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Cakes to puff pastry: a panoply of desserts
By Li Anlan

Every culture has its sweet tooth, and China is no exception. As part of the nation’s diverse dim sum culture, traditional desserts and pastries are celebrated for their fine presentation and subtle tastes. They may be served as staples, refreshments or as part of special festival fare.

Ingredients are local and seasonal, and one recipe may have many variations in different regions of the county. Pumpkin cake, depending where you are, can be either pan-fried or steamed.

“There is the famous ‘Beijing Eight’ dessert that features eight different kinds of pastry, while the Cantonese style has the largest variety and also uses Western ingredients,” said Jacqueline Qiu, executive chef at the Andaz Xintiandi Shanghai. “The Suzhou style often uses different kinds of beans as fillings.”


Tang Gao

Born and raised in Shanghai, Qiu’s childhood favorite was a popular sweet treat called tang gao, which translates as “sugar cake.” It is made with simple ingredients — just flour, water, sugar and oil.

Tang gao is the Chinese version of a donut, crunchy on the outside, airy and chewy on the inside. The best ones are always served hot.

Qiu said she loved tang gao as a young child, but now the treat isn’t so easy to find in the city.

One day she walked past a shop selling tang gao but was disappointed to find her old treat served cold, with the texture of a steamed bun.

“I talked to my pastry chef about adding tang gao to the menu,” she said. “And I visited a friend of my father’s who owns an eatery to get the right recipe.”

Now the Hai Pai restaurant in Andaz serves a heart-shaped tang gao with a side of vanilla almond ice cream, a nostalgic treat to bring back memories.

“Our memory for taste is well preserved,” Qiu said.

While Western desserts and pastries usually use butter and cream, Chinese desserts traditionally use lard or vegetable oils. Both wheat flour and rice flour are used. The most common methods for making Chinese pastries are steaming, pan frying, baking and deep frying.

The puff pastry used in Chinese desserts is made slightly differently from Western versions.

“It’s a similar concept of having many layers, but in Chinese cuisine, the dough is not chilled as hard as it is in Western-style pastry,” Qiu said.

The modern kitchen has also brought changes to the traditional Chinese dim sum. There are new appliances available to make the work easier.

“New ingredients are being used to create new dishes, and many inspirations come from changes in fillings,” Qiu said.

Like the traditional ci fan gao, or fried rice patty, new Shanghai versions add ingredients like nori, Jinhua ham and chopped scallions to the original plain rice.

Sweet buns

Steamed buns can be savory or sweet. From the red bean paste variety found in most bun shops to homemade triangular buns with a sesame and brown sugar filling, these snacks are ideal for on-the-go breakfasts.

Steamed buns have more moisture than baked ones.

Making a good dough is essential, the flour needs to be leavened just right so the bun can rise to a fluffy texture while retaining its shape.

The fillings can be made with different ingredients, like red bean paste, sesame sugar, jujube paste and creamy coconut puree.

Creamy custard bun

This typical Cantonese bun has a filling that combines eggs and milk.

The filling is made by whisking sugar into butter, then gradually adding eggs, milk, wheat starch and milk powder.

The bun is streamed to a custard-like texture, then cooled in the refrigerator.

A good creamy custard bun has a bright yellow filling that’s slightly melted and runny when served hot.


Sugar triangle

A simple sweet treat with a filling made of brown sugar and sesame seeds, this is a childhood favorite for many Chinese people.

After rolling the dough into appropriate round shapes and placing a daub of filling in the middle of each, the edges are lifted at three points to create a triangle.


Puff pastries

When making traditional Chinese cakes that are layered and have a crunchy crust, two layers of dough are required.

The flaky outside crust uses a dough that’s made from flour, water and lard, all well kneaded. There’s also a crunchy layer made without the lard.

Mung bean cake

Mung bean cake is enjoyed nationwide as a dessert. Similar to the Suzhou-style mooncakes, these cakes have a mildly sweet filling made with mung bean paste.

Soft, flaky and appetizing, these cakes are crowd pleasers, especially in summer because the beans are believed to help relieve heat.



Cakes in China are different from the Western sponge or chiffon. There are many varieties. Some are made with glutinous rice flour and chilled; others are steamed.

Osmanthus Cake

With a history of more than 400 years, this dessert is made with fresh osmanthus blooms.

Traditionally, the cake has a jelly-like look with a dulcet taste from the aroma of the flowers.

The traditional recipe uses glutinous rice flour, sugar and sweetened osmanthus flowers.

Since osmanthus usually blooms in autumn, this cake is often made to celebrate the harvest and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Today, osmanthus cakes from different regions also have their own unique shapes and tastes.


Water chestnut cake

A sweet Cantonese favorite made from shredded water chestnuts, this cake is known for its translucent jelly appearance and chewy texture. It is a common dish in dim sum fare and is frequently found in Cantonese restaurants worldwide.

When served, it is usually cut into small squares and pan-fried. Some restaurants also serve a variation of water chestnut cake made with bamboo juice.


White sugar cake

This steamed dish is a time-honored Chinese pastry that can be traced back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when a cook named Liang accidentally created this cake by mistaking the procedures used to make song gao, a fluffy steamed sponge.

White sugar cake also has a spongy appearance, a chewy texture and a sweet-and-sour flavor.

Though it looks easy to make, the process is rather complicated because authentic versions of this cake are made with sweet fermented rice instead of yeast to leaven.

While it is called a “cake,” this dish isn’t served as a circular round cake.

Instead, people follow the tradition and cut it into square-shaped pieces, or mini triangles. The taste is sweet, with a slight sour tang arising from the fermentation of the batter.

Like many other Chinese cakes, it is steamed, which results in a moist, soft and fluffy texture.

It is always served hot because the cake hardens quickly as it cools.


Other treats

Almond tofu

This is a traditional dessert in Beijing, Sichuan and Cantonese cuisines. It is especially famous for its jelly-like texture, pure white appearance and the delicate aroma of almonds.

In the traditional recipe, the primary ingredient is apricot kernels, soaked and then ground with water, agar and sugar.

The kernel milk is extracted, sweetened and heated with a gelling agent like agar. When chilled, the milk mixture solidifies to the consistency of a soft gelatin dessert.


Lei sha yuan

This traditional Shanghai dessert is boiled glutinous rice balls coated with dried red bean powder, which not only adds a sweet flavor but also keeps the glutinous rice from being too sticky in the mouth.


Dan hong gao

A Chinese pancake treat that originated in Chengdu, Sichuan Province during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), dan hong gao is made with eggs, flour and brown sugar. It is served with a wide variety of fillings, which can be sweet or savory.


Pine nut cake

Pine nut cake is a traditional dessert accompanying tea in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. The small nutty cubes instantly melt in the mouth.

The ingredients are simple: glutinous rice flour, pine nuts, sugar, water and sesame oil. The raw flour is slowly cooked in a non-sticky pan on a low heat until the aroma comes out. Then it is mixed with finely ground pine nuts and sugar dissolved in water. The mixture is then added to the dried ingredients and pressed hard into a large pan.


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