Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sweetness and Luck: A Multicultural Cake for Chinese New Year

Western civilization does New Year’s celebrations all wrong.

Western New Year’s celebrations are all about looking back – and Monday morning quarterbacking is never truly satisfying. Do you really want to hear the past year’s Top 100 songs played back in ascending order of popularity, rehash every natural disaster and political scandal of the year, and re-read the obituaries of every important person who has passed on during the past twelve months? Worst of all, after the celebration itself – typically a frenzied and wildly overpriced evening on the town (look out for those sobriety checkpoints!) – there's nothing to look forward to but taking down the Christmas tree.

No wonder everyone wakes up on January 1 with a hangover.

On the other hand, Chinese New Year celebrations – which I grew up with alongside their champagne-fueled Western counterparts – are all about looking forward. Sure, the past year may have been marked by screw-ups, disasters, and disappointment, but so what?  The advent of a new year is a chance to reset the clock, get back up, and start out again from scratch – and that in itself is genuine cause for celebration.

In the days leading up to Chinese New Year (which falls on January 23 this year), houses are cleaned (to ensure a fresh start), new clothes are purchased (ditto), and decorations in lucky colors – red and gold – are put up everywhere to invite good fortune for the following year. On a trip to Singapore several years ago, my parents loaded up on gaudy bright-red New Year decorations, the likes of which they’d never seen anywhere else – a six-foot long red dragon, which they’ve taken to hanging over the dining room table, and long strings of fake red-and-gold firecrackers (including a battery-operated one that lights up and makes obnoxious popping noises when you press a button). In the years when they’ve hosted  big Chinese New Year’s parties, they’ve left the outdoors Christmas lights up to add to the festive look. (Conveniently enough, Chinese New Year typically takes place in late January or early February, which always gives us something to look forward to in those blah days after the other New Year.)

Like all worthy celebrations, Chinese New Year festivities are centered around food. But not just any food – everything eaten during this important time must contribute to one’s good luck in the following year.
This focus on securing one’s future good fortune begins the moment one wakes up on New Year’s Day. While Western custom dictates waking up every January 1 to the taste of  Alka-Selzer and regret, Chinese tradition requires that you start the new year with a taste of something sweet, to ensure sweetness in the year ahead. (I clearly remember being fed a bit of rock candy before breakfast one Chinese New Year morning during my childhood – right before a dental appointment!)

To ensure that your friends and family have an equally sweet start to their year, you must also have a pretty box of sweets – such as candied kumquats, melon, and ginger – on hand when they drop by. If they come over for lunch or dinner, traditionally lucky foods you can serve them (and yourself) include clams, lettuce, whole chickens, and pretty much anything round or orange or gold – all of which symbolize wealth and completeness.

Besides being auspicious, traditional Chinese New Year dishes can be delectable – fresh clams stir-fried with savory black-bean sauce, juicy poached or roasted chicken, and, of course, lettuce wraps – but some may be acquired tastes for those who did not grow up with them. In particular, Chinese sweets tend to be problematic for non-Asians – they’re generally a lot less sweet than Western desserts, and the bouncy, toothsome texture of some of the rice-based sweets is an unfamiliar and startling sensation for many.

Still, festive meals call for dessert, and most Chinese-Americans have plenty of non-Chinese friends who share in their celebrations (and also deserve any good luck that comes along). Since sweets in general are lucky, as are round, orange or yellow things, pretty much any sweet, round, orange or yellow thing will serve as good insurance against misfortune – this is why tangerines, oranges, and kumquats are popular New Year’s treats and decorations.

Still, pointing your non-Asian friends towards that decorative bowl of tangerines while you enjoy your sticky-rice new year’s cake is not very classy. Instead, I’d serve a dessert that pleases all constituencies involved (because this is America, doggone it!). This almond cake topped with candied orange slices (inspired by a Mexican almond cake by Paty Jinich) has all bases covered: It’s round. It’s orange. It’s laden with an exceptionally lucky fruit.  The cake is sweet but not too sweet, with a moist, tender texture that will please everyone at your table. And if any of your New Year’s guests are avoiding gluten, you’re also safe: the cake is also flourless and gluten-free.

Back in high school, one of my English teachers gave a fantastically depressing lecture about New Year’s Eve. He told us that it was a profoundly sad occasion because that’s the time when people reflect upon the failures and disappointments of the past year and realize they’re a year older and they’ll never get that time back. Nobody actually enjoys all those big parties and all that champagne, he said. All they’re doing is trying to hide from the pain.

Speak for yourself, dude.
This cake takes as its point of departure Paty Jinich’s version of a Mexican convent sweet – a flourless almond cake topped with a marmalade glaze. To make this simple cake prettier and more festive, I’ve replaced the original marmalade topping with candied orange slices (based on a surprisingly easy recipe from Food and Wine), and replaced the original port flavoring in the cake with a mixture of orange juice and orange flower water.


For the cake:
2 cups blanched almonds
¾ cup sugar
4 eggs
½ cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon orange flower water

For the candied oranges:
2 large navel oranges
3 cups water
1 cup sugar

Sugar for garnish (optional)

1.Butter an 8-inch round cake pan or springform pan, and cover the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2.In a food processor, pulse the almonds and sugar together until finely ground. Add the eggs and pulse until all is thoroughly combined. Then add the vanilla, orange juice, and orange flower water. Cut the butter into chunks and add to the batter, processing until thoroughly combined.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the top of the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

7. Allow the cake to cool for about 10 minutes before removing from the pan and cooling it completely on a wire rack.

8. To make the candied oranges: If the oranges have been waxed, dip them briefly in a pot of boiling water, then rinse and dry them thoroughly to remove the wax. Cut them crosswise into ¼-inch slices.

9. In a wide, deep skillet, combine the water and sugar and bring to a boil. Add the orange slices and cook over medium-high heat until the oranges are translucent and the liquid forms a thin syrup, about 20 minutes. Gently stir the oranges from time to time to ensure that they cook evenly.

10. Reduce the heat to medium low and continue cooking until the syrup thickens and reduces and the orange rinds are tender.

11. Once the oranges are cool enough to touch, arrange them decoratively over the top of the cake, glaze with the leftover cooking syrup, and sprinkle with extra sugar, if desired.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Let's Lunch: Low-Concept Vegetarian Chili

(This is a slightly modified repost of an earlier piece)

Anyone who has ever shared a meal with me knows I’m relentlessly curious about strange food – the weirder the dish, the more I want to try it. “This looks like something YOU would order!”  has become family shorthand for any crazy menu item featuring odd organ meats or unexpected  uses of flavorings (vanilla-flavored appetizers or cilantro-flavored desserts, anyone?)  At home, my husband knows better than to expect any dish, except for a few treasured standards, to ever taste the same way twice. All others are subject to change and revision without notice. 

Because of my passion for culinary experimentation (a.k.a., pulling random objects from the fridge and making stuff up as I go along), the dishes I come up with during my cooking frenzies tend to be high-concept and, I like to believe, subversive: Crunchy pig ears! Curried popcorn! Sugary quesadilla-like objects!

Okay, maybe “high concept” is too generous a term. “Utterly random and in need of justification” may be more accurate. Still, some of my most random accidental creations are the ones I think of most fondly. 

But on really busy nights, the comfortable, immutable standards – grilled cheese sandwiches, fried eggs on toast – come to the rescue. Alternately, I’d throw together a pared-down, quickie version of something I’d normally do a lot, lot better. On such nights, the only guiding concept behind my cooking is “lowered expectations.”

A Wednesday evening in November – Thanksgiving Eve – was such a night. The strange part was that my experiment in non-experimentation went amazingly well.

Thanksgiving Eve (is that even a real term?) is the one day of the year when Americans are officially excused from even trying to make dinner – apparently, it’s one of the biggest nights of the year for Domino’s Pizza. For me, it was also a rush day at work – a huge, last-minute, emergency project kept me glued to my computer from about nine in the morning until 8:30 that night. When I hit the SEND button for the last time that evening and finally wiped my hands of the project, I realized I had not eaten anything since breakfast but a taro-flavored mochi ball (don’t ask) and a pear. I was famished, and my husband even more so.

I had previously planned to make vegetarian chili – I had all the ingredients, and it would be a good, low-fat counterpart to all the splurge-y stuff we’d be eating in the next few days. But I hadn’t counted on that project taking so long. Whatever. I really felt like eating chili, so I just plowed ahead. No time for anything experimental or fancy or original. Just basic, pared-down, fast-as-possible chili, or something like it.

In the interest of speed, I poured a thin layer of canola oil into a heavy saucepan and set it to heat as I prepped the veggies. (Back in cooking school, we were taught to have our mise en place – prepped ingredients and equipment – fully prepared and ready to go before we even contemplated approaching the stove, but at home I’ve found that interspersing prep and cooking is even faster, if you plan things right.) 
N.B. -- these photos weren't taken Thanksgiving Eve; we were too spaced out to even think of it. And in any case, I had no idea if the recipe would work, and to be honest, didn't really care. Rather, Glenn got these shots last night when I re-created the dish and calibrated all the measurements for public consumption.

While the oil heated, I chopped up some onion and bell pepper, which seemed like common-sense things to put in chili, then tossed them into the saucepan with the hot oil, a bit of dried oregano, and some cumin seed. (I added the seeds because I couldn’t find my bottle of ground cumin – now I’m glad it went missing; the seeds add a pop and vibrancy that the ground stuff doesn’t.)

 Then I chopped half a large tomato, a clove of garlic, and half a large jalapeno pepper. I tossed these into the saucepan along with my go-to secret ingredient: a chopped chipotle en adobo, or pickled chipotle chile: these chiles add a terrific hit of sweetness, spice, and smokiness to everything, and even better, keep well for long periods in the refrigerator.

All this had taken about 15 minutes, tops. Then I opened and drained a can of red beans, poured them into the veggie mix, lowered the heat, and let it simmer until the tomatoes and other veggies had cooked down. While this was happening, I poured beers for my husband and me and put together some tasty garnishes for the chili: a cut-up avocado, some chopped onion, a bit of grated cheddar. 

My original plan that morning had been to make cornbread to go with our dinner, but there was no way that was going to happen now – my brain was too fried and I was just too tired. So I got a loaf of bread from the fridge, cut a few slices, and put them on the table with the chile garnishes. Hey, it’s not much, but it’s better than Domino’s!

Now it was just after 9:00. Yes! A nice pot of homemade chili for two in just half an hour! Now THIS was a conceptual coup.

And darn if it didn’t taste really nice – bright, spicy, not too heavy, and quite pretty with the colorful garnishes strewn over the top. It turned out so well I decided I’d make it again, without any tweaks.
Of course, every experience of discovery brings with it useful lessons for the future, and here is the lesson of my nearly-no-concept chili: Sometimes brainless, half-assed efforts pay off  big time. Thank goodness for the universe’s small favors.

2 tablespoons canola or other neutral cooking oil
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
¾ cup chopped onion, plus extra for garnish
½ teaspoons cumin seed
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
1 clove garlic, minced
½ large jalapeno pepper, minced (optional – omit if you’re heat-averse)
1 cup chopped tomato (fresh or canned)
1 chopped chipotle en adobe
1 (14-ounce) can red or kidney beans
Salt to taste
Shredded cheddar cheese, for garnish
1 chopped or sliced ripe avocado, for garnish

1. Heat oil in a heavy saucepan over medium high heat. Add onions, bell pepper, cumin, and oregano and cook until vegetables are wilted, about three minutes.

2. Add garlic and jalapeno to the saucepan, cook until they soften and release their fragrance, about 2 minutes.

3. Add tomatoes, chipotle, and beans to the saucepan. Lower the heat, stir, cover, and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have dissolved and the vegetables are soft. Taste and add salt if needed (it probably won’t need any). Serve with garnishes.

This is part of the monthly #LetsLunch series -- this month's theme is chili! Stay tuned for links to other contributions to the series; it's going to be great!