Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Sticky-Sweet New Year was love at first bite!

From an elaborate two-day production to the lightning-fast microwave approach, the methods of preparing Nian Gao may have changed across generations of the Chinese families, but the sticky-sweet New Year's cake is still a savory culinary project within my household, embracing my grandmother's recipe.

Nian Gao, or Chinese New Year’s cake, is sweet and sticky and represents family cohesion and rising fortune. Nian is a homonym for both sticky and year, and gao is a homonym for cake and to rise up. It is a must at Lunar New Year’s time to wish for a family that is stuck together and for good luck in the coming year. As for me, "nian" in this cake also carries one of the most memorable textural experience within my culinary memories, one that I do not ever wish to live without.

Made from glutinous rice flour (preferably the Three Elephant brand from Thailand), and a pair of dedicated hands, this light and delicate flour is kneaded together with sugar, coconut milk and water. The victorious steam creates a veil within the wok as the prized cake rises and transform. As 200 minutes slip away while the master carefully monitors the degree of the steam, the almost 4 hour process has miraculously evolved the velvety fluid batter, into a dense cake that is heavenly soft, creamy, yet carries a multitude of chewiness, an indescribable texture that surpasses any mochi in my opinion. As a bite of the newly made cake dances between my jaw, the prolonged disintegration allows a proper chemical interaction between my senses and the aroma from the coconut milk, as well as the sweetness from the flour and sugar. This texture is well ingrained in my childhood memories. The new year cake should be sticky between your finger tips, but not your razor-sharp teeth.

~ Chinese New Year Cake - Nian Gao ~

- 500g sweet glutinous rice flour (preferably the Three Elephant brand)
- 454g sugar
- 250mL coconut milk
- 150mL water
- vegetable oil - for glazing the pans

1. In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly mix the glutinous rice flour and sugar
2. Mix in the coconut milk in a slow and gradual stream. The mixture will be sticky.
3. Begin to knead and work the mixture until a dough is formed, and the consistency is uniform.
4. Slowly incorporate the water into the dough, a few tablespoons at a time, until you reach a velvety fluid batter consistency
5. Generously glaze with oil a 9 inch baking pan that is at least 4 inches tall. Pour the batter into the pan but not higher than 2/3 of the way up.
6. Place the pan in the steamer and steam for 3-4 hours, over medium heat or a setting that would ensure consistent yet vigorous steam. Make sure the water level does not fall below the bottom of the pan, or over.
7. When the cake is done, remove from the steamer and allow cooling to room temperature.

To serve, simply slice into wedges and serve in a plate. For those who prefer a soft texture, microwave for 20 seconds or steam on boiling water for 5 minutes until softened to the desired consistency.

It is a tradition in my family to pan-fried the new year cake (煎年糕), which is enveloped in a thin layer of crispy savoury egg and served to our guests. When fried, it is slightly crispy exterior complements the magnificant texture within....

Bon Appetit~!


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