One thing about living so near the San Francisco Chinatown – you’ll never miss Chinese New Year, because the sound of firecrackers will start resounding through the neighborhood about a week before the actual celebration.
Of course, that’s exactly how the Chinese would have it – I’d love to see a week-long celebration here in the US for, say, Fourth of July, or Thanksgiving, or our own New Year. Back at my parents’ home in Hong Kong, my mom has been busy cleaning every room of the house and preparing many of the traditional New Year’s dishes, like whole fish, dumplings, and jai, or Buddha’s Delight, a vegetarian noodle dish. My dad is undoubtedly stuffing dozens of red envelopes with lucky money for all his nieces and nephews.
There is a traditional Chinese New Year’s cake, called nian gao, which means literally year cake but which can also translate to "every year higher; suggesting that if you eat this cake you’ll do better every year! Nian gao is made from glutinous rice flour mixed with Chinese brown sugar and steamed to a sticky, chewy consistency, similar to Japanese mochi and other sweets made with glutinous rice flour.
Is that what I made for Chinese New Year? I have to make a confession: Nian gao really isn’t one of my favorite sweets! I’ll eat it, but I haven’t really been tempted to make it in the kitchen. Maybe for next year I’ll attempt a version that captures my tastebuds a little more. But for this year, I decided instead to use another traditional New Year food, the tangerine in my baking. The word for tangerine in Chinese sounds similar to the word for luck, and you’ll see people carrying potted tangerine trees or bags of the bright orange fruit home in Chinatown.
Tangerines come in several varieties, from Clementines to tangelos, which are actually grapefruit-tangelo hybrids. The tangerines you will most often see in Chinatown, with deep green leaves still attached, are sometimes called mandarins and have a brighter, tarter flavor than oranges. They make a superb substitute for lemons, which is exactly what I decided to do – make my favorite lemon curd with tangerines.
The tangerine curd is delectably smooth, pleasingly tart, and a dollop is the perfect topper for a slice of sponge cake – in this case, a version of the Japanese castella. Sweetened with honey, its rich flavor and tight, fine crumb make it a perfect tea time cake.
I also used up my remaining Meyer lemons to make some lemon curd – I couldn’t resist. Both of them are irresistible on the castella.
Thursday marks the official first day of Chinese New Year 4706, or the Year of the Rat. I’m sure by Wednesday night the occasional firecracker pop outside my window will have become a deafening cacophony – but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Happy New Year, and best wishes of happiness and prosperity to you all, in your baking endeavors and everything else!
For other Chinese New Year’s traditions, you can read last year’s post.
Oh, and as a reminder, voting opens today (Monday) in the Death by Chocolate contest at Culinate! Please consider clicking on the image below to go to the Culinate website and vote for me! Remember, if you vote you get a chance at winning a trip to Napa as well! Thank you so much!
adapted from Pierre Hermé’s Desserts
makes about 1 1/2 to 2 cups
1/2 cup sugar
zest from 3 tangerines
1/2 cup freshly squeezed tangerine juice
3 1/2 ounces butter, cut into 1 inch pieces, softened but not melting
Create a water bath by placing a saucepan of water over heat to simmer and placing a metal bowl unto the pan so its bottom does not touch the water. Combine the sugar and tangerine zest together with your fingers and add to the metal bowl. Whisk in the eggs and tangerine juice.
Cook the mixture over the simmering water, whisking constantly, until the cream reaches 180 degrees and thickens. Keep whisking while the mixture is heating up to prevent the eggs from cooking.
Once the cream is thickened – you should be able to make tracks in the mixture with your whisk – take the cream off the heat and strain it into the bowl of a food processor or blender. Let the cream rest for a bit until it cools to about 140 degrees.
Add in the butter pieces a few at the time and combine on high speed. Once all of the butter has been added, let the mixture combine for a few minutes longer to ensure the mixture is perfectly smooth. It is the addition of butter that changes this recipe from a simple lemon curd to a rich, satiny-smooth cream.
Once the cream is finished pour it into a container and let it chill in the refrigerator for about half an hour before assembly.
adapted from Pichet Ong’s The Sweet Spot
makes 16 mini cakes
1 1/2 cups ( 7 1/2 oz) flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 large eggs
3 egg yolks
1 3/4 cups (11 oz) sugar
1/4 cup ( 3 1/2 oz) honey
1/4 cup oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. If you have mini cake pans (about 9"x13" with slots for eight cakes), grease the pans well. Or you can make one large 9"x13" cake.
Combine the flour and salt together in a bowl and set aside.
Beat the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, and honey together in a bowl and set over a saucepan of simmering water. Whisk constantly until the mixture is thick and smooth and the sugar dissolved, about 6 to 8 minutes. Do not let the mixture get too hot or boil.
Pour mixture into bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment for several minutes on medium speed until the mi xture is pale yellow and has increased in volume, about 10 minutes. Carefully fold in the flour mixture with a rubber spatula.
Pour about 1 cup of the mixture into a medium bowl. Pour in the oil, whisking to incorporate. Slowly pour the oil mixture back into the rest of the batter and whisk thoroughly to combine.
Divide batter among cake pans. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 300 degrees and bake for another 15 minutes until the tops are dark brown and a tester inserted into the center of the cakes come out clean.
Let cakes cool on rack before unmolding.