As a child, Lance Lew loved to sit next to the stove and watch his grandmother, Paw Paw Hing cook.
During Chinese New Year, she would be busy making dozens of traditional new year cakes called Nian Gao. The sweet smell of sugar would permeate the kitchen and the finished cakes would line the dining room table.
After the cakes were unmolded, Paw Paw Hing would carefully pack them into a pink box, add a red lucky envelope and a tangerine with leaves intact. Ready for delivery to their relatives from Petaluma Grocery Super Market, the Lew family would dress in their new year’s finest and visit each family’s home to present them with their own cake and celebrate the season.
This traditional steamed new year cake is made with just a few ingredients- sweet glutinous rice flour, Chinese slab brown sugar, oil, banana extract and sesame seeds.
Paw Paw Hing was very proud of her recipe and technique. Year after year it was always consistent with its wonderful chewy texture and sweetened perfection. When complimented, she would always smile and say, “you only need one package and three additional slices of slab sugar for every pound of rice flour.” Nian Gao is delicious eaten fresh, easiest cutting into slices with kitchen shears. After a few days when it has hardened, slice into pieces, dredge it in an egg batter, and fry it on an oiled skillet for a warm snack.
What to Buy:
- Chinese brown sugar - This unrefined cane sugar can be found in any Asian supermarket and is sold in one-pound bricks that separate into slabs.
- Sweet rice flour - also known as glutinous rice flour, or mochico. It is produced from sticky rice grains and is actually gluten-free.
- Sesame seeds - you can toast them to enhance the aroma.
- Dried Chinese red dates (optional) - also known as jujube, they are olive-sized, sweet and prune like.
- 1 pound and 3 slabs of Chinese brown sugar
- 2 cups of water
- 1 bag (16oz) of sweet rice flour
- 2 tablespoons of oil for batter, additional oil for pan
- 1/2 teaspoon of banana extract
- 1 dried Chinese red date (garnish)
- 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame seeds (garnish)
- Coat metal bowl or glass cake pan with oil or shortening
- Pour 2 cups of water into a saucepan, add brown sugar and cook on low until all the sugar has dissolved. Use wooden spoon to break up pieces.
- Add banana extract
- Pour sweet rice flour (saving 2 tablespoons of flour for later) into a large bowl, make a well in the center of the flour, slowly add hot brown sugar liquid a little at a time and blend with a wooden spoon.
- When all the liquid has been incorporated, gather mixture into a ball of dough
- Sprinkle additional rice flour and hand-knead the dough until it is smooth and round (approximately 15 minutes). This important step gives the Nian Gao its chewy texture
- Incorporate dough with remaining brown sugar liquid. The easiest way is to set the dough aside and crumble it into small pieces and blend with liquid in your large bowl. Blend until it is the consistency of a thick pancake batter.
- If needed, add additional boiling water sparingly
- Smooth out the lumps by running the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Break up any lumps with a spatula
- Transfer to an oil, foil-lined, round stainless steel mixing bowl
- Cover Nian Gao with aluminum foil
- Place steaming rack and pour approximately 1.5 - 2 cups of water
- Set Instant Pot to pressure cook for 90 minutes - high pressure setting
- If you split this recipe into two cakes, reduce time to 60 minutes for each cake
- Carefully drop cake pan onto steaming rack and cover
- Allow steam to release, open the lid carefully
- Check the doneness of the cake by poking a stick in the center of the cake. Nothing should stick if it is done
- Place a red date and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds over the entire cake
- Allow the cake to cool in the pan overnight
- Remove cake and cover with plastic wrap
- Cut the cake into pieces with kitchen shears. Nian Gao is best enjoyed fresh
- When cake has hardened over a few days, cut 1/4 - 1/2 inch slices and cook slowly on an oiled frying pan or dip in egg like French toast and pan fry