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Chaozhou mandarin orange cakes – A traditional dessert from China

Chinese cuisine is known all over the world for its variety, richness, and appeal to all kinds of palates. The Chinese cuisine and dishes vary widely as we move from one region to another. I wanted to share with you an introduction and the recipe for “Chaozhou orange cakes”, a sweet dish from China that is unique to Chaozhou city in the Guangdong province.

The first time I learned about “Chaozhou mandarin orange cakes” was in the Netflix TV show titled “Flavorful origins”.  I was impressed by the simplicity and originality of this sweet dish.  The best foods are those which keep the original flavors of their ingredients while transforming the textures and taste.

Being a travel bug, I am always interested in dishes that represent the heritage and culture of a region. The preparation of  “Chaozhou orange cakes” involves a simple process that magically transforms the oranges into a colorful and fragrant dessert. The simplicity of this dish is highlighted by the ingredients used – just oranges and sugar. I haven’t seen many desserts that are so simple, using minimal ingredients, keeping the natural flavors intact, and offer a dish that is appealing to sight, smell and taste.

Chaozhou is a famous cultural city known throughout the world that is located in the north of the Hanjiang River Delta in easternmost Guangdong province. The city is the birthplace of Chaozhou culture and is the cultural hub of eastern Guangdong. Throughout history, the Chaozhou region has flourished and thrived as a prosperous cultural center, most well-known for the Chaozhou dialect, opera, cuisine, Fenghuang Dancong tea, music, lion dancing, and Chaozhou embroidery. The region is famous for its sweet-smelling and fresh cuisine and is particularly well known for its healthy seafood and vegetarian dishes.

The Chaozhou tangerine is one of the famous fruit products of the Chaoshan area. It is also the main ingredient in many local dishes. Chaozhou tangerines have a long cultivation history of more than 1300 years. The Chaozhou mandarin orange is characterized by its small size, very thin skin and its natural sweetness, making it almost syrupy and great tasting. Chaozhou oranges are used in a variety of cooking across the region, such as dried for sweets, deep-fried on their own, or their peels incorporated into a savory seasoning, despite growing in very isolated areas.

Let us look at what goes in the preparation of  “ Chaozhou mandarin orange cakes”  (below recipe is for 5 oranges):

 

  • Preparing the oranges :
  1. Take 5 oranges.  I used “Cara Cara navel oranges” as a substitute for mandarin oranges. You can also use navel oranges. Cara Cara navel oranges have a nice reddish-orange color inside which makes our dessert look very attractive.
  2. Remove the thin layer of outer skin using a grater. Be careful not to remove too much of the outer skin. You need to just remove the shiny uneven surface that has a bitter taste until you see the soft white layer.
  3. Chop the top part of the oranges which connects with the stalk.
  4. Soak the oranges in a bowl of water for about 8 -12 hours.
  5. This will help remove any polyphenols and bitter-tasting compounds in the zest
  6. Remove the oranges from the water and dry them.
  7. Using a knife, make a cut mark on the 4 sides without cutting the orange into pieces. The cut should be about half-inch deep.
  8. Keep the oranges on a flat surface (a plate) and press using a flat object to remove the juice. We don’t need to squeeze the orange dry but at least make sure that most of the juice is removed. You can choose to use this juice in any way you like as we don’t need it for this recipe. This process will help to prepare the oranges for the steaming process.
  • Steaming the oranges :
  1. The next step is to steam the oranges.
  2. I used a pressure cooker. Keep the oranges on an elevated stand in the pressure cooker so that they don’t touch the water.
  3. You can cook the oranges for about 15-20 minutes. I did not use the whistle as our goal is just to soften the oranges and let the pores open. This process will help the oranges to absorb the sugar syrup in the next step.
  4. Alternatively, you can also steam the oranges using a saucepan with a lid and a steamer basket. Add an inch or two of water to your saucepan. Insert the steamer basket. The surface of the water should be under the basket; pour out some water if necessary.
  5. Bring the water to a boil on high heat. When the water starts bubbling and steam is emerging from the pot, the cooking process has begun. Let the oranges steam for about 20 minutes.

 

  • Caramelizing the oranges :
  1. The final step is to caramelize the oranges
  2. Take a flat-bottomed saucepan that can hold all the oranges in a flat layer. The oranges should be laid flat on the bottom of the pan.
  3. Add 1 cup of granulated white sugar to the pan and turn on the heat. The recommended ratio of sugar to oranges is 1:5.
  4. Cover the lid of the saucepan.
  5. Keep the heat on high. The sugar will start to melt.
  6. When all the sugar has melted, reduce the heat to medium.
  7. The juices from the orange will mix with the sugar syrup and the mixture will start to bubble.
  8. Do not add any water.
  9. Turn the oranges upside down every 10 minutes so that the bottom layer doesn’t get burnt and the entire orange gets caramelized uniformly.
  10. The sugar syrup will slowly get reduced, and the oranges start to change color. It takes about 40-60 minutes on slow heat to get the desired texture, taste, and color of the oranges.
  11. When the sugar syrup starts to change into caramel color, you will also see the oranges transform into a spongy and chewy texture. This transformation indicates that the oranges are ready as a dessert.
  12. We can also watch the sugar syrup level to tell when the oranges are ready. When most of the sugar syrup has reduced, the oranges are ready to be removed from the pan.
  13. Transfer the oranges from the pan into a storage bowl. Once the oranges have cooled, you can sprinkle a thin layer of powdered sugar, also called confectioners’ sugar, 10X sugar, or icing sugar. Icing sugar is a finely ground sugar that usually contains an anti-caking agent (such as corn starch) – to absorb moisture, prevent clumping, and improve flow.

The resulting dessert is a bright and colorful “Chaozhou orange cake”. You can eat this fruit dessert by itself or as a complement with ice-creams, cakes and use it in other desserts to add the flavor of orange.

Every bite of the orange cake is filled with rich fragrance and taste of citrus that is mildly bitter and mouth tingling with the taste of the orange zest.

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