Monday, February 13, 2017

Super simple year cakes for any season

Two bits of great news:

All Under Heaven made the Art of Eating's longlist of its twelve favorite books for 2017. Look at those titles - isn't that the best of company? I'm so delighted to be sharing the same shelf as some of my friends and heroes. 

From the Art of Eating announcement: "Although these books were chosen not for their subjects but as the strongest food books of the year, the judges wish to voice their support for peoples, places, cultures, and ideas now under attack. These books, as one said, 'celebrate the Other. But of course there is no Other, only so many beautiful varieties of human being and human experience.'" Words like that make those ten years spent on the book really worth it!

I also was incredibly honored to speak at Google recently. So much fun and so many intelligent people. We made fried rice and pickles together at noon, and then later on in the afternoon I gave a talk about the cuisines of China before a super quick demo on congee. 

At Google
Since it was Lunar New Year Eve, we celebrated with homemade dim sum by a couple of the chefs at Google. Here's a video of the talk. Can't wait to go back!

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One of the true delights of the Lunar New Year is the chance to make traditional sweets. But I’m here to suggest that we not confine these to simply one time a year because they are just too good to disappear for months at a time and have waited until the two-week celebration is over just to make this point.
I’ve written about the Suzhou way with sweet year cakes (check them out here and here), and I suggest you master these even though they are a bit of work. 

But the thing is, over the decades I’ve learned another way to make sweet year cakes that are actually insanely simple, and that’s what we are going to look at today. You don’t need much in the way of equipment, time, effort, or ingredients – or even much of a recipe, for that matter – to end up with many delicious variations on a theme.

The results are very similar in appearance to the sweet year cakes that crowd any Chinese market in the month or two leading up to the Lunar New Year. But that’s just on the outside. Those commercial renderings are basically just super sweet, with very little flavor and boring texture – sort of like supermarket Christmas cookies.

But if you spend just a couple of minutes whipping these up, you will have sticky cakes that are full of rich aromas, deep flavors, and lovely textures. All you need is a mixing bowl, a silicone spatula, a lined cake pan, and a simple steamer.

As a bit of an aside, I’d like to try something more loosey-goosey today. I’ve come to feel that too much emphasis is placed on exact directions in recipes, when the fact is that almost every dish is actually about approximations. 

For example, I was making a recipe out of another book, for example, that called for a teaspoon of oregano and another one of thyme, and I wondered, why? What about other herbs? Another one wanted a tablespoon of miso in the sauce and another one demanded there be ¼ cup of peanut butter, and I started to think, what if I don’t have those in my pantry in the moment? Should the recipe just be scrapped? 

And, of course, the answer is no. Just find something approximate to take their place or adjust the recipe to fit your own taste. 

It’s not rocket science: it’s dinner.
There is no single recipe for any dish, ever, and so what I’m hoping for at this point is that we start to relax in the kitchen and allow ourselves to let the ingredients talk to you. So, let’s try something different today.

This recipe is at its most basic just about ratios. You want a one-pound box of sticky rice flour, 1¾ cups of liquid, sugar to taste, and whatever flavors and additions you’re looking to eat. And so, the first recipe is for a coconut year cake that calls for that box of rice flour, a can of coconut milk, some sugar, and a sprinkle of wolfberries to add a dash of color and contrast. It’s nothing more than the right amount of moisture needed to turn the powder into a paste that will steam up into a solid mass, with seasonings to taste.

If you know that, you can run with the concept and create your own riffs on this classic. Have fun and play. That’s one of the real joys of cooking at home.

Coconut sweet year cake
Yēzhī nián’gāo 椰汁年糕
All over China
Makes about 4.5 pounds (2 kg) and serves 8 to 12

Spray oil
1 pound (450 g) sticky rice flour (Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour recommended)
1 (13.5 ounce/400 ml) can coconut milk (Chaokoh brand is good)
¼ cup white sugar, or more to taste
1 cup dried wolfberries (also called goji or gouqi berries), rinsed

1. Line a 9-inch (23-cm) round cake pan with foil and spray the inside with oil. Set up a simple steamer (a trivet in a wide covered pan, or use your basket steamer) and fill the bottom with water.

2. Empty the box of rice flour into a medium work bowl. Stir in the coconut milk and sugar. Taste and add more sugar if you would like it sweeter. The consistency should be sort of like sour cream.

3. Scrape half of the mixture into the pan and sprinkle the wolfberries on top. Then, scrape the rest of the mixture over the wolfberries and smooth the top. Steam on high for about 20 minutes. Let the pan sit in the steamer for another 10 minutes to settle, and then remove. Cool to room temperature.

4. Cut the cake into ¼ inch (5 mm) slices. These can be pan-fried, dipped in batter and deep-fried, or simply served slightly warmed in the microwave. Refrigerate any leftovers.

Red bean sweet year cake with walnuts
Hétáo hóngdòu nián’gāo  核桃紅豆年糕
All over China
Makes about 4.5 pounds (2 kg) and serves 8 to 12

Spray oil
1 pound (450 g) sticky rice flour
1 can (15 ounces / 430 g) sweetened red bean paste (Ogura-an recommended)
Water, as needed
¼ cup or more sugar, or to taste
1 to 2 cups (125 to 250 g) whole or chopped walnuts

1. Prepare the pan and steamer as in the preceding recipe.

2. Mix the rice flour and red bean paste together in a work bowl, and add enough water to make it the consistency of sour cream. Add sugar to taste. Stir in the walnuts.

3. Cook and serve as directed above.


  1. In Singapore and Malaysia, they often make niangao in banana leaves. It is then left for a week or two to mature and absorb the flavor before serving.

    Another way of serving it is steamed and tossed in fresh grated coconut.

    1. That sounds amazingly delicious! Are they left to mature in the refrigerator, or outside? If outside, don't they get hard or mold? More details, please!

  2. What is the difference in taste and texture between the Suzhou way and this simpler method? I have always made Nian Gao in this simpler method (I make a sweet red bean soup first, very thick, and use that liquid instead of water in the nian gou mixture). Does the Suzhou way taste better, or just different?

    1. They both are good, but the Suzhou way gives you a much creamier result. Yes, it's a bit fussier to make, but if you are not adverse to spending some time on it, the Suzhou style really is delicious!