Next week marks the start of the Chinese New Year, and what better why to mark the occasion than with a Chinese sweet traditionally served during the New Year celebration, Niangao. This is a very sweet and dense rice cake with a simple almond flavor that pairs nicely with a cup of tea. This cake is traditionally steamed, not baked. So make sure to check the section on equipment and setup for steaming a cake, it is actually easier than it sounds.
Niangao – Ingredients
2 cups of water
16oz or 1 pd of Dark Brown Sugar
16oz or 1 pd of Sweet (Glutenous) Rice Flour (Asian Market, this is NOT Brown Rice Flour)
2 tsp of Almond Extract
Toasted Sesame Seeds for Garnish
Pitted Chinese Dates for Garnish – Sliced in half or small pieces (These are not always easy to find at the Asian Market, so feel free to substitute Medjool Dates)
Niangao – Equipment
9 inch round cake pan or 1 large loaf pan
Large deep pan with lid that is big enough to hold the cake pan
Electric stand mixer
Small pan to boil water and sugar in
Large spoon for stirring
Kettle full of hot water
Niangao – Instructions
- Before you even pick up the ingredients it is critical to build your steamer. Now if you are used to using a bamboo rice steamer and your cake pan fits in it, go ahead and use that. For those of us that don’t have a bamboo steamer, we need to do some simple construction to build one. First make sure your cake pan fits nicely inside your large pan that has a tight lid, you need to have at least an inch of room above the cake pan when you set it in the bottom. If the lid is not tight, you will need to adjust your cooking time up to compensate for losing steam from the pan. Second, tear off 2 pieces of aluminium foil about the length of your forearm and shape them into snakes. If you are opting for the bread loaf pans, you may need 3 pieces. Do not crush them flat, you are building a platform to put your cake pan on so it does not sit in the boiling water. Shape the snakes into S or C and place into the bottom of the pan and put your cake pan on top. Adjust the height of the snakes so that the lid still fits over without touching the cake pan. Try your best to make them level otherwise you will find that your cake may come out thicker on side versus the other. Once you know everything fits, spray your pan and place it on your snakes. Start up your kettle full of water, you will use this water to fill up the pan at the appropriate time.
- Take out the second pan and put in the 2 cups of water and dark brown sugar. Place it on a burner set to high and start stirring. The goal is to melt the sugar without allowing the water to come to a boil, so you cannot walk away. It will only take about 5 minutes for the water to steam and for you to no longer have sugar crystals along the side of the pan. Remember, do not let it boil. Once you know you are sugar crystal free, take the pan off the burner and put aside.
- Put all the rice flour into the bowl of your stand mixer and slowly pour in the hot water. Set the mixer to low until all the water is in and then put it on medium. Once the water looks incorporated, stop the mixer and scrape the sides and bottom and start it again. Put in the almond extract and mix for a couple of minutes and then stop.
- While your electric mixer is going, pour water out of the kettle into your steamer set-up. Take out the cake pan so you do not get it wet. You want enough water to come up about 3/4 of your snakes. Go ahead and turn on the burn the pan is sitting on. Since you already have warm water, set the burner to low. We want a simmering boil while the cake steams, not a rolling boil. Put the cake pan on your snakes and pour in the batter from your mixer bowl.
- Sprinkle the toasted almonds and arrange the dates on top of the cake. Put the lid on the pan and allow to cook for 60 minutes. You should check the pan and possibly refill the water at the 25 minute mark. You will probably not need to refill the water if you have a tight fitting lid. If your lid is not tight fitting, plan on checking every 15 minutes. Remember we do not need the water at a rolling bubbling, just a gentle simmer.
- When an inserted tooth pick comes out clean, the cake is done. Turn off the burner, and transfer the cake to your cooling rack. It needs to cool completely, which can take upwards of 3 hours. If you try to slice it sooner, it is a sticky mess. The cake can be cooled in the refrigerator.
To serve, slice the cake into thin pieces and rewarm in the microwave for 30 seconds so they are not rock hard. You can also fry them in a little sesame oil.
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Yes, January is Hot Tea Month! So as in all silly holidays and observances of food related items, this one comes from industry. Hot Tea Month first appeared in 1994 in the United States. Its not a surprise to learn it is also observed in Canada and Europe. As someone who drinks tea daily, this just makes me roll my eyes. However, it does present the opportunity to share our favorite beverage with our friends. So here are a few ideas on how to celebrate Hot Tea Month.
Have Tea with Friends
It sounds so simple, but it works well. Inviting friends over for tea gives you an excuse to show off your tea making skills and have your friends consume your favorite beverage. So clean off the teapot your grandmother gave you and put it to good use this month. If you don’t have time to make tea, go out for tea with your friends. Tea naturally lends itself to good conversation.
Cook with Tea
Stumped on how to incorporate your favorite beverage into food, we have you covered with a lot of different Tea Recipes. Given that this is generally a cold month, we love the tea-infused butter for warm bread or smokey mushroom soup.
Try New Teas
After you have encouraged your friends to have tea and fed tea to your family, it is time to treat yourself. Nothing like a holiday to get you to do something new, so go out and find a few new teas to try. There are thousands of teas out there to try, and even those of us who have made a career out of drinking tea still find new ones. If you are not sure where to start, try our post on new teas to try in the new year. If you have had those, pick a category of tea that you do not normally drink, like white or green, and go looking for teas from specific countries that you are pretty certain you have not had and have a cup.
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Malty Assam Black Tea and Infused Liquor. This crush-tear-curl tea even looks like ground coffee beans.
We get a lot of people in the shop that love tea but will not abandon their morning cup of coffee. This is a shame given all the benefits of tea. So, here are recommendations on the 3 teas to replace coffee, especially that first cup in the morning. We have seen, first hand, their success in converting those whose are willing to try.
- Malty Assam – This bold black tea from the Assam region of India is the only CTC (cut-tear-curl) tea we carry. The CTC method for manufacturing tea gives you small balls of tea leaves. The small surface intensifies both the flavor and briskness of the tea. This tea holds up to milk and sugar, in case that is the real reason you love your morning cup of coffee.
- Ceylon OP – This beautiful tea from the mountains of Sri Lanka features malty flavor and brisk mouth feel to help get the morning started quick. It’s a wonderful tea on its own with no need for milk and sugar.
- Kosebei TGFOP – From Kenya, this beautiful black tea has flavors of currant, malt, and moist earth. It can also handle milk and sugar without losing its flavor.
Yes, all these teas are black. Their woody and earthy flavors accompanied with their astringent/brisk finish is fairly similar to coffee. However, they are easy to drink without milk and sugar, so we recommend you try them straight first. You may be pleasantly surprised that you can get rid of the milk and sugar calories. The other big difference you will notice is that the caffeine doesn’t disappear out of your blood stream as fast, so there is no energy crash an hour later. For those of you who already drink tea in the morning and are looking for new ones to try, take a look at our piece on new teas to try in the new year. Personally, we start our morning with a wide variety of teas, some days green, others puerh and so on. So don’t think black tea is the only way to start your morning.
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Puerh Cakes and Bricks available at our Purcellville, Virginia tasting room just outside Washington, DC.
Here are 5 different teas worth trying in the new year if you haven’t had them before. Why should trying new teas make it onto your goals list? Very simply, it will teach you more about yourself and your tastes than you give the simple cup of tea credit in doing each day. New taste experiences, even if they are unpleasant, help you understand which flavors and mouth feels you like better and helps you appreciate your favorite teas even more. So now on to those teas.
- Puerh – This daily tea in China is not drunk as often in the United States. Puerh (a.k.a. pu-erh) is a fermented tea that comes in two forms: ripe (black tea) and raw (green/white tea). This earthy and vegetal tea is an experience that may open up a whole new world of tea for you. Here are a few more posts to learn about puerh in case you are curious and need more convincing: Intro to Dark Tea and Raw versus Ripe Puerh.
- Bai Hao Silver Needle – This simple and elegant white tea is often over looked because it has a very delicate smell and brew color. But don’t let its simplicity fool you. This first flush tea is made from the bud of the tea plant and is prized for the silver hairs that grow on the outside as a protection mechanism for the plant (bugs have a hard time chewing through the hairs much less standing on them as they try to eat).
- Kukicha – This Japanese tea is made from the stem of the tea plant. It produces a light creamy brew that is slightly salty. It doesn’t have the history of our previous two picks, but if you are a fan of efficiency and using every part this could be your new favorite tea.
- Single Estate Ceylon tea – We are all familiar with Ceylon teas. These are usually beautiful black teas from Sri Lanka. What most people don’t know is that they are made at shared manufacturing plants on the island as most of the farms are too small to support their own facility. So finding a single estate Ceylon tea, like Vithanakanda, is a true joy. Vithanakanda Estate is in southwestern Sri Lanka, and they produce a beautifully complex black tea that has notes of caramel, licorice and a slightly floral nose
Oriental Beauty is just one of many different teas to try in the new year (shown here after infusion).
Oriental Beauty – This beautifully complex oolong from Taiwan is created with the help of green leaf hoppers. The tea leaves are harvested after green leaf hoppers pass through the tea fields and munch on the tea plants, which causes the plant to produce additional polyphenols. These polyphenols give the tea a smooth mouth feel and a complex flavor.
Enjoy the new year with 5 different teas and learn more about your favorite beverage and yourself at the same time.
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Christmas Elephant in India (by Flickr user Ashley Coates)
Christmas traditions in India are a reflection of its history of being a British colony and the ethnic diversity of the country. Unlike the United States, where we all observe the same the Federal holidays and expect the banks and businesses to be closed on those days, each state in India determines its own holidays, there are currently 29 states, and rarely do they match. There are just 3 national holidays. Christmas is one of the few holidays observed by all states in India, even though it is not a national holiday. This is also fascinating given that only 3% of the population of India identified themselves as Christian in their last census.
Christmas Traditions in India – History
It is no surprise to learn that Christmas came to India with the colonization of the country by the British East India Company. While Christian missionaries were in the country centuries before it became home to British tea plantations, it was the observance of the holiday through the closing down of the plantations, railroads, and a break for the British military that the holiday really became part of the culture of the country.
Adapting to what the country had to offer, banana and mango trees take the place of fir trees. They are decorated in much of the same fashion as the Christmas trees here in the states or in Europe. There are a lot of decorations on the outside of businesses and home that include an array of lights, lanterns, oil lamps, and nativity scenes. Santa also makes an appearance and the stories about him are very similar to those here in the US.
Christmas Traditions in India – Food & Beverage
No matter the country, holidays call for big meals with family and friends, and India is no different. Preparations begin weeks in advance with cookies and sweets being made. These are not only consumed at home, but given away to friends and family. The cuisine at these dinners are reflection of the local culture. There is a wide array of spicy soups, vegetable and rice dishes, as well as our favorite beverage, tea. One cannot escape chai tea when in India and it doesn’t disappear for the holidays. The spice blend is unique to each family and reflects their heritage and traditions. The tea is usually boiling on the stove all day, so it is available to guests whenever they want a cup.
The human need of gathering friends and family for celebrations over large meals exists in all cultures. So here is toast to all our similarities and to a happy holiday season.
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