A New Take On A Dim Sum Favorite: Chinese-Style Savory Pumpkin Cake
When I was gathering recipes for The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook, I spent a day with Cathy Chun and her sister, Carol, cooking, chatting and sharing.
Shrimp with black bean sauce and taro cake were on the menu. While both were delicious, only the shrimp dish made it into the cookbook. However, I’ve been waiting for the perfect opportunity to highlight the taro cake recipe.
So the other day, as I was thinking about all the wonderful things I could make with the season’s bounty of pumpkin, I decided, why not make a Chinese-style savory cake with pumpkin instead of taro or turnip?
Taro or turnip cake is a staple at dim sum restaurants and surprisingly easy to make at home. Cathy learned to make this recipe from her dad but it is based on a recipe from Rhoda Yee’s seminal cookbook Dim Sum: The Delicious Secrets of Home-Cooked Chinese Tea Lunch (1977).
The recipe calls for some ingredients you can’t find at your local Safeway or Giant so let’s talk about them for a little bit and discuss substitutions.
Chinese Sausage (lap cheong, lop cheung)
Sweet, salty, and slightly smoky, Chinese sausage adds so much flavor to just about any dish from fried rice to an omelet. It is is smoked, preserved, dried and sold in packages of 10 to 12 links. Unopened, it will last 3 months refrigerated. After opening, wrap it in a sealed bag or container and refrigerate for a month.
The brand I buy is Kam Yen Jan.
If you cut the sausage crosswise and look closely, you’ll see bits of white. This is pure fat! Cathy showed me how to steam the sausages on the stove for about 8 to 10 minutes to render the fat so that it becomes a little healthier. For simplicity’s sake, I microwave them. You can also sauté slices in a dry wok or skillet for about 7 to 8 minutes. Use the rendered fat to fry the rest of the ingredients but this defeats the purpose of rendering the fat .
In this recipe, you can substitute ham, pork loin or Chinese barbecued pork (char siu). To make a meat-free version, use Chinese dried mushrooms or fresh portabellos or shitakes. Or mix and match.
Rhoda Yee’s recipe calls for chung choy, pickled turnip. I haven’t been able to find it at the Asian market but according to Cathy it comes rolled up like a ball of twine. I used Tianjin preserved vegetables (also called tong cai or winter vegetables) instead, which is pickled cabbage. A preserved vegetable is a preserved vegetable right?
Sometimes Tianjin preserved vegetables are sold in a cute little clay crock.
If you are wary of preserved vegetables, leave them out but add a little salt or soy sauce to the batter because the vegetables add saltiness.
To make taro cake, you’d have to buy fresh or frozen taro and cook it with broth to soften. While I’m a from-scratch cook at heart, ever since Isaac was born, all my good intentions have gone out the window. Thus, I am thankful for the convenience of canned pumpkin puree. I used Trader Joe’s organic pumpkin puree. For some inexplicable reason, the word “organic” always reassures me.
Traditionally, taro cake is made from rice flour and wheat starch. However, rice flour has only become more available in recent years. So when Rhoda Yee was developing her recipe for taro cake in the mid-1970’s, she probably discovered that cake flour (Swans Down brand, she says, has no substitute!) produced a cake with a texture closest to traditional taro cake. Made from soft wheat flour, cake flour gives a delicate, velvety texture, which is what taro cake is all about.
I used King Arthur cake flour which has fewer additives than Swans Down. To make your own, put 2 tablespoons of cornstarch in the bottom of a 1-cup measuring cup, then fill the cup with sifted, bleached, all-purpose flour (3/4 cup).
I hope you’ve gained an understanding of the ingredients that go into a Chinese savory cake. Now, let’s get cooking!
I’ve updated Cathy’s recipe using canned pumpkin and baked the cake in a water bath in the oven instead of steaming on the stovetop. The cake will turn out softer than the traditional rice recipe but it tastes pretty authentic with a touch of sweetness from the pumpkin. The only difference is the pieces won’t hold up to pan-frying. Savory pumpkin cake is delicious for breakfast or as a snack, or serve it as an unusual seasonal appetizer for your holiday party!
Time: 1-1/2 hours
Makes: 1 9-inch round cake
2/3 cup sliced Chinese sausage (2, 7-inch sausages) or a combination of ham, char siu or mushrooms
1/4 cup cooked pink shrimp
2 tablespoons Tianjin preserved vegetables or chung choy (pickled turnip)
1/3 cup green onions, chopped (save 1 tablespoon for garnish)
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped (save 1 tablespoon for garnish)
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 cup cake flour
1/3 cup chicken stock (homemade or low-sodium store-bought)
1 (15 oz) can pumpkin puree (1 3/4 cup)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Place the sausage in a wide bowl and pour in 1/3 cup water. Cover to avoid splattering and microwave on medium-high for 2 minutes to render the fat. Drain the fat and mince the sausage into confetti-sized pieces.
In a large wok or skillet, heat the oil and stir-fry the sausage, shrimp, and preserved vegetables. Add the green onions and fry for 2 minutes before adding the cilantro. Sprinkle the five-spice powder and white pepper and mix well. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
In a medium bowl, mix the cake flour with the stock and pumpkin until smooth. The mixture will be a little lumpy. Add the meat mixture and stir to mix well. The batter’s consistency will resemble thick oatmeal.
Pour the batter into a lightly greased 9-inch metal cake pan (disposable is fine). Cover with foil and set the pan in a roasting pan. Pour water into the roasting pan until it reaches to about an inch up the cake pan to create a water bath.
Place the batter in the oven and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the center is firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. The cake will still be soft.
Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or preferably overnight, so that the cake will firm up. Or make ahead and freeze. Defrost in the fridge or microwave on low to defrost.
Let the cake sit out until it reaches room temperature. When ready to serve, run a knife along the edge of the cake to loosen sides. Cut the cake into 2-inch-wide strips and then on the diagonal into diamond-shaped pieces. Garnish with fried shallots, green onions and cilantro, and serve with hoisin sauce and chili sauce.
For those who would like a more traditional turnip or taro cake recipe:
Rhoda Yee’s original Taro Pudding Cake recipe