Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nian Gao!

nian gao final
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.

1980s Front of house
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.

Nian gao ingredients

A brown sugar sold in slab form is dissolved in boiling water and then mixed with rice flour to make the batter. Too late I realized that this recipe didn't resemble Mom's at all. I started to remember she used white granulated sugar and slowly caramelized it in a pot. Then there was none of that melty, pourable goodness because this recipe had a firm, bread dough-like consistency. It also wasn't a dark caramel brown like Mom's, but almost white. This recipe called for a mere 35 to 40 minutes of steaming, whereas Mom has said that when she was a girl in Malaysia the women would steam it for up to six hours. A little rack like this set in a deep covered pan works well as a steamer.  The cake is then cooled and allowed to set. I halved the recipe and made little cakes in ramekins.  It's common to slice nian gao, dip the pieces into an egg batter, and fry them up.  I prefer to eat the cake plain, probably because that's the way I had it as a kid.

Unsteamed nian gao

My verdict?  It was all right, but not nearly sweet enough, and I say this as a fan of desserts not overly sugary.  It was also firmer than I'd like.  Joe, to my surprise, said it was "delicious" and that the texture was "right on," and he'd like to try a version where the sugar is caramelized.  I'd like to experiment with another recipe as I continue to search for that nian gao from childhood memories.

Happy Year of the Dragon!

To view the recipe, click here.

This post was shared with:
Tea Party Tuesday
Sweets for a Saturday


  1. I love that first photo you have there. They look so perfect - all wrapped up and ready to go! Hope you had a wonderful New Year!

  2. I wonder if she caramelized the sugar because the right kind of brown sugar wasn't readily available back in the day? That's the kind of thing my mom did in England in the 80s.

  3. Happy Chinese New Year to you and your family!:) I love CNY-related posts, and your family photo is just so nostalgic and gives this post such a personal touch!;)
    Nian gao is my mum's favorite, and she always tells us that it is an auspicious food for CNY as it brings so many meanings; such as success and wisdom :D

  4. We call this Tikoy in Tagalog and love it dipped in egg and fried. I like it gooey like you do so I take extra time to cook it til soft.

  5. Welcome back, Goh. Looks like an interesting recipe.

    Do you ever do bao? That's one of my favorites.

  6. Hahaha!!! I can totally imagine your mom figuring out who made a hole in the dessert! I like how you thought you could get away with it. Heehee!

    Happy New Year to you! It sounds like you finally have the written recipe for this year cake. ;-) I love the picture!


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