When you think of making ma lai gao (馬拉糕) or Chinese steamed sponge cake, think of the saying, “Good things come to those who wait.” Because patience and time is exactly what you will need in this traditional method of making this ever-popular Chinese treat. But, I promise, it will be so worth it!
Hot on the heels of a successful attempt a few days ago, using the quick method for making Chinese steamed sponge cake, I was curious and intrigued by what I had read about making ma lai gao, the traditional way. I can’t say if this is an authentic recipe or method (have seen recipes that make a yeasted dough version), but the ma lai gao I made this way turned out even softer, finer, and fluffier in texture, and with a deeper, fuller flavour. I can’t say enough with just words, so I really hope the photo below says it better! What you don’t see in the photo, is that when I released my squeeze on the slice, the cake sprung right back up! It was really that springy!
I also figured that if I was going to make ma lai gao the authentic way, I should be using the real tools to steam these cakes! So I went shopping, and bought myself a pair of bamboo steamers. Bamboo steamers are inexpensive, yet versatile and hardy vessels for steaming virtually any food – rice, noodles, vegetables, meat, seafood, or snacks and treats.
It might be a good idea to buy at least 2 sizes, a larger one that’s about the same diameter as the pot you regularly use for steaming, or that can be placed on a steaming rack in a Chinese wok and be covered fully under the wok lid. A smaller one that can fit inside a pot fitted with a steaming rack, and be fully covered with the pot lid on, is ideal for making smaller cakes. The bamboo steamers I bought are roughly 20-cm (8-inch) and 25-cm (10-inch) in diameter.
If you don’t have a bamboo steamer, worry not. You can use a standard cake pan (one that can fit in your steaming pot). Check out these helpful instructions here in my previous post.
So, how is this method different from the quick method for making ma lai gao that I posted a few days ago? Primarily, the batter is allowed to rest for at least an hour, before adding the last few ingredients, and then steamed. I actually let the batter rest for slightly more than 2 hours, though it’s not uncommon to find recipes suggesting that the batter be allowed to rest overnight. Also, the use of a low-protein flour like cake flour, as well as custard powder, in addition to plain flour, contributed (in my humble opinion) to a much softer, finer texture. I’d seriously consider trying out a yeasted version next time, which recommends allowing the batter to rest for as long as 12 hours.
But for now, this will be my #1 go-to recipe, as my family and friends absolutely raved about the texture and flavour of this ma lai gao!
To ensure that your ma lai gao is airy and fluffy in texture, here are some tips that I hope will help:
(a) Sift the flours and custard powder twice. When sifting, try to sift from a height a couple of inches above the mixing bowl, to incorporate more air into the flour mixture.
(b) Whisk the eggs and sugar until the ‘ribbon’ stage. At ‘ribbon’ stage, the mixture should have paled in colour, thickened considerably, and tripled in volume – this may take 3-4 minutes (though I find that I usually need 5-6 minutes) in an electric mixer, depending on the speed and temperature of your eggs (always use eggs at room temperature). Simple test for ribbon stage: When you lift the whisk out of the batter, some of the batter on the whisk falls back into the bowl, making distinct ‘ribbons’ before slowly disappearing into the batter.
(c) Use a light hand, with quick and light folding action, when folding in the dry ingredients, as well as when folding in the oil. Do not ‘slap’ the batter around in the bowl (due to a vigorous or heavy hand), otherwise, you will lose the air bubbles that you have worked so hard to incorporate, and the cake will be less airy, and denser.
Ma lai gao is best enjoyed when eaten immediately, but will keep for up to 2-3 days when kept in an airtight container, in a cool, dry place. If eating a day or two after, re-steam the ma lai gao for a few minutes, and it will still be as good as the day it was made.