Project Food Blog Round 8: An Unusual Take on Pumpkin

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Voting is now open! To vote, click here.

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.

Rice mill?

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?


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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.

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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.

Family Traditions
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.
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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.
NanGuaGaoPrepWork
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.
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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!
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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.

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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).
PumpkinMochiCake
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.
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Thousand Layer Spiral Mooncake
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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.

RollingPastry
These pastries are a bit complicated to make, as the method involves making two types of dough – an “oil dough” and a “water dough.” Have you heard the old saying, “oil and water don’t mix”? That is the loose principle behind why this dough works. You wrap one type of dough over another, and then you flatten, roll it up, flatten again, and roll it up a couple times in order to create the layers. I will post a video later on this week to demonstrate the exact steps for making these cool pastries!
[Update: Video is here! For video post click here!] 
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As a final step, you flatten the rolled out halves (which you have cut with a very sharp knife), and you wrap your favorite filling.
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I decided to make cinnamon flavored pastry and I filled the inside with sweetened pumpkin puree (sweetened with brown sugar), and pieces of pumpkin mochi (from above). Bake at 350 ° F for about 30 minutes, or until the edges are brown. Serve!

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Look at those lovely layers!
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You can be super flexible with the fillings. I did a mixture of sweetened pumpkin puree, pumpkin + mochi, and mochi only pastries.

Epilogue

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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. If you are so inclined, please vote for me tomorrow (voting opens Monday!). Update: Voting is open now! Please click here to vote.

RECIPES
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“Nan Gua Gao” Savory Chinese Pumpkin Cakes
From Bryan’s mom
2 lb pumpkin flesh, baked and mashed
1 lb long grain rice flour
1 lb pork loin, cut into 1-2 cm chunks
1 T soysauce
1 T cornstarch
1 T vegetable oil
1 T Dried shrimp, soaked and rinsed
5-7 Dried shitake mushrooms, soaked, rinsed, and sliced
3-4 shallots, peeled and chopped
3 stalks of scallions, chopped
1/4 tsp five spice powder
1/4 tsp garlic powder
white pepper (To taste)
1-2 T Chinese Shaoxing rice wine or sherry
        
Stir Fry Ingredients
Mix pork with soy sauce and cornstarch and let marinate for 20 minutes. Heat the vegetable oil in a large wok (or Dutch oven) until hot. Add dried shrimp, Shitake mushrooms, shallots, and scallions and stir fry for a few minutes until the shallots are translucent. Add the marinated pork and stir fry for about a minute. Add five spice powder, garlic powder, white pepper and cooking wine and continue to stir fry until the meat is cooked. Set aside.
The Rice Cake
Mix mashed pumpkin with the rice flour and mix thoroughly.  Add the Stir Fry Ingredients and mix well. Pour batter into a well-oiled pan. Put the pan inside of a larger pan full of water. Cover both pans with foil and bake at 350 °F for about 1.5 hours (for a 9×13 pan) or about 40 minutes for individual muffin tins. Time varies depending on the size of the pan, so definitely check often. Cake is done when a toothpick or fork inserted comes out cleanly.
Cake can be eaten as is or pan fried for further “crunch.”

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Pumpkin Mochi Cake
1 lb glutinous rice flour
1 cup pumpkin, baked and mashed
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 cups milk
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
3 eggs, beaten
Combine all ingredients and mix until well combined. Bake at 350 ° F for at least one hour depending on the pan. A bundt cake will take over an hour, whereas two loaves will take less time. Cake is done when an inserted toothpick comes out cleanly.
Alternate Pumpkin Mochi Cake recipe
1 lb glutinous rice flour
1 cup pumpkin, baked and mashed
1 stick of butter, melted
1 can (14oz) coconut milk
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
5 eggs, beaten

Cream together sugar with butter. Add remaining wet ingredients. Add dry ingredients. Bake at 350 ° F until inserted toothpick comes out cleanly (about 1 hour and 15 minutes if using a bundt pan).
Important! Let cake cool completely before trying to remove from pan (this can take several hours). I learned (the hard way) what happens when you don’t wait. Essentially, part of the cake will stick to the pan and your entire cake will fall apart and be ruined. :(

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Thousand Layer Spiral Mooncakes
adapted from Cafe Nilson

Water dough
100 g all purpose flour
1/4 tsp white vinegar
25  g shortening
15 g sugar
50 g water

Oil Dough
90 g all purpose flour
50 g shortening
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Filling
Pumpkin butter mochi
pumpkin puree
for the water dough
Mix all ingredients together (easiest with hands) until a soft dough forms.  Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for 20 minutes. Divide into 4 balls. Set aside.
for the oil dough
Mix all the ingredients together until a soft dough forms. Divide into 4 balls. Set aside.
Assembly
Wrap water dough over the oil dough (repeat four times).  Take one dough and roll out flat to about 1/8 inch thin. Once rolled out, roll up like a swiss roll.  Using a rolling pin, flatten and roll out the swiss roll lengthwise. Using your fingers, roll the flattened dough up again into another roll. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough in half.
With cut side up, flatten a dough half and roll it out to about 4-5 inches in diameter. Measure about 100g of filling for each ball.  Wrap the dough over the filling.
Bake at 350 ° F for about 30 minutes or until the edges are browned.
©2009-2014 Tiny Urban Kitchen
All Rights Reserved

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Comments

  1. says

    I am so glad you are still in the competition! I’ve definitely been cheering on the sidelines and with this trio of delicious and tempting cakes, I’m sure you’ll be through to the next round as well! Can’t wait to vote for you today!

  2. Allie (Live Laugh Eat) says

    I love how you chose unique recipes to incorporate pumpkin. It really shows your creativity and fearlessness. The photos are beautiful too. You’ve got my vote. Best of luck this round.

  3. says

    You have something few people have: You have SUCH refinement in presentation !!! You know? That’s impossible to learn…we were born with it, or not…You have it Jen! That together with culinary skill will take you far…remember my words!
    Cristina

  4. Monica says

    Jen, just linked here from Foodgawk =) these look amazing and I can just hear your voice too as I read through your entry~

  5. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Thanks Andrea! I plan on telling all the rest of the relatives that they have no excuse for not knowing how to make the dish now because they can just look on my blog. :)

  6. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Thanks Amelia! Your post was so amazing too! Yes, the nan gua gao has amazing texture, especially when you pan fry it!

  7. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Beata, Bryan’s mom has actually experimented with canned pumpkin. Her main advice was that canned pumpkin has a much higher water content, so she had to adjust the ratios a bit to get the right consistency. I guess you can always drain the canned pumpkin too. We’ve tried the canned version – it’s still pretty good!

  8. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Mardi, you are too kind! I really appreciate your encouraging comments throughout this competition. You totally went all out this round and I think you are a shoe-in this round!!

  9. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Oh my, the post DID take eons! I sort of felt like I lost my entire Thanksgiving break to this post (ha ha, except for Black Friday morning when I went shopping, LOL).

  10. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Awww . . . thanks so much for all the “cheering” and support and the vote! I sincerely appreciate it. :)

  11. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Thanks Allie! I definitely wanted to make something that was unusual. I like that idea – “fearless.” ;)

  12. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Thanks Joan! I’m so glad I was able to share the story too. Those pumpkin cakes are too good to keep a secret!

  13. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Tell me about it! I am not naturally a baker so this was TOTALLY stretching me way outside my comfort zone. Thanks for your kind comments!

  14. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Hi Norma,

    I’m glad you were able to get the “follow” function to work. It was great meeting you at Foodbuzz also!

  15. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Thanks Mariko! Yes, and I even did something sort of Hawaiian! (Or I think it’s Hawaiian – correct me if I’m wrong about the mochi cake?)

  16. jentinyurbankitchen says

    One day Diana! I was bummed you didn’t come to the Foodbuzz Festival this year so we couldn’t connect. One of these days we WILL meet up again. :)

  17. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Yes, the cake is quite similar to the taro or radish cakes that we have in dim sum. Thanks so much for the vote!

  18. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Thanks! It took some practice to get those spirals right, but after a weekend and too many mooncakes to count, I think I finally have it down. :)

  19. jentinyurbankitchen says

    The baking method that I use is sort of a “steam-bake” anyway because you bake the nan gau gaos over a steam bath and you cover the whole thing with foil. It probably would not taste that different!

  20. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Thanks so much Julie! I LOVED your post this time – the bridge story reminded me of my own bridge-building science competition (I think it was called Odyssey of the Mind) back in elementary school. I don’t think our bridge could hold a person though!

    Love the croquemcakes!!!

  21. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Thanks Lingbo! It’s so cool to have the Boston bloggers supporting me at this stage of the competition (I think I’m the only Bostonian!!).

    I’ve always loved your witty writing style. If only I could write half as well. :)

    I’ll be at the David Chang lecture next week. Will you be there?

  22. Hot Polka Dot's Mom says

    I particularly appreciate a recipe post that introduces me to international food I’ve never heard of or experienced, especially when ingredient combinations and method of preparation go outside of what I am familiar with. Unique and delicious!

  23. Jeannie says

    You really took yourself to the extreme for this project it’s no wonder you are still hanging in there! All of them looks really delicious!

  24. brhau says

    As much as I’d like to take a year-long vacation from pumpkins, I am tempted to make that savory pumpkin cake. I also like how you’ve combined these three dishes into a coherent plate. Really nice job.

  25. Baobabs says

    I LOVE pumpkin cakes. my mother made them all the time when i was growing up. somehow it doesn’t turn out as good when I make them on my own, it’s either to dry or too wet! the recipe I use has the same ingredients, only we add a little chicken broullion to give it a more oommph and we steam it in those old fashioned large steamers. Sometimes i substitute the pork loin with bacon bits. turns out great too!!

  26. says

    This looks delicious, this is the first time that I’m reading about pumpkin cakes and looking at the list of ingredients how can it be anything but yummy. Family recipes are always those that taste the best and what a wonderful thing for you know to have this recipe. Good Luck !

  27. says

    The article title was right, this is indeed an unusual take on pumpkin. I love reading your blog since it presents food in a different variety. And because of the fact that you share family stories that goes to show that the love for food is truly a passion. Keep it up!

  28. jessie says

    My father-in-law comes from Amoy (Xiamen). He came to the US in 1949. I look forward to making this recipe for him (though will need to wait until the fall for pumpkins).

  29. Littledumplingno 1 says

    Hi Jennifer,
    I just wanted to say thanks for sharing your great Chinese recipes, so detailed and charming. I’m so glad I finally found your blog. Keep going! I will definitely make the pumpkin cakes and spiral mooncakes, though I’m quite intimidated by them. And congrats on your win. I’ve only discovered your blog tonight, but you would have had my vote.

  30. Marla says

    These savory pumpkin cakes look wonderful! I am hosting an online BBQ party called Get Grillin’ with Cookin’ Canuck….we would love this in our appetizer link up. Please pop over to submit if you wish :) 

  31. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Chris, the other two things on the plate are also described in the blog post in detail: mochi cake and spiral mooncakes

  32. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Yep, it is most definitely chili oil. They both come out of the same jar. One is the actual chili flakes & seeds; the other is the red hot chili oil. I also like to eat it with sweet chili sauce (not pictured). Thanks for clarifying!

  33. saleha says

    Hi there, I’d like to know, if Shaoxing wine or sherry ( as used in the savoury pumpkin cake) can be substituted with some other condiment? Thanks in advance. The cake sounds scrumptious already, just from the description alone. 

  34. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Hi Saleha,
    I’m guessing that you can omit the wine and it might still taste pretty good. I haven’t tried substituting it with other stuff before, so I’m not really sure what substitutions would work!
    Best of luck!
    Jen

  35. Jane says

    This awesome ! I found your blog from kaf blog visit, and love that you have so many Taiwanese recipes in English, I am also from Taiwan, but did not grew up there, so love the food that I grew up with cooked at home, but cannot read Chineses recipes. Thanks,.

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