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March 02, 2007

Goji Berries, or, Mothers Really Do Know Best

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One of the hot new health foods right now is the goji berry, which looks like a brighter, ovalish cousin of the cranberry and is touted as a "superfruit" for containing a pharmacy's worth of antioxidants and vitamins in one tart little package. I first saw goji berries mentioned on Vosges' new Goji Bar, which, by the way, is delightful - a not-too-bitter bar of chocolate embedded with chewy bits of berries and a flecked with Himalayan pink salt, giving it just the right addictive tang. Intrigued by this goji berry, I looked around to see dried goji berries being sold at health food stores for breath-catching prices, along with goji powder, goji juice, and goji health bars - clearly the fad was in full swing.

However, I then read that the goji berry was called qi zi in Chinese, which sparked my memory - I had heard this name before. Had I maybe seen this little fruit before in my childhood, in my mom's kitchen, as she made soups and tonics from the mysterious contents of packages she brought back from Chinatown? I called my mom in Hong Kong.

"Mom, do you know what goji berries are?"

"Goji berries? What are you talking about?"

"You know, those little dried red berry things that are supposed to be really good for you?"

"You mean qi zi? I put that in the abalone soup, but you always left the berries at the bottom. I also made that tea with it that's really good for restoring nutrients to your body, but you would always say it tasted bad and refuse to drink it."

"Oh..." silence as I realize how foolish I was to not recognize my mother's wisdom and her ability to be far ahead of any health-food-fad curve.

"You know, I still have a bunch of them at home. You can get them at any Chinese grocery if you want."

So this magical new superberry, which is supposedly found only in the Tibetan Himalayas and just discovered to have all these healthful properties, has long been used all over Asia and could be purchased in Chinatown just a few blocks from my place, for less than a tenth of what the health-food stores were charging!

Most of the commercial crop of goji berries, or wolfberries, as they as also called, come from the Ningxia region of China. There are currently many claims floating around the internet that the goji berries from Tibet are of a different species, are grown differently, processed differently - pretty much all arguments by the suppliers that only their product contains those all-important antioxidants and nutrients and you shouldn't accept any common substitutes.

I am not pretending to be an expert on goji berries or to have investigated all these sites, nor do I wish to get involved in any debates about the differences between various strains of goji berries, but I do know that goji berries have long been renowned in China for their healthful benefits, and have many uses in Chinese medicine - for example, that tea my mom would make every month for me actually was a tonic brewed from several ingredients, goji berries among them, and was meant to help balance the female system after each monthly cycle. And it wasn't the goji berries that made it taste bad, it was another herb called dong quai!

Goji berries themselves taste like a cross between a cranberry and a raisin, more on the tart than the sweet side, with an herbal undertone. They are always found dried, and will vary from raisin-soft to quite hard. Unless you are planning on eating them out of hand, their hardness should not concern you; when soaked in water the berries will plump up and become quite soft. I have seen packages of goji berries all over Chinatown and in large Asian groceries; they can be tricky to locate if you don't read Chinese as they are not always called "goji berries"; sometimes they are labeled as wolfberries, or the curious name "Medlar", or even by their scientific name, Lycium barbarum.

There are some caveats to purchasing them - sometimes processors will add sulfites to the berries to increase the vibrancy of their red color. If possible, try to buy them where they are stored in an open bin so you can inspect them more closely.

I found another riff on the theme of goji berries and pink salt on Chockylit's wonderful blog Cupcake Bakeshop - a goji berry-studded cupcake topped with a swirl of chocolate ganache and a sprinkling of salt. There is again the lovely interplay between rich chocolate, tart berries, and the crunch of salt. I am particularly enamored of the Himalayan salt because of its infinite variations of pink among its crystals(so pretty and springlike!) but be warned that because of the crystal size it does have a robust, intense flavor - I found the amount of salt indicated for the ganache was a bit much for me, especially if you sprinkle more salt on top of the cupcakes - you may want to err on the lighter-handed side and add more salt to taste.

I'd like to offer one of these cupcakes to my mom and tell her thank you for looking after my health, even when I didn't realize or appreciate it. I'm realizing I don't need to fall for the latest food fad or trendy superfood - my mom always knew best all along.

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Goji Berry Cupcakes with Chocolate Ganache and Himalayan Pink Salt

adapted from Cupcake Bakeshop
makes 30 regular cupcakes

200 grams bittersweet chocolate
3 sticks butter
2 1/4 cups sugar
8 eggs
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt
3/4 cup goji berries, chopped

5 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 stick butter, room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt
1/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

For the cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare cupcake pans with cupcake liners.

Chop chocolate and transfer into the bowl of a standing mixer. Add butter to the chocolate and place the bowl over a pan of simmering water. Stir until chocolate melts and butter is combined.

Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Let mixture cool for 10 minutes.

Beat in an electric mixer for 3 minutes.

Add one egg at a time, mixing for 30 seconds between each one.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt into the mixture, return to the electric mixer, and mix until blended.

Stir in the goji berries. Scoop into cupcake cups and bake for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

For the ganache: Chop chocolates and transfer into a heat proof bowl.

Heat cream until bubbles form around the edge of the pan, pour cream over the chocolate. Let sit for 1 minute then stir until combined.

Add butter to the chocolate (make sure its soft and at room temp) and stir until everything is melted and combined. If the mixture won't melt completely, place over a saucepan of simmering water and stir until it is melted.

Whisk together sugar, salt, milk, and vanilla in another bowl until combined. Pour the sugar mixture onto the chocolate mixture and stir until combined and smooth.

Let sit at room temperature until thickened, stirring occasionally.

Beat with an electric mixer until fluffy.

To assemble the cupcakes, pipe the ganache onto the top of the cupcakes, then sprinkle (sparingly) with the pink salt.

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Your cupcakes are beautiful!

I was amazed at how popular the goji berry was here, in Japan it isn't and only found at Chinese restaurants and in Chinatown. I think that this version of Vosges' goji bar is wonderful! I've bought this and can't wait to give it a taste!

Lovely cupcakes! Thanks for the goji buying tip!

Wow those look great! And healthy too! I have to look for some of these berries. Maybe at the Super 88 near my house... Here's hoping!

I love the use of the pink salt...very creative.

Aren't mom's the best! I didn't know what goji berries were before this post. I just love what you did with them!

i've also always left the berries at the bottom of the soup! haha. i suppose the "dong quai" you were talking about is dang gui? it gives the soup a slight bitterness but also a sweet aftertaste. unlike you, i've always liked dang gui! especially hard boiled eggs in dang gui soup!

wolfberries are good for eyesight while dang gui is tonic for the blood(which explains why the soup your mum prepared was meant to balance the female sysmtem after that time of the month)! ^^

Being in the natural extracts/medecines business my husband along with a lot of other things,deals in goji berry and i had many samples lying around the house.Never did anything but pop those berries directly in my mouth.Like u said here they available in chinese markets...i live in HK so i see them all over the local market and yes find them in my soups and tea too.Its amazing the variety of strange looking things they use ,but apparently they are all good for you.I've seen these small shops all over the place and they sell small bolws of soup for all kinds of ailments.Never had the courage to go up and have one of those but came close to trying something like a turtle jelly like soup with birds nest and lot of 5 spice...good for a cold.That stuff really brought a lot of heat.
Your cupcakes look wonderful and have beenwanting to try them everysince i saw it in Chockylit.

Oooh, what an awesome way to use these berries! And I hope you didn't tell your ma that she was right, else you might never hear the end of it ;)

So pretty! I love the Vosges chocolate bar too...I wrote about it in my blog also. :-)

http://www.supperclubchicago.blogspot.com/

I had never heard about these berries before reading your post! It is so nice to get to know new berries, I will have to look for them now! Very cute cupcakes!

I love wolfberries and once in a month, I would boil them along with other chinese herbs which supposedly will give the soothing and cooling effect to expel all the heatiness in our bodies! It's sure fascinating to see them appearing in cupcakes!

Lovely!

I shall try them out and taste it for myself. Thanks for sharing! Great post.

Mmmm...I would only like that picture better if one of those cupcakes was half eaten... by me:-) Yummy!

Laurie,
Thank you! I'm glad they came out so well!

Kat,
That's interesting to know they aren't so common in Japan - I think they're also used in Korea and of course Tibet. I hope you like the Goji Bar, it's one of my favorites!

Rachel,
Thanks! Good luck if you go out looking for goji berries - and let me know what you make!

Anali,
You should be able to find them at Chinese markets/groceries, although they probably won't understand if you ask for "goji berries":)

Peabody,
Thank you - I had to remember it was salt not sugar crystals and not get carried away:)

Ivonne,
Thank you! It's amazing how many new food items are still out there waiting to be discovered (or re-discovered:) ), isn't it?

Evinrude,
I love that someone else left them at the bottom of the bowl! When my mom makes dang gui now, I am sure to drink it!

Kate,
There are many strange things in those Chinese apothecaries - even I am afraid to try some of them! Chockylit has some wonderful recipes - I'm glad this one turned out so well!

Ellie,
My mom is definitely relishing this time of her life when all her daughters are telling her that she was right all along:)

Angie,
I love the photo of the Goji Bar in your blog - will have to return! I'm glad there are other fans of the bar!

Bea,
Thank you! Isn't it great to find something new to try at the market - best feeling in the world!

Linda,
The east-west fusion trend is fascinating - I never would have thought of baking with goji berries either!

Kina,
I should start doing the half-bitten-into photo - want to volunteer?:)

Thanks for the interesting information on those berries.Your cupcakes look just delicious. I am sure it is an interesting combination.

He..hee. I am the same way. Now that goji berries are so popular I realized this was in the soup my Dad use to make . It was a 7 herb soup and goji was one of the ingredients. My dad would force me to eat the soup and not let me get up from the table saying that it has very strong restorative properties and is good for me.
Great looking cupcakes and packed with nutrients too!

Your cupcakes look fabulous!
I was in London at the weekend and bought some gojiberries (Nigel Slater mentioned them a few weeks back). I found them hard and tart eaten as are, but I'll try soaking them and baking something with them now! Your post was very interesting and moving too.

how beautiful. your photos are absolutely divine and so is this recipe. can't wait to give it a go. thanks for posting it :)

Thanks for writing about these, it's always nice to see other opinions on recipes!

Wonderful, interesting post Anita.
I've seen these in Chinatown and enver gave them a thought..
I will try Vosge's choco bar for sure!

Christine,
Thank you! It's definitely not a use I would have imagined for the berries - but I'm surprised how well it turned out!

Veron,
It's great to know so many others had the same childhood experience as me!:) I guess our parents did know what they were talking about!

Julie,
Thank you! I don't think goji berries are typically eaten as-is in Chinese cuisine, so I guess that's why it didn't matter if they were hard! Perhaps the expensive Westernized brands will be softer without soaking, but I still feel silly paying so much more for the same product!

Linda,
Thank you! I'm glad you liked the post and hope you like the cupcakes!

Garrett,
Thanks! Seeing the same combination of ingredients in a chocolate bar and cupcake convinced me I had to try it out for myself - and it's pretty good!

Carol,
I think you'll like the Vosges bar - it's got the addictive sweet and salty thing going on!

Thanks for the great recipe. I'm going to go try and bake some right now!

Thank you for the nice post.

yeah, it's highway robbery with goji berries on amazon and health food stores. in chinatown i bought 1lb for $2.75 about 20% of the price elswwhere.
incidentally, i like them a lot as is, but i am just a guy from europe, probably if i were asian i didn't like them.

Thank you so much for reminding us about this post - I'll definitely try these. I have both goji berries and himalayan pink salt in my cupboards!

We'd like to invite you to participate in our July berry recipe contest. All competitors will be placed on our blogroll, and the winner will receive a fun prize! Please email me, sophiekiblogger@gmail.com, if you're interested. Feel free to check out our blog for more details. (Click on my name in the message to visit our blog. :)

hi! your cupcakes look great - i just wanted to ask, however, if you soaked your berries so they were soft and plump before you put them into the recipe? or did you just incorporate them as they came in the package - that is, dry?
Thanks very much!

Hi Kim,
Normally you don't have to soak the berries, but if they seem kind of hard (happens more often with the ones from Chinatown because they might be dried longer) you might want to soak them a little bit to soften them up. The ones I've seen in health food stores seem softer and don't need to be soaked.

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