Old China meets the New World in this take on the beloved Chinese tradition of sticky rice balls. But first, a little context.
Pumpkin Sticky Rice Balls (done 2-Ways) served with Ginger Infused Light Syrup (photo by G. Yek)
These round, dainty and chewy rice balls–similar to mochi–are traditionally eaten during the Lantern Festival to mark the end of the two-week long Chinese New Year celebration. The roundness of these rice balls symbolizes unity and togetherness and is hence considered an auspicious food.
The rice balls can be plain or filled with black sesame paste, chopped peanuts or red bean paste, and usually served in light syrup. They can also be served in sweet rice wine syrup with ribbons of cooked egg–not unlike egg drop soup except it’s sweet.
But these days, variations abound, including twists in fillings such as chocolate and fruit preserve. Increasingly, they are considered a dessert and eaten year-round instead of being relegated to just festivals.
Now back to the New World. Thanksgiving is a perfect time to celebrate the pumpkin–a staple in America (once the “New World” relative to old civilizations in Europe and Asia).
This recipe centers on pumpkin–two ways. The first (and easier) variety is to simply incorporate the pumpkin into the sticky rice dough. The second variety uses the pumpkin as a filling and involves a couple extra steps including a slightly more involved preparation of the pumpkin filling.
Whether plain or made with pumpkin, these sticky rice balls are one of those comfort foods best enjoyed with friends and family.
Sweet Pumpkin Sticky Rice Balls
Pumpkin sticky rice balls served in "sweet soup ' of ginger-infused light syrup.
Mixed Pumpkin Dough:
Mix the spices, honey and pumpkin puree well.
Add pumpkin mixture to sticky rice flour. Form a workable dough with your hand. If the mixture is too dry, add a touch of water. If too wet, use a dusting of flour to correct.
Form dough into a ball, cover with a damp towel and let rest fo 20 minutes.
Using a teaspoon, portion out the dough into little balls. Roll them with your hands to get them as round as possible. Put on a sheet pan lined with a damp towel.
Filled Pumpkin Dough
Mix sticky rice flour with water and work into a ball of dough. Use extra flour or water as necessary to adjust the consistency. Cover with a damp towel and set aside.
Mix the spices, sugar and pumpkin puree well. Add butter. You can use either salted or unsalted butter. I used salted butter for the salty counterpoint to the overall sweetness.
Transfer to a non-stick pan over low heat (use the lowest setting). Very slowly cook for about 20 minutes. This step helps to dry out the mixture to form a thick paste.
Allow pumpkin paste to cool, then transfer to a bowl and refrigerate. The butter will stiffen and help to create a workable paste. This will take about 30 minutes to an hour.
Meanwhile, using a teaspoon, portion out the dough into little balls. Roll them with your hands to get them as round as possible. Put on a sheet pan lined with a damp towel.
Once the pumpkin paste is cold, form half teaspoon balls and set aside.
Take a plain sticky rice ball, flatten it in the palm of your hand. Insert a pumpkin paste ball in the center, then envelop it with the plain rice ball dough. Roll the filled dough with your hands to make it as round as possible. Repeat with the rest of the sticky rice dough and pumpkin paste ball pairings.
Put on a sheet pan lined with a damp towel.
Ginger-infused Light Syrup
Put all ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar.
Turn off burner and let the mixture steep. Remove the ginger slices after about 15 minutes. If you like a stronger infusion of ginger, allow it to steep longer before removing.
Cooking the rice balls
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Put in the raw rice balls but don't overcrowd. Boil until the balls float to the top, signalling that they're cooked.
Strain and serve hot in syrup. Alternatively, you could dunk the freshly boiled rice balls in an ice bath (to stop the cooking process) and immerse them in syrup for serving later.
You could also make the ginger-infused light syrup with dark brown sugar for variety. Adjust the sweetness of the syrup to taste.