I’m on deadline but this black sesame peanut mochi cake recipe by Cynthia Chen McTernan distracted me for a brief spell. It’s from her debut work, A Common Table, a cookbook full of detailed recipes that’s also about cultural and culinary mashups. Marrying out of one’s culture is often taken for granted these days in America but it was once frowned upon and downright illegal (Loving v. Virginia was a landmark case).
Cynthia is Chinese and grew up in the American South. She went to law school on the East Coast, lived in New York then moved with her husband to Southern California. Cynthia’s husband is Korean-Irish and grew up in Hawaii. She gave up law to raise their son and the cookbook reflects their shared cultures. A Common Table includes dishes like kimchi-brined spicy chicken biscuits, Korean poke, and a homey version of Sichuan dry-fried green bean. I was taken by this mochi cake because it’s easy, versatile, and cleverly modern.
Cynthia’s mochi cake is based on Chinese sticky rice dumplings called tangyuan, which are filled with bean, seed, or nut paste then poached and served warm in their cooking liquid. In the Vietnamese repertoire, banh troi nuoc sticky rice dumpling filled with mung bean and served in a gingery syrup is the equivalent. Would a dumpling-turned cake concept work?
What is mochi? Where to buy mochi flour?
Mochi is the Japanese term for sticky rice cake. It’s made from glutinous rice flour (mochigome) and is cooked up into savory and sweet treats. Many supermarkets carry boxed mochi flour, a.k.a., sweet rice flour, grown and milled by Koda Farms, a Japanese-American family in Central California. It’s the go-to flour for many Asian cooks and is sold at Asian markets too. I use the boxed flour for Viet dumplings and banh day sticky rice cakes.
My mom first spotted Koda Farm’s Blue Star Mochiko flour in the 1970s when we arrived in America. It’s shelved in the Asian food section at supermarkets. If you don’t see the boxed flour, substitute Bob’s Red Mill brand of sweet rice flour sold at health food stores. Thai glutinous flour is finer and would bake up softer.
Mochi cake filling options
Cynthia’s recipe seemed bulletproof because you can’t overwork the batter (rice has no gluten to toughen up). Plus she suggests that you play with the filling, swapping out a black sesame mixture that she called for in a French toast recipe, for example. The original recipe uses peanut butter for the filling. I was curious about both so I deployed both in my mochi cake.
I had too much filling so things baked up with lava-like craters. I also added black sesame seeds to the peanut topping. The finished mochi cake looked cool. “It’s like a Jackson Pollock cake,” my husband quipped.
More importantly, the black sesame peanut mochi cake tasted great. It evoked tangyuan dumpling but it was just good on its own. It was fun to make and it keeps wonderfully, to be revived very briefly (15 seconds on high for a 2-inch square) in the microwave to a warm softness, when the flavors express themselves nicely.
I’m looking forward to trying more recipes from A Common Table. It’s a well done book that deliciously celebrates the culturally diverse times that we live in.
Black Sesame Peanut Mochi Cake
Filling options (choose 1 or a little bit of both, you want about 7 tablespoons total)
- 1/4 cup raw black sesame seeds
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons salted butter at room temperature, cut into dice
Peanut butter filling
- 6 tablespoons salted peanut butter smooth or crunchy
- 2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
- 1 1/2 cups 225 grams sweet rice flour, such as Mochiko Blue Star or Bob’s Red Mill
- 2/3 to 3/4 cup sugar use less for the sesame filling
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt optional
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup neutral oil or 7 tablespoons neutral oil plus 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup roasted peanuts
- 1 tablespoon light or dark brown sugar optional
- 1 tablespoon black sesame seeds optional
- If making the black sesame filling, in a small skillet or saucepan over medium heat, toast the sesame seeds. After about 3 minutes, when there’s steam coming up or if they’re popping, shake the pan. Because the seeds are dark, you can’t tell then they’re done so let them cool, taste one and keep cooking. Total cooking time depends on the size of the pan, too. If anything, hedge on under-toasting. Set aside to cool for 5 minutes, then whirl the sesame seeds and sugar in a small processor to a very fine texture. Add the butter then whirl into a wet paste. Transfer to bowl. You should have about 7 tablespoons.
- If making the peanut butter filling, whisk together the peanut butter and confectioner’s sugar until smooth. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Line an 8-inch square baking dish with parchment paper, letting the paper go up the sides so you can easily lift the cake out later on.
- In a medium bowl, combine the sweet rice flour, sugar, milk, oil, eggs, and vanilla, then whisk until smooth. Don’t worry about overworking the batter and making the cake that’s because sweet rice flour doesn’t contain gluten — mochi cake is dense to begin with! Small lumps will appear in the batter at first, but they will dissipate as you wish.
- Pour half the batter into the prepared baking dish. Used 2 small spoons (demitasse-size spoons works well) to drop spoonfuls of the filling evenly across the batter, then pour the remaining batter over the filling. Bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes.
- While the mochi is baking, place the peanuts and brown sugar in a food processor or blender and pulse until crumbly; add the 1 tablespoon of black sesame and plus 3 or 4 times to combine. Remove the mochi cake from the oven, sprinkle of the crushed peanuts across the top, then return the cake to the oven and bake until the center bounces back when pressed, an additional 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool about 20 minutes before trying to lift the parchment paper to remove the cake from the pan. Enjoy warm or at room temperature. The mochi will slices cleanly when cool, but is great warm.
- Store in an airtight container and keep at room temp if cool, or refrigerate. Microwave pieces on high with 15-second blasts to refresh.