woman. In peacetime, she went on to have two beautiful daughters and eventually travel with her family to the United States. 
A beauty at 60

But what she is most remembered for are her cookbooks. At a time when few Chinese Americans were taken seriously as food writers, she got published. Again and again. 

In fact, if you want to add some great cookbooks to your collection, please check out her titles. And though it is rarely mentioned (except here--thanks Grace Young!), Auntie Shen was also the genius behind the Chinese cookbook in the Time Life Foods of the World Recipes

This makes me more than a bit upset. Her name doesn't appear on the cover or, for that matter, much of anywhere inside the book. And yet she wrote all of those recipes. 

Let me put that out there for you and let it sink in. 

See her name? I don't...
But in spite of the fact that she received almost no credit, this is another book you should add to your shelves because it really is amazing. 

Back when I was desperately poor and couldn't afford to buy it, I borrowed a copy from the library and photocopied the whole recipe booklet on an office copier at night (hey, it was free), and then studied it from front to back. I've preserved those yellowing, spattered, and dogeared sheets as a reminder of how much she taught me and how much I really and truly loved that book.

True to form, when I showed that sheaf of messy pages to their author, she cracked up at finally finding a new edition for her work.

With Thomas Keller at the IACP awards
I was lucky enough to call her my friend for close to a decade, and I count my lucky stars for that. She was a model and a mentor, as well as a heck of a lot of fun to cook with and eat with and talk with for hours on the phone. You know, everything a great girlfriend should be. 

That photo at the top was taken in San Francisco in 2013, when the IACP gave Auntie Shen their milestone award for her contributions to understanding China's cuisines. I never saw her glow as much as she did that night. The photo to the right with the French Laundry's Thomas Keller is from her niece's blog, which also has a great introduction to her books and her life.

I was able to get Auntie Shen and the great Cecilia Chiang (known around here as Auntie Sun) together for a spectacular lunch and long conversation with a reporter from The San Francisco Chronicle,. Surprisingly, although they are almost the same age and in the same field and lived in the Bay Area, these two masters had never met before. Much of their conversation was preserved in the newspaper account, but my favorite part didn't get recorded...
Two giants of Chinese gastronomy

As soon as they sat down, they sized each other up in a very Chinese way. They soon discovered they were both born in the Year of the Monkey, so the next question was, of course, what month? Auntie Shen won by about a couple of weeks, if memory serves, so she became the elder sister at the table. 

Anyway, the good news is that she was 97 when she left us. That's almost a century old, by my calculations. And so she lived a full life. She passed on with her family and loved ones nearby in upstate New York, and probably ended up with more good friends than I have acquaintances. 

Her beautiful hands

In her memory and also as a favor to yourself, cook from her books. Read them, too, from cover to cover. They are all fantastic. 

Top photo: (c) Flora Lin, 2013

Photo with Thomas Keller: (c) Flora Lin, 2013
Photo with Cecilia Chiang: (c) San Francisco Chronicle, 2013