Wedding Cakes!

Every flat surface in my kitchen and living room is covered in frosting. Pretty much the only thing keeping me from becoming a professional cake baker is how much I really, really loathe frosting. Chocolate and I are not friends. Butter and I are on poor terms. Egg whites? Egg whites and I have exchanged words. Those words were not civil.

I spent pretty much my entire Friday and Saturday baking. My little oven only takes one baking pan at a time. The chocolate cake I made was 4 layers, and the almond cake need three (two for the bottom tier, one cut in half to form the top tier).

Thursday night I made the chocolate leaves. We’ll talk about that later because the leaves in themselves were an adventure to make, and I’m still a little bit angry. I need some space before I relive that adventure.

Friday, I made the cakes. Well, first I went to Sanyuanli, bought everything I thought I would need. Except strawberries, because apparently strawberry season has passed, and not a single vendor had a single box. So I also went to Jenny Lou and BHG; and they didn’t have strawberries either. I went to April Gourmet, and they had one box, half of which were soft and spoiling, but half of which were salvageable, hiding in the back of their produce section.

Apparently the last strawberries in Beijing,

For the chocolate cake, I doubled the Midnight Chocolate Cake recipe that I posted in January, and made four round cakes. Wrapped them in plastic and stuck them in the freezer. Then I made three almond cakes (recipe posted last week) and wrapped and refrigerated them as well. I also made ricotta cheese, for stuffing the strawberries.

Saturday morning I started with the chocolate cake. I assembled the four layers, spreading nutella and raspberry jam between each one. Then, I made a chocolate lacquer glaze.

I poured this over the top and realized that the cake was a little uneven, and it was so humid in the apartment even with the AC on full blast that it would never thicken until I refrigerated it, so getting the glaze on the sides would be a huge challenge. So I tried to make frosting. First, I tried the buttercream recipe, only adding some chocolate syrup to it to give it flavor. It failed miserably and tasted weird. So then I tried to make the chocolate ganache frosting just for the sides.

This took three tries. The first time, the chocolate seized up. I used the last of the cream I had, so next I tried with milk, and it seized again. So I had to go back to April Gourmet's (for the second time that day) to buy more cream, more butter, and more chocolate. The third time it finally worked, and I was able to frost the sides of the cake nicely. I put this is the fridge to firm up and turned my attention to the almond cake.

lopsided 4 layer cake

I made vanilla honey lemon buttercream, Italian meringue style. Wary of my first failure with the chocolate, I tried very hard to make this one work (I was NOT going to go back to April’s to buy another pack of butter). It is VERY important to wait for the meringue mixture to cool down to 80F. Maybe you don’t have an electric mixture so think that whipping it by hand for half and hour is impossible, but whip it anyways and put ice pacs on the side, whatever you have to do. Otherwise, you’ll be an idiot like me and put the butter in and it will not come together, and look suspiciously like bad, watery, cottage cheese and you will hate yourself and start yelling at frosting and want to cry when the whisk goes flying out of your hand spatter frosting everywhere. Should this happen, do not despair. Take a small bowl of the frosting, microwave it for 15 seconds, pour it back it, and then beat the ever-loving shit out of the frosting. Seriously. I literally begged the frosting to come together and went to town (I could probably strangle an ox with my right arm right now) and after a few minutes of furious whisking, it incorporated into fluffy, beautiful frosting.

I sliced each layer of almond cake in half, and put a layer of buttercream and raspberry jam between each layer. Stacked two caked, then frosted the whole thing.
I took the third cake, cut it in half horizontally, then vertically, and stacked the two halves on top of each other, and then squared off the sides as best I could without measuring. More jam between each layer, then I carefully measured a piece of cardboard as a base for this tier. Put the cake on the cardboard. I stuck four skewers into the base and cut them off just at the top of the frosting. Then I placed the small tier on top. Covered it all with frosting, and piped a line of frostig along the seam to disguise the cardboard base.

At this point, with all the starting over and minor meltdown, it was already 5:15, but Bambi and Maggie were running late trying to catch a cab, so I was able to decorate them. For the chocolate cake, I pressed the chocolate leaves all around the perimeter, sticking on raspberries with a dab of ganache to stick.

Chocolate leaves and raspberry decoration. It almost looks professional. Almost.

I made a pastry bag out of Ziplock, and stuffed hollowed out strawberries and raspberries with ricotta mixed with powdered sugar and lemon zest, then stuck them into the frosting. Maybe not the most sophisticated of decorations, but it looked pretty enough. And, Bambi and Maggie were late enough that luckily I had enough time to shower and change, and didn’t have to attend the dinner in chocolate smeared tshirt and shorts.

Wrapping the cakes was a bit of a challenge. I made my own cake stand for the round cake (gorilla glue, cheap bowl, large cheap plate=fancy times), but I didn't have a cake cover. So we stuck toothpicks in the tops to keep the plastic from ruining to frosting, and carefully wrapped them both. Important step, because China could have gotten all over them with one passerby’s sneeze. We were fortunate to hail a cab almost immediately, and made our way to Great Leap Brewery. Walking through Gulou, received many stares (I guess its not everyday three dressed up laowai wander the hutongs bearing fancy cakes). There were double takes, a few comments, and some one even snapped a quick picture.

Almond cake with stuffed berries and buttercream frosting. The less attractive, but still mightily delicious cake.

The cakes turned out really well, I’m relieve to say. I was a bit nervous. And the wedding dinner was great–Home Plate catered, and the atmosphere was great, and luckily the cakes mostly eaten and packed away when we got hit by a beautiful lightning storm.

The cake-baker and the happy couple.

Mango and Sago Pearls in Coconut Milk

Beijing Summer.
Hot, sticky, humid. Oppressive. Despite the week of absolutely beautiful weather we had, I’m pretty sure those glorious 80 degree, breezy, sunny, pollution free afternoons are going to be nothing but a memory soon. The smog has returned with a vengeance.

Despite this all, many Beijing residents find it much more pleasant to be outside rather than stuck in their tiny, stuffy apartments. As the sun sets and it cools off just slightly, every large intersection corner, every open space in front of a mall or large apartment complex, every park, fills up. Coming from a small town where once a week during the summer, there might be a gathering with some music, it’s kind of fun to see, every single night, the groups of old ladies dancing with their fans to drums and symbols. There are sometimes more than one group in the same plaza. Sometimes I wonder if they ever brawl over space. That would be kind of epic, angry old Chinese nai-nais shouting at each other and throwing down over who gets to dance where.

One thing I admire about Chinese society is that their old people refuse to settle down. Maybe it’s because they don’t have the immense presence of nursing homes or assisted living facilities, such as in America, or maybe the ones that do exist here are terrifying and more along the lines of the nursing home from Happy Gilmore, but Chinese elderly cling to active life. Cultural norms expect children to take care of and take their parents in to their apartment as they age. But that doesn’t stop them from being active. The park near my apartment is chock full of tiny, wizened old ladies and crabbed old men tottering around, leaning on their wheelchairs and they slowly walk and gossip with friends. People who can barely walk get up at 6 AM, and take tiny, slow, unstoppable steps as they collect recyclable cans and bottles, taking an hour to traverse the block. Last fall I saw a road-crew team ripping up a sidewalk, wielding pickaxes and shovels, and they were all pushing 70 or 80.

And of course, they’re really super judgy. It will be 75, 80 degrees, and I’ll leave my apartment in a t-shirt and shorts, and three of the neighborhood watch grannies will shake their heads and mutter about young folk thinking they’re impervious to cold. And then they’ll start going through my garbage, because foreigners waste a lot of things.

At my friend’s birthday dinner, three of us decided we really needed something that wasn’t lamb chuanr, beer, or cake. With the heat and the smoke from the chuanr grill wafting up right onto our party, we decided that smoothies sounded amazing. So we went on an adventure down Mao’Er Hutong all the way to Nanluo Guxiang, and picked one of the many beverage stalls. We all ended up getting mango and sago pearls in coconut milk. I had had a variant of this way back in the winter as a dessert at Duck De Chine, where they added pumelo segments. This was sweet, light, fruity and delicious. Hit the spot exactly.

Yesterday, the heat was weighing down on me, and even though I hadn’t eaten anything, the thought of food wasn’t tempting. Then I remembered this coconut concoction, and I wanted it. Not enough to bike all the way to Nanluoguxiang, but surely I could recreate it myself. I did a little research on Google Translate and Wikipedia to find out how to say “sago,” which is “ximi” or 西米. I walked over to the new WuMart that just opened up near my apartment. It was impressively shiny and upscale, and in the grain bins section I instantly found bags of sago pearls. Quite a success.

Bring a potful of water to boil, then add the sago pearls. I added about a 1/3 of a cup. Stir occasionally for 10 minutes while simmering, to prevent them from sticking to the pot. They get gloopy and a gelatinous layer forms on the stirring spoon. After ten minutes the pearls will be mostly translucent with a white dot in the center. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let sit for ten minutes. They should be completely translucent after this. Pour into a colander and rinse with cold water, then keep in a bowl of water until ready to use. They are sticky and will jam up into the mesh of the colander.

Sago Pearls. Look a bit like fish eggs.

Refreshing, light, and sweet.

Cut up a mango into small chunks, put into a small bowl or tall glass and add in the sago pearls. Then cover with coconut milk. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, feel free to add a spoon of honey or condensed milk, but this is delicious all on it’s own.

Cinnamon Red Wine Cake

I volunteered to make a cake for a friend’s birthday dinner, as my last chance to practice frosting before the wedding cake. Since many of the people at the birthday would also be attending the wedding party, I looked for a completely different cake recipe. Don’t want people getting bored with cake.

I thought about a red velvet cake, but perusing the recipes realized that that would necessitate a prodigious amount of red food coloring. And I haven’t seen any food coloring anywhere in Jenny Lou’s, April’s, Sanyuanli or Carrefour except for the gel-icing kind, and if I did find it, using an entire bottle in one go seems sort of wasteful. I stumbled across a recipe for a “red velvet” cake that wasn’t really red at all, but had red wine in it. To go with it, I decided to try my hand at German buttercream frosting, which is a custard based frosting rather than the Swiss or Italian meringue type.

This cake (and the frosting) has an immense amount of butter. I ended up halving the frosting recipe and having more than enough. Still, a truck load of butter.
1 1/2 cup flour, 1/4 cup cocoa, 2 cups butter at room temp.
1/4 cup oil, 2 1/4 cups brown sugar, 1 tsp salt. 2 1/2 tsp baking soda 3/4 tsp baking powder. 1 Tbs or to taste of cinnamon, ground. 1 Tbs vanilla. 6 eggs. 1 1/2 cups red wine.

Sift together flour and cocoa, set aside.
Mix in butter with brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon. Blend. Add eggs in one at a time, then add red wine and vanilla. Slowly sift in the flour mixture. Split the batter between two 8-inch round cake tins, and bake at 176C for 35-40 minutes. The batter is quite light brown, but it deepens into a rich chocolaty color.

Baked cake and cake batter

In the meantime, start the frosting.
1 1/2 cups whole milk, 1 1/4 cups sugar, 2 Tbs corn starch, 2 eggs, two egg yolks, 4 cups butter room temp, vanilla, and additional flavor like melted chocolate.

Simmer milk. Beat eggs, cornstarch and sugar together. Temper the egg mixture with a half cup of milk, then slowly pour the egg into the milk. Simmer for about a minute, whisking, to ensure the cornstarch cooks. Add some vanilla. Pour the custard into a bowl and chill. In the fridge for an hour or so if you have time, or stick it in the freezer, pulling it out to whisk around briskly, for twenty minutes if you’re a procrastinator like me.

Take the room temp butter and add into the custard tablespoon by tablespoon, beating until light and frothy. This is where you want to add in any flavor: I added 1/3 cup of melted chocolate.

Important! Let the cakes cool completely before attempting to frost. Even if you’re pressed for time, if you try to hurry the process the frosting will start to melt when you stack the cakes and you’ll start to hate yourself and frosting. And hating inanimate things like a bowl of whipped butter, egg and sugar probably isn’t good for you.

Somehow I managed to get the cake properly frosted, then I set out to try and hail a cab to Gulou, where a very nice second story rooftop terrace of a Chinese restaurant had been booked for us. The restaurant nicely took my cake to chill during dinner, which was a heavenly amount of lamb chuanr, jiche (chicken wing) chuanr, grilled mantou and other delicious things.

Frosted cake. Not pretty, but incredibly tasty.

Finally, we broke out the cake. People really loved it, the whole thing disappeared quite quickly, and several people came up to ask “HOW did you get this SO moist?”
Butter. The secret it butter. Between the cake and the frosting I using 4 packs of butter. And that was cutting the frosting recipe in half! But, people don’t want to hear that they’re eating butter mixed with a little bit of flour and sugar and wine, so I said “the amount of butter” really softly and “the wine, the red wine makes the cake” much louder. Everyone is happy when they think the secret ingredient is booze.

This cake was worth the effort. The red wine and cinnamon and cocoa combined have an amazing flavor. The chocolate buttercream frosting is just sweet enough, there isn’t that much sugar to overwhelm things. It’s fluffy, a bit denser than the meringue based because of the custard, and creamy.

House Warming Party Snacks

So I’ve been in the new apartment for about a month, and after four trips to IKEA, one arduous quest to Dongjiao Market, and two expeditions to both Carrefour and B&Q, I thought it was about time to have a house-warming party.

I now own far too many bookshelves, to deal with the fact that the contractor who renovated thought that drawers were completely unnecessary and that pipes were good things to put awkwardly in the middle of every cupboard.
This is either indicative that I really need a new prescription for my glasses, or that Chinese stores are confusing, but in trying to find the entrance to B&Q the first time, I completely missed it and ended up in Carrefour. But then I found so many useful things there that it was ok and had to go back a second time. Things like a cheaper mattress pad than at IKEA, a lot of things I’m convinced were either bought or stolen from IKEA and resold, kitchen things, and cushions. I have so many cushions for my reading nook. And I guess, for my couch when I’m not in the reading nook.

I tried to use Carrefour’s Home Delivery Service, but was informed that they only do it for people within 3 K. Well, screw you. Who needs delivery service within 3K? That’s useless. I can run that in 15 minutes. If you have Carrefour deliver things to your home within 3 K that are not major household appliances like a mattress or large refrigerator, you are a horrible person. So I grumbled, very carefully and skillfully managed to pick up all my cushions and kitchen junk, and moved on. And then, in a curiously helpful move, the security guard at B&Q offered to watch all my stuff while I shopped. Shocking.

Unfortunately, the staff were less than knowledgeable, although all eager to help. It took three people to give me an opinion on what screws and anchors and drill bit I would need to drill through kitchen tile. Unhappily after all that I discovered that I needed a hammer drill to get through the concrete behind the tile. What trying times I live in, no access to real power tools.

Anyway, construction troubles aside, the apartment finally took on a semblance of civilized living, and I invited a bunch of people over for canapes and wine. Because I’m really classy. But mostly because there’s no space for Disney power hour, and I don’t have an ayi yet, so I’m trying to avoid messes that I have to clean up myself.

I made an assortment of small and easily eaten bites of food. First, deviled quail eggs with homemade mayo. They are more cute and snackable than regular eggs, even if peeling boiled quail eggs is a bitch.

Tiny adorable eggs. I have a penchant for tiny adorable things.

Caprese skewers with chunks of mozzarella, cherry tomatos and basil leaves drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Incredibly simple but very elegant. It’s best if you can find the mozzarella balls that are the same size as cherry tomatoes, but here in Beijing, I just cut up a large chunk into bite size pieces.

A classic combination of delicious.

Shrimp and mango spring rolls: soak the skins in luke warm water, as soon as they begin to soften, after about 10 seconds, lay them on a flat surface. They are sticky and delicate, so be careful. Brush on sweet chili sauce, place soaked and drained mung bean thread, matchstick slices of carrot and cucumber, shrimp quickly tossed in oil with a ton of garlic and red chilies, and chunks of mango, in the middle, then wrap them as neatly and tightly as you can without bursting the skins. I made far too many, and put half in the fridge for lunch the next day. When I discovered this, I merely broke them open and tossed all the contents with sweet chili sauce, discarding the skins. This made an excellent chilled mango shrimp salad.

Last time I make anything with rice paper skins. Until I forget how annoying they are.

Pineapple Steak Skewers: Let the steak tip marinate in a mix of honey, soy sauce, oyster sauce, cooking wine, then loaded onto skewers with peppers, onions, and pineapple chunks. Broiled in the oven for about 7-10 minutes.


I served bacon jam with a selection of goat cheese, brie, and caramelized onions on bread, which was found to be just as addictive as I thought it was.

Bacon Jam, Brie, Goat Cheese, Caramelized Onion. I defy you to come up with something more delicious.

The last savory snack was a vegetable fritter, a recipe I got from my Asian grandma. It’s not vegetarian, but could probably be adapted to be.
Half a cabbage, shredded
One onion, chopped
One carrot, shredded.
One pound ground pork
One pound shrimp, finely minced
Garlic, finely minced
1 cup corn starch
1 cup sweet potato flour (or rice flour, which I used)
2-3 eggs

Mix all this together, then form small, 1-inch balls. Deep fry these in oil until golden, rain on paper towels, and serve with your choice of cocktail sauce, ketchup, sweet chili sauce, etc. They’re humble looking but really good.

Vegetable Fritters served with sweet chili sauce.

For dessert, I made panna cotta, which I have tried once before and failed miserably and have avoided ever since even though I’ve really wanted to make this light, airy pudding very much. This time was a roaring success. I used a recipe I found on Tastespotting, for ginger panna cotta and black sesame gelee. It’s not overly sweet or rich, but creamy and cloud-like. I’m kicking myself for not taking any pictures, because they were absolutely beautiful and elegant, served in tiny glasses. (Ok, they were served in shot glasses, but I bought the shot glasses specifically to put panna cotta in, so technically, they’re panna cotta glasses, which sounds less trashy)

3 cups of cream
1 cup of whole milk
6 Tbs ginger, shredded
1/2 cup of honey
4 1/2 tsp. gelatin
pinch of sea salt

1/2 cup black sesames, toasted,
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tsp. gelatin
1 cup water.

First, add milk to a sauce pan, sprinkle the gelatin over it, let stand and soften for five minutes. Then bring turn on the heat to low, and stir, dissolving the gelatin. After about 5 minutes, add the honey, cream, salt and ginger. Stir another 5-7 minutes. It should be lukewarm-ish. Strain through a sieve, and divide evenly between ramekins or shot glasses or jam jars or whatever you choose to serve it in. Chill for at least six hours, or overnight.

Grind up the sesame seeds in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle until finely ground.Pour water in a heavy saucepan, add the gelatin and let sit five minutes. Then turnt he heat to low and stir, dissolving the gelatin. Add the sugar and sesame seeds, stir for about 3-5 minutes (don’t let it boil). Then let it cool for 20 minutes. Pour evenly over the panna cotta, and allow to set for at least an hour in the fridge. This is where I found the recipe, and she took pictures, which are beautiful.

Anyway, most of the food was eaten, much wine was consumed and merriment shared by all. Housewarming party qualifies as a success!

Incredibly Easy Home Made Ice Cream

Ice cream in Beijing is either expensive, or really bad. Or both. I miss it. Despite my lactose intolerance, I’m a big fan of dairy products. Cheese, ice cream, butter. Whatever. It’s delicious. And those Lactaid supplements make my world function (I really don’t want to debate whether a divine slice of brie is worth nausea). But in high school sometimes I’d skip lunch, head to the convenient store, and buy a pint of Haagendas Pineapple Coconut ice cream and eat it in one sitting. Because I could. Point of the story is that here in Beijing I’m fairly deprived of ice cream, except for the occasional Magnum popsicle, which really doesn’t count because it’s some sort of manufactured frothy fake ice cream filler that I’m sure doesn’t have an ounce of actual milk in it. Possibly some melamine, though. Black Sesame Kitchen does an amazing homemade black-sesame bourbon-vanilla ice cream for their caramelized banana dessert, but each dinner there costs about US$50 and requires at least 4 people and a two week reservation, so I can’t exactly head over there when I crave dessert. And I also dont have the money or space for an ice cream maker (I have way more important things to buy). It seemed liked I would be doomed to having to fork up ten bucks for a tiny container of Haagendas or go without.

Then, in my perusals of, I discovered the amazing fact that you can approximate ice cream with frozen bananas. And nothing else. Seriously. Slice a banana up into coins, freeze them for at least a couple hours, then throw the slices into a blender. Blend. After about 30 seconds, my little blender produced a smooth, creamy mixture that had the same exact mouthfeel as frozen yogurt. Put this in the freezer for an hour or so and you have ice cream. Rich, creamy, satisfying. And, it’s incredibly easy to add flavors.

I had several bananas on the verge of browning, so I cut them up and popped them in the freezer. The next day, I made three different types.

First, I made banana date ice cream. I had seen a recipe for banana date smoothies, and had some dried dates to use up. Pitted them and soaked them in hot water for a few minutes to soften, then cut into pieces and added to the frozen banana along with a few tablespoons of coconut milk, some cinnamon and a spoonful of honey.

Next I made chocolate ice cream. Two tablespoons of cocoa powder along with a generous spoonful of Nutella. I added a bit more coconut milk, perhaps a bit too much, as this ended up being the thinnest of the three.

Lastly I made Cinnamon Dulce ice cream. Cinnamon, coconut milk, and a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk.

Cinnamon Dulce and Chocolate Ice Cream in the jars, Banana Date in the tupperware.

This takes no more than a minute of activity on your part: five second to peel and slice the banana. Wait for it to freeze. Ten-twenty seconds to add bananas and whatever other ingredients you feel like. Thirty-forty seconds blending. Scoop it out and wait for it to freeze again, or eat it right then and there. Effortless, dairy free, and affordable ice cream. Makes 1-2 servings per 1 1/2 bananas, depending on how much of a glutton you are. Recipe easily expanded to make a large batch, depending on your blender’s capability.

Now excuse me while I skip lunch and eat ALL of the ice cream in my freezer right now.

An Ode to Poached Eggs and Bacon Jam

I’ve been very busy at work and also with the whole cake-baking thing, and I’m also verging on broke while I’m waiting to become legal and receive a paycheck. So I find myself making a lot of very simple, quick meals this past week. And I’ve been relying on eggs.

I like eggs. They’re useful. Fairly healthy, as far as I’m concerned. Amazingly versatile. Cooked, I’m kind of ambivalent about egg yolks. A completely fried egg is less tasty than one over easy, but it’s still a fried egg. Hard-boiled egg yolks are disgusting. But a perfectly executed over easy egg—which I have no end of trouble accomplishing—is really just perfection. Poached eggs? Transcendent. You put a fried or poached egg on top of anything, it makes it better. Ramen noodles, scallops (put an over easy quails egg over a jumbo die for), pulled pork sandwiches, toast, really, its a long list of things that are automatically improved with the addition of a little golden yolk.

For me, poaching an egg is far easier than getting a cooked-white but runny-yolk fried egg. You bring water in a saucepan with a splash of vinegar to simmer, so bubbles are just starting to form. Then you turn the heat down, so there are little or no bubbles. Crack the egg in a small bowl, careful not to bread the yolk. Give the water a stir so that it swirls, gently pour the egg into the middle of it, and then leave it there for four-five minutes. Et voila, you’re done. Remove the egg with slotted spoon and either place on top of whatever you’re serving right away, or put it into a bowl of chilled water (to prevent it from cooking more) while you poach however many eggs you need.

I found a package of what I thought was spinach, but turned out to be a very pretty purple-green amaranth leaf for about a dollar, and half of this I stir fried with garlic and egg one night, and the next, sautéed and served with fried cumin and paprika spiced potato slices and a poached egg. And last night before all the cakes I had to consume, I had a simple cucumber and cherry tomato salad on the side of toast spread with my homemade bacon jam topped with poached eggs. Holy crap. This was more delicious than I thought it would be. The bacon jam has a sweet cider-and-coffee-and-brown-sugar taste (I bet maple syrup would give it a nice flavor kick as well), and well, warm golden yolk coating the toast and bacon jam…it’s a mouthful of crisis. It’s all the best parts of breakfast in one bite. I had been planning on serving the bacon jam at my housewarming party as part of a selection of canapés, but it might not last that long.

Heaven in your mouth right now. Everything that is good and great about breakfast.