baking, dessert, home cooking, huzhou

Three-Chord Fantasies

11.03.09 | 1 Comment

It’s a common human fantasy to be a rock star. Why do you think we have shows like American Idol and its Chinese semi-equivalent, Happy Girl? Because most people, when they’re alone in the car singing with the radio, or belting it out in the shower or trying their best to croon at KTV or embarrassing themselves on national television singing yet another rendition of “I Will Always Love you,” like to fancy themselves undiscovered rock stars.

I harbored this fantasy for a sad period in middle school, when I tortured my family playing the Spice Girls and “My Heart Will Go On” over and over and over and over and belting it out, fancying myself the next big sensation at Cocopah Middle School.

Then I got more serious about viola, and my rock star ambitions went away. I distinctly remember, on a long, full-day, 10-mile trek through the jungle in Costa Rica, keeping my mind entertained with thoughts of Ellis Friedman, the famous viola soloist, who would be revered in the classical and popular sectors alike, not just for her viola virtuosity, but also for stunning eye for fashion, which she refused to tame according to the classical world’s stuffy black standards.

I justify this by the jungle—I had been living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the previous five days of hiking. Thinking of Itzhak Perlman, Yoyo Ma and Ellis Friedman all together kept me from going all Aguirre Wrath of God (see it!) on my hiking mates.

Aforementioned Rock Star Delusion is so widely popular, in fact, that people pay a lot of money to play out those fantasies. TJ is one of them. He has gradually accumulated all the accoutrements for the video game Rock Band. He has two guitars, a microphone, and, my favorite, a drum set. We played together a few times during the summer, and I must say, it is good fun, and I don’t really like video games.

[It sounds snobby, but I actually find it confusing to follow the game, especially the guitar part. Musical training—the burden I have to bear.]

Once the weather turned cooler (remember, we don’t have heating or air conditioning), TJ planned for a laowai/English speaker-wide Huzhou Rock Band Party. And you know what party means?


I first made this cake over two years ago while visiting my best friend at Oberlin in Ohio. The recipe for Caramel Walnut Upside-Down Banana Cake is, of course, from my staple food blog Smitten Kitchen. First you make a caramel. Just do this:

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Oh yes I just did.

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Mix with some walnuts. Spread on the bottom of the cake pan. Then scrape the ‘extra’ caramel from the pan and eat it.

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Make a cake batter, bake, and about an hour left, you’ll have this gorgeous trophy that will taunt and torture you all day because you made it in the morning and it’s not like cookies where you can just take some and it’ll still look like you made a batch. Oh no, you can tell with a cake. With a cake, your self-control is on display. I swear uneaten cakes sing to you in demonic, Rosemary’s Baby-like tones.

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Yeah, that’s totally not a spot where I took a bite.

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Though TJ told people to show up at five, it was just me, TJ, and Jean until about 7. So the three of us stood around, ate snacks. Around 5:30, caved and ate some of the tacos that TJ had prepared for the occasion, buying necessary, not-present-in-Huzhou ingredients from Taobao, the Chinese ebay equivalent.


Jean’s first taco had been almost exactly a year ago during the Shanghai Taco Quest. Since those were so disappointing, she wasn’t super excited about TJs tacos. But she soon changed her tune.

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Still waiting for the guests, we took a shot and started playing Rock Band. Eventually things livened up, with laowai coming from all corners of Huzhou to drink, drink, and indulge their three-chord fantasies.

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This is Paul, who is Canadian and a real teacher, and his wife, Annie.

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They came with their daughter, Susan, who is the coolest teenager in Huzhou and gives most other people, teenagers or not, a run for their coolness. She taught herself to play Hey Jude in her first two hours on the (real) guitar. So you can imagine her musical prowess on the Rock Band drums. I kind of want to be her, but I’ll just have to settle for hanging out with her.

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This is Jack. He’s British. That says everything, right?

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He’s a total kick.

This is Brandon.

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The kid watching Jack and Brandon break the rules is Why, one of Paul’s students. This would have been perfect ‘But what’s the guy’s namefodder in the early days of ellis.

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TJ gets really in to singing.

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The animated man behind him is Edward. He had been in Huzhou just a few days when he came to the party.


Obviously, he was very excited to be there.

And the cake?


Gone faster than the rum. And that’s saying something.

Caramel Walnut Upside Down Banana Cake
Huzhou-ified from Smitten Kitchen

½ cup (110 g) unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons honey
¾ cup walnut pieces

1 ¾ cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (110 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup mashed very ripe bananas (3 or 4 bananas)
3 tablespoons Huzhou sour cream substitute (concoction of milk, butter, and lemon juice)
1 tablespoon rum
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

First, the topping:
Grease a 9” round cake pan with oil/butter/nonstick spray/John Travolta. Bring butter, sugar, and honey to boil in a saucepan, stirring constantly until the butter melts. Boil the syrup for one minute. Stir in the nuts, spread the topping in the prepared pan, then scrape the remnants of caramel from the pan and spend 5 minutes licking it from your teeth while the syrup and walnut mix cools completely.

But FYI: the caramel is very sweet and it hardens quickly. Move fast.

For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Sift the first four ingredients in a medium bowl. In a separate large bowl, beat the butter and both sugars until blended. Beat in eggs one at a time, then the mashed bananas, sour cream, rum, and vanilla. Beat in the dry ingredients in two additions until just combined. Spoon the batter into the pan over the caramel walnut topping.

Bake the cake until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 40-45 minutes. Cool the cake for 15 minutes. Cut around the sides of the cake, invert over a platter, and let it stand for 5 minutes. Then gently lift the pan off. Cool the cake at least 15 minutes before serving. Wish that you hadn’t greased the pan so that you could pick remnants off the pan.

Both times I’ve made this cake, it’s been a huge crowd-pleaser. If you want people to like you, or at least invite you to more parties, this is your ticket to cool. And you don’t even have to learn to play the guitar.

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