The expat population in China tends to be very transient – many people come to say that they’ve lived here, and after a year or two, they return to their homes. China never becomes home to them. They’ve gotten the stamp on their passport, the work visas, and now they can prove to themselves and their friends and family that they overcame a cultural and language barrier to live in China.

This phenomenon might exist in other expat communities, but here I find it especially pronounced. Being able to live here becomes a source of price. And you know what? In a lot of ways I’m proud that I’ve been able to learn Chinese, find and hold good jobs, and make this place a home. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with living here to prove to yourself that you can.

But the problem with this ever-transient population of expats is that it makes finding friends incredibly tough. People are always cycling through, and so you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again. “How long have you been here? What brought you here? How do you like it?”

We have been really lucky though to meet a few people here who we love spending time with, but that I know we will keep up with for a long time to come, even if we leave China.

One of our dear friends left recently, and while we’ll miss him, we know he won’t be able to stay away long. He has gone back to help his family run their business for a while. So in expat tradition, we had a going-away dinner, and he requested chocolate cupcakes with vanilla icing for dessert.

And the silver lining? He emptied out his pantry by giving it to me. Hibiscus flowers, powdered buttermilk, tinned tomatoes and Shaanxi vinegar. It’s Christmas come early here. Not to mention everyone got some really good cupcakes out of the deal!

Ice Cream Sundae Cupcakes

inspiration from Joy the Baker
makes 12 cupcakes, with ganache to spare

Chocolate Cupcakes
Adapted slightly from Molly Wizenberg’s book, A Homemade Life
Makes 12 cupcakes


1 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup coffee flavored liquor
1/4 cup milk
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup whole milk yogurt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract


1.  Preheat the oven to 300F, and line a muffin tin with paper liners.

2. Simmer the milk and pour into a heatproof bowl. Add the semisweet chocolate to the milk and let stand, stirring occasionally. When the chocolate is melted, add the coffee liquor and stir until smooth and glossy.

3. In another bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

4. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg on medium speed until it is pale yellow, about 1 minute. Add the oil, yogurt, and vanilla, beating well. Gradually pour in the melted chocolate mixture and beat thoroughly to combine.

5. Add the dry ingredience all at once and beat on low speed until the batter is just combined. Scrape down the sides and beat briefly again to make sure batter is homogeneous.

6. Spoon the batter into the wells of the muffin tin, making sure that it is evenly distributed. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of one of the cupcakes come out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cook for 20 minutes before removing the cupcakes to the wire rack by themselves. Be careful when you lift them out – they’re very tender. Continue to let cool until they’re room temperature.

Cooked Vanilla Icing
from The Pioneer Woman

Note: If you always find that icings are too sweet, this is the icing for you. This icing has the consistency of whipped cream, and only uses a cup of sugar, as opposed to the 6 cups that many butter creams call for.


5 tablespoons of flour
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon of vanilla
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup butter


1. Begin by whisking the flour into milk until well combined, then place the saucepan over medium heat. Whisk it as it heats up and thickens, and remove from heat when the mixture is very thick. Cool the mixture completely before proceeding – I put it in the fridge while I did a few dishes. As it cools, it will continue to thicken up.

2. Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla to the cooled flour/milk mixture and stir to combine.

3. Add the sugar and butter in the bowl of a mixer and beat on high until it’s light and fluffy. You’ll need to stop to scrape the sides every once in a while. At this point the sugar will start to dissolve into the butter, but it will still be a bit grainy. Don’t worry. It will get there and it won’t be in the least bit grainy.

4. Add the cooled flour and milk mixture to the butter and whip it on medium-high until the mixture resembles whipped cream. Give it a taste. If you can still find a sugar granule, keep whipping. Once the sugar is dissolved into the icing, you’re ready to go!

5. Spread on cooled cupcakes with a spatula or a dinner knife and set aside.

Chocolate Ganache
from Joy the Baker


3/4 cup semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup heavy cream


1. Warm cream to a simmer in a small saucepan or a heatproof bowl. Remove cream from heat and add chopped chocolate to the bowl. Let stand for one minute to soften, then stir until smooth. If ganache is too loose to spread, let it sit at room temperature for 10 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The ganache will continue to thicken as it stands.

2. Using a fork, drizzle the slightly warm ganache over the top of the frosted cupcakes, to taste. After you have decorated a cupcake with frosting, place it in the freezer for a minute to set the ganache. If it weren’t summer, you could just leave it, but hey, it’s hot here.

Refrigerate cupcakes so that the ganache won’t slide right off in the summer heat. They’ll keep for quite a while, or at least until you can eat them all.