For years I've been looking for the right Nian Gao recipe. Do you have a treat from childhood that you want to re-create, but it eludes you? As I described in my failed attempt last year, my mom would sometimes make Nian Gao, the aptly named "new year cake," when I was a kid. She would melt and slowly caramelize sugar, then steam the cake. Once I could not wait for it to set, and stuck my finger in to get a taste. I hadn't learned the concept of not leaving behind evidence, and my mother found a fingerprint in the cake. Oops. The thing about mom is that she never wrote down recipes, and usually didn't measure ingredients or time her cooking. She just had a knack for it. But it's been a number of years since she made Nian Gao and she doesn't remember all the specifics, so her instructions to add "a little of this" and "cook this for a while" just aren't successful for me.
If I couldn't re-create the cake of my childhood, I figured I might as well try something completely different. My friend and colleague Wendy shared this recipe by her husband, Joe, for a Coconut Nian Gao. The part that makes it radically different is that it's baked. That part made me do a double-take, too. In fact, when I told my mom about it, she was doubtful but wanted the recipe to try as well. And when I ticked off the list of ingredients -- butter, eggs, brown sugar -- she said, "This isn't Nian Gao!" And I told her, trust me, it tastes just like it, with improvements. It isn't as dense and hard as the storebought versions. The edges bake up more like a Western-style cake, so it's easier to cut because it's less sticky. And the coconut milk, butter, brown sugar, and eggs add subtle flavor and richness, but not so much that it tastes very different from what you're used to. It's got my endorsement. Happy Year of the Snake!