Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Edmonton’s Claim to Fame!
Green Onion Cakes! What in the world is that and what is all the fuss about? It was 1982 and I was attending the first ever International Fringe Festival and my nose was leading me over to a bit of a line-up. The buzz in the air was “you’ve gotta try a green onion cake”!
We are talking 1982. My only frame of reference for any kind of cake was a cake-cake. I knew about crab and salmon cakes on the savory side of cakes, but somehow, “a green onion cake” went into the sweet side of my brain.
Confusion, curiosity, hunger and the tantalizing aroma of fried onions found me in front of a booth selling these very green onion cakes.
Flat, round, not as brown or crispy as these little ditties, and inside of a parchment envelope, I really was a little skeptical. And, I was alone, so there was no one to debate the possibilities with. None of my friends were into theater in those days.
One bite. One bite and I was hooked. There was, of course, no where to sit. I just wanted to sit immediately and savor this first taste experience. The little pancake shape was fried and flaky. There were layers of thin pastry sprinkled with onion and something delicious. Clearly, the ingredients were simple, the technique, complex and the flavour addictive.
What is it that makes these green onion cakes so outrageously delicious? The fat.
Of course. It is always the fat. There is melted lard (or duck fat or oil or whatever fat you choose) melted and brushed between every phyllo-like layer. That’s what the vendor told me. Momentarily, the appeal lost its sparkle. Only momentarily. There was still onion cake in my hand. The aroma remained intoxicating. The flavour compelling and, well, a moment later, I had finished mine and ordered another to take home.
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Meet Ming Franks
Ming Franks is about as good of a person as a good person can be. She is a consummate volunteer, a hard working focused and detailed Chartered Accountant, a prolific golfer, an avid traveler, an accomplished quilter and home cook. As well, she is a darn good friend. One thing I know for sure. When Ming undertakes anything, it will be second to none. She is a perfectionist, but not the fuss budgety kind. She just practices whatever she needs to with determination and abiity second to none, and there you have it. We met many years ago when she first registered for one of my cooking classes (in the days that I was offering cooking classes). She was the perfect student. Ha! A fast learner, for sure! Ming and I are like-minded on many fronts, which is what has brought us together in a variety of ways, but the most fun we have together, is in the kitchen.
I used to be able to keep up with her, but after this day, I can see that is no longer possible. I knew I had lost my exceptional ability to get a thousand things done at once, quite well, but I have lost more than that. I have lost my ability to get one thing done well, fast. But, I can still get it done well. I now just go at a slower pace. No matter. I had a great time!
As Ming came to my first bread making cooking class back in May 2011(photos are representative of my skills at the time), she has also taught me how to make Wonton Soup and her recipe has been one of the top posts on my site for years. We volunteered together with Slow Food Edmonton and with Eat Alberta. She was the Money Manager Extraordinaire for the Slow Food in Canada Conference and Gala in Edmonton in 2012.
Ming had a little white puppy similar to my baby sister (and mom’s dog, Penny), above… so she definitely loves animals and Penny had to be in the photo since I was dog sitting on Green Onion Cake Day! You can see how comfy Penny is with her, too.
Ming’s parents hailed from Taiwan and found their way to Edmonton through school, scholarships and job transfers. Ming recalls making Green Onion Cakes throughout her life as an afterthought, really, after making dumplings. The family would make a countless number of dumplings, and inevitably, the filling would run out. Though the remaining dough was only pennies, it could not be wasted! Thus, her mother would roll it into Homemade Green Onion Cakes. Ming has only ever made it with leftover dumpling dough until her demonstration for Eat Alberta when she made them from scratch for the first time. That is, made the dough with hot water, instead of cold, as in the dumpling recipe. Adding hot water to flour apparently “cooks the dough” a bit and enables better lamination so the onion cakes are flakier and puffier if made with hot water.
I absolutely had to invite Ming to participate in this project. Green Onion Cakes were the obvious ask. She made them at one of our Eat Alberta Potluck dinners and I haven’t been able to get them out of my head, since. That was three years ago, and now, guess what? I can make them myself, and so can you!
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: A Brief History
Did you know that Green Onion Cakes are synonymous with Edmonton? This article from the August 2015 issue of Avenue Magazine explains why with the most clarity I could find. In brief, Siu To, a former construction worker from Northern China, opened Happy Garden, a Chinese restaurant in Edmonton in 1979, four years after immigrating to Canada. He put a well known economical and tasty home food on his menu for local street festivals in the early 1980’s because they could be made in advance and cooked fast, on the spot. Apparently, no other Chinese Restaurant entrepreneur had introduced this recipe to the Canadian public and this local crowd went nuts. The first venues in the early 1980’s that introduced his Green Onion Cakes, or Cong You Bing, were Taste of Edmonton, the Edmonton Folk Music Festival and the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. You will find Green Onion Cakes in every Chinese Food Restaurant in Edmonton, though they are rarely found elsewhere outside of Northern China, “The cakes were showcased in a Royal Alberta Museum exhibit on prairie Chinese restaurants in 2013, and profiled in Charlene Rooke’s book Edmonton: Secrets of the City.”
The Green Onion Cake is now clearly acknowledged as an iconic local favourite and as such, begged to be made as part of Project 2017: Valerie Cooking in the Kitchen with You!
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Valerie Cooking in the Kitchen with YOU!
Some women like to shop or go to the spa. I love to cook in my kitchen with a friend – or someone learned who has a recipe to share, and a story to tell. Essentially, I want to glean heritage and traditional recipes – the best of the best – from our oldies and goldies that have so much experience in their heads. I want to cook with our babas and nonnas and grandmas and grandpas and learn to make what they are known for, or famous for, and share it with my readers. This is not exclusive to our elders, but definitely with them in mind. Of course, many, many younger folk, like me, for example, have much to share, as well.
Ming is participating in this project. Though the Green Onion Cake recipe hails from Northern China, it has become an iconic local food and after almost 40 years reigning supreme over our local food scene, has most definitely become a Canadian Food in our region.
If you would like to, please let me know!
- Project 2017: Cooking in the Kitchen With… Completed Project Posts here.
- Project 2017: Cooking in the Kitchen With… Cooking Schedule is here.
- Project 2017: Cooking in the Kitchen With… PARTICIPATE!
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Mis en Place
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Making the Dough
The dough needs to rest at least 30 minutes, so start with the dough before cutting the onions. We decided to make three batches. Each of us will make one by hand, and I will make one batch in the Thermomix.
The boiling water is stirred into the flour until cool enough to work by hand.
Bringing the flour together with the warm water is a fascinating tactile experience as the heat creates such give and suppleness within the dough.
In the bowl, work with the dough, adding cold water, as needed until it clings together in one piece.
Work or knead the dough until smooth and elastic.
You can see the surface of the dough isn’t as smooth as we might like, but once it rests, it will be perfect to work with for the homemade green onion cakes. Top right is Ming’s dough: smoother than my hand-worked patty, bottom right.
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Making the Dough in the Thermomix Machine
The flour is weighed into the TM bowl, the boiling water added and the mixture stirred together until clumping as above, top right.
The dough was then kneaded for 2.5 minutes with 2 tablespoons or 30 grams of cool water added through the hole in the lid and this dough was smooth in appearance and in touch. Both Ming and I were very impressed by my favourite kitchen machine’s ability to work the dough for the homemade green onion cakes. So, we made three batches. Each of us did one by hand, and then made one in the Thermomix. All three doughs set to rest covered with plastic wrap: time to cut the onions.
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Chopping the Onion
Do not even try to take a shortcut here. This is an important part of the process and very tedious, to be honest. That’s why it is much more fun to be cooking in the kitchen with a friend. Of course, I chat way too much, so the dough got a very good rest! The onion stalks must be sliced very finely, lengthwise; if a thin strand can be sliced again, slice it again. Then mince. Do not slice the onions in the usual manner. These must be sliced lengthwise, then minced, to hold the best texture, shape and flavour for the homemade green onion cakes.
I spied that little long piece of onion stalk, but it was actually cut and broke apart when sprinkling onion over the dough.
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Preparing the Dough
Above, the Thermomix prepared dough was the softest, so we started the “preparing the dough for rolling” process with it.
I always weigh each ball and this one was 450 grams exactly. We divided it in two 125 gram pieces and then each of those into 35-40 gram pieces. Each batch makes 6 onion cakes and we now have our 6 portions of dough for each cake. Interestingly, we found the other doughs to be heavier as we used cups when measuring the flour into the bowls. The flour was weighed into the Thermomix bowl and that is most likely why the dough was so lovely. We hadn’t properly measured our flour. Weighing is always best. (Of course, I know the Thermomix also has the outstanding ability to knead beyond the capacity of most humans, and all doughs are exceptional coming out of it.) Tip: As we did three batches, we found the two “tougher” doughs that were kneaded by hand became lovely and supple after measured into balls, and resting under a damp cloth to be rolled.
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Rolling the Dough
Each little dough ball is flattened, lightly floured, then rolled thinly.
Above, Ming demonstrates the size and thinness of the dough prepared for each homemade green onion cake.
Each is rolled and prepared one at a time.
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Preparing the Green Onion Cakes
First, the surface of the dough is brushed with oil until a sheen is visible, as below. Lard is often used in liquid form, as well.
A couple of pinches of salt per round, according to taste, but lightly covered, as above right works well.
Ming working her magic, above.
Oiled, salted, and sprinkled with finely sliced green onions, they are now ready to roll.
Top left, the round of filled dough is gently, yet tightly, rolled in cinnamon roll fashion. Then, turned to seam side up, above right.
Ends are pressed to close and each roll is gently flatted.
Then, each end of the roll is turned in toward the middle, until meeting, as above.
At this point, to build layers of flaky pastry-like dough, one side of the pinwheel is twisted to sit on top of the other, as above.
Then, sitting on a flat surface, the two tier roll is gently flattened with the palm of the hand and each will appear, as above.
Rest each under a slightly damp cloth while finishing the rest.
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Rolling the Green Onion Cakes
These plump little ladies in waiting just make me squirm with delight. Aren’t they adorable?
Last step before frying or freezing is rolling out each multi-layered rested filled onion cake. Roll them quite thin. Yes, oil will squish out, but that is to be expected. Lightly dust with a little more flour and continue. Scrape the work bench with a D-shaped spatula to clean the gluey mess as it builds up, to continue.
Ming’s mom thought, “Hmmm, if I add cheese, there’ll be a protein which will add a nutritional hit to these little treats.” So she did and the neighbourhood kids loved them. We meant to do one entire batch with cheese, but forgot until the very last one. Ming’s mom always used cheddar and I believe that would be delicious. I had only Havarti on hand, and as it is such a subtle buttery flavoured cheese when melted, the flavour was almost indiscernible. The orange colour of a cheddar would also add that lively bright cheesy invitation.
It was a more substantial roll, but flattened well when rolling out and fried beautifully.
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Freezing or Frying
At this point, the onion cakes may be frozen. I froze them on cookie sheets overnight, then separated each with parchment paper squares, and packed into ziplock labelled and dated bags. Those smaller bags went into one bigger bag for double protection. Frying frozen onion cake instructions are in the recipe. If frying, wait until the oil sizzles! About 2 minutes per side should do it. You can see how they should look, below.
Ah, the golden glory. But sadly, you cannot taste the crispy outer texture combined with the soft chewy layered homemade onion cake.
Look at those layers!
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Serving the Onion Cakes
Serve immediately upon frying as they are spectacular hot off the grill. I like mine with a little sweet and hot dipping sauce, but nothing is necessary as they are also really delicious plain.
Surprisingly, they are almost as tasty cold. Still crispy! A sprinkle of a nutty soy sauce is a fun compliment, too. Let us know if you make your own! Share your green onion cake stories! Both Ming and I would love to hear them. Thank you so very much, Ming, for the gift of your time and expertise and the sharing of such an important family recipe!
Homemade Green Onion Cakes: Cooking in the Kitchen with Ming Franks
Ingredients for Dough for 6 Cakes:
- 1 ¼ cups or 137.5 grams flour
- 3/8 cup or 90 grams boiling water
- 1 tablespoon or 15 grams cold water
Ingredients for Dough for 12 Cakes:
- 2 ½ cups or 310 grams flour
- ¾ cup or 180 grams boiling water
- 2 tablespoons or 30 grams cold water
Ingredients for Filling for 6 Cakes:
- 6-9 tablespoons chopped green onions , or 1 bunch green onions
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 tablespoon salt
Ingredients for Filling for 12 Cakes:
- 12-18 tablespoons chopped green onions , or 2 bunches green onions
- 6 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 tablespoons salt
For each green onion cake:
- 1 to 1½ tablespoon chopped green onions
- ½ tablespoon canola oil
- ¼ or less teaspoon salt
Instructions for Making Dough:
In a bowl, add boiling water to flour; mix to combine until cool enough to work by hand
Work by hand, adding cold water until ingredients form a cohesive mass
Plop ingredients onto work surface, and knead until smooth and elastic; set aside to rest for 30 minutes in small covered bowl (plastic wrap)
Instructions for Making Dough in Thermomix:
Weigh flour into TM bowl; add boiling water and mix immediately to combine for 15 seconds at speeds 4-6
Knead for 2.5 minutes; adding 2 tablespoons cold water through hole in lid during first 30 seconds of kneading process
Remove from bowl; set aside to rest for 30 minutes in plastic covered bowl
Instructions for Preparing Dough:
Weigh dough; divide into two equal portions
Divide halves into three equal portions; set aside and start to roll one portion
Instructions for Rolling Dough:
Flatten dough ball into small disc; lightly flour work surface and use rolling pin to roll dough into thin 4 inch round
Use rolling pin to roll out each piece of dough into a 4 inch round
Instructions for Filling and Forming Homemade Onion Cakes
Brush each thinly rolled round of dough lightly with oil, sprinkle with salt and green onions
Roll gently but tightly, like a cinnamon roll; turn roll to have seam side facing up
Gently pinch ends to close and lightly flatten roll; roll both ends in toward the centre (Palmier style)
Holding one side of the rolled onion cake in each hand; twist one side to sit on top of the other (see photo) to form more layers (a "two-story" appearance)
Place on work surface and gently flatten by hand; set aside to rest until all are complete
Instructions for Rolling Homemade Onion Cakes:
Place filled resting onion cake on lightly floured work surface; roll, dusting with flour as necessary, until thin
Set aside; complete batch, cleaning sticky work surface as necessary by scraping with a D-shaped spatula
Instructions for Frying Homemade Onion Cakes:
Heat oil until sizzling in heavy skillet; add rolled onion cakes and fry about 2 minutes per side, or until golden
Rest on paper towel momentarily to expel excess oil; serve immediately
Instructions for Freezing Homemade Onion Cakes:
Freeze rolled cakes, single layer, on parchment covered cookie sheet for 2-3 hours, until completely frozen (or overnight); package in labelled and dated ziplock freezer bags with parchment paper between cakes
Place small freezer bags portioned with 4-6 cakes in larger freezer bag for double protection
Instructions for Frying Frozen Green Onion Cakes:
Remove from freezer, frozen; heat oil, but not until sizzling - at medium high heat
Fry about 3 minutes per side, until golden; serve immediately after resting to expel oil on paper towel
Instruction for Ming’s Mom’s Cheesey Variation:
Mom sprinkled in shredded cheddar cheese at the same time as the green onions, leave out the salt.
"My school friends loved the taste of these!"
Also, any left over? Highly, doubtful, but if so - shoot them in the toaster for a fast reheat and delish, like fresh, service!