Nian gao always conjures up one memory. My mom often made one for Chinese New Year (in fact, its literal translation is "year cake") when I was little. One year I couldn't wait to taste it, and I liked the cake in its molten, not quite set form. I stuck my finger in the cake while it was still cooling and had a taste. Not much later Mom yelled, in Mandarin, "Who stuck their finger in the nian gao?!" See, I was years away from any culinary know-how or common sense, so I didn't know I had left a finger imprint behind as evidence. At least it gave Mom a good laugh.
New York in the 1980s. I'm one of the runts sitting on the wall. I'm not sure which one.
A couple of years ago, I asked Mom for the recipe. Like so many of Mom's recipes, there was no written form or measurements or timing. Which means that if she hasn't made the recipe in a long time, it might not come out right because she doesn't quite remember how it was made. So after telling me "a little of this, and a little of that" over the phone, I tried making her nian gao and ended up with some awful tough thing. This year I turned to Epicurious.