Monday, April 11, 2011

China's answer to gingerbread

Dessert has a different meaning in China than it does in the West.  While Chinese meals are usually capped with a bowl of fresh fruit, here we often like a nice bit of sweetness to round out a feast and place a final satisfied smile on everyone's face.  Dessert in the U.S. can be anything from a birthday cake to a stack of chocolate chip cookies to a bowl of ice cream.  

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
But as I've noted here before, sweets have always been a welcome part of China's many cuisines, and some of the most delightful hail from Guangdong province.  Although ovens still tend to be unusual kitchen equipment except for the more Westernized cooks, that hasn't stopped people there from making some seriously wonderful cakes.  These are almost always served as part of afternoon tea, rather than after a dinner, but don't let that stop you from eating them as a postprandial treat or even for breakfast. 

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
And if that first bite seems to ring some memory bells, that is because Malay Cake has all the texture and mouth feel of a great gingerbread cake with none of the spices. But that shouldn't stop you from adding whatever spices you want.  Although hardly traditional, this cake could easily be given Westernized fillips such as handfuls of raisins or chopped nuts or a spoonful of ground ginger.  You could even frost it if you liked.  But as for me, I like it just the way it is. 

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.

Malay cake  
Mala gao  馬拉糕  
Perfect for teatime or dessert
Makes one 8-inch square cake or one 9-inch round cake

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
1. Start this cake at least 3 hours before you want to serve it.  First, prepare the pan by oiling it and lining the bottom of the pan with parchment or wax paper.  Lightly oil the paper, too.

The batter bubbles as it rests
2. Sift the flour, sugar, powdered milk, water, salt, and custard powder (if using) together using a sieve or sifter to break up any lumps, and place the dry ingredients into a medium work bowl.  Mix in the beaten eggs using a whisk until the batter is smooth.  Set the batter aside in a cool place for at least one hour (and up to 12) so that the flour can absorb the liquid; cover the bowl with plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator if you are going to let it rest for more than 2 hours.  The batter will probably become covered with bubbles as soon as you stop stirring, and this is fine.

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
5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and use a rubber spatula to scrape off all of the batter into the pan.  Steam the cake in a covered steamer over medium-high heat for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  (The cake will rise up about 3/4 of an inch above the pan and then deflate slightly as it cools.)  

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.


  1. I was going to make this today, but then I realised that you don't say when the (liquid) milk goes in! Is it added with the eggs?

  2. Oops, thanks for catching that! I checked my cooking notes and didn't use any liquid milk in the cake. I have no idea why it was added to the recipe, but I've erased the addition of 1/4 cup of milk. My apologies, and thanks again!

  3. Ah, thanks! Though I now discover that I have far less brown sugar than I thought, so will have to put this off again...

    Do you think it would work without the powdered milk?

    (Incidentally, here is my account of my previous attempts to make 馬拉糕.)

  4. No powdered milk should be absolutely fine. You could, of course, use milk instead of the powdered milk plus water, or just plain filtered water.

    Milk will make your cake more moist and tender, but there's not a heck of a lot of it in this recipe, so I don't think it will make a huge difference. But let me know how it turns out anyway!

  5. Finally had all the ingredients, and tried it today. It was a lot better than my last attempt! I still haven't quite achieved what I'm after, though — I really want to figure out how to make it nice and light as in the photo at my link above. Mine wasn't even as light as the one in your photo — it rose beautifully in the steamer but deflated much more than "slightly" when it cooled down. Perhaps I didn't steam it long enough?

  6. It *could* be that you didn't steam it long enough; you did a skewer test though, right? How old is your baking powder? That could make a difference, and (although you probably didn't do this) overbeating the dough also can toughen the cake since the gluten gets all excited. Again, the texture of the cake I make really is like that of gingerbread cake, not chiffon.

    The only Chinese cake I've seen that has yeast bubbles like the one in your link is "lunjiao gao" (I think that's "lun gau go" in Cantonese), which is white and is a popular member of the dim sum circuit.

    Like I mentioned in an earlier column, that native of Shunde on the Pearl River has a winy fragrance, and this is due to the yeast (rather than baking powder). The yeast is also what gives it a supreme lightness and the elongated holes like that photo of yours.

  7. Yep, did the skewer test (I ended up steaming it for over an hour before it came out clean). The baking powder is only a few months old. I was careful not to overbeat the dough; I know how powerful gluten can be :)

    I'll look for lunjiao gao recipes — that might be the way to go, thanks! (What is it in Chinese characters?)

  8. The only thing that has me concerned is that you had to steam it that long, as I've had cakes deflate if they are over-steamed.

    Lunjiao gao is 倫教糕. It's named after a town in the Shunde area of the Pearl River, and is where this cake was first made, supposedly by mistake!