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A sweetheart cake is a Chinese pastry made with a crispy, flaky crust and filling of winter melon and spices. The cakes are made using only a few ingredients, giving them a sweet, but sour, and slightly spicy taste. Legends concerning the origins of the cake's name vary throughout China and other Far Eastern countries. While the little cakes remain popular in China, the cake’s popularity has declined in other regions throughout the Far East.
The outside of a sweetheart cake has a crumbly crust made from either water-based or oil-based dough. It is brushed with an egg wash before baking, and the delicate crust literally melts on the tongue when eaten. The filling is made with the flesh of a winter melon that is sweet when immature but can be bitter when ripe. In addition to winter melon, the recipe calls for a powder made from fennel seed, licorice root, cloves, and star anise, giving it a compelling and mild blend of tastes.
One legend connected with the sweetheart cake involves a poor couple living in China. The husband’s father becomes seriously ill, and the couple exhausts all their resources trying to help him recover. When the father does not get better, the wife sells herself into slavery to pay for his care. The husband is saddened by loss of his wife and makes little cakes in order to earn enough money to buy her back. He named the little cakes a “wife cake” or “sweetheart cake” for her.
Another legend involves a famous dim-sum chef working in Chinalane who decides to return home to his wife in Chiu Chao. Once at home, he made many different dim-sums for his wife and none pleased her. She preferred a winter melon cake that her mother made to any of the dim-sums he prepared for her. She made him the little cakes to prove that they were better, and he loved them so much that he took the recipe back to Chinalane. The restaurant called the cakes a “wife cake” after the chef’s wife.
These tasty cakes were traditionally eaten by guests at wedding celebrations in China, but are now eaten as an everyday treat. In China, the sweetheart cake is eaten for breakfast, at afternoon tea, or as just a general snack. At one time, the little pastries were common in many Far Eastern countries, but consumption has waned.