Recipe // 5-Spice Sesame Shortbread

I am extremely lucky this summer because I get to do a lot of bakery recipe testing in the kitchen. When the chefs leave at 2pm after the lunch rush is over, the kitchen is entirely mine for the rest of the afternoon.

Of course, there are challenges baking Western recipes in a Chinese-style kitchen in a rural Chinese town at an altitude of 6,300 feet. So far I have been identifying most ingredients by smelling and tiny taste-testing; the sugar and salt are the same coarse texture here, and they are in identical, unlabeled metal tins.

I have been trying to incorporate local ingredients and flavors into some of my favorite recipes, which has been really fun. Xizhou is particularly famous for rose jam, brown sugar (different from the kind in the US), pu’er tea, so I have been brainstorming different ways to incorporate those flavors, plus staple Chinese ingredients like sesame seeds and anise. More recipes to come!!

This recipe is one of my top favorites so far. The five spice powder has some really complex flavors that pair well with the plain sugary-buttery beauty of the shortbread, and the sesame seeds add a wonderful crunch and exotic look. I have been testing so many things that I normally just try a bite or two, but oh man – I “tried” a lot of these. These are dangerously addicting.

5-Spice Sesame Shortbread

1 c soft butter
3/4 c powdered sugar
1 3/4 c flour
2 tsp five-spice powder*
1/3 c black sesame seeds
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Cream the butter and sugar together
2. Mix in flour, spices, and black sesame seeds, and vanilla
3. Press dough into a 9×9 inch pan and bake at 325 degrees F for 30-35 minutes until golden brown. It may take longer than 35 min.
5. Remove from pan and cut into squares while warm with a sharp knife.

*Five Spice Powder
Despite the name “Chinese Five-Spice,” you can’t actually find it in China so I made my own!
Just mix 1 tsp ground cinnamon, 1 crushed star anise, 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seed, 1/4 tsp ground Szechuan pepper, and 1/8 tsp ground cloves.

Recipe Roundup / Tahini

Maybe it is due to my obsession with hummus, Michael Solomonov’s restaurants (see my Goldie’s post here), or Molly Yeh’s blog, but I have been noticing a tahini trend.

Although still almost exclusively used in savory dishes (such as hummus or salad dressings), tahini is actually great allergy-friendly alternative to nut butters in baking. Tahini is just ground sesame seeds, which adds a unique boost of fat, salt, and umami to any recipe. Keep scrolling for some interesting ways to incorporate tahini into your next baking project!

The amazing tahini chocolate milkshake from Goldie in Philadelphia

Carrot Cake with Tahini Caramel Frosting / My Name is Yeh

Black Tahini Morning Buns / Hummingbird High

Tahini Swirl Brownies / The Mediterranean Dish

Tahini Banana Bread / Closet Cooking

Recipe Roundup / Unique Flavor Combinations

Life in the small tourist town of Xizhou is completely the opposite of my life as a student in Philadelphia, which is a nice change of pace. Most tourists stay in the larger neighboring town of Dali; Xizhou is just an interesting stop along their way to other bigger sites. Thus, shops here open late and close early, which gives me a lot of free time before and after work that I am not used to. I have already finished three books in the last week and a half, soaking up as much as I can about Chinese history and the local area. After a couple hours of reading in the evening, I go to bed almost as soon as it is fully dark out: around 9pm.

However, when I want a break from reading, I have been dreaming up all sorts of interesting flavor combinations I want to experiment with in future baking projects. Maybe it is because I am being exposed to such different, incredible foods (allllll the Chinese food + my Xizhou xiaochi project!), or because I suddenly don’t have access to ingredients/kitchen like I am used to. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not pining over the new absence of blueberries or dark chocolate chips in my life. But I am already making a list, ranked by priority, of the things I am going to make at the end of the summer!

Here are some recipes with unique flavor combinations that I am feeling particularly inspired by:

Sichuan Peppercorn Blueberry Oatmeal Pie / Lady and Pups

Fig, Balsamic, and Rosemary Hand Pies / Local Milk Blog

Blueberry Lavender Pound Cake with Lemon Mascarpone Cream / The Kitchen McCabe

Strawberry Basil Cupcakes with Basil Buttercream / The Cupcake Project

Looking back, it actually looks like there is a common theme of fruit + herbs!


Side note – in case you’re interested, here are the books I have read so far:

  • River Town, Peter Hessler
    I keep catching myself narrating my life in Xizhou in the same way that he writes…. weird?
  • Travels Through Dali With a Leg of Ham Zhang Mei
    An interesting combination of travel, autobiography, recipes, and photos. I love that I am starting to recognize the places + ingredients she talks about!
  • Dragon Lady, Sterling Seagrave
    The real (?) story of Empress Cixi, one of the three empresses in Chinese history. Depressing and a little inspiring, but mostly just fascinating.