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Just imagine with me for a moment . . . .
It is the late 1800’s and you are living in Xiamen (Amoy Island) in Southern China. It’s only 6AM, but you know you have to get to the market soon before the rice mill closes.
Well of course! How else are you going to be able to get the rice to that fine consistency to make your lovely pumpkin cakes? You would hate to have to hand-grind it! Thank God for modern technology! You’re so glad you remembered to soak the rice overnight so that you could bring it to the mill today.
Wait, did you say Pumpkin cake?
Oh, the savory Chinese pumpkin cake is a very unique regional specialty. It’s so localized, you’re not sure if they make this in any other part of China. The dish takes a ton of work, but it’s so worth it. In fact, if there were just one dish you would want to pass down to your family, it would be these scrumptious pumpkin cakes.
After getting your rice milled to a lovely paste, you pick up some pumpkins from the market and begin the laborious task of slowly peeling off thin shreds of pumpkin layer by layer with a knife. It takes a few hours, but eventually you have a huge bowl of finely shredded pumpkin, which you then slowly cook in a huge wok until they are soft.
Finally, several additional steps later, you serve your family the famous “CHE” pumpkin cakes. Beyond excited, the entire family devours these moist, slightly crunchy, and very pumpkin-y cakes. You think about how long it took you to perfect the skill of making these, and you vow to keep it alive in the family, hopefully for generations to come.
If you haven’t guessed yet, the above story refers to Bryan’s great-grandmother who grew up in southern Fujian in China. We love love love these savory pumpkin cakes and always look forward to having it in the fall when Bryan’s mom makes it for the holidays.
For three generations straight, this pumpkin dish has lived on in the CHE family. Bryan’s mom learned it from Bryan’s grandmother, who likewise learned it from her husband’s mother. Bryan’s mom is now the only person in our extended family who knows how to make this dish. In fact, she is expected to bring it to all family potlucks because everyone loves this dish, yet no one knows how to make it.
When Challenge 8 for Project Food Blog came around (yes, I’m still in!) with the charge “bake something with pumpkin,” I knew it was time for me to accept my responsibility and keep the family tradition alive. I contacted Bryan’s mom and asked her to teach me how to make the CHE savory pumpkin cake.
In order to add my own spin to the challenge, I also decided to create two sweet interpretations inspired by the traditional CHE family recipe.
Traditional Savory Pumpkin Cake
You read above how labor-intensive this dish used to be – can you imagine hand milling rice flour or shredding pumpkins? Bryan’s mom, who emigrated to the US a little over 30 years ago, felt that the traditional Chinese method was TOO time consuming (I can’t believe she actually tried it the traditional way a few times). She modified the recipe by incorporating modern technology available in western kitchens.
Instead of wok-frying tiny shreds of pumpkin into a puree, bake pumpkins (in a pan filled with a little water and covered with foil) at 350 °F for about 1 hour. Mash up the pumpkin puree.
There is a lot of flexibility in what ingredients you choose to put inside the cake. The traditional CHE family recipe uses a mixture of dried shrimp, scallions, shallots, Shitake mushrooms, and pork loin. These are separately stir-fried with soy sauce, rice wine, and a few other flavoring agents before being mixed in with the pumpkin.
Separately, the pumpkin puree is mixed with rice flour (yay, we can buy it in the market now, no need for hand-milling!). Finally, mix everything together and bake!
You can eat these lovely cakes straight out of the oven. Or, if you like an extra crunch, you can pan-fry them right before serving.
These were absolutely delicious, and I got Bryan’s stamp of approval (most important judge!!!). Tons of thanks to both Bryan’s mom and dad for sharing with me the recipe and the story behind the recipe (recipe at the end of the post).
Pumpkin Mochi Cake
As rice flour was the key ingredient in the savory pumpkin cakes, I decided to make a sweet version by replacing the rice flour with sweet rice flour (e.g., Mochiko). I based this cake off of an earlier red bean mochi cake I had made).
I actually tried two versions of this cake. The first one, I used butter, coconut milk, and 5 eggs, a version that is very popular in Hawaii. The second version, I used vegetable oil and only 3 eggs. The two cakes were different, but both very good – it’s really a matter of preference.
If you like a moist and more pudding-like cake, you might prefer the butter version. If you love the dense chewiness of mochi, you might prefer the vegetable oil version. I brought both to a dinner party the other night (all Asians), and they all preferred the second, “mochi-like” one.
The second pastry I decided to make was inspired by one of my favorite pastries from Taiwan. These pastries are called “Thousand Layer Spiral Mooncakes” because layers upon layers of flaky pastry are rolled up into a beautiful spiral. The version that I loved from Taiwan was made with a taro and mochi filling.
Because I had pumpkin mochi cake already on hand, I decided to incorporate it into my own “pumpkin” version of this spiral moon cake.
[Update: Video is here! For video post click here!]
You can be super flexible with the fillings. I did a mixture of sweetened pumpkin puree, pumpkin + mochi, and mochi only pastries.
So there you have it – a trio of Asian snacks all originally inspired by the CHE family pumpkin cakes. As a person who does not bake on a regular basis, this challenge truly stretched me to my limits. I definitely had my share of trials and errors (can’t even tell you HOW MANY spiral mooncakes are hanging out in my kitchen right now), but I came out of it a stronger baker, I believe.
Thanks all so much for your support thus far.
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