baking, dessert, home cooking, huzhou, Shanghai, students, teaching

You Have No Ikea

04.02.09 | 5 Comments

Every year around this time, I wonder what was going through my mother’s mind as she was delivering me. Of course there’s “OWWWWWW!” and the whole “My life is never going to be the same” thing, but I imagine that as my mother was expelling me into the world, there was another thought pushing for space in her mind:

“Oh, dear God, my first child is going to be born on April Fool’s Day.”

Having an April first birthday isn’t too bad once people stop laughing or calling me a fool or saying “Really?” If anything, it makes it easier for people to remember. And luckily, not too many people I know seem intent on playing an April Fool’s prank on me, or on anyone at all.

I’m not much of a prankster, either, but once in fifth grade, a friend and I played a mean joke on a kid we found annoying. We told him the girl he liked liked him back, watched his face light up, and then yelled “April Fool’s!” I immediately felt terrible—it was pretty cruel. I still feel bad about that. If you’re out there, I’m sorry Brandon.

But this year the prankster itch returned. I wanted to mess with my students. I needed something to get me through the week. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Last weekend I really needed to get out of Huzhou and had planned a solo trip to Shanghai for Thursday afternoon. Then I woke up Thursday morning feeling like I had been hit over the head by Hell on steroids. The act of dressing seemed more than I could bear, let alone rudely interrupting the texting, sleeping, and chatting schedules of fifty twenty-year olds. So I called in sick, slept til noon and put off the Shanghai trip.

I awoke on Friday feeling functional and decided to just GO. Sure, I was going stir crazy, but more importantly, I needed to get me to Shanghai so that I could buy stuff. I mean, I was out of vanilla extract. Completely OUT. This was bordering on international emergency, folks.

I met up with Nellie, who is now living in Shanghai, and her roommate Marianne for lunch at an Italian restaurant, Otto. Marian and Nellie opted for the salad buffet, but there was no way in Mao I was schlepping my sick, almost-a-year-older, food-obsessed, ravenous self all the way to Shanghai to eat raw vegetables. The days leading up to one’s birthday are not days for rabbit food. Unless that food is actually rabbit. Then it’s okay.

And guess what was on the menu? Lasagna!

Lasagna seemed an apt birthday celebration food, especially given the fact that making a lasagna from scratch is akin to giving birth.

Western food in China is notoriously…strange, but this was Real Italian Lasagna Bolognese. This lasagna was soft, rich and heavily melty, sagging with lots of cheese and meat. Some lasagne are more sauce-heavy, but this one employed tomato sauce more sparingly. It came topped with three cherry tomato halves, which provided a really nice sweet contrast. I wish there had been more of them. And no, your eyes do not deceive you, this thing came out with a burbling foam garnish. Parmesan foam, to be precise. I had never eaten foam before, and once I stopped thinking of it as spittle, it was a nice modern twist on a classic dish.

They also served free bread with the meal, and when they put the first plate of bread on the table, I said out loud, “Wow, I forgot that free bread comes with meals!” Marianne laughed at me.

Someone’s been in China a little too long…

From there, the three of us moved on to 谊家家具, aka Friendly Family Furniture, aka Ikea. Oh yes, there’s an Ikea in Shanghai, and yes, they serve Swedish meatballs. We spent about three hours in Ikea, which was as hellish as one would expect a Saturday afternoon at Ikea in a city with more than 16 million people. So I distracted myself by drooling over various kitchen implements and then spending 800 kuai. Whoops…I probably would have spent more if I weren’t limited to what I could carry back on the bus.

Guess what I bought:

The entire weekend, I was still plagued by this desire to play a prank on my students. On Wednesday I would have my tourism class, which I taught last semester and see twice a week this semester, and they’re good kids. So I decided they were perfect bait. I decided to buy them treats in honor of my birth to soften them up, and then come at them from the other direction. It would be brilliant!

Except, well, there’s not much a teacher can do to her students. No being mean, no scaring them, and it has to be something that doesn’t stink of April Fool’s. So I recruited TJ to go in on a prank with me. After a night of cake, a container of Betty Crocker frosting and a lot of thinking, we came up with a plan.

So Wednesday at ten, we separately explained to our classes the rules of Family Feud.“You guys are way smarter than they are, I know you can win,” I told my class before we left. “And since it’s my birthday, I think we have to win.”

At 10:25, my class of thirty students poured into TJ’s classroom. It’s tough to manage a class of thirty chatty college students for ninety minutes, so you can imagine the challenges of managing a class of sixty-four students.

It was a little crowded.

But they’re Chinese—they’re used to it! Compared to the buses at rush hour, the classroom was a grassy, open field. Besides, they got really into it.

Imagine how they would have been if Louie Anderson had been there.

That may have been a bit more than they could handle. It was already pretty intense.

The students were yelling and cheering raucously. For once, no one was trying to tune out education with a cell phone.

The boys are grossly outnumbered—in my class there’s only one boy, McGrady. He’s the one on the left.

They all huddled together in a little guy gang in the back of the classroom. Cute:

Here they are trying to figure out how to say “comb your hair” in English:

Students “buzzing” in.

That’s my student Sasha on the right.

Explaining what a ‘hole’ is:

TJ and I were both invested in our teams, but TJ was being obviously biased, a little controlling, and rather…intense. But with sixty-six bodies in one classroom, who could blame him? The deafening, high-pitched squeals a bit like needles in the ears.

But the students were having a good time, so all was forgiven.

This is Craci:

Here’s Nancy answering a question (notice Allen’s intent look in the background) (and yes, Allen is a girl):

This is Nina just after she ‘buzzed’ in, looking to her classmates for some help:

This is Suci:

TJ and I were careful to choose questions that the students would understand and be able to answer. Some of them skewed so American that there was no way they’d be able to answer. This one was Name the smartest animal:

Towards the end, TJ got to a question we had, I thought, agreed not to use: Name something men do better than women.

Totally sexist! You’d think Larry Summers wrote that question. So I called him out on it, but he’d been edgy all class and started arguing with me, maintaining that there were some things that “men just do better than women” and that he was the “smarter one in the room.”

Things like that don’t go over well with me (let’s also remember I graduated from Wellesley), and we started yelling at each other. The argument escalated and got a little personal, until TJ shouted, “Oh yeah, well who can’t find a boyfriend?!”

I’ve had my fair share of jerks in the past few months, and I certainly didn’t need that crap from TJ, so I walked out of the classroom.

I stopped just down the hall and waited. About twenty seconds later, my students came out holding their bags and saying, “ellis, come on, let’s go.”

And then my heart melted. My students were willing to follow me and walk out on the game for me. Awww…I love them.

So I walked back into the classroom. TJ counted to three and we yelled “April Fool’s!” We hugged each other and passed out candy to assure the students that no, we hadn’t really fought. TJ later informed me that the roughly 30 seconds after I had left the classroom were EXTREMELY awkward. All of my students were worried about me, and all of his students started asking, “What did you DO?”


This is me with Strawberry:

[And in case you were wondering, my class totally kicked his class’ butts by more than fifty points. Ha!]

Later that night I took six friends out for a birthday dinner.

Left to right: Erik (from Peru. He has a factory here), TJ, Yuring, Jennifer (she’s taller than I am!), Yancy, Chris (a new friend whom I instantly liked).

I know what you’re thinking—did ellis really celebrate her birthday without CAKE?

Please. Do you know me at ALL?

After more than a week of agonizing over what to bake, I decided to make a Huzhou variation of my carrot cake (applesauce: nonexistent) because it’s simple, and also because it’s not too sweet. Chinese people are much more sensitive and averse to really sweet things, and I wanted people to actually like what I was feeding them. Because of the bananas, the cake came out incomprehensibly moist and complexly sweet, but not overly.

It was a hit. I brought it into the English office and all the teachers had multiple pieces—anywhere from three to six pieces (though let’s not pretend I exercised ANY sort of self-control).

Huzhou Carrot Cake
makes a LOT

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 generous teaspoon freshly grated cinnamon
2 scant cups white sugar
1 cup mashed ripe bananas
¼ cup oil (I used a soybean/peanut/canola mixed oil)
5 medium eggs
3 cups (packed) grated carrots
2 generous tablespoons minced fresh ginger

Preheat the oven to 180ºC (350ºF). Grease whatever baking dish you have with butter and flour it, tapping out the excess flour.

Whisk the baking soda, flour, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl. In a separate large bowl, whisk the sugar, oil, and mashed banana until well-blended. Whisk in eggs one at a time. Add the flour mixture and stir until blended. Stir in carrots and ginger. Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Time will vary based on the size of your baking dish. Mine took about 30 minutes in a roughly 7-inch square foil pan. Cool the cake in the pan for 15 minutes, then turn them out and cool them.

**IMPORTANT: make sure you lick the bowl and whisk. Disregard worries about getting bird flu from raw eggs.

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