The holidays always make me crave sweets. It’s funny just how much of a connection we can create with food and holidays. What is Easter without a ham, or Thanksgiving without a turkey? Some would argue just fine, thank you very much and I never enjoyed the dry turkey – but I would argue that holidays and food go hand in hand.
I crave a lot of stuff this time of year. Gingerbread. Russian tea cookies. The German Christmas stollen that my mother would make on Christmas day. The batches of fudge my sister would make as well. Since going gluten free, it has been a bit of struggle to find holiday treats that match what I used to eat. But one food in particular has remained unchanged, one that my mother used to make during the holidays, and that is yaksik.
It’s kind of like a Korean fruitcake. The regular, Western rum-infused fruitcake is good enough, but this cake – now, this cake is really freaking delicious. There is a lot going on for it, and a lot going into it. Don’t get freaked out by the ingredient list, it’s actually pretty easy to throw together – but there are a couple foreign ingredients that might be harder to source.
The main ingredient is glutinous sweet rice. Different from the rice we usually eat, it has a very high sugar content that causes it to become sticky and chewy, almost gummy. The texture is probably my favorite part of the dish and is similarly chewy to many other Asian desserts like tteok, mochi, biko, and banh khoai mi nuong. As a warning, this can be very different for someone used to Western desserts (which tend more towards crunchy, crumbly and cakey) but it is really enjoyable once you get used to it.
Now, you’ve also got the nuts and dried fruit to break up the mass of sticky chewy rice as well. It also has a lot of flavors with the addition of honey or molasses, Korean dates, raisins, cinnamon, the nutty flavor of the sesame oil, walnuts, and pine nuts and the slight umami and saltiness of the soy sauce mellowing everything out. It may sound weird, but trust me on this one – it’s good.
OK, so this Korean dessert has kind of a cool backstory, according to the Samguk Yusa. Legend has it that in 486 this Korean king named Soji who ruled the Korean province of Silla is taking a trip from the kingdom (maybe going on vacay or something) when a magpie flies up and tells him that some of his peeps back at home are planning a revolt.
One thing I’m not exactly sure about is how he could understand the magpie – perhaps he had a whole rookery full of trained magpies? Or maybe he could communicate with birds in a way that has since been lost? It could also be perhaps that he had a bit too much soju out of the whole deal. At any rate, he was grateful, stopping the rebellion, keeping his kingdom intact and he gave the magpie a delicious snackie of black rice.
This day eventually became kind of a big deal. It got so big it got to the point where it became one of the major holiday feasts of Korean culture. This particular feast is known as Daeboreum, the feast day of the First Full Moon. The black rice offering to the magpie changed during the Goryeo period to be replaced with sweet rice mixed with honey, dates and chestnuts, and that’s how we got yaksik.
Kay. Enough with the history lesson. Onto the eats!
Note: There are a couple of ways to do it that involve steaming and baking, but we’ve found that the best and most straightforward way is to use a rice cooker to cook everything up into a sticky, gooey mess. After it’s done cooking, you can press it into a mold and then let it cool. I prefer a springiform pan, but you could also use a baking dish, a muffin tin, or even little silicone molds if you so choose. The cake can then be cut up into smaller slices or pieces as needed.
2 cups sweet glutinous rice
2 cups water
1/2 cup pitted Korean dates (if you can’t find Korean dates, feel free to use any other sort of date, such as Medjool or Hayani)
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup walnuts
1/4 pine nuts
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame seed oil
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup brown sugar (you can also use honey or molasses)
- Rinse the glutinous rice with cold running water. Add enough cold water to cover the rice with about 1 inch of water. Let the rice soak for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.
- Drain the extra water from the rice and place into the rice cooker pot.
- Place 2 cups of water in a small saucepot and bring to a boil. Add dates and raisins and boil for an additional 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Add soy sauce, sesame seed oil, cinnamon and brown sugar into the water and mix well.
- Pour the sauce mixture over the rice in the rice cooker pot. Add walnuts and pine nuts and mix well.
- Start cooking the yaksik. I have found the “white rice” setting to be perfect, but your results may vary of course.
- Once the rice is done, open the rice cooker. The mixture should be soft and very very very sticky. Like, it should stick firmly to a rice scoop or a spatula.
- Try a spoonful (don’t worry, we won’t judge as it is vital to ensure that the yaksik is done) The rice should be soft and slightly chewy like a normal sticky rice. If it is the ever-so-slightest al-dente, that is OK – it will continue to absorb water over time.
- Once you’re sure it is done, scoop it out of the rice cooker and press it into the mold of your choice. You can place it into a springiform pan to get the nice round traditional cake shape, or you can place it into a baking dish to cut into bars later, or you can stuff it into individual liners in muffin tins for large crowds. Let it cool for at least one hour before serving so it will hold its shape.
- While yaksik can be served cold, I prefer it slightly warm. Sometimes straight from the rice cooker, but it heats up well in the microwave, or you can even toast it if you’d like.
- When cutting yaksik, run your knife under a bit of warm water to keep it from sticking
- Yaksik is great when enjoyed with a bit of tea or coffee, but it also mingles well with other desserts.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of this delicious cake and Daeboreum, check out the Festive Occasions: The Customs in Korea