As long as I can remember, I’ve always preferred rice cakes over breads/pastries if the comparison had to be ever made. Don’t get me wrong, anyone who knows me will testify that I am happy to indulge in all sweet combinations of flour, butter and sugar.
At the base of my preference is the denser, chewier texture I grew up with that I always crave. Yet, what draws me into rice cakes to this day is the subtle, sweet flavors from natural ingredients – dried fruits, nuts, beans and seeds. It also comes with the self-convincing happiness that this sweetness is good and good for me.
Seolgi (설기), referring to steamed rice cakes made with short-grain rice powder, may be one of the simplest kind of rice cakes. Baekseolgi (백설기) is the most well-known one in the seolgi category, as they often appear on the tables of babies’ birthdays and other celebrations. ‘Baek’ means ‘white,’ symbolizing purity, as well as ‘one hundred,’ symbolizing longevity. It is also made with the simple ingredients of rice powder, water and sugar. Other seolgi varieties depend on additional ingredients of fruits, nuts and whatever your imagination brings out.
This time, I added orange zest and orange juice to make seolgi, and garnished with candied orange peels and fresh mint leaves. The rice cake alone is sufficient, but the little garnishes accentuate the subtle tone of the refreshing sweetness. This orange seolgi is also light and soft, yet still with its density that lets you know it belongs to a rice cake family.
To make about 8 muffin-sized orange seolgi)
Take out 2 C of frozen rice powder* and let it rest at room temperature for easier handling. In the meantime, set up a steamer.
Sift rice powder twice. If available, use a coarse sieve to help aerate rice powder without making the rice particles finer. Finer rice powder means denser rice cake.
Add 2 ts of orange zest, 2 TBSP orange juice, 4 TBSP sugar and 1/4 ts of salt and mix thoroughly without pressing down rice powder. It should feel like a moist powder mix.
How do you know when you have a balanced mix? When you squeeze a small amount of the rice powder mix, the shape of the mix should remain (picture below left). When you press the shaped mix gently, it should easily crumble apart (picture below right). You may want to add a couple of drops of orange juice or water if you want your rice cake more moist, but be careful adding any liberal amount of liquid at this point.
Scoop the mix gently in silicon muffin cups (which I did) or paper cups. Do not press down the mix. Line the steamer with a piece of clean cloth or paper towel and place the muffin cups. Steam for 20 minutes over boiling water, then turn off the stove. Let it rest with the lid on for 5 minutes, then remove the steamer from the stove. Cool to room temperature with the lid off.
Optional) Candied Orange Peels – Cut the peel from one orange to strips. Place the strips in cold water and bring up to a boil then drain. Repeat it 3 times total. This process removes the bitterness of the orange peel. Add the orange peels and add equal amounts of sugar and water, just enough to cover the orange peel strips in a small pot. Stir gently to help dissolve sugar and reduce until there is almost no liquid. Transfer the orange peel strips to parchment paper and cool to room temperature.
It is best to enjoy seolgi on the day you make them. You can freeze any leftover and microwave it for serving, but you will lose some of its softness.
* The rice powder (쌀가루; ssal ga ru) used for seolgi is literally rice soaked in water first then ground to powder. This means you need to add only a small amount of water to make seolgi. Unless you live in Korea where you can go to a neighborhood rice mill to get your own batch of fresh rice powder, it is easier, or even your only option, to get a bag of frozen rice powder from a Korean grocery store.
frozen 냉동 (naeng dong)
rice, uncooked 쌀 (ssal)
powder/flour 가루 (ga ru)