January 30, 2014

4-Minute Chinese New Year Cake

Mrs. Bretton, as a rule, disapproved of sweet cake at tea, but still the request was urged,—"One little piece—only for him—as he goes to school: girls—such as me and Miss Snowe—don't need treats, but he would like it."
Graham did like it very well, and almost always got it. To do him justice, he would have shared his prize with her to whom he owed it; but that was never allowed: to insist, was to ruffle her for the evening. To stand by his knee, and monopolize his talk and notice, was the reward she wanted—not a share of the cake.
Villette, Charlotte Bronte
Wowza. The little girl in this story loves Graham so much that she would procure some cake for him, and then let him have the whole thing to himself! I can't imagine loving someone that much. Just kidding. Kind of. Side note: Mrs. Bretton sounds like an uptight broad. I wouldn't want to hang out with someone who disapproves of sweet cakes at tea. What kind of a rule is that?

Villette may never be as famous as Jane Eyre, but I enjoy it just as much. I wonder what kind of cake they would have had with tea back then. I'm fairly certain that it's not the same kind of cake I'm going to talk about today, because they were in England and I'm going Chinese route today, in honor of the New Year. But I'm sure that Graham and Polly and Lucy Snowe would have enjoyed this cake if they had known about it.

Chinese New Year is upon us, which is perfect timing, because one of my favorite desserts of all time is nian gao. It literally means "year cake," so perhaps you've also learned some Chinese today. Who knew that being interested in dessert could be so educational?

When I was younger, my family would buy a big, circular red bean nian gao from the Chinese supermarket. When we got home, my dad would diligently slice it up into rectangles. Next, my mom—the official frymaster in our family—would dip the rectangles into a bowl of beaten eggs and fry them in oil until they turned golden-brown and crisp on the outside, and gooey on the inside. I still remember the joy of sinking my teeth into each soft, sweet, red-bean-speckled square. A purely heavenly way to celebrate the new year.

Later on, in more health-conscious years, we discovered that we could simply microwave the squares of nian gao, and they would soften up enough to be able to eat. No frying necessary! Imagine all the calories and time and labor we were saving (especially my mom, who had to do most of the work). I do miss those days of enjoying that crispy egg-dipped version, but I must say that I really enjoy the convenience. (Plus, my mother's frymaster skills didn't get passed down to me.)

About two years ago, I discovered how to take things one step further. Instead of buying it refrigerated from the supermarket, I could make it from scratch—in 4 minutes!

Here's the recipe again. In less than 10 minutes, you'll be enjoying your very own New Year cake (this makes enough for 2 or 3 servings). You don't even need a steamer. Just a microwaveable bowl, some plastic wrap, and 3 ingredients (one of which is water).

4-Minute Red Bean New Year's Cake (年糕)
1/2 cup mochiko (sweet rice) flour
1/2 cup + 1 tsp water
1/3 cup sweetened red bean paste

Mix all ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl until they form a smooth paste. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave on high for 4 minutes. Let cool and cut and roll into balls, if you so please. Spread more red bean paste on top if you like red bean as much as I do. Otherwise, enjoy as is!

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