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07/02/2019 - 18:13

Rolled jam-cake – a taste of the seasons

Mứt bánh bó (rolled jam-cake) is both a cake and a jam. It sounds strange, but it has always been included in Tet holiday menu, from common folks’ households to the Forbidden City. Eating a piece of cake, one can taste the chewy and crunchy texture, the spicy and salty flavors... It seems as if all of life’s sweetness and sorrows gather into a small piece of pretty cake.

This kind of jam-cake can be served in both luxurious and rustic settings

I was assigned a mission to find a meaningful gift for a friend to give a Hue person coming home to celebrate Tet. So, I had to search, explore and consult. After many rejected suggestions, I suddenly remembered that I know a great lady who is an expert at old, disappearing dishes. It was a bit of a nuisance, though, as this grandma Ton Nu* is a bit difficult. So I had to choose a nice day to beg and plead her to make this jam-cake to be enjoyed at a faraway place. 

The story goes that in the old days, this dish appeared in Tet menu of common folks and of the royal court. I heard that at the international culinary festival held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi a few years ago, artisan Hoang Anh brought these cakes to treat guests and gifted them to ambassadors of other countries.

Two weeks later, I was summoned to work and apprentice in anxiety (it was not the first time, but every time she taught me a new dish, I felt that same strange feeling). She shared: "My children and grandchildren don’t like this dish so I don’t know why you’re asking me to teach you. But since you’re always so curious about these old dishes, I’ll show you so you can take notes and learn.”

According to the memories passed down to her from her grandmothers and aunts, the rolled jam-cake (which some call cake-jam) has a jam filling that is diced or cut into strips. “In the past, there were many kinds of fruits in the garden during the four seasons. When we couldn’t eat them all, we dried and saved them. Then, on death anniversaries or Tet holiday, we would mix the dried fruits with glutinous flour and wrap it all up in an areca spathe; then, cut into slices to offer in the praying rituals. Depending on the lifestyle of each house, the jam-cake is changed accordingly," she said softly.

That day, in addition to a few traditional jams (ginger, banana, persimmon, lime...), grandma’s jam-cake also included kiwi and apricot jams, which she asked someone to buy from the supermarket for her. She wanted to change up the color to make the cake more beautiful. I said to myself, it seems she is quite modern and not very old-fashioned at all.

Grandma knows that I love Japanese stuff, including some Japanese cakes, so she kept saying, "See, our jam-cake is in no way inferior to those Japanese cakes. A whole four-season orchard is inside this cake, and also the year-round hard work of Hue women. All of this just for a one-time enjoyment”! I nodded repeatedly, observing and taking notes carefully.

"The ratio of sugar to roasted glutinous flour is 1 to 2/3 (i.e. 1kg of sugar and 0.7 – 0.8 kg of glutinous flour). Sugar water (white sugar or rock sugar) must be cooked 10-15 days in advance in order to achieve a clear and elastic consistency. (So that’s why she kept deferring our meeting! And I thought I was going to be stood up!) 

Her secret is to mix two egg whites fully into the sugar water before cooking. When the sugar water boils, remove the impurities that rises with the foam. Continue to cook until the sugar mixture has thickened. Once it cools down and turns clear, put the mixture in a glass jar. 

Knead the glutinous flour until the dough is smooth. Then, roll the dough out thinly on a tray. Place the jams alternatively so that when cut into slices, each slice will have a harmonious color. I helped grandma to roll the cake evenly. After the cake was rolled, we wrapped it with cling wrap and left it for 24 hours for the dough and filling to incorporate. The next day, we used a stainless knife to cut into one-centimeter thick slices, and wrapped the four corners with wrappers.

Grandma told me: "You have to be careful when rolling the cake. You have to apply even pressure so the cake will be tight. Use a wooden ruler to create square corners. The cake is even or not depends on the maker. When I first learnt this dish from my aunts and grandmas, I could never make even edges. I only got better after a few tries.” 

Rolled jam-cake with diced jam filling is made in the same manner, but the jams must be mixed before rolling.

According to my calculations, to complete two cakes, each about 1kg, it takes 1.5 days. We, an old lady and a young one, talked and worked together while telling each other stories, both new and old. A person with experience and a young one with strength worked together to create the cake.

Grandma stacked the cake slices onto the flat basket. Then, she carefully placed some slices on a pretty plate. She put a cup of tea next to the cake and admired it, “See, this jam-cake can be casual and fancy at the same time. No matter where you serve it, it will always stand out. I don’t understand why it’s not popular anymore. What a pity!”

I took a bite of the jam-cake, tasting the chewiness, the crunch, the spiciness and the saltiness... It seemed like all of the year’s sweetness and sorrows were mixed into the small piece of cake. Surely, the women back then also wanted to convey their life experiences in the four seasons in the little rolled jam-cake.

It was then that I realized those blue and red European-Asian cookies that I would eat to follow the trend seemed so bland. Reflecting on grandma’s words about the meaning of "packed with hardship", I found it very profound and intentional. Sipping a bit of tea, life seemed to go by slower. 

Since there are no preservatives, the cake is good for 10 days. I carefully placed each cake slice into a fancy paper bag to bring to my friend. If my friend wants to give it to a Hue person, especially an “old-fashioned” Hue person, they will definitely appreciate this gift. And if they want to meet the maker of this cake, I will take them to meet grandma.

I put my arm around grandma and leaned my head onto her shoulder as she saw me off (we are not relatives but I always bothered her because of my love for food)! She lovingly scolded me, “Why are you still so childish when you already have a husband and kids! If I’m still in good health when Tet comes, you should come over and we’ll make some more jam-cakes to offer our ancestors. You still need more practice to make a nice-looking cake!” 

I answered ‘yes’ without taking my head off her delicate shoulders. I silently wished that she continues to stay healthy for years to come, so that I can still come and make her dig up her “secrets” of those Hue dishes that seemed to have disappeared into the past.

Story and photos: L.Tue

*This name, used for females, denotes a descendant of the Nguyen Dynasty’s royal bloodline.

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