One of my favorite things about Beijing winter happens the
moment the air turns the slightest bit nippy: ruby jewels
appear, strung on branches and hitched to the back of bicycles. It’s bingtang hulu (haw fruit) season. The tart, hard little fruits of the hawthorn tree are seeded (when the vendor isn’t lazy), skewered on kebab sticks, dipped in caramel, and cooled until the sugar forms a sugary, crispy skin. Biting into the fruit brings the deeply satisfying extremes of sweetened tartness, like fresh lemonade. Haw, the name of the actual fruit, is native to the north of China, so even 20 years ago, when oranges were considered luxuries, haw was everywhere. Nowadays when a vendor rides around on his bicycle with a tree of candied fruits behind him like the tail feathers of a proud rooster, they’ll have more exotic fruits on display: strawberries, oranges, and even dragon fruit. I’m not big on all this peacocking. Nothing will trump the traditional candied haw in my heart.
So when I recently thought about revamping holiday dinners, I naturally turned to the ubiquitous haw. You can find these quintessential winter fruits everywhere after mid-October, assembled in giant piles on street corners, being sold by the farmers themselves. The extreme tartness and color lend obvious parallels to cranberries, and for all those North Americans who desperately miss their continent’s addition to the holiday table, I thought a savory walnut, orange and haw relish would work so much better on a turkey than a cylinder of jellied red goo shipped over from its indigenous land. It’s also delicious in sandwiches made with store-bought turkey.
½ kg haw fruit, or 4 sticks of bingtang hulu
1 small onion, diced
2 tbps white sugar
1 tsp thyme
Juice and zest of one large orange
1 tbsps brown sugar
¾ cup chopped walnuts
Half and juice the lemon, then add water. Clean and remove the seeds and stems of the haw and soak haw in the lemon water as you clean and seed the fruit (otherwise it will oxidize and turn brown). Heat oil in a pan and saute onion, sprinkled with sugar, until golden brown. Add haw fruit and thyme. Cook for two minutes. Add juice, zest, and brown sugar. Simmer until the sauce thickens and turn a deeper color. Take pan off heat, and stir in chopped walnuts. Serve with roasted chicken or a very large turkey.
Then I turned my thoughts to dessert. At first I thought about a mid-winter haw crumble as a stand-in for that late summer mainstay, rhubarb, but then I wavered. Late summer on the holiday table doesn’t match the freezing, snowy Beijing winter outside. Wishful thinking isn’t going to bring the same comfort as something rich, warm and gooey. What I wanted was silky, eggy bread pudding, but with the crème brulee-like topping of the bingtang hulu street vendors, with caramelly, tart fruits studded through the custard. So I tried to make some bingtang hulu in my own kitchen, which was a little tougher than I had thought – burning hot sugar is tricky. And burning hot. You could just buy pre-made tanghulu from a reliable seller and skip the seeding and caramel part.
with Crackling Hawthorn Fruit
1/2 cups cream
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ cup white sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup Cointreau
½ loaf of white bread, ripped in pieces
¼ kg haw fruit, seeded, cleaned
Whisk eggs, cream, nutmeg, cinnamon, ¼ cup of white sugar, brown sugar and Cointreau in a bowl; soak the bread in the mixture, turning and pressing to make sure the mixture is soaked through the bread. Soak for about an hour. Meanwhile, clean the haw fruits. In a heavy pan, mix in ¼ cup of white sugar and two tablespoons of water. Stir over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Stir carefully until the mixture is golden brown. Lay the haw fruit in an even layer on a buttered cookie sheet. Pour the sugar mixture evenly over the fruit. Let cool. When the bread mixture is completely soaked, fold in the candied fruit. Pour the mixture into ramekins, or an oven-proof bowl. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake in 350 degree oven for one hour until the puddings are golden brown and puffy. Let cool. Serve warm with ice cream or cream. Serves 4.
Photos by Judy Zhou