Ma lai gao is a Chinese steamed sponge cake that’s extremely soft and springy, fluffy and sweet tasting! This is an easy recipe for traditional ma lai gao (馬拉糕) which doesn’t require yeast, and with a shorter resting time for the cake batter.
Ma lai gao is a popular Chinese dim sum dish. It’s a sponge cake made with a few of the usual ingredients, namely eggs, plain flour, and a leavening agent like baking powder or baking soda. But more than that, there’s also brown sugar, honey, custard powder and evaporated milk.
And instead of being baked, it is steamed. In fact, it is served and eaten when it’s steaming hot. That’s when it is super moist, springy and fluffy!
As you can tell, ma lai gao is not your usual run-of-the-mill sponge cake. It has a truly unique flavour, texture and appearance. It’s deep honey colour and deliciously light caramel flavour comes from the brown sugars and honey.
If you’ve never heard of a steamed sponge cake, it must sound weird. It’s quite unusual to think of sponge cakes being steamed instead of baked.
But then, lots of Chinese snacks and desserts are steamed cooked. And you can be sure right away, that steaming almost always guarantees moistness and tenderness.
Some ma lai gao recipes make a yeasted cake batter, and require overnight resting before being steamed. Simpler recipes, like the one I’m sharing here, are yeast-free and have a much shorter rest time. We’re talking just a few hours, instead of overnight.
Traditionally, these Chinese sponge cakes are steamed in a bamboo steamer. This ensures the cake rises light and puffy, and smelling wonderful. So, you will need some patience and time when making this ever-popular Chinese treat. But I promise, it will be so worth it!
What’s in the name, ma lai gao?
As a Chinese dim sum treat, here’s another intriguing fact about the name ma lai gao. Literally translated, it means Malay cake or Malay sponge cake. There are quite a few theories how this came to be.
One of them being that the Malay sponge cake was adapted from a British dessert during the colonial period in Malaya. It was subsequently brought to China by Chinese immigrants.
There, it was popularised by Chinese tea houses in Guangdong and Hong Kong and permanently woven into the local cuisine.
The second theory hypothesizes that ma lai gao originated in Guangdong and was introduced by Chinese immigrants during the second wave of Chinese immigration to British-ruled Malaya.
Interestingly, the final theory asserts that the Malay sponge cake was adapted from the Castile cake brought by Portuguese sailors to South East Asia. It was subsequently taken back to China by an immigrant from Guangdong.
Easy ma lai gao recipe
A few days ago, I successfully made this steamed sponge cake using a quick method. But I had always been curious and intrigued to try making ma lai gao the traditional way.
I can’t say if this is an authentic recipe or method, as I 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.
It also had a deeper, fuller caramel 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 super springy!
How to use bamboo steamers
I wanted to make ma lai gao the authentic way, so I figured I should get myself some real tools to steam these cakes! Finally, I went shopping and bought myself a set 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. Nowadays, they are very easy to get online or at Asian stores selling cookware.
Since I was going to invest in some bamboo steamers, I bought 2 sizes. The larger one was about the same diameter as a stock pot I often use for steaming. It could also sit on a steaming rack, covered in a Chinese wok.
The second bamboo steamer is smaller. It can sit inside the stock pot itself when fitted with a steam rack, covered by the pot lid. I find this 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, don’t worry. 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.
Tips for making the perfect ma lai gao
So, how is this method different from the quick method for making ma lai gao that I posted a few days ago?
- The batter is allowed to rest for at least an hour. Then the last few ingredients are folded in, and then steamed. I actually let the batter rest for slightly more than 2 hours.
- Using a low-protein flour like cake flour. Cake flour and custard powder, in addition to plain flour, contributed to a much softer and finer texture in my humble opinion.
To ensure that your ma lai gao is airy and fluffy in texture, here are some tips that I hope will help:
Sift the flours and custard powder twice.
When sifting, try to sift from a height a couple of inches above the mixing bowl. This will incorporate more air into the flour mixture.
Whisk the eggs and sugar until the ‘ribbon’ stage.
When the mixture reaches ‘ribbon stage‘, it will be pale in colour, thickened in consistency and tripled in volume. This may take 3-4 minutes.
In my case, I find that I usually need 5-6 minutes in an electric mixer. It will depend on the speed and temperature of your eggs. And, always use eggs at room temperature.
Simple test for ribbon stage: When the whipped eggs look like they are almost at the ribbon stage, stop the mixer. Lift the whisk out of the batter.
When some of the batter on the whisk falls back into the bowl, observe if it makes ‘ribbons’ on the surface. If the ribbons stay on the surface for a few seconds, then slowly disappear into the batter, it is ready.
Use a light hand and fold gently.
A gentle hand is important when folding in the dry ingredients, and the the oil. Avoid slapping the batter around in the bowl, due to a vigorous hand.
Otherwise, you will lose the air bubbles that you’ve worked hard to incorporate. As a result, the cake will be less airy, and denser. The batter should be thick, but smooth.
How to incorporate oil into the batter.
To introduce the oil, scoop out about 1/4 cup of the batter and mix it in with the oil with a spatula. Mix until well blended.
Then pour the oil mixture back into the rest of the batter. Finish up folding the oil mixture into the batter by hand, until well incorporated.
Storing and re-heating
Ma lai gao is best enjoyed when eaten immediately. But it 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 be just as good as the first day.
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 go-to recipe, as my family and friends absolutely raved about the texture and flavour of this ma lai gao!
Here are more recipes to inspire you:
- Steamed Sponge Cake (Ma Lai Gao) – Quick Method
- Really, Really Moist Banana Sponge Cupcakes
- Black Sesame Filled Glutinous Rice Balls (Yang Yuan) with Sweet Osmanthus
- Coffee Chiffon Cake
- Chocolate Chiffon Cake