Matcha Tea and Honey Cakes

The very first thing I have in the morning, almost every day, is a cup of green tea with a spoonful of honey. Sometimes I add a bit of soy milk, other times I don't. But it's that combo of caffeine and tiny bit of sweetness that wakes me up, now that I've weened myself off coffee. (Although I still indulge recreationally, a cappucino here and there at a wifi café.)

So it seemed quite natural to bake something with a green tea and honey flavor combo. I had already made green tea cookies a few weeks ago, to much success, and still had a lot of matcha powder left. I was also inspired by La Tartine Gourmand's Chocolate and Matcha Cake, and which I'll probably make once I stock up on some good quality chocolate and cocoa powder.

But for now I'll be satisfied with my morning tea in cake* form.

*I guess these could be called muffins too, but I tend to associate muffins with big crumbly breakfast items to be downed with coffee, usually Dunkin' Donuts, that fall apart all over your clothes because you're scarfing them down with your hands. These are a bit denser, smaller, clothing-friendlier, and meant to be savored any time of the day, with or without tea.

Matcha and Honey Cakes

Makes 6 cakes

1 stick butter 3/4 cup cane sugar 3 medium eggs 1 1/2 cups flour 1 tablespoon matcha powder 1 tsp baking soda Pinch salt 2 tablespoons honey

Preheat oven to 350 F. Melt butter and set aside. Beat eggs with sugar until smooth and well-blended. Add sifted flour, matcha, baking soda, and salt. Add melted butter and honey and mix well until batter is even and thick, almost dough-like.

Divide dough evenly into 6 lightly greased small ramekins or tin molds. Bake for 25 to 30 minute. When done, let cool for 5 minutes before unmolding. Cakes can be stored in an air-tight container for up to 2 or 3 days.

Rambutan

When I was about 4 or 5, growing up in Guangzhou, I went crazy with excitement whenever my parents brought home a sack of lychees or rambutans from the fruit market. Abandoning whatever toys I was playing with at a time, I would instead grab a plastic bowl and sit for at least an hour or two, carefully carefully removing the skin and pits, not eating any of the flesh until the bowl was filled.

For a kid, this was an excercise in restraint. But I loved the smooth, sweet, and jelly-like texture of both fruits so much that I wanted to eat it all at once, without work getting in the way. And the extra wait made eating doubly enjoyable.

The name rambutan comes from the Malay word for "hairy", a fitting name for a fruit with a bright red prickly rind protecting pearly white or yellowish flesh. With yellow soft spikes that strike me as kind of punkish, rambutans seem to stand out in the market. Can I really eat these, you wonder. Will they prick me like cacti?

Like lychees and longan, rambutans only grow in Southeast Asia, news that came as disappointing when my family moved to Boston. We found lychees pretty easily in Boston's Chinatown. But rambutans, those were harder, and more expensive when available. So I resigned myself to eating it maybe once every year or two. And forgot about how rewarding it was to peel and pit for an afternoon, to have a bowl of sweet rambutans to enjoy at the end.

Now in Beijing, they are a bit easier to find now. A few days ago, I bought a bunch, for ol' times' sake, and peeled them up to toss in a fruit salad. (Be careful when you peel or cut open the rind, since often juice will squirt out. Pull the skin back and the fruit will pop right out.) My fingers are much more nimble then when I was a toddler, so I filled a bowl with rambutan flesh in a fraction of the time. But the result was no less satisfying.

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Rambutan Fruit Salad

Serves 3 to 4

15 rambutan 1 large mango 2 kiwis 12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) sweetened coconut juice, chilled

Peel and pit the rambutan. Dice or slice mango into short thin strips. Thinly slice kiwis. Arrange or toss in a small bowl, and top with chilled sweetened coconut juice. Serve at once. Eat slowly while daydreaming about warm sandy beaches and lapping waves.

Homemade Almond Milk with Bananas and Honey

I have been obsessed with almond milk ever since I discovered Lulu in Beijing. Sold at every market here for 7 yuan a liter, this boxed almond milk has been my new alternative to chamomile for a soothing right-before-bed drink. I also have it at breakfast mixed with green tea, or at dinner whenever my fridge has out of soju or vodka or anything to mix a drink with. Lulu is fine cold, but so delicious when warm that I can unconciously go through a whole box in one sitting.

So naturally I had to make my own. Store-bought Lulu may be addictive, but the homemade version is so transcendent that it makes me forget the 3 or 4 times I had to strain every batch because the mesh in my colander isn't fine enough. But c'est la vie. If you have a very fine-mesh colander to strain out the minute particles of puréed almond, making this will be a breeze.

The results of this first homemade trial were either sipped straight, or heated to go with warm honey and bananas (recipe below). Some other ways to use homemade almond milk:

  • In coffee in place of milk/cream
  • Stirred with green, black, or barley tea
  • Baked into cookies in place of, or in addition to, vanilla extract

I got the bananas and honey idea from Food & Wine, but the instructions on making the almond milk itself come from an Australian food site. The author says he adapted the recipe from the 14th century tome Le Vandier de Taillevent. Taillevent! Folks, you'll be drinking a piece of gastronomical history here.

Homemade Almond Milk with Bananas and Honey Adapted from cuisine.com.au and Food & Wine

Serves 2, with plenty of milk left over for your sipping pleasure

1 cup raw-skinned almonds 2 cups water 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons honey 2 medium-sized bananas, sliced 1/2 inch thick

Special equipment: Blender, very fine sieve or cheese cloth (If your sieve is not fine enough, you may have to pass the mixture through 3 or 4 times, like I did. A little texture is fine, a lot is just plain annoying.)

Bring the water to the boil, then remove from heat. Pour over the almonds and leave to stand for five minutes, or a few hours or overnight for a richer milk. Place mixture in a blender and puree until silky smooth. Pass through a very fine-mesh sieve or cheese cloth and discard solids.

In a small nonstick skillet, warm the honey. Add the bananas, and cook over moderate heat, stirring, for 2 minutes. Scape the mixture into small bowls or teacups and pour in warm almond milk. Serve immediately, with spoons of course.

Almond milk can be stored in the fridge, covered, for up to 3 days.

 

Coconut and Lime Rice Pudding

In Beijing, it's easy to find fruits like carambola, rambutans, and dragonfruit in almost every major supermarket. However, I couldn't for the life of me find a single lime in this city. I've bought them in Guangdong, but up north it's a whole different story. Even Carrefour and the foreign import stores didn't have them, nor did any of J's Chinese-English picture dictionaries show "lime" alongside "apple", "banana", and "durian". What I took for granted as a common grocery item in the US is, apparently, as exotic to Beijingers as a waxberry is to Americans.

I finally found limes at Jenny Lou's near Dongzhimen station. I was so excited I bought in bulk (5 kilos maybe?). The cashier looked at me as though no other person had ever bought so many limes at once in this city.

What I wanted limes for was to make, in addition to Southeast Asian curries, this Coconut Lime Rice Pudding. A medley of sweet and tart flavors of the tropics out of a single pan. Lemons would not have added the same zing.

Besides tracking down the limes, making this dessert was incredibly simple. Including the time it takes to soak the rice, this can be done in about an hour without much conscious effort. In fact, I spent 45 minutes of that hour away from the stove, watching Ratatouille for the umpteenth time. I'm sure you can find another activity equally as fulfilling, while this delicious dessert cooks on the stove.

Coconut Lime Rice Pudding Adapted from Gourmet

Serves 4

1/2 cup jasmine rice a 13- to 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk 1 1/4 cups whole milk 1/2 cup sugar 1 pinch salt 2 teaspoons fresh lime zest, finely grated

Optional for garnish: diced mangos or sweetened coconut flakes, toasted

In a bowl cover rice with cold water and let soak 30 minutes. Drain rice in a sieve. In a medium-sized sauce pan bring coconut milk, whole milk, rice, sugar, and a pinch salt to a boil. Reduce heat and gently simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.

Remove pan from heat and stir lime zest into mixture. Divide pudding among four glasses or custard cups. You can make the puddings up to 2 days ahead of time; just chill them in the fridge, covered.

Serve puddings warm or chilled, and garnish with mangos or toasted coconut if desired.

Goji Oatmeal-Almond Cookies

In the past few years, goji berries, or 枸杞 (gouqi) in Mandarin, have become one of those new "it" foods highly touted in the media. Everyone from health gurus to fashion magazine editors raved about how gojis were rich in antioxidents, good for your eyesight, and so on. As a kid I had eaten them in herbal soups my mother made, but as a 20-something New Yorker my disinterest was purely economical: they cost upwards of $10 or $12 a bag, even on sale.

Of course, here in China you can get the exact same goji berries for 6 or 7 renminbi a bag, if you don't mind the less fancy packaging. (Which makes me wonder why I'm not stocking up to sell for a killer profit back home.) Also called wolfberries, gojis are said to have Tibetan and Himilayan origin, but most sold nowadays come from other parts of China.

Gojis taste like a cross between a raisin and a date. I don't like to eat them on their own, since they are a bit dry. But I do like a spoonful in green or black tea with honey. (Note: Whenever you consume goji berries you should first rinse them in water to rid them of any chemicals they may have.) They're also great to bake with; the berries' natural sweetness makes them great for muffins, scones, and especially cookies.

Today I made oatmeal cookies using goji berries in place of raisins for a twist. I also added some coarsely ground almonds. It's a rare cookie that can be at once deliciously crunchy, sweet, and somewhat healthy.

Goji Oatmeal-Almond Cookies

Makes 30 to 40 cookies

  • 1 cup goji berries, rinsed
  • 1 3/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup almonds, coarsely ground
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C.) Lightly grease the baking sheets. In a bowl, stir together the oats, almonds, flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside. In a separate bowl, beat together the butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar with an electric mixer until light and airy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well. Add the oat mixture and goji berries and mix until well-combined.
  2. Drop the dough by spoonfuls 2 inches apart onto the baking sheets. Bake the cookies in upper and lower thirds of the oven, switching position of sheets halfway. Bake until golden, about 12 minutes total. Transfer to racks to cool.