Embracing the (Delicious) Unknown

When I first started as pastry chef at Tao Yuan restaurant in the summer of 2015 I remember being honest: I had no real experience making Asian food, let alone traditional Asian desserts.  My experiences thus far had left me with some familiarity of non-western flavors– things like pandan, mochiko and black sesame were certainly not new– but these ingredients had always been incorporated into recipes that were deeply rooted in European tradition.  I was, however, very curious, as well as committed to research, and excited to learn new things.

When cooking, either at home or professionally, we are all operating out of a database of stored memories.  This sets our expectations and creates our reference points, a kind of subconscious checklist that, when the process is going well, affirms that a recipe will be successful.  After becoming skilled at making a simple butter cookie, for example, you can also make a pâte sucrée, or a basic sponge cake.

The weekly regional dinners that we hold at Tao Yuan have turned this comfortable formula on its head for me.  Trying to create an authentic Chinese dessert, technique and all, is a challenging and fun way to expand my preconceived notions—of what is pleasing, and how food is supposed to look and taste and feel.  I am learning new fundamental methods, a rather terrifying process that involves extensive research, followed by blind trust as I diligently forge ahead into a new recipe.  Like a bad movie, I have to suspend my disbelief or risk self sabotage– for example, if the recipe says to leave a lump in the middle of a rolled dough, do it! – despite that this is directly opposed to the obsessive practice of rolling out doughs flat and even. If you do not leave a lump in the middle of a soup dumpling wrapper, the bottom will fail to be sturdy enough to support all of its filling as it cooks.  It is a humbling process, as well as an emotional rollercoaster, but one that is rewarded when there is success; a new technique learned, a new texture or flavor to crave, the thrill and surprise of the previously unknown.  Especially when the previously unknown turns out to be delicious!

These Rose Scented Lotus Patties are a regional dessert from the Shaanxi province in China.   Sweet, salty, crunchy and aromatic, they are near perfection.  The “dough” is made by pulsing lotus root in the food processor until it forms a loose paste.  The lotus patties look destined to fall apart during the shaping process; however, once they hit hot oil, the starches bind and you are left with beautiful, cohesive little dumplings.

Lotus root is the actual stem of the lotus flower, and is available in many Asian markets.  This recipe also calls for rose petal jam- I made mine last summer with fresh rose petals, but it is also available at Middle Eastern Markets.

Rose Scented Lotus Patties

Adapted from ‘All Under Heaven’ by Carolyn Phillips

Yield 20 dumplings

For the dumplings:

  • 1lb lotus root
  • 1t lemon juice
  • 2T cornstarch

For the filling:

  • 2T butter
  • ¼ c walnuts, toasted and chopped
  • 1T goji berries, soaked in boiling water until plumped and drained
  • 2T rose petal jam
  • ¼ t salt

For the sauce:

  • ⅓ c honey
  • ⅓ c rose petal jam
  • Water as needed

Thoroughly wash the lotus root externally and internally, and dry thoroughly.  Peel and cut into ½ inch cubes.

Pulse the lotus root in a food processor until finely ground.  Add the cornstarch and lemon juice, and blend until you have a relatively smooth paste, stopping periodically to scrape down the sides.  This takes longer than you might imagine.  The lotus paste will start to come together, although it will never be totally cohesive.  Drain off any excess liquid, and put in the refrigerator to chill.

Combine all ingredients for the filling in the food processor, and pulse until you have a paste.  Put in the refrigerator to chill.

Take the lotus root paste out of the refrigerator, and divide into 20 pieces.  Press each piece into a rough ball and return to the refrigerator.

Take the walnut filling out of the refrigerator.  At this point, it should have solidified to the texture of firm butter.  Roll into 20 balls.  If it starts to melt or becomes difficult to roll, return to the fridge to firm up before proceeding.  Put the rolled balls into the freezer to fully chill for at least 10 minutes.

Make the sauce:  Whisk rose petal jam and honey together until smooth, adding water as needed until you have a pour-able consistency.

Poke a hole into one of the lotus paste balls and place a ball of the walnut filling inside of it.  Push the lotus paste around to cover the filling and squeeze gently into a rough ball.  Return to the refrigerator.  Repeat until you have 20 filled dumplings, pausing to let the filling chill if it becomes difficult to work with at any point.

Heat an inch of oil in a wide frying pan on medium high heat.  Once the oil is hot, carefully slide in the lotus dumplings, being careful not to crowd the pan.  Fry on both sides until golden brown, a minute or two on each side.  Use a slotted spoon to remove dumplings from the hot oil and onto a plate.  Generously pour the sauce over before serving.

Kate Hamm, Pastry Chef at Tao Yuan

Kate’s love for pastry started young!