Don’t you just love it when a cake comes together perfectly? And in just a few simple steps, you too can make this fragrant, moist, soft and fluffy, Chinese steamed sponge cake (ma lai gao – 馬拉糕).
(Update: Check out how to make an even fluffier, moist, tender and tastier ma lai gao here! This is a recipe that’s a real keeper!)
Making this cake was a spur of the moment decision today. I had been feeling a little unwell the past couple of days, and had had way too much bed rest. I figured that I needed to be on my feet, doing something that would keep me busy, and happy, at the same time – hah! What else, if not baking? I was yearning for something soft, moist, and sweet – and after a quick rummage through my pantry – decided that I had all the stuff I needed to make this steamed sponge cake.
Steamed sponge cake (ma lai gao – 馬拉糕) is a family favourite that we often have for breakfast or tea. As children, we enjoyed this treat tremendously whenever we had dim sum at Chinese restaurants – this, as well as egg tarts, and pan-fried pancakes filled with red bean paste. Back in the day, this was a luxury, when cake treats were far and few in between. So tucking into a slice of ma lai gao always brings back many happy memories for me. Just the kind of therapy I needed today!
Steamed sponge cakes are of a pale almond or light honey colour, due to the soft brown sugar content. This is a cake that can be made at a moment’s notice, as it needs just a handful of ingredients, which are everyday items that you are likely to have stocked in your pantry or larder – mainly, eggs, sugar, flour and oil.
Some recipes call for custard powder to be mixed into the batter, and allowing the batter to sit (‘ferment’) a couple of hours, preferably overnight, before steaming, for a softer, finer, fluffier texture, and fuller flavour. This is considered the authentic way to make ma lai gao.
I decided on this recipe because it seemed very simple and quick to make – the kind of recipe that’s right up my alley. I’m so pleased and feeling over the moon, that this recipe yielded a very soft, fluffy, moist, and flavourful ma lai gao, after correcting previous faults from past blunders (I’ll happily count my losses if it helps you succeed!). I don’t think my photography does enough justice to the real thing, wish I could pass on a slice to you right now! I hope you can enjoy this too! This version already tastes so good, that I can’t wait to try my hand at making ma lai gao the authentic way, next (do look out for it in a future post!)
All said, I think I’ve finally got the basics nailed down, after numerous trials and errors. Believe me, I’ve somehow managed to go wrong in so many ways with steamed cakes, and apparently with hardly any effort, but having grown wiser (and a couple more grey hairs in the process!), I’m hoping the tips below will help you succeed.
#1. Steaming Equipment. It’s very important to use the appropriate steaming equipment. Bamboo steamers are recommended, but as I don’t have these, I will focus the discussion here on using a standard cake pan, and steaming in a two-vessel stainless steel steamer (the bottom vessel holds the water, while the top has a perforated base and lid, to allow the steam to rise from the bottom vessel towards the top). Make sure you use a cake pan (square or round is fine) that can sit inside the top vessel, with sufficient room between the sides of the vessel and the cake pan, and with at least 1-2 inches of space between the steamer lid and the cake pan. The steamer lid must be able to fully sit on the pot, without gaps.
#2. Amount of Water and Water Level. Fill the bottom vessel with as much water as possible (depending on the steaming time required), leaving at least a 2-inch gap between the water level and the perforated base of the top vessel. This will minimise the need to top up the water should the water evaporate too quickly. If you need to add more water, be sure to add boiling hot water to ensure a consistent steaming temperature, and to minimise drastic fluctuations in air pressure.
#3. Preparing and Filling the Cake Pan. To prepare your cake pan, grease the base and sides of your cake pan, then line with greaseproof paper on the bottom and all around the sides. Fill the cake pan with batter not exceeding 2/3 of the pan’s height, to allow room for the cake to rise. It helps to tap the cake pan on the counter a few times, to eliminate big air pockets. Steam in batches, if your cake pan cannot accommodate all the batter at once.
#4. Covering the Cake Pan. Once you’ve filled your cake pan with batter, gently lower the cake pan into the top vessel of the steamer, and place a dry tea cloth over the top, ensuring the cloth does not touch the batter. This is important, as the tea cloth will absorb droplets of condensation that form under the surface of the lid, and thus, help prevent water wetting the surface of the cake, making it soggy. Place the top vessel back on top of the bottom vessel, and cover with the steamer lid. The water in the bottom vessel must already be gently boiling, before you place the top vessel (with the cake pan) on it.
#5. Preparing the Cake Batter. Make sure you have your ingredients at room temperature. Beat the eggs and sugar till the mixture turns thick, and almost triples in volume. This may take up to 5 to 6 minutes at medium-high speed in an electric mixer, so don’t be tempted to rush through this step. The goal is to trap as much air as possible. When you introduce the flour-baking powder mixture into the egg-sugar mixture, beat at a lower speed, and stop once the flour has been well-incorporated (i.e. till there are no longer lumps of flour) – the batter should be thick, but smooth. Lastly, to introduce the oil, it is a good idea to scoop out about 1/4 cup of the batter and mix it in with the oil, with a spatula by hand, until well blended, and then pouring it back into the rest of the batter. Finish up folding the oil mixture into the batter by hand, and not in the mixer, until well incorporated.
That’s it! Hope this paves the way for you to make your delicious steamed sponge cake!