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Cakes: Early, Interesting, and Unusual

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Winter Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(4) page(s): 5, 26, and 30

How long have the Chinese been making cakes? Were they really baked? These are frequently asked questions. Benita Wong, who studied food customs of the Han and the Six Dynasties Eras (202 BCE to 220 CE and 229 to 589 CE, respectively), writes that baked cakes were made in early times, some even made with starters.

In the Guide to Nutrition, she advises that early cake recipes used different measures than we do today. For cake starter, she translates from the Chinese, that one needs to use "one tou of sour starch paste, fry until reduced to seven sheng, then add one sheng of ordinary rice to the paste." She goes on to say to "first let this soak a while then cook it over a fire like rice congee."

Benita Wong also discusses an early white cake and a marrow cake. Both were used during the Han and the Six Dynasty periods. The latter cake mixes marrow oil, honey, and flour and sticks the cake on the side of the oven for baking. Her translated recipe ends with two comments. The first is: "No need to turn over." The other is: "The cakes are very delicious and can be kept for a long time."

So yes, cakes and baking them is not new, though many people believe that for the Chinese, baked cakes are quite new. People nowadays rarely think of baked pastries as Chinese, yet baking was an ancient culinary technique, as Wong's translations indicate. Seemingly unused for hundreds and hundreds of years, the Chinese did bake two thousand plus years ago. Of course, not all of their early cakes were baked, some were fried. Therefore, pastry making is not a new art to the Chinese.

Wong reports about another pastry made. It was prepared with flour and white rice, its dough boiled, then placed by the fire until large bubbles were given off. Instructions she provides say to "pour off excess liquid, add more flour, and after the second rise, put the dough in a shao bing" (an oven she describes as one where cakes are stuck on the sides to cook). Wong also reports that this particular dough is also used to "wrap fried mutton with green onion bottoms, liquid, and salt." Used that way, one notes its versatility and it goes on that one should fry it until done.

Another early cake, also some two thousand years old, is discussed by Qu Yuan (340 - 278 BCE), a patriotic poet of the State of Chu during the Warring States times (475 - 221 BCE). It is written about in his oft' quoted poem titled: Calling Back Souls. The cake he mentions is a baked honey cake.

Not every early dough can be prepared two ways. A commentary from the Notebook of Local Customs states: "Before two holidays wrap cooked millet in bamboo leaves. Use a concentrated vegetable lye and boil until mushy. Eaten on the fifth day of the fifth month and for Summer Solstice." This bakery product is more dumpling than cake; and it can be steamed or boiled, or it can be baked.

These days, everyone knows about Chinese Mooncakes. They are called yue bing. When they were first made is an open question, but they were used in the 13th century (see the article 'Crying for Mooncakes' in this issue beginning on page 7). At that time, Chinese soldiers inserted rice-paper messages in them before the Moon Festival time. Some say these are forerunners of fortune cookies.

That holiday, celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month during the Yuan Dynasty (1280 - 1368 CE) and still celebrated today, was special. One purpose for these cakes was to coordinate the defenses of rebels against the ruling Mongols. How did they do this? They inserted paper messages in the cakes advising on how to rally the troops.

Chinese cakes and other pastries are even earlier than those made in Yuan or Han dynasties. Earlier ones can be traced back to the Yin and the Zhou dynasties (circa the 16th century to 771 BCE). It was during earlier times that King Wu of the State of Zhou wanted to attack King Zhou of the State of Yin. He used baked foods to save time. His military commander-in-chief decided the troops should carry their own prepared foods. One item recommended was a baked cake. These days, pastry workers worship King Wu and Commander Wen. They are considered the fathers of Chinese baking, and their baking did not use yeast.

After the Han Dynasty, the Chinese did begin to use yeast as another way to leaven their products. They also used oil and flour to make their baked pastries have layers. Since then, pastries have been made with many different flours other than rice and wheat, and some cakes are filled, others made in a myriad of shapes, and all using many bakery techniques. Peking Dust, check its recipe in this magazine) is a cake used for hundreds of years. How many hundreds is unknown, but honey cake, moon cake, and many other cakes are early, ancient, and interesting Chinese cakes.

Threerecipes follow, all updated so you can successfully bake them. Enjoy making and tasting them; and find others on this magazine's website. Enjoy them as well.
Lotus Seed Moon Cakes
3 salted eggs, cooked for four minutes, yolks used, white reserved for another use
2 cups lotus seed paste
1 cup sugar boiled with three tablespoons water until dissolved
4 Tablespoons peanut or another oil
3 cups cake flour
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 egg, beaten
1. Divide each boiled salted egg yolk into four parts. Wrap one-twelfth of the lotus seed paste around each of them, and set aside.
2. Mix boiled sugar syrup, peanut oil, and the flour and make a dough with this; if too runny, add a tablespoon or two more flour, as needed. Knead just to mix, then divide into twelve parts.
3. Brush a moon cake mold with a little oil. Using fingers, pat one part of the dough into the mold, making the bottom a bit thicker than the sides, and be sure it is pushed into the design on the bottom of the mold. Leave some of the dough hanging over the edges of the moon cake mold. Put one lotus paste-wrapped egg package in the center of the mold, and use the overlapping dough pinching it together to close and seal the dough.
4. Knock this sealed package out of the mold onto a baking sheet. Repeat until all twelve moon cakes are made and put on the baking sheet, leaving one inch of space between each of them. Brush the tops of the moon cakes with the beaten egg yolk.
5. Bake the moon cakes in a pre-heated 425 degree F oven on the top shelf for five minutes. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees F and move the baking sheet to the lowest level in the oven. Bake for another fifteen minutes or until the moon cakes are a deep brown color.
5. Remove them to baking racks to cool.
Note: Moon cakes can be served warm or at room temperature.
Chinese White Cake
1 teaspoon lard or another solid shortening
8 egg whites, beaten until stiff
3 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons marrow
1/2 cup cake flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1. Prepare a sheet of 8 x 8 inch parchment paper brushed on both sides with lard or whatever solid shortening being used.
2. Beat egg whites, sugar, and four teaspoons cool water for five or more minutes until well blended and stiff, but not dry.
3. Mix flour and baking powder, stir in the marrow and fold together slowly and carefully into the egg white foam. Carefully pour this into the baking pan. Steam over rapidly boiling water for ten minutes, then transfer to a pre-heated 300 degree F oven and bake for fifteen minutes. Put cake pan on a rack and cool before cutting into pieces and serving it.
Pureed Pecans with Chestnuts
1 cup pecans
1/2 cup and 2 additional tablespoons of sugar, separated
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 cup vegetable oil
1 pound fresh chestnuts
2 Tablespoons well-crushed Chinese slab sugar or packed brown sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1. Put pecans into a medium-size pot with two cups of cold water. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, and simmer without a cover for two minutes. Then pour off the water and add the half cup of sugar and stir for two or three minutes, then put the pecans onto a dry baking sheet. Place it in a 300 degree F oven and bake for ten minutes, then remove the pan and allow the nuts to cool.
2. Put oil into a medium-size pot, and fry the cooled pecans stirring all the time, until they are a deep brown color, then remove them to a pre-oiled plate to cool.
3. Cut a slash or an ‘X’ on the flat side of each chestnut, put them on a baking sheet with one-inch sides. Pour in half cup of water, and bake in a pre-heated 450 degree F oven for ten minutes. Peel the chestnuts a few at a time, and immediately mix them with the brown sugar.
4. When all are mixed in, put this sugar-chestnut mixture in a food processor or a food mill, and puree them.
5. Whip the heavy cream until stiff, fold in the chestnut puree and the cooled pecans, and serve.

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