Monday, January 31, 2011

cake culture

Chinese New Year begins this week. The streets are filled with red lanterns, and the foyer of my apartment building has been decked out with strings of firecrackers and miniature orange trees. The festive atmosphere reminds me of the December holiday season, but its trappings are somehow both oddly familiar and utterly alien. This might be my heritage, but it isn't my culture.

I don't have any notable childhood memories of Chinese New Year. I know I received "red packets" - a nice addition to my bank account - but I don't think my family ever engaged in any of the other rituals. What I know of the traditional foods associated with Chinese New Year comes less from personal experience and more from Wikipedia.

I've folded dumplings for Chinese New Year, but at my table, they probably make for better comedy fodder than they do celebratory material. I'd rather do as I often do, and make it up myself. This year, I decided I wanted cake.

My starting point was the little sponge cakes with raisins that are typical fare at Chinese bakeries. (They're small, round and yellow, suggestive of gold coins, which would be appropriate for the wealth theme of Chinese New Year.) They tend to be sweet and bland and a little too dry for my taste, so I set about to tweak them into something richer and moister.

Butter was an obvious addition, and when I thought about soaking the raisins to improve their texture, I remembered I had a bottle of brandy from my grandfather. The brandy darkened the batter, though, so I skipped the idea of small golden cakes and baked one big cake instead.

This cake bakes up to a fairly unremarkable shade of light brown, but it fills the kitchen with a heady scent of butter and brandy when it's in the oven. It comes out nicely moist, and its flavor improves with age, making it eminently suitable for making in advance. Even if I give heritage another shot and submit to the comedy routine of dumplings again this year, I'll be all set for dessert. As far as cultural traditions go, that's one I can definitely get behind.

Brandy Raisin Butter Cake 

Brandy is the dominant flavor in this cake, so use a variety you'd drink. Feel free to play with the seasonings - I imagine a little fresh orange zest or a pinch of cinnamon and cloves might be a nice addition. This cake tastes best a day or two after it's been made.

(Makes one eight-inch cake. Leftovers keep for a while in the fridge.)

Place a quarter-cup of golden raisins in a bowl or jar with a quarter-cup of brandy. Cover well, and leave to soften overnight. (You can speed up the process by putting them in the microwave for a minute or two.)

Preheat oven to 325F. Butter and flour an eight-inch cake or tart pan.

In a small mixing bowl, sift together a little over three-quarters of a cup (four ounces) of pastry flour, a half-teaspoon baking powder, and a half-teaspoon salt. In a bigger mixing bowl, cream three-quarters of a stick (three ounces) softened butter with a half-cup (four ounces) of sugar.

In a third bowl, beat two eggs until light and foamy. Pour a little of the egg mixture into the creamed butter, beating steadily, until the mixture reaches a pourable consistency. Fold in half the flour mixture. Fold in the rest of the egg mixture, then the other half of the flour. Finally, fold in the raisins along with any remaining brandy.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan; shake gently to smooth out the top. Bake for twenty to twenty-five minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a rack. When fully cool, turn out gently and wrap tightly in foil, and let it sit for at least a few hours before serving.

Serve slightly warm with tea, or coffee, or a glass of brandy.


A Plum By Any Other Name said...

Butter ... and brandy ... and possibly some wealth for the year ahead?! Say no more. ;)

adele said...

Plum - My thoughts exactly! :)

adele said...

Bobbie Sue - Thanks for pointing out the problem with the photo! Not sure what went funny with the formatting. I have something for you, which I'll be sending along with Bella. :)