Traditionally, though, none of those occur in Chinese cuisine. Birthdays might be celebrated there with a bowl of long noodles and an egg, symbolizing long life and rebirth, but nobody would gather around and sing a birthday song or stick a couple of candles in the soup.
Nowadays, though, cakes, cookies, and ice cream have become beloved parts of everyday life throughout China, especially in the more cosmopolitan areas, and strains of "Zhu ni shengri kuaile" can be heard while the birthday boy or girl (called the shou xing, or god of longevity) waits to blow out the candles.
|Caramel gooeyness at the bottom|
Take the moist and delectable Malay Cake as an example. Subtly sweet and almost disarmingly simple, this is a gentle tan cake that is slightly gooey on the bottom where the sugar settles and takes on a caramel flavor, while the upper portion is a light sponge. I've made many a Malay Cake over the years, and this is the recipe that has gradually evolved into my favorite version, the one that my father-in-law used to munch on happily with a cup of his ever-present jasmine tea, and the one that I most often make when I need to bring something over to a Chinese friend's house for afternoon snacks.
|Secret ingredient #1|
A note on serving sizes: If you are setting this out as a dessert, you could easily serve 8 to 12. For a Chinese-style tea treat, make the cake in the square pan and then cut it up into 1-inch squares; this is easiest if you cut the cake into 2-inch squares and then cut each square into quarters. A tea treat is never too large, and is best if it can be consumed graciously in one or two modest bites. Any leftovers will freeze perfectly in a freezer bag and will only need to be defrosted.
The only unusual ingredient here (if you're not British, that is) is Bird's custard powder, probably because so many of these great dessert recipes were either created or fussed around with in Hong Kong. Many Cantonese and/or Hong Kongnese desserts call for this ingredient, and it lends a nice, gentle flavor. If you can't find it, just add an extra egg yolk to the other eggs, and the cake will still taste delicious. And the addition of soy sauce might raise some eyebrows, but it's there mainly to lend a nice golden color to the cake and to supply an almost undetectable savory undertone that cuts the sweetness.
Mala gao 馬拉糕
|Perfect for teatime or dessert|
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon white whole-wheat flour (or regular white flour)
1⅔ cups Sucanat or firmly packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons powdered milk
¼ cup filtered water
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2½ tablespoons Bird's custard powder (see note above)
4 large eggs, beaten until frothy
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup neutral tasting oil (canola or vegetable)1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
|The batter bubbles as it rests|
3. Before you proceed to the final steps, prepare your steamer. Fill it up with an inch or two of water and set it up so that the cake doesn't sit in the water, but rather is surrounded by steam. Bring the steamer to a full boil while you finish up the batter.
4. Sprinkle the baking powder and baking soda over the batter and whisk the batter until the powders are fully incorporated. Then, stir in the oil and soy sauce until the batter is smooth once again.
|A very good excuse for afternoon tea|
6. Remove the cake from the steamer, let it cool on a cake rack, and then loosen the edges with a paring knife. Turn the cake out on the cake rack and gently peel off the paper. When the cake is completely cool. cut it with a serrated bread knife, wiping it off as needed. Cover the cake with plastic wrap until serving time to keep it moist.