Almond-Honey Cake Muffins

Beijing Spring. It’s kind of glorious. We had a whole slew of beautiful days, that luckily coincided with the weekend, with sun, breeze, and extremely low pollution. I felt like I was back in civilization (whenever the pollution gets bad here I envision myself living in a poisonous, post apocalyptic world along the lines of Nausicaa). To celebrate Easter, Passover, and a good friend’s birthday, several of us made our way to Taverna for brunch. It’s one of the restaurants in 1949: Hidden Village.

Because the girls who organized it thought things might devolve into a picnic later on, I threw together some muffins for snacking. I had initially meant to make individual cakes in the muffin pan, but I guess I put too much baking powder in or something, as the batter rose up into muffins. Based on the success of the almond-honey cake with candied kumquats, I made another batch of almond meal by soaking whole almonds over night, popping them out of their skins, and then running through the blender.

I mixed about 2 cups of flour with baking powder, 3/4 cup sugar and a pinch of salt. I separated 4 eggs, and mixed the yolks with milk, vegetable oil, 1/4 cup honey and the almond meal. In a separate bowl I beat the egg whites until frothy and airy. Mixed the wet and dry, adding the egg whites last.

I carefully ladled the batter into silicone muffin liners and squeezed a blob of black cherry preserves onto the top. I had a crazy idea that I might draw squiggles or write “Happy Birthday” or something, but what was I thinking? Hello, Robot, you can make tasty things but you fail at making pretty things. The preserves were chunkier than I realized, and made squeezing out smooth lines impossible. Also, once in the oven, the batter rose up and the cherry preserves sank into the muffins. So, at least I didn’t waste any effort?

I baked them at 200C for 25 minutes, they turned a beautiful golden color. I sampled one–light, tasted a little bit like a corn muffin but a much more cake-like texture.

Brunch was lovely. It was bright and blue out in Beijing, and in the short time we sat outside in the sun, I managed to get a sunburn. Taverna had an brunch special for RMB78, plus 30 for wine. Not exactly terrible, all things considered. I had a very nice started of parma ham wrapped melon, and then a braised lamb shank, and we all had muffins for dessert.

Songzhuang Artist Village

I figured I owe a picture of the magnificent marmalade that I made in conjunction with the candied kumquats for the cake yesterday. It looks so pretty, too. I’ve been eating it spread on bagels with cream cheese and on baguettes with butter (Why, yes, this is fattest panda speaking).

Noms. Kumquat marmalade with lemon juice and red chilies.

Tomb Sweeping Day afforded us a nice 5 day little holiday. Did I do anything exciting? Of course not. I mostly stayed in bed reading, decided on an apartment, and caught up on Game of Thrones and Mad Men.

On Wednesday, the lat day of relaxation, a friend and I decided to embark on a little adventure. We chose Songzhuang Artist Village as our destination, I guess it’s the next 798 or Caochangdi, or something.

We made lunch and called a cab (best to call ahead, the ride is an hour). The cabbie picked us up and we stopped briefly to pick up third person and off we were! The whole trip cost RMB 100, between 3-4 people it’s not too terrible, but there’s also apparently a bus (#808) from Guomao. After about 5 minutes driving on the highway through vast spaces of construction, empty apartment complexes and many KTVs (seriously, who lives out there? What do they do?) our cabbie dropped us off at the side of the road and we sort of meandered around little galleries and museums. Half of them were closed for Qingming, but we spent two hours wandering. The art wasn’t too exciting, and I tend to get bored of gallery perusing after about the first half hour, but it was a spectacularly clear and bright and warm day to spend outside.

One artist and his artist wife decided that we would sit down and eat sweet potato chips and drink green tea together for about forty minutes and talk about art. They were very nice. We were recommended a very cute little restaurant called Apple, but it wasn’t open until 5. Finally, we managed to extract ourselves, walked around a little more, tried t find the Songzhuang Museum, ended up wandering around the National Defense Artist Museum, then fortuitously grabbed a cab on its way back to Beijing.

It was a fun field trip, but I probably won’t be heading back any time soon. Caochangdi has more to offer and the art is more worthwhile, and 798 has much better art and since it’s been built up, boutiques and stores and trinkets to buy. Still, perhaps worth an afternoon just to see the place before it becomes a tourist trap.

Bacon Update

It’s been an interesting past few weeks. I finally, after a year of teaching and being an intern, have a full-time, real job, complete with salary. I started this morning. Here’s where, in my mind, I run around in a panic with my hands flailing shouting about not knowing how to do anything. But I am quite excited.

I’ve been occupied with finding a place to live. A lovely friend and co-worker, to my every living gratitude, has let me crash in an absent roommate’s room for the time being. Far be it from me to complain, but I must say that it is basically the equivalent of Harry Potter’s room, only on top of the stairs instead of under it. I am, in fact, under a skylight that lets in all of the cold air, and while Beijing is no longer subfreezing, and in fact, has had some wonderfully springlike and warm days, nights are cold and I spend most of my time wrapped up in a comforter waiting for owls to take me away to Hogwarts. Also, it is a small little ayi room that already has the possessions of someone else filling it. So I’ve been throwing myself into the whole find-an-apartment adventure.

I had forgotten, in fact, what an adventure finding a place was. I had, rather, blocked it out of my memory. I had forgotten, how much of apartment hunting involved getting on the back of strangers’ mopeds. I have perched precariously on the back of many people’s mopeds, and one rickety, loud, choking three wheeled car. I was pretty sure I was going to be kidnapped that time. Or run over when the damn engine stalled out in the middle of second ring road. I have also forgotten that the agents here are assholes. Like, let’s make an appointment to see an apartment, but never call and tell you that apartment was already rented out, so let you show up for the appointment and never show up, kind of assholes. I may or may not have cursed a few out in Chinese (hint; I did). Thankfully, I have remained, thus far, un-kidnapped, unmolested, and un-murdered. Fingers crossed it stays this way while I continue my search for a not-too expensive not-too far away place to call home.

I haven’t done very much cooking. A few quick, uninspired things, mostly. I did, while still at Bambi’s, try my homemade bacon.

So the whole being super crafty and turning the gas grill into a smoker didn’t really pan out..for, well, reasons. But I had this beautiful slab of pork belly that had been cured in salt and sugar and honey and black pepper for a week. Now it’s in Bambi’s freezer. It’s still technically bacon. After a copious amount of whiskey one evening, the next morning I decided bacon and brunch would be the answer.

Slices of bacon post-soaking

With much trepidation, I cut off a small bite and fried it, and tasted it. I did not sicken or drop dead of botulism or anything, so I decided it was relatively safe to eat. The tiny sample was extremely salty, so after cutting as thin slices as I could manage (note to self, work on my knife skills) I soaked them in water for 15 minutes, then thoroughly dried with paper towels, and fried in a pan. As I had been informed by the internet, the lack of nitrite salt meant that the bacon wouldn’t stay that pink color we are so used to, but it would turn grey in the pan. It wasn’t so much grey as it was the color of cooked pork, and not as unappetizing a color as I had been told. Plus it got all crispy. Noms.

Crispity tasty bacon!

It was still incredibly salty, but went well with scrambled eggs, toast, and sweet potato hash browns. I think its best applications will be in sauces or soups that leech some of the salt out, and that next time, my cure will have far more sugar and far less salt.

In light of my present promotion to actual full time employee, and since my predecessor used to bake and bring in cupcakes on a weekly basis, I felt that I could only make a good impression in trying to fill those shoes by bringing in a little treat this morning. So last night I made almond-honey cake with candied kumquats. In the process, I also made a delightful kumquat and chili pepper marmalade.

I’ve been making some variation of this bread-like honey cake since I was 12. Every time I do something a little different and I rarely measure, so it comes out different every time. This time, I added almond meal.

I soaked a cup of whole almonds in water until the skins slipped easily off, then let them dry and ran them through a blender. With my little food processor I can just grind them and make the meal, but the blender required some water to blend successfully.

I cut up a bag of kumquats I had mistakenly bought at a fruit market. About a cup worth I sliced thin and whole and set aside, the rest I chopped into little bits (about 1 cup) and added sugar, water, lemon juice, and a crushed up dried red chili. Let that slowly simmer for a while until thick, then cool.

I simmered the kumquat slices in a 2:1 water to sugar ratio for 10 minutes. Then I made the batter. Approximately 2 cups of flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup milk, 1/4 cup honey, baking powder, vegetable oil, and 3 eggs, plus the almond meal and water mixture. Mixed this thoroughly, and then poured it into a a baking pan. I painstakingly laid out the kumquat slices on the batter with a pair of chopsticks, and went to an oven preheated to 400F, when I then discovered that the pan was too big for the oven! So I painstakingly lifted the kumquats out of the batter, poured it into two smaller baking pans, and slowly and delicately laid the kumquats back down. Then popped into the oven for 30 minutes until golden.

Kumquats carefully placed on top of batter for a second time

It’s not a very sweet dessert; a very dense, sticky cake with tart citrus on top. Other variations inclue vanilla or almond extract, ground cloves and cinnamon, fruit jam piped into stripes on top, no almond meal, baked in mini-muffin pans and topped with jam for afternoon tea.

Beautiful cake. One of the few pretty things I've managed to bake.