When I came to China back in April to decide if Libo was for me, I had a chance to go to Shanghai and visit my friend Sarah. She promised that if I were in China over Thanksgiving, we could have a dinner party at her apartment (but only if I did the cooking!). And as I packed my suitcases to come over in August, I remembered that promise and included cans of pumpkin, cranberry sauce, a box of cornbread mix, and a few other odds and ends, all of which came in handy last weekend.

I had never been to Sarah's apartment before, and I was truly awe-struck when I entered it for the first time last Friday. It is on the thirty-fifth floor of one of the "Skyline Mansions," and is situated directly across from the Shanghai World Financial Center (the tallest free-standing building in China and 9th tallest in the world). It's all hardwood floors and modern, tasteful furniture. There's a lily pond and fountain in the living room, and priceless pieces of art adorn the walls. The kitchen was more than suitable to my needs, as it had an oven and three gas burners. Sarah does not cook, though, and the contents of the kitchen cabinets reflected that. When I took a pre-shopping inventory, I discovered quirky assortment of gadgets, like a tool for peeling and sectioning a grapefruit in one motion, a set of colorful silicon potholders, an immersion blender still in the original packaging, and a display drawer full of German spices that were long expired and "just for show." Mysteriously absent, however, were any oven-proof dishware, mixing bowls, measuring spoons, or typical kitchen stand-bys like butter or flour.

I spent all day on Friday making preparations for Saturday's dinner while Sarah was at work. The IFC supermarket had nearly everything a foreigner could dream of: imported dairy products, muffin tins, Betty Crocker cake mixes, frozen pizzas, and Le Creuset cookware. The only things I couldn't find were pre-made pie crusts and corn syrup, both of which I could live without, despite that one of my arch-nemeses of cooking is any recipe that requires cutting butter into flour. (A few others include recipes that involve browning butter or candy thermometers.)

I bought two huge bags' worth of groceries and walked the several long city blocks back to Sarah's apartment to finally get into some real cooking. The first thing I did was make the box of cornbread to have it ready for the stuffing the next day. Then I made the pie crusts and the mashed potatoes. By seven o'clock, I was finished and had time to get ready before hitting the clubs with a few friends in town.

The nightlife in Shanghai is so good that it was impossible to return to Sarah's apartment any earlier than 3:30 am, which meant that an early morning of cooking was tougher than I would have liked. But thanks to a latte the Starbucks around the corner, I was able to soothe my aching head and launch into a frenzied few hours of cooking so that I could have the oven free for Chris's turkey, which was scheduled to arrive mid-afternoon.

Somehow, I managed to get it all done, and the meal was as authentic as could be. Sarah invited eight friends over, and the night really couldn't have gone any better. Everyone loved the food, although the three-year-old Chinese boy insisted on having dumplings with his turkey. Spending Thanksgiving away from home was tough, but I definitely made the best of it!
With Sarah:
And, I know you were wondering... Here are the pictures of the food! Click on a photo to for a link to the recipe. (Except for the pumpkin pie. That recipe's super secret and belongs to my friend Dan's aunt. I was only given it in the strictest confidence.)
No recipe for this one yet... This was all my friend Chris Lu's work! He used Sichuan peppers in the rub and agave nectar on the skin and it was one of the BEST turkeys I have ever had. When I have the recipe, I will definitely share it!
Relaxing with my new little friend after a great meal:
Big Mountain's daughter turned six last week, so I of course made her a birthday cake! You can read more about the story of her birthday here. I'm sharing the recipe with you just in case you have similar ingredient constraints (maybe you're baking in rural Panama, I don't know!) or maybe you're opposed to butter (I'm sorry) for health reasons. The cake is really good, for what it is. But it doesn't compare to, say, my Classic Yellow Cake with Chocolate Malt Frosting.

Putting the second layer on:
The cake recipe I used is from Seasoned to Taste. It's really simple and it doesn't call for any exotic ingredients. The only thing I did differently was to chop up a bar of white chocolate and add it to the batter instead of adding orange zest.

To form the smaller second tier, I simply halved the recipe and used a smaller pan.

The frosting is Betty Crocker chocolate. It was actually pretty good, although as you probably are aware I'd much rather have made my own.

The finished product:
Sheet cakes are probably the simplest kind of cake you can make. There's no layering involved, no scary moment of truth where you discover whether or not you greased the pan well enough. They are casual cakes, begging to be taken to a school or work function, a picnic, or (in my case) a potluck dinner. Everyone will know and appreciate the fact that you made something with your own two hands, and you can smile secretly to yourself because you didn't have to work all that hard.

This sheet cake in particular was a great find for me, because I was trying to accommodate one friend who doesn't like chocolate (I know! Horrors!) and one who prefers fruit-less desserts. Not only were they pleased, but so was everyone else!
Recipe for Walnut Cake with Praline Frosting
Adapted from Cooking Light
Makes 16 servings.

For the cake:
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
7 tbsp butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 large egg white
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted; divided
Cooking Spray

For the frosting:
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
6 tbsp milk, divided
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp light corn syrup
Dash of salt
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

For the cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a 9x13 inch baking pan with cooking spray. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt. 

Place 7 tbsp butter, sugar, and brown sugar in a mixing bowl; beat at medium-high until light and fluffy (about 3 minutes). Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in egg white. Beat in vanilla. Add flour alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Fold in 6 tbsp walnuts. Scrape batter into prepared pan.

Bake for 28 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack.

For the frosting:
Place brown sugar, 1/4 cup milk, 2 tbsp butter, corn syrup, and dash of salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat; bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Cook two minutes. Scrape brown sugar mixture into a bowl. Add remaining two tbsp milk and powdered sugar; beat with mixer at high speed 2 minutes or until slightly cooled and thick. Beat in 1/2 tsp vanilla. Spread frosting in an even layer over cooled cake; sprinkle with 2 tbsp chopped walnuts. Let cake stand until frosting sets; cut into squares. 
My mom turned thirty (for several years in a row now!) on July 25th, and this was her birthday cake. It was very rich, especially with the frosting, and very lemony. And did I mention that it was also very, very tasty?
Recipe for Lemonade Layer Cake (Scroll down for frosting recipe.) 
Adapted from Cooking Light
Makes two nine-inch round cakes, or approximately 16 servings.

1-1/3 cups granulated sugar
6 tbsp butter, softened
1 tbsp grated lemon zest (about 3 medium lemons)
3 tbsp thawed lemonade concentrate
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 large egg whites
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt 
1-1/4 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two nine-inch round baking pans. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda. 

In a large bowl, beat first five ingredients (through vanilla) with a mixer at medium speed until well blended (about 5 minutes). Add eggs and egg whites one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour and beating well after each addition.

Pour batter into prepared pans; sharply tap pans once on counter to remove air bubbles. Bake for 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes; remove from pans and cool on a wire rack. 

Lemonade Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from Brown Bag Specials
Makes enough frosting for one nine-inch two-layer cake or 12 cupcakes. 

3 cups confectioner's sugar
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
2-3 tbsp thawed lemonade concentrate

Mix all ingredients at medium speed until well combined. Spread onto cooled cake and allow frosting to set before cutting.
Since making it for the first time in the summer of 2009, this cake has become my go-to recipe when I need (or want) to bake for something important. It's simple, dependable, and it tastes wonderful every time. I know I can make it when I'm short on time, or in an unfamiliar kitchen, or when I really, really don't want to mess up.

So when I went to Columbus to meet my boyfriend's parents for the first time, I knew this would be the perfect thing to make for them. They loved it! They even asked me to make them another one before I left. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to do that. But I did give Matt's mom a copy of Molly Wizenburg's book, A Homemade Life. Next time I visit, I hope we can make it together. 

I usually make it in a round baking pan, but it's such an adaptable recipe that a square one works just as well. It would probably make good cupcakes, too! I'll be posting a recipe for a different lemon cake (it's my mom's' favorite kind of cake, so I'm constantly trying different variations) that has a lemonade buttercream frosting. That would go well with this, too . . . Hmm . . . 

Recipe for French-Style Lemon Yogurt Cake
From A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenburg
Makes one 9-inch round cake.

For the Cake:
1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
A pinch of salt
Zest of one lemon
1/2 cup well-stirred plain whole-milk yogurt
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil

For the Lemon Syrup:
Juice of one lemon
1/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted

For the Lemon Icing:
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
3 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan. In a large bowl, combine yogurt, sugar and eggs and mix well.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and lemon zest. Add the flour mixture in with the yogurt mixture and blend. Mix in the oil and stir until well combined. The batter should be very smooth.

Pour into prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan for 20 minutes and then turn out onto a cake rack or serving plate to cool.

While cake is still warm, mix together lemon syrup ingredients and spoon over cake. Let cake cool completely.

For the lemon icing, whisk together ingredients and spoon over cooled cake. Wait until icing has set, about one hour. Serve. 

(If you can't wait, don't. Who cares.)
This cake, dear readers, is a birthday cake classic. The person lucky enough to receive one of these from your kitchen for his or her birthday will thank you. So will everyone at the party. 

This is not a "light" cake. (In case you were wondering, cakes aren't really supposed to be in that category to begin with.) This one is particularly rich, with a generous coating of chocolate malt frosting to round out the moist, yellow cake inside.
I made it for my best friend from college, Katie, who turned 24 on June 2nd. It may have taken me nearly two months to get this posted, but I wasn't about to forget to share it. No-way-josé.
Recipe for Yellow Cake with Chocolate Malt Frosting
From She Wears Many Hats
Makes 2 9-inch round cakes.

For Cake:
2 3/4 cups flour
1-1/2 cups sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature 
1 cup milk, divided
4 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract

For Frosting:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup malted milk powder
7 tbsp milk

For cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two nine-inch round baking pans and line bottoms with parchment paper. In large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add butter and 3/4 cup milk to the mixture and beat until just combined. 

In a separate bowl, lightly beat eggs, remaining 1/4 cup milk, and vanilla extract together. Gradually add to the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Do not over beat. 

Divide batter into prepared pans. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Allow cake to cool completely before frosting.

For frosting:
Beat butter and vanilla extract together until smooth. Add in powdered sugar, cocoa powder and malted milk powder; lightly mix. Add in milk, one tbsp at a time, until smooth. 

Note: When I frost cakes, I line the cake stand with strips of wax paper. After the frosting has set, I just pull the strips out, and the cake stand or platter is free of errant icing globs. Voila!
First of all, let me apologize for the poor photo quality. It was nighttime, and my father's birthday, so I didn't want to make a fuss about taking cake pictures before the man got to eat.

Over it? So am I. Moving on. My dad's all-time favorite dessert is carrot cake, and since I'm finally in town for his birthday, I got to make him one from scratch! It turned out really well--the right texture (thanks to the carrots, walnuts, golden raisins, coconut, and crushed pineapple) and the right amount of sweetness, thanks to the cream cheese frosting. Honestly, there could have been more frosting in my book. But I always want more frosting. So maybe that's just me.

While the coconut paired well with the carrots in terms of texture, it didn't add much in terms of flavor. There was general agreement that the amount of coconut should be increased for next time. If you do end up adding extra, let me know how it turns out!

Mmm, frosting . . .
Recipe for Carrot Cake
Slightly adapted from Simply Scratch
Makes 2 9-inch cakes (for one layer cake).

2 cups all-purpose flour
2-1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
3/4 cup butter, softened
1-1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
2 cups grated carrots (I used two jumbo-sized carrots)
1 cup shredded coconut
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup golden raisins
1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple

1 8-oz. package cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 16-oz. package powdered sugar

For the Cake:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9-inch cake pans and line bottoms with parchment paper.

Whisk flour, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg until combined. Set aside.

Beat butter and sugar together in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one and a time, and mix well. *Alternating,* add flour mixture and milk, beating well after each addition. Mix in carrots, coconut, pineapple, raisins, and walnuts; mix well. Pour evenly into prepared pans.

Bake for 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool in pans 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from pans and cool completely on wire racks.

For the Frosting:
With an electric mixer, beat cream cheese, butter and vanilla in a medium bowl until well combined. Gradually sift in powdered sugar, beating well after each addition.

To assemble, remove parchment paper and place one layer upside down on a serving platter and spread a layer of frosting. Cover with remaining cake layer (upside down), remove parchment paper, and spread top and sides of cake with remaining frosting.

Store in the refrigerator.
Probably because when they do, it looks like this:
Pictured above is a traditional Chinese dessert. It is a thick soup, served hot, made from lightly sweetened black sesame seeds.

It tasted good, but I just can't be convinced that soup is a good idea for breakfast, much less dessert (the most important meal of the day).

Here's an image of a special treat at the Beijing Starbucks: a Red Bean Scone. I had to try it.
This next picture isn't a dessert, but it is one of the weirdest things I have ever been served anywhere in the world.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you: Sea Cucumber Porridge.
The "porridge" part was actually quite tasty. The sea cucumber, on the other hand . . . Well, it tasted like an ocean-flavored piece of rubber.
This may sound slightly off-topic, but I love salad bars. I like my salads light on the lettuce and heavy on the toppings--carrots, mushrooms, roasted beets, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, sunflower seeds, hard-boiled egg . . . You get the idea. And this is relevant because? I like my cookies the same way. While I can appreciate a soft sugar cookie as much as the next person, what I really love is a cookie that has it all. And these cookies, dear reader, have it all. "Everything but the kitchen sink," as they say.

I used pastel M&M's, which gave them a very festive look just in time for Easter. Not that these cookies made it anywhere near next Sunday. I had to hide four of them just so I would have enough to photograph the next day.
Recipe for Kitchen Sink Cookies
Adapted from Bakergirl
Makes 26-30 cookies.

1-1/3 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup oats
1/3 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup M&Ms
2/3 cup white chocolate chips
2/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup pecans, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line three baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and following five ingredients, through coconut.

In a large bowl, beat sugars and butter until combined, about one minute. Add egg and vanilla extract. Slowly beat in the dry ingredients. With a rubber spatula, fold in the remaining ingredients (M&Ms, white chocolate chips, raisins, and pecans).

Roll the cookie dough into 1-inch balls (or slightly larger). Place on prepared baking sheets and bake 10 minutes on the middle rack, one batch at a time.
I made this cake for my family as a treat after they came home from Florida. It was such a big hit (with my mother especially, who as you might recall is a citrus-dessert-fiend) that I will be making it again for Easter brunch.

This photograph is slightly misleading. I took it before I added the final glaze, so you can see the toothpick holes from where the lemon syrup went in--those get covered up with powdered sugar glaze. But it was dark by the time I got around to making the glaze, and in the morning, there wasn't enough left to photograph . . .
Recipe for Lemon Blueberry Yogurt Cake
From Sweet Pea's Kitchen
Makes 1 9 x 5 inch loaf.

For the Loaf:
1-1/2 cups + 1 tbsp flour, divided
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher aslt
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp grated lemon zest (about 2 small lemons)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1-1/2 cup fresh blueberries, rinsed

For the lemon syrup:
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 2 small lemons)
1/3 cup sugar

For the lemon glze:
1 cup powdered sugar
2-3 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan.

In a medium bowl, combine 1-1/2 cups flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a large bowl, whisk together yogurt, eggs, lemon zest, vanilla, and oil. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet. In another bowl, gently toss the blueberries in the remaining 1 tbsp flour and fold them very gently into the batter.

P:our batter into prepared loaf pan and bake 55-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then remove.

While the loaf is cooling, make the lemon syrup. In a small saucepan over medium heat, stir together the lemon juice and sugar until the sugar has completely dissolved. Continue to cook for 3-5 more minutes or until mixture thickens slightly.

Using a toothpick, poke holes in the tops and sides of the warm loaf. Brush with lemon syrup. Let the syrup soak in and then brush again. Cool cake completely.

For the lemon glaze, whisk the powdered sugar and lemon juice together in a small bowl. The mixture should be thick but pourable. Pour the glaze over the cake and let it drip down the sides. Allow glaze to harden, about 15 minutes, before serving.