Unlike traditional Western cakes where the flour is made from wheat, rye, corn or oats, Chinese New Year cake is made of rice flour and is light and filled with air pockets.It’s chewy and lightly sweetened with yams and Chinese brown sugar.In the old days these cakes were made in bamboo steamers two feet across and a foot high.
Due to the strenuous nature of working with large quantities of batter, making these cakes was one of the rare times men in the family took on the cooking. To cook the cakes thoroughly, a full day of steaming was required.
Today there’s a much simpler version that anyone can make using regular tools found in everyday kitchens. This cake can be made one to three days in advance and should be refrigerated after the first or second day.
When the cake is done, just cut ¼ inch slices and eat. The leftovers are just as good. While growing up, I remember how my mom would cut these round cakes into thin slices, dip them in an egg batter and then pan fry until browned. The result was a delicious, warm, gooey center with a crisp outside that just melted in your mouth. It’s unlike anything I’ve had in American cuisine, and that’s what makes these cakes so unique.
If you’re adventurous and curious enough to make these cakes, then try out this recipe. If your regular grocery store does not carry some of these ingredients, go to an Asian grocery store or order the specialty items online. Happy Chinese New Year!
Chinese New Year Cake
1 pound Chinese brown sugar bars
1 ¾ cups water
1 ½ teaspoons vegetable or peanut oil
4 ¼ cups glutinous rice flour
1 1/3cups mashed cooked or canned yams
1 jujube, for garnish (optional)
¼ teaspoon sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)
In a small saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 6 or 7 minutes until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside to cool until it is barely warm. When cooled, mix in the oil and reserve ¼ cup of the syrup.
In a large bowl, combine the flour and yams. Add the remaining syrup and mix in with your hands, lifting the batter between your fingers and squeezing it back into the bowl. Work the batter at least 10 minutes; the longer it is worked, the better and chewier the cake will be.
Generously oil a 9-inch round cake pan or a 1 ½ to 2 quart heatproof bowl (a bowl with straight sides such as a soufflé dish works best). Pour the batter into the pan, wet your hands, and pat the top smooth. Rap the pan sharply against the countertop to force air bubbles to rise to the top. Break the bubbles with your fingertips and smooth over. Spread the reserved syrup on top.
Set a rack in a pot and add water to a depth of 2 inches (if you are using a steamer, add water to the lower tier until almost full). Bring to a boil. Lower the pan onto the rack (or put on the upper tier of a steamer). Steam the cake over high heat for 4 hours, replenishing the pot with boiling water every 20 to 30 minutes as the water in the pot evaporates. You may want to add the water through a large metal funnel because the water must not splash onto the cake.
Optional: About 5 minutes before the cake is done, put a jujube (or date, as my mom would use) in the middle of the top of the cake (for luck) and/or sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Remove the cake from the pot or steamer, let the cake cool to room temperature, cover it with foil, and let it rest overnight (refrigerate it if you are making it more than 1 day ahead. Reheat it by steaming 10 minutes, and then let it cool again to room temperature unless you like a very soft, sticky cake. You can also pan fry slices dipped in batter). Turn the cake out onto a serving plate and cut it into ¼ inch slices.
Note: The recipe may be doubled. You may have to add a little extra rice flour to the batter because you do not double the amount of syrup reserved for the top of the cake. Steam the cake in an oiled 4 ½ quart heatproof bowl for 6 to 7 hours. The cake freezes well. Let it thaw, then steam 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the cake section. You may also cut thawed cake into 1 inch slices and microwave it, covered, on medium heat for 1 minute.
Recipe Source: Book, “Every Grain of Rice”
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