Sunday, January 8, 2017

How to console a confused soul: Gluten-free kumquat almond cake

When I was little, my mother used to call me “hay fire”. When you light up a hay straw, it burns so brightly but only for a few seconds, until the whole hay straw turned into powder. Apparently, I was like that – I would randomly pick up a hobby or a toy, and be completely obsessed with whatever I chose for a brief moment. On time, I asked my parents incessantly for a watercolor set – one of those with 48 different colors that every artsy-fartsy child in Yangon wanted. I played it for two days, shoved it at a room corner until the set collected dust beyond recognition. From what I can tell as a kid, that habit was less than desirable. My grades would fluctuate from very good to bad in a matter of weeks up until middle school. My teachers were confused. I was confused as well.

But, when I reached high school, I somehow gained laser focused attention. I was consistently on top of my class. I did not know how I became so interested in studies, but I knew why I continued to keep that focus. During that time, I came to realize that I love my family members, and the possibility of disappointing those I love has become a powerful force in my life. My teachers and my parents think I was getting “mature”. I was not sure what the word “mature” actually meant, but if it meant anything along the line of “predictable”, yes…I was very mature.

Fast forward eight years, I am in in a dual MD/PhD program in the United States. This 8-year-program requires you to do the first two years of medical school, then finish your PhD in research, and go back to the medical school. In the summer of 2016, I finished my first two years of medical school, and transitioned into the PhD component. It was a rough summer mostly because I never expected I would be so miserable in the lab during transition into my PhD. I would have been very content three years ago to be able to work in a lab like this. The fact that I did not feel that way anymore frustrated me the most. The feeling of being betrayed by yourself was uniquely tiresome to bear.

Throughout summer, I tried to figure out why the thought of holding a research career made me miserable. Whenever I talked to my friends about my doubt on research career, I couldn’t answer a million-dollar question “why?”. Was it the ever-so decreasing compensation for researchers? Was it because the job market is competitive? Was it because the training time was too long? I was left empty-handed. I had no clue. I felt almost a sense of shame and childishness for even bringing up the topic in conversations. Some time, our desires defy our logic, leaving us completely vulnerable and lost. I felt like a kid who wanted to throw that water color set away, except this time, I felt solace in holding on to that set than letting it go. The thought of disappointing my program director, friends, family convinced me that the nagging feeling that research-career-is-not-right-for-me is just a phase . Like all other feelings, this feeling should pass. I decided to continue my PhD.

The thing about passion is that it quiets down, once you stop listening to it. Once I made the final decision to continue my PhD, I no longer felt nervous about my career as a future researcher. In fact, I did not feel anything anymore – I just went to work, did my lab jobs, wrote reports and waited for weekends. I was not overly joyful, but I was not sad either. Then, things took a sharp left turn after I met my school advisor (Let’s call her Dr. A). After I told her how I was feeling, she looked at me straight into my eyes. I was preparing myself to answer the dreaded “why?” question that my family and friends asked me before. But, instead she says, “what can I do to make you fired up again?”. I was caught off-guard, and the feelings came back rushing in like water from a broken dam. I told her about how thought about leaving the PhD part and only pursuing MD. Then the second time, I was waiting for another question of “why?”. But, instead, she smiled and she reassured my journey. I just did not know how to respond for good ten minutes.

I thought all this time what I needed was a solid reason to finalize my decision of quitting my PhD program, but the reality is I have known the reason all along –it is as simple as I just do not enjoy research anymore. Dr. A made me realize that just as I don’t need any reasons for why I don’t like tomatoes in my salad, I don’t need a convoluted, life-changing motivation on quitting PhD. The fact that I no longer enjoy research is strong enough of a reason to abandon something what my ghost used to enjoy. So, I quit my PhD. Life, indeed gets better when I realize that I don’t have to hold on to things that no longer belong in my future.

Last October, my sister visited me in the United States. She told me she is planning to study business administration in the United States, but she is looking for a great reason to change her study and become a nutritionist. I can see the same vulnerable expression on her face as I had months ago. I noticed two things when she told me this. First, I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel perfectly belonged to where I am right now. Second, the thing is she doesn’t need to search for "that great reason" either. She can study nutrition. She will make me proud, and most importantly, she will me herself proud. She can throw away that water color set, and the reality is everything will still be…. ok if not better.

Notes on the recipe

I am a proud addict of floral oranginess of kumquats that typical oranges alone can never provide. This kumquat almond cake, inspired by Nigella Lawson’s Clementine cake in her first book “How to eat”, is something I make every year in winter whenever I see these golden oval eggs in abundance during mid winter. It is extremely easy-to-make, naturally gluten-free, and perfumes my house with the most aromatic citrusy undertone. I love to drizzle bitter dark chocolate sauce on top of the cake, sprinkle with crushed jade-green pistachio pieces and wolf down right away.  There is something so addicting about bitter cacao flavor and assertive herbal citrus tone from kumquats. Once you make this once, you will keep on finding reasons to make it again. Then again, pleasure alone is reason sufficient enough to make this over and over again.

Gluten-free kumquat cake

Soe Thein
Published 01/08/2017
Gluten-free kumquat cake


1 lbs. of kumquats
6 eggs
1 cup plus 2 tbsps sugar
2 ½ cups almond flour (Bob's Red Mill Almond Flour 3 lbs)
1 heaping teaspoon of baking powder


Half the kumquats from midsection, and take out the greenish bitter seeds with a pairing knife.

Place those seeded kumquats in a pot, and put enough water so that the water level is about 1 inch above the fruits. Bring the pot to a boil, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Be sure to check in and stir every 10 minutes, and splash some water if the pot is drying up.

After cooking, the fruits looks almost like a jam, laced with thick syrup. At the end of poaching, if you end up with very liquid-y mixture, drain briefly with a strainer, but don’t press down all the juice. You want the aromatic juice.

Place the rest of the ingredients, almond flour, sugar, baking powder and eggs,  along with the cooked fruits, in a food processor and process until everything is combined.

You can bake the mixture in four 4-inch springform pans or one 9-inch springform pan. Bake at 375°F for 40 min to an hour. Be sure to test at 40 min first by inserting a wooden toothpick in the middle of the cake, and pulling it out. If the toothpick comes out clean, the cake is done. If the cake is not done yet by 40 minutes, cover the top with aluminum foil to prevent the top from getting very dark and continue baking until it is done.

Yield: 6 servings
Prep Time: 0 hrs. 05 mins.
Cook time: 1 hrs. 20 mins.
Total time: 1 hrs. 25 mins.
Tags: glutenfree, cake, citrus, kumquat, orange, lemon

Chocolate frosting

1/8 cup of cold water

2.5 tbsps of butter
1/8 cup of dark brown sugar
1 tsp. of instant coffee powder
0.75 tbsp. of unsweetened cocoa powder
3 ounce of dark chocolate (min 70%), finely chopped


Place everything in a sauce pan, turn the heat to medium and stir until everything dissolves.

As the sauce cools down, it will thicken into this drippy unctuous  onyx liquid.

Spoon the frosting slowly over the cake. Top with ground pistachio.



  1. Congratulations on making a decision that is good for your soul! Those are sometimes the hardest ones to make, but the most important.

  2. I like. I have a kumquat tree, and the quats are as big as small tangerines!

    1. Right?? They can be quite big. Hope you give this recipe a go :D

  3. I can not even express how much this post spoke to me! I recognize the feeling you speak of all too well, even if I did not realize that I felt it all through law school. I am in my third year of practice. Some day . . . maybe I will have your courage to throw away the watercolor set. But not quite yet . . .

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by. Yes, it is a hard journey for sure. I am sending you all the good vibes.

  4. Good for you for figuring it out! You don't lose anything just because you decide to let go. You gain more! because you'll be doing what you truly love (may not be all honey, but passion will carry you through). I was struggling with the decision off and on whether to continue being a Stay-at-home mom and continue doing this blogging thing or go out there and do what I was professionally trained for (a dietitian). I'm still a horrible blogger but I love doing it LOL! and I'm forever grateful to be able to stay at home with the kids (though they drive me nuts 90% of the time!)Like you said I don't need anymore reasons because I know I'm doing what I love doing! Beautiful post! Love it!

    1. Thank you so much for a thoughtful comment marv...I think you are an excellent blogger, and I am forever your fan. Also, I miss seeing your kids on your IG story.

  5. Love this post. I went through something similar 6 years ago. I thought for sure I wanted to get my PhD in social psychology, and even went so far as to move across the country and manage a lab for 2 years after getting my undergrad. But, just like you wrote about in this post, I had the creeping feeling that it wasn't the right career for me. Flash forward to today, and I'm a happy registered dietitian nutritionist w. my masters degree :) Cheers to listening to your gut! PS if your sister is looking for any tips on becoming a nutritionist, I've written several blog posts about it! She can check them out here:

    1. Wow Erica, thank you for sharing. I am so glad that you found your place. I will definitely send your posts to my sister.

  6. Right perfect entry. I love reading your statements. Creating these articles is at a high level.
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