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!
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.
- 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)
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, prepare the bamboo steamer. Line the base and sides of the 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.
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.
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.
#1. Steaming Equipment. There are a few options for setting up your steaming equipment.
(a) 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.
(b) 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.
#2. 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.
#3. 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.
#4. 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.
#5. 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.