One of the hot new health foods right now is the goji berry, which looks like a brighter, ovalish cousin of the cranberry and is touted as a “superfruit” for containing a pharmacy’s worth of antioxidants and vitamins in one tart little package. I first saw goji berries mentioned on Vosges’ new Goji Bar, which, by the way, is delightful – a not-too-bitter bar of chocolate embedded with chewy bits of berries and a flecked with Himalayan pink salt, giving it just the right addictive tang. Intrigued by this goji berry, I looked around to see dried goji berries being sold at health food stores for breath-catching prices, along with goji powder, goji juice, and goji health bars – clearly the fad was in full swing.
However, I then read that the goji berry was called qi zi in Chinese, which sparked my memory – I had heard this name before. Had I maybe seen this little fruit before in my childhood, in my mom’s kitchen, as she made soups and tonics from the mysterious contents of packages she brought back from Chinatown? I called my mom in Hong Kong.
“Mom, do you know what goji berries are?”
“Goji berries? What are you talking about?”
“You know, those little dried red berry things that are supposed to be really good for you?”
“You mean qi zi? I put that in the abalone soup, but you always left the berries at the bottom. I also made that tea with it that’s really good for restoring nutrients to your body, but you would always say it tasted bad and refuse to drink it.”
“Oh…” silence as I realize how foolish I was to not recognize my mother’s wisdom and her ability to be far ahead of any health-food-fad curve.
“You know, I still have a bunch of them at home. You can get them at any Chinese grocery if you want.”
So this magical new superberry, which is supposedly found only in the Tibetan Himalayas and just discovered to have all these healthful properties, has long been used all over Asia and could be purchased in Chinatown just a few blocks from my place, for less than a tenth of what the health-food stores were charging!
Most of the commercial crop of goji berries, or wolfberries, as they as also called, come from the Ningxia region of China. There are currently many claims floating around the internet that the goji berries from Tibet are of a different species, are grown differently, processed differently – pretty much all arguments by the suppliers that only their product contains those all-important antioxidants and nutrients and you shouldn’t accept any common substitutes.
I am not pretending to be an expert on goji berries or to have investigated all these sites, nor do I wish to get involved in any debates about the differences between various strains of goji berries, but I do know that goji berries have long been renowned in China for their healthful benefits, and have many uses in Chinese medicine – for example, that tea my mom would make every month for me actually was a tonic brewed from several ingredients, goji berries among them, and was meant to help balance the female system after each monthly cycle. And it wasn’t the goji berries that made it taste bad, it was another herb called dong quai!
Goji berries themselves taste like a cross between a cranberry and a raisin, more on the tart than the sweet side, with an herbal undertone. They are always found dried, and will vary from raisin-soft to quite hard. Unless you are planning on eating them out of hand, their hardness should not concern you; when soaked in water the berries will plump up and become quite soft. I have seen packages of goji berries all over Chinatown and in large Asian groceries; they can be tricky to locate if you don’t read Chinese as they are not always called “goji berries”; sometimes they are labeled as wolfberries, or the curious name “Medlar”, or even by their scientific name, Lycium barbarum.
There are some caveats to purchasing them – sometimes processors will add sulfites to the berries to increase the vibrancy of their red color. If possible, try to buy them where they are stored in an open bin so you can inspect them more closely.
I found another riff on the theme of goji berries and pink salt on Chockylit’s wonderful blog Cupcake Bakeshop – a goji berry-studded cupcake topped with a swirl of chocolate ganache and a sprinkling of salt. There is again the lovely interplay between rich chocolate, tart berries, and the crunch of salt. I am particularly enamored of the Himalayan salt because of its infinite variations of pink among its crystals(so pretty and springlike!) but be warned that because of the crystal size it does have a robust, intense flavor – I found the amount of salt indicated for the ganache was a bit much for me, especially if you sprinkle more salt on top of the cupcakes – you may want to err on the lighter-handed side and add more salt to taste.
I’d like to offer one of these cupcakes to my mom and tell her thank you for looking after my health, even when I didn’t realize or appreciate it. I’m realizing I don’t need to fall for the latest food fad or trendy superfood – my mom always knew best all along.
Goji Berry Cupcakes with Chocolate Ganache and Himalayan Pink Salt
- adapted from Cupcake Bakeshop
- 7 ounces (200 g) bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
- 12 ounces (340 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 1/4 cups (450 g) sugar
- 8 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 1/4 cups (156 g) all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup (22 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt
- 3/4 cup goji berries, chopped
- 5 ounces (142 g) bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
- 2 ounces (57 g) unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup (120 g) heavy cream
- 4 tablespoons (57 g) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 1-in pieces
- 1 cup (120 g) confectioners’ sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt
- 1/4 cup (61 g) whole milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the cupcakes:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare cupcake pans with cupcake liners.
- Place chocolate in a metal bowl. Add butter to the chocolate and place the bowl over a pan of simmering water. Stir until chocolate melts and butter is combined.
- Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Let mixture cool for 10 minutes. Pour mixture into bowl of stand mixer and beat for 3 minutes.
- Add one egg at a time, mixing for 30 seconds between each one.
- Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt together into a bowl. Add to the mixture and beat until blended.
- Stir in the goji berries. Scoop into cupcake cups and bake for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool on wire rack.
For the ganache:
- Place chocolates into a heatproof metal bowl.
- Heat cream in a small saucepan on the stove until bubbles form around the edges. Pour cream over the chocolate. Let sit for 1 minute then stir until combined.
- Add butter to the chocolate a few pieces at a time and stir until everything is melted and combined. If the mixture won't melt completely, place over a saucepan of simmering water and stir until it is melted.
- Whisk together sugar, salt, milk, and vanilla in another bowl until combined. Pour the sugar mixture onto the chocolate mixture and stir until combined and smooth. Let sit at room temperature until thickened, stirring occasionally.
- Beat in a stand mixer until fluffy.
- To assemble the cupcakes, pipe the ganache onto the top of the cupcakes, then sprinkle (sparingly) with the pink salt.