Though we may still only be able to meet virtually, CUSEF continues to find new and exciting ways to engage with our alumni. If there’s one thing that quarantine has reaffirmed, it’s that food is a universal language. Whether you’re learning how to bake sourdough bread from scratch or ordering takeout, cuisine is a cultural and social bridge that brings our worlds together. With this in mind, CUSEF has launched our Cross Cultural Cookoff with alumni, where we invite a CUSEF alumni to swap recipes with a member of the CUSEF team. The two participants will cook or bake each other’s recipes, share lessons learned, and compare Chinese and American cuisine over Zoom.
Our first Cross Cultural Cook Off dove into the world of desserts. Executive chef at the Century Club of California in San Francisco and CUSEF alumni Jasmine Howell swapped her famous American chocolate chip cookie recipe with CUSEF program director Wendy Tang’s Chinese red date and brown sugar cake recipe.
A little history: The chocolate chip cookie was first created by American chef Ruth Wakefield in the late 1930s, who ran the popular Toll House restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts, with her husband from 1930-1967. Though perfected over the decades, the cookie made its first print appearance in the 1938 edition of Wakefield’s Tried and True cookbook.
In China, rumored to be the royal pastry of the Qing dynasty, the red date and brown sugar cake is a traditional dim sum that has a history of more than 200 years. It is believed to be the court’s first pastry and is a popular dessert typically eaten during Lunar New Year. This steamed cake is flavored with almond extract and Chinese brown sugar, which has a sandy texture and a rich, complex flavor that retains the natural nutrients inherent from sugarcane juice and is healthier than U.S. brown sugar.
See how Jasmine and Wendy did with each other’s recipes. Ready. Set. Bake!
“As an amateur baker, I was surprised at the amount of ingredients needed to recreate Jasmine’s Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies! The instructions I received were quite straightforward. I noticed while preparing my ingredients that many of the things I needed I already had at home, but I still had to go to the store to buy vanilla, chocolate chips, and bread flour.
I did not have a mixer, so the constant hand mixing of ingredients was tiring, but I was determined to carry on! Once I put the cookies in the oven, I found myself staring and watching the cookies rise as the smell of butter traveled throughout my house. After a bit, it was time to take the cookies out and have a taste. Visually, the cookies varied in shape and sizes, but the taste was definitely there; they were delicious! Next time, I will add less sugar and more salt for better balance of salty and sweet.
For a first attempt, I would say it was a success. The taste was perfect, the texture was good, and I did not burn my house down! The main notable difference in making Chinese sweet delicacies is that most of our desserts are steamed instead of baked. With that being said, Chinese people’s tolerance for sweet food tends to be considerably lower.
Overall, the whole experience was enjoyable and therapeutic at the same time. I took the cookies to the CUSEF office and they were gone just as quickly as I put them out on the table! Everyone thought they were delectable. I’d like to give a special thanks to Jasmine for sparking my interest in baking and inspiring me to continue this new passion of mine.”
“During my trip to China in 2017, I had this delicious cake that I have never been able to find the recipe for. Luckily, CUSEF pointed me in the right direction as to what the mysterious cake was. Although this baking experience was less memorable than the warm, spongy, rich, red-date cake that I should have smuggled back from across the globe, I still had an exciting experience baking something new and flavorful.
I tried two recipes: the first was a steamed Chinese New Year cake, which I found out later was an entirely different delicacy than what I was aiming for. This particular cake called for rice flour, and made the cake far more glutinous and sticky than the cake-like sponge I enjoyed in China. Wendy informed me that this cake is best served thinly sliced and then pan fried. Yet, this is easier said than done. Once the homogenous cake has been cooked from its original form, it proved not easy to cut while warm and sticky.
Attempting my hand at baking this flavorful cake, my homemade experience included some new learnings. I tried to use what I had in my house, which included utilizing a few improvised ingredients. The first recipe that I used called for Chinese brown sugar, not to be confused with molasses-based brown sugar in the U.S. Nonetheless, as I didn’t have this handy, upon research, I was advised to simply caramelize white sugar to obtain that deep-dark flavor that I was looking for. Though the flavor was there, it lacked the texture I had ambitions for. This particular dessert resembles another in the Mien community I’ve made before: Khanom Chan, which consists of tapioca flour, arrowroot starch, rice flour, mung bean flour, sugar, and coconut milk. It was interesting to see this style of dessert is also shared between different Asian communities with slight variations.
My second attempt at this cake proved truer to its expectations of what I devoured in China, brought to our table after each meal in almost every city we explored! However, I also had to make a few substitutions to this recipe. The Chinese red date and brown sugar cake called for jujubes to be puréed and mixed in with the batter, as opposed to the first cake that I made, which only used them as a garnish. However, since I didn’t have any jujubes, but knew the flavor, I opted to use a mixture of dates and cranberries to obtain the maple-like, slightly tangy flavor that I find the fruit to have. I also didn’t have pastry flour. Because of this, I used a combination of cake flour and all-purpose flour, which did the trick. The result was more or less what I was looking for in a recipe. Yet, it was a little more dense than I expected. The flavor was there, and the texture was close. I suspect it was similar to the original cake because this recipe didn’t call for Chinese brown sugar, but simply regular brown sugar. If I were to make this again, I’d definitely attempt to use the caramelized or Chinese brown sugar for a richer taste.
My time in China was unforgettable. I found the country to be very rich in both culture and cuisine. All in all, I have more research and experimenting to do before I master the art of Chinese cooking and baking! But, I am excited to keep learning and sharing these recipes with friends. Wendy did show me more mouthwatering recipes, and we will keep in touch for baking tips and tricks. So, while I did not make the cake I wanted, I did make a new baking buddy!”
Jasmine Howell attended Laney college in 2008 as part of the savory vocational training program, then would move on to the international pastry program in 2010. She worked at Grace St. Catering, as well as a prominent restaurant on the pier of San Francisco called Waterbar, where celebrity appearances were a regular occurrence. After later working at San Francisco restaurant Bisou, Howell experienced the fast-paced lifestyle of a Michelin-starred restaurant by working at Daniel Boulud in New York City. Taking a break from the restaurant world, Howell pursued her passion for journalism and had the opportunity to study in China. As current executive chef at the Century Club of California in San Francisco, Howell continues to build on her diverse culinary skills.