baking, dessert, holidays, huzhou

I’m Dreaming of a Caucasian Christmas

12.28.08 | 1 Comment

Most kids wake up early on Christmas because they’re so excited to open presents. This year, I was excited to wake up on Christmas because I was going to bake a cake.

Cake is always a good reason to get out of bed.

Christmas has been a long time coming here in China. For at least a month, there have been signs all around the supermarkets touting Christmas as the Shopping Holiday, Christmas trees in all the little stores, decorations everywhere. Grating carols played on endless loops in public places, and let me tell you, even Frank Sinatra gets annoying.

“Christmas” in Chinese is shengdan jie, which literally means day of holy birth. So I was a bit surprised that none of my students knew that the original point of Christmas was not, in fact, buying things and having a party, but celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Most of them seemed surprised that the holiday was remotely religious. The extent of their knowledge regarding Christmas is the old fat Christmas man brings presents and puts them in socks, though I think that perhaps it’s the same way in America. I’m not saying that everyone must know about, care about, or celebrate the birth of Christ, but if one is going to celebrate Christmas, one should probably know its basic roots.

Though the Chinese have appropriated the commercial side of Christmas, they’ve thrown in a tradition of their own: eating apples on Christmas eve. The word for apple is “pingguo,” and the word for Christmas Eve is “pingan ye,” which means peaceful night. The two pings are written differently, but since they sound the same, eating an apple signifies a peaceful year ahead.

On Christmas Eve, the students in the English Lover’s club threw a Christmas party. Unfortunately, they didn’t tell me about it until the night before, and I already had plans. People in China tend to make plans pretty last minute, and since I’m naturally more of a planner, this can drive me batty. You want to take a flight somewhere for vacation? No one here bothers to book a plane ticket until a few days ahead of time. It’s actually more expensive way ahead of time.

I was around for some of the party set up.

There were lots of balloons. Who needs green and red when you can have pink and purple?

The students were bustling around setting up a sound system and consulting on decorations.

There was a five-minute intense discussion on what exactly to do with this garland:

This is Rita. She sings. She’s cute.

This was my first Christmas away from my family, and I missed them. Every year on Christmas Eve, we get together with my grandparents and have a lovely candlelit dinner of game hens, and it’s the one time a year we build a fire in the fireplace. Though I wasn’t home, I still had a pretty good Christmas Eve, eating Muslim food (one of my culinary loves) and watching ‘Ratatouille.’

The morning of Christmas, I sprang out of bed, naturally caffeinated because Today I Would Bake a Cake. A ginger cake, to be exact.

Baking a cake in China is no small feat; there is no end to the limitations. Aside from the previously mentioned lack of ovens, cake pans and baking soda are like intelligent life in the universe: probably out there but essentially impossible to find. Though it is fun to test my critical thinking skills coming up with substitutions.

I had a glass pie dish and baking powder. The recipe called for molasses, which also does not exist, so honey it would be with half the white sugar replaced by brown sugar. I didn’t have vegetable oil on hand, so peanut oil would have to suffice. What, no cloves? Pass the nutmeg.

Baking is such a precise art that baking this cake was like trying to commit the perfect crime—how much could I get away with?

As you can see, I got away with quite a lot. The cake got a little mussed because I didn’t have parchment paper to line the pan and it stuck, despite buttering. Oiling worked better.

The toaster oven’s a little wonky, I think, because the cake appeared done—a tester came out clean—but the center was still a little undercooked. I substituted 2 tablespoons of baking powder in lieu of 2 teaspoons of baking soda (I read that this was how to do it) and it didn’t seem to affect the taste, but the cake wasn’t as cake-y as I would have liked. A bit too dense. Also, next time I would cut the oil and the sugar.

Despite this, the cake was still a very, very tasty success.

It’s too bad that there was so much food at Nellie’s gathering that barely half the cake got eaten (and let’s face it—I did the most work there).

Aside from my cake, the provisions at Nellie’s included but were not limited to: two French baguettes, fresh salsa, white bean dip (prepared by Guen), two types of freshly baked cookies, baked beans, two types of potato chips, candy, peanuts, youzi, three types of cheese, two kinds of crackers, and a partridge and a pear tree.

Go big or go home, folks.

We spent the time eating, chatting, and watching Futurama, Family Guy, and Robot Chicken.

I ate a lot of these cookies that Guen made.

At 7:30, it was time to go meet the rest of the laowai residing in Huzhou for Christmas dinner at a Western restaurant.

Dinner?! We were all so full that just thinking about food made our digestive systems wince in pain. And no, it was not just me.

Food has the ability to comfort us, to transport us through space or time. At my house on Christmas, we eat cinnamon rolls for breakfast. Oh, how I missed those cinnamon rolls this year. If I could have had a real cinnamon roll on Christmas morning, a real, bread-y, gooey cinnamon roll with buttery cinnamon dripping off the bottom and hardening as it cools, I would have felt just a little closer to home, a little closer to my family.

This is the chef. He told me to come back anytime and he’ll make me whatever I want.

Ah, the perks of speaking the language.

I suppose the logic behind eating at Western restaurant for Christmas was to be transported home by the food. But aside from a few big city exceptions, Western food in China is awful. If you have a craving for some food that you miss, Chinese Western food will just make that craving even worse and you will waste more energy fixating on how much you miss, need, CRAVE that food. See: Gino and the Shanghai Taco Quest of December, 2008. Then go to his blog and read his side of the story.

There wasn’t much on the menu that appealed to me. Steak, ‘spaghetti,’ ‘pizza,’ ‘Indian curry,’ (which a fellow laowai warned was abysmal). No thanks. And then I flipped to the back and my eyes immediately focused on the pancakes with eggs, sausage and bacon. Pancakes, yes please! I knew they wouldn’t be ‘real’ pancakes, but hey, it’s carbs. Why the hell not? But I replaced the bacon and sausage with French fries. I had a hankering.

Gino ordered the same thing, sans fries, and we were a little wary of what, exactly, would be on our plates.

The pancakes had the thickness of poorly done crepes, the spongy consistency of Ethiopian injeera bread, and the taste of a sack of flour mixed with an insufficient amount water. My eggs were done, just barely, sunny-side up with nice runny yolks. Instead of maple syrup, the pancakes came with honey.

In my opinion, the best way to eat pancakes is as such: put runny-yolked egg on top of pancake. Burst yolk and spread it all over the pancake. Sprinkle with salt. Cut off bite-sized piece, dip fork tines in maple syrup, spear pancake-egg layers, and eat. It’s a fabulous mix of sweet, salty, fatty, and carb-y.

Gino’s eggs, however, were nowhere close to done. The whites were still clear. We made them take it back and finish cooking them.

The evening got louder and sillier as time progressed.

John actually allowed me to take his photograph.

Guen and Nellie had some fun with the tin foil from my cake, fashioning themselves themselves grills for their smiles.

They’re goofballs.

Nellie soon accessorized with TJ’s glasses and Paul’s ‘blingy’ crystal necklace.

After dinner, around 11, we went back to Gino’s for some whisky and Coke. Some of us had to drink out of bowls, since Gino didn’t have enough cups to go around.

It was really nice to spend the holiday with everyone, but it was bittersweet. John left Saturday, Nellie moved to Shanghai this weekend, Gino leaves Wednesday and Guen leaves soon thereafter. I have to admit, it’s hard to be enjoying their company while simultaneously thinking, “soon, they’ll be gone and I’ll probably never see them again.” It makes fun a little less so.

Huzhou is already a fairly lonely, alienating place. And with about 50% of the laowai population (which is 75% of the under-30 laowai population) departing, it’s about to get a lot more so. So while I had a wonderful Christmas with everyone, it was bittersweet. But this is what I signed up for: moving to a foreign country where I knew no one and taking on a position where people don’t stay for long. Maybe a new crop of foreign teachers will come in, and we’ll become friends, and then, in July when my contract is up, I’ll be on the other side of departure.

In my opinion, it’s easier to leave than to be left.

ellis’ Chinese Substitution Ginger Cake
adapted from a David Lebovitz recipe I found here

4 ounces/ ½ cup peeled fresh ginger, very finely chopped
1 cup honey
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
1 cup peanut vegetable oil
2 ½ cups flour
1 teaspoon plus a touch more fresh ground cinnamon
sprinkle freshly ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup water
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (or 325 if you’re using a glass dish like I did). If you’re using a 9-inch cake pan, line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. If you’re using a glass dish and/or have no parchment paper because you live in China, oil the dish.
In a large bowl mix ginger, honey, sugars, oil, and ginger. In another large bowl, sift together or just stir with a whisk) flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper.

Bring water to a boil in a saucepan, stir in baking powder, try not to worry about the large bubbles and gas emissions, and then stir it with the molasses mixture. Gradually whisk in the dry ingredients. Add the eggs and continue to mix until thoroughly combined.

Pour everything into your pan and bake it for about an hour-ish or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. If the cake browns too quickly, you can cover it with foil while it cooks. Cool the cake at least 30 minutes.

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