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August 21, 2010

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Elderly pastry chef takes the cake

AN 82-year-old pastry chef is one of the few remaining masters of deliciously rich and flaky snack cakes -- with exactly 16 handcrafted layers and savory fillings. Tan Weiyun takes a bite.

For 64 years Zhang Lingfeng has been making authentic Gaoqiao cakes in Gaoqiao Town of the Pudong New Area. Now she makes them at home for family, friends and customers who places special orders.

Making these song bing, literally "loose (like the crumbly layers) cake," requires skill and patience that few people have nowadays. Mostly the cakes are made by machine and lack the handcrafted touch and lots of kneading.

Zhang's pan-roasted snacks have sweet or savory fillings inside exactly 16 (no more no less) layers of delicious crumbly crust.

"Take a bite and have a look at the crust," says 82-year-old Zhang as she offers a hot fragrant cake from the well-worn iron pan she has used for decades.

"An authentic Gaoqiao cake should have exactly 16 layers of crust," she says. "Most of those sold in stores only have six to 10 layers."

The fillings can be pork or a sweet paste of various ingredients, such as red beans, candied melon, sweet osmanthus, nuts and seeds and other ingredients. She prepares the fillings herself.

Zhang is insistent about the quality of ingredients: The lard has to be from pigs raised on the northern side of the Yangtze River in Jiangsu Province. The red beans must be from Chongming Island where they are famously big, bright and tasty. The water must be pure -- two decades ago it was cool clean well water. Today it's bottled.

Over the past century, it has been a tradition for Pudong locals to have Gaoqiao cakes on weddings, Spring Festival, the Double Ninth Festival (on the ninth day of the ninth month on the lunar calendar) baby shower parties when a baby is one month old, and other festivities.

Every day, Zhang gets up at 5am, takes a short walk to a nearby market and buys everything she needs: lard, red beans, wheat flour, pork and other items. The amount depends on the orders she receives -- she needs one or two days' advance notice.

The old lady still looks good, talks loud and thinks fast.

For decades she has worked in the Gaoqiao Food Factory. Now that she's retired, she cooks at home.

"I love making cakes for people. It makes me happy," she says.

At first she only baked for family and friends, then her fame spread and business snowballed.

Customers say the cakes remind them of the old days.

"I never expected the small pastry I've been making all my life to become so popular," says Zhang.

Here's how:

Her four main tools: an old iron pan, a rolling pin, a Z-shaped knife and her oven.

The most difficult part is making the 16 famous layers, hallmark of the original Gaoqiao cakes.

First she makes two kinds of dough with wheat flour: water dough (3 kilograms of flour, 1 kilogram of oil, 1 kilogram of water); and oil dough (2 kilograms of flour and 1 kilogram of oil).

She divides each lump of dough into 20 or 30 small pieces and rolls them out in circles with the rolling pin.

Then she places a circle of oil dough on top of a circle of water dough, covering the work counter with double-rounds of dough.

"Here we go," Zhang says as she skillfully presses the oil and flour dough together and forms them into flat "ox-tongue" shapes in her palm.

She folds one in half, and then half again, making four layers. Then she folds it three times, making 16 layers in all.

Commercially made cakes have fewer layers.

"They are making money, not making cakes. People like things done fast nowadays," Zhang says. "But I've got plenty of time, so I can make them slowly and pay attention to detail."

Zhang learned how to make the traditional cakes from her father-in-law Zhou Baichuan and mother-in-law Huang Jindi, who established the family cake shop in 1925, the first in Gaoqiao Town.

Though today many different fillings are invented, Zhang only makes the traditional four: pork, red bean paste, mashed jujube paste and baiguo (literally "hundred fruits," including jujube, candied melons, walnut, watermelon seeds, osmanthus and other ingredients).

The work is laborious.

Take the red beans: She sorts and washes them, stews them for hours, removes the shells floating on the surface, filters out the water by squeezing the beans in cheesecloth, and sautes the beans with sugar and oil.

"These days I add less sugar because people don't like it too sweet," Zhang says.

She roasts them for around 45 minutes until they are dry, putting an aluminum-iron basin under the pan so it isn't directly on the fire; this way the heat is spread evenly and the cakes don't get scorched.

Now her son Zhou Yizhong and daughter-in-law Gu Yuying help with shopping and preparation. "I taught the skills to my son and grandson," Zhang says. "They are happy to learn and I hope this can be passed on to next generations."


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