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.


  1. Lovely! Sounds delicious and uses one of my latest obsessions, orange flower water. Could I use almond flour instead of processing the almonds? Have a fierce Year of the Dragon!

  2. Your presentation always looks so beautiful! I love both almond and orange, and flour less makes it low-carb, right?

  3. Linda--good question about the almond flour - I guess it would depend on how fine it is (the pulverized sugar/almond mixture has a texture like fine sand, rather than super-fine, like flour). Hope you had a great New Year celebration!

    Grace --but of course!!