Ma Lai Gao (馬拉糕) – Even Softer, Fluffier & Tastier!

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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 (Chinese steamed sponge cake)

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.

Ma Lai Gao (Chinese steamed sponge cake)

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.

ma lai gao (chinese steamed sponge cke)

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!

Ma Lai Gao (Chinese steamed sponge cake)

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.

Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

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.

Chinese steamed sponge cake

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!

Ma Lai Gao (Chinese steamed sponge cake)

Here are more recipes to inspire you:

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Ma Lai Gao (馬拉糕)

Ma Lai Gao (馬拉糕)

Yield: 1 round cake (25-cm/10-inch)
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes

A very easy-to-follow recipe for a Chinese dim sum favourite, ma lai gao (馬拉糕), or Chinese steamed sponge cake, that's extremely soft and springy, fluffy, and tasty! (Adapted from source: 'Nonya Kueh' by Chef Ricky Ng).

Ingredients

  • 100 g plain flour
  • 50 g cake flour
  • 40 g custard powder
  • 4 eggs
  • 110 g soft brown sugar
  • 100 g caster sugar
  • 100 ml grapeseed oil (or neutral-tasting oil)
  • 2 tbsp evaporated milk
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1 1/3 tsp baking powder
  • 1/3 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)

Instructions

  1. Combine plain flour, cake flour, and custard powder, in a mixing bowl, and mix well with a wooden spoon. Sift the flour mixture once, and set aside. In a separate mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar and white sugar, mix well, and set aside.
  2. Using an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whisk eggs on high speed (speed 4 to 5 on my Kitchen Aid mixer) for 15 to 20 seconds. While whisking, gradually add in the combined sugars, in a steady, continuous stream. Continue to whisk until the egg mixture turns pale in colour, thickens, and triples in volume (ribbon stage - see Recipe Notes below), about 5 to 6 minutes.
  3. Sift the flour mixture a second time. Divide the flour mixture into 3 portions. Fold the flour mixture, one portion at a time, into the egg mixture, using a light and quick hand. Cover the batter with a dry tea cloth, and set aside to rest for 1-2 hours.
  4. Meanwhile, prepare the bamboo steamer. Line the base and sides of a 10-inch bamboo steamer with greaseproof paper. When batter has sufficiently rested, prepare enough water (for at least 30 minutes of steaming) in a deep pot and bring to boil, over high heat.
  5. In a small bowl, combine evaporated milk, honey, baking powder, and baking soda. Fold into the batter until well incorporated. Lastly, add the oil, and gently fold into the batter, until well combined.
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared bamboo steamer, cover with bamboo lid, set it stably over the pot of boiling water, and steam for 30 minutes, or until a bamboo skewer inserted into the centre of the cake, emerges free of sticky batter. Slice as desired, and serve immediately.

Notes

Steaming Equipment. There are a few options for setting up your steaming equipment.

  • Using a Chinese wok.  Make sure that you use an appropriately sized cake pan that, when placed on the steaming rack in the wok, can be completely covered under the wok lid.
  • Using a 2-vessel steamer pot. Typically, this is the modern food steamer in which the bottom vessel holds the water, while the top has a perforated base and lid, to allow the steam to rise from the bottom vessel towards the top. Make sure you use a cake pan that can sit inside the top vessel, with sufficient room between the sides of the vessel and the cake pan (to facilitate placing the cake pan in the vessel, and taking it out), and with sufficient space between the steamer lid and the cake pan. The steamer lid must be able to fully sit on the pot, without gaps.

Amount of Water and Water Level. Whether using a wok or 2-vessel steamer pot, fill with sufficient water (depending on the steaming time required), leaving at least a 1-inch gap between the water level and the base of the steaming rack (in the case of the wok), or the base of the top vessel (in the case of the steamer pot).

This will minimise the need to top up the water should the water evaporate too quickly. If you need to add more water, be sure to add boiling hot water to ensure a consistent steaming temperature, and to minimise drastic fluctuations in air pressure.

Preparing and Filling the Cake Pan. To prepare your cake pan, grease the base and sides of your cake pan, then line with greaseproof paper on the bottom and all around the sides.

Fill the cake pan with batter not exceeding 2/3 of the pan’s height, to allow room for the cake to rise. Steam in batches, if your cake pan cannot accommodate all the batter at once.

Covering the Cake Pan.  Once you've filled your cake pan with batter, gently lower the cake pan into the top vessel of the steamer, and place a dry tea cloth over the top, ensuring the cloth does not touch the batter.

This is important, as the tea cloth will absorb droplets of condensation that form under the surface of the lid, and thus, prevent wetting the surface of the cake or turning it soggy.

Place the top vessel back on top of the bottom vessel, and cover with the steamer lid. The water in the bottom vessel must already be gently boiling, before you place the top vessel (with the cake pan) on it.

Preparing the Cake Batter.  Make sure you have your ingredients at room temperature. Be sure to whisk the eggs and sugar until the ribbon stage - goal is to trap as much air as possible. 

  • 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 used.
  • 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.

Use a light hand, with quick and light folding action, when folding in the dry ingredients. 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. The batter should be thick, but smooth.

Lastly, to introduce the oil, it is a good idea to scoop out about 1/4 cup of the batter and mix it in with the oil, with a spatula by hand, until well blended, and then pouring it back into the rest of the batter. Finish up folding the oil mixture into the batter by hand, until well incorporated.

50 Comments

  1. Hi Inez, I would recommend cutting down the sugar by 20% at the most, as the moistness of the sponge is directly affected by the amount of sugar as well.

  2. Can I cut the amount of sugar by 1/3 or 1/4?

  3. Hi Noya, the recipe makes a 10-inch (25-cm) round cake. Usually, this should be enough for 8 to 10 servings, depending on how you slice it. I have found that this is such a light and fluffy sponge cake, that my family and friends often help themselves to more than a slice at a time. Hope you’ll give it a try!

  4. Hi, how many people does this recipe serve?

  5. Hi Cecilia, thank you for writing in! I’m so excited that you’re thinking of making this. A fair number of recipes here list ingredients in grams as weights typically yield more precise and consistent results, particularly when it comes to baking. In answer to your question, I do use a digital scale to weigh out both dry and wet ingredients. I’m sorry my site doesn’t automatically do the conversion, but are a lot of online resources that do, especially for commonly used ingredients, e.g.try typing ‘1 cup of xxxx in grams’ in an internet search, and you’ll easily get tons of suggested answers. Hope this helps!

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