Thursday, March 7, 2013

Delectable Chinese cupcakes that are not at all twee

Steamed cakes are popular treats throughout southern China, and variations abound. Dim sum carts will often include things like Malay Cake, with its moist crumb, or the winy Lunjiao cake that has long, tube-like holes perforating the stellar white batter.

Fāgāo come in different shapes, sizes, and flavors throughout the lands south of the Yangtze, but in Taiwan, though, this name refers to the little cupcakes that burst open with enthusiastic petals as they are steamed.

Lightly sweet and completely fat-free, these are delicate teatime snacks for adults, although I’ve never seen a kid turn one down. In fact, the taste and color of these little unfrosted cupcakes can be played with to suit the preferences of whomever you are serving.

Floral beauties
For example, this the first two photos here use black (aka dark brown) sugar, but white sugar will yield a plain palette that can then be adorned with hues from every stop on the rainbow. If you grind up green tea into a fine powder and add a bit of green food coloring, you will be rewarded with delicate cakes the color of ferns, and their gentle tea aroma will echo that of a hot cup of Longjing. Or, you can sprinkle in cocoa powder and top each cup of batter with some walnuts to please the child in everyone. Fruit juices can be substituted for the water, and the sugar then adjusted to compensate for the sweetness in the juice. The list is endless.

One thing to note is that your steamer should be tall enough to allow the cupcakes to rise without smacking into the cover. Fill the cups no more than ¾ full and make sure that there is at least 1 inch clearance above the cups.

Green tea, fruit juice & black sugar

Steamed cupcakes 
Fāgāo 發糕  
Southern Fujian, Taiwan

Makes 5 to 8 small cakes, depending upon the cups you use

Spray oil
½ cup white sugar
1¼ cups filtered water
6 tablespoons Indica rice flour (not glutinous or sticky rice flour)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¾ cup cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
Optional flavorings, such as maple extract, powdered tea, cocoa powder, etc.
Optional garnishes, such as sliced nuts, raisins, goji berries, cubed fruit, etc.

1. Set eight 6-ounce (or five to six 8-ounce) bowls in a steamer; straight-sided (or nearly straight-sided) bowls work best, as they help the cakes rise evenly. Spray the inside of the bowls lightly with the oil.

Batter sprinkled with goji berries
2. Place the sugar, water, rice flour, cornstarch, cake flour, and baking powder in a large measuring cup with a spout (or use a blender). Add the cooled sugar water and mix only until blended and smooth. Divide the batter evenly among the bowls.

3. Set the covered steamer basket with the bowls  over boiling water and steam them without peeking (around 20 minutes for the smaller cups and 30 minutes for the larger; if in doubt, err on the side of steaming them longer, as this won’t hurt them).

4. When you take a look at the end of this time, the cupcakes should have risen and they all should have formed petals on top. Use a bamboo skewer or a toothpick to check one; it should come out fairly clean. Remove the cupcakes from the steamer and serve warm. They can also be removed from their bowls once they are cool and then refrigerated. Steam them once more inside some clean bowls to refresh them before serving.


Light, fluffy & delish
Indica rice flour is simply ground plain rice, such as sushi rice. It lends little stickiness in the cooked product. You can find this in Chinese grocery stores with the name "Indica rice flour," "Chai Lai Flour," or "Zailai Rice Flour," but the best thing to do is match up the Chinese characters for  在來米粉 zàilái mĭfěn.

For the green tea cupcakes, grind 3 tablespoons dried green tea leaves in a blender with the dry ingredients before adding the water. Two drops of green food coloring will give the right hue, and I sprinkled the tops with Toasted Sesame Seeds.

For fruit-flavored cakes, use sweetened or unsweetened juice of any flavor instead of the water and decrease the sugar accordingly. (Taste the batter and add more sugar if necessary.) Fold in some small cubes of fruit, if you like. In the photo just above here, Sour Plum Infusion was used instead of water, the sugar was decreased, and goji berries were sprinkled on top.

Indica rice & cake flours
This recipe makes light, fluffy cakes, as shown in the green and tan cupcakes. If you prefer a denser, stickier texture and the shiny tops as shown in the brown cupcakes, use 10 tablespoons Indica rice flour, ½ cup cake flour, and 1 teaspoon baking powder; all of the other ingredients remain unchanged.

The kind of cake flour you use will  have a marked effect on the final cakes: superfine white flour like Softasilk gives you an exceptionally fluffy cake with a very high rise. Unbleached cake flour will be slightly heavier, but the taste will be nuttier. The green tea cupcakes here were made with unbleached cake flour and so are a bit flatter, but still very tasty.


  1. Is it possible to make this type of steamed cake with only rice flour, no wheat? I'm looking for a wheat-free, gluten-free recipe for a steamed rice cake. (I have celiac disease.) Thank you!

    1. As you probably know, it's hard to get non-wheat flours to rise properly, although you might try substituting a combination of things that includes gluten-free flour, as is done in this cupcake recipe:

      However, I do have a great Hawaiian-style mochi cake that would be right up your alley: It's more dense than these Taiwanese cupcakes, but it's just as delicious. Enjoy!

  2. Thank you, Carolyn. Most Western-style desserts are too sweet for my taste, but that cupcake recipe looks just right for my gluten-free, vegan niece's birthday. I'll try the mocha cake for myself.