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. Note: pumpkin mochi cake and pumpkin thousand layer spiral mooncakes
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.
If you want to save even more time, you can use canned pumpkin. Bryan’s mom has experimented with that a few times and it seems to work pretty well. The only caveat is that canned pumpkin tends to have more water than baked pumpkin, so you need to add a bit more flour to get the consistency of the final mixture correct.
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, mix the pumpkin puree 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. Ideally, though, we like to let them cool, slice them, and then pan fry them for any extra crispiness that’s downright addictive.
- 3 lb pumpkin flesh, baked and mashed
- 1 lb long grain rice flour
- 1 lb pork loin, cut into 1-2 cm chunks
- 1 T soy sauce
- 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
- ¼ tsp five spice powder
- ¼ 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 9x13 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.
- Cool the cakes in the refrigerator. Once cool, slice into ½ inch long pieces and pan fried.