February is quickly becoming the month of dessert. And why not? It's a month for love, a month for warmth, and being the heart of winter, and between the cold temperatures and short days, it's a month wherein we need things to look forward to.
Therefore, before the month is out, I will have brought you practical a weeks worth of sugary confections, baked goods, and pastries. For what's probably the calendar's most despised month, February is surprisingly full of holidays. From Valentines Day to the Chinese New Year, from Presidents' Day, to well, my birthday, there's a lot to celebrate. So pull up your chair, loosen your belts, because February going to be filled with a month of carbs you'll love to eat, bake, and share.
...I think March might be a month of salads.
Until then, though, let's talk cake.
It's been years since I've really traveled anywhere, and I thank my gluten free stars I had the good fortune to go to Japan when I did. At 16, I was still young enough have the experience of being immersed in a culture so different than my own leave a lasting impression on my global understanding, my sense of history, and my palate.
Without my trip to Asia, I imagine I would never have be bold enough to try adzuki bean paste, be familiar with the sweet and utterly tart flavors of lychee and umibushi, respectively, or know the spongy joy of glutenous rice flour. And so, when I was invited to a Chinese New Years potluck party a mere 20 hours before I was expected to arrive, I was certainly glad to know my way around an Asian dessert.
Not that I'm insinuating Chinese and Japanese desserts are the same - though their cultures share a long history of cross pollination - but having a little knowledge of one certainly helped in the creation of the other.
Nian Gao is a Chinese dessert eaten in greatest quantities around the new year because (as wikipedia tells me) when written in chinese characters, "nian gao" is homonym for "every year higher and higher". I admit it freely, I'm a sucker for symbolic food. In any event, this not too sweet cake is made either plain or with adzuki bean paste. As an updated, cross cultural variation, I filled mine with dates and added a little vanilla, but I imagine it would be lovely with an addition of orange zest, almond extract, and / or substituting part of the milk with coconut milk.
Delicious, simple, and naturally gluten free. What a wonderful way to ring in any New Year.
(Baked) Nian Gao with Dates
A note, this cake is typically steamed, but not being so savvy with my Chinese cooking, I choose to prepare a baked version of the cake, but was told it had the look and consistency of the real thing. However authentic, or inauthentic, this cake is quite delicious. Recipe adapted from chinatownconnection.com
16 oz of Sweet Rice Flour (I used Mochiko - you can get it at any local Asian food store)
7 -8 Tablespoons of butter, melted (or 3/4 cup vegetable oil)
2 1/2 cups of skim milk (or whole milk, or coconut milk)
1 Tablespoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of vanilla
11 - 13 shredded dates
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 13x9 inch pan and set it aside.
Mix everything but the dates in a bowl. Beat with an electric mixer, first at medium speed for 2 minutes, then on high for two minutes. Pour half of the batter into the pan, cover the mixture with an even layer of the shredded dates, and then pour the rest of the mixture over the top.
Bake for 45 - 50 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool, cut into squares, and have a happy, lucky, new year.