The good luck cake~~
Baked nian gao: king of kings, the rice cake to end all rice cakes. O blonde mochi brownie, symbol of growth and prosperity, equalizer among Asian aunties. This is no lifeless Quaker rice cracker, nor even the stir-fried Chinese sticky rice cake by the same name. Baked nian gao is traditional steamed 年糕 (nián gāo)—soft, springy, sweet glutinous rice flour dessert—restyled. An auspicious Lunar New Year specialty and year-round treat now prepared with a fraction of the effort thanks to that staple of Western kitchens, the oven. Make it the night before your flight to Chengdu and serve it straight out of the Tupperware 36 hours later, as I did last year, and even your mainland relatives will marvel in its sweet, chewy goodness.
Hear me out. Baked nian gao was no doubt the product of some overseas Chinese homemaker seeking to recreate a taste of home, but wary of running up the gas bill steaming cakes all day. Not when that nice, warm space below the stove prepared so many other new treats just fine. If you didn’t know, ovens aren’t common in China, and cooked desserts like nian gao evolved for steaming or wok-frying.
Traditional nian gao steams for hours as the sugars caramelize and moisture evaporates, then cools for days at a time. (And I mean hours—nowadays two to four, historically even 10 to 20 depending on desired shelf-stableness.) Finally, once firm enough to slice, it’s often served warm by re-steaming or pan-frying in oil or egg batter.
Baked nian gao, by comparison, is far less high maintenance. It’s also especially forgiving. Interested in a sesame topping or adding red bean paste? Throw in the mix-ins. Vegan? Make this naturally gluten-free dessert without eggs, then replace the liquid with non-dairy milk. If using coconut, substitute just one can full-fat coconut milk (real ones know it’s Aroy-D only—no emulsifiers here). Then replace remaining liquid with another dairy-free/low-fat milk. Congratulations, Hawaiian butter mochi would now like a word with you.
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Speaking of butter mochi: Japanese mochiko sweet rice flour differs slightly from the wet-milled Thai Erawan glutinous rice flour preferred across Chinese cooking (tangyuan, sesame balls). It’s slightly denser, which I’m guessing is why butter mochi recipes calling for mochiko also include baking powder. We’ve never used mochiko, but others have, with equal success. Just don’t conflate glutinous rice flour (also known as sticky rice flour, sweet rice flour and 糯米粉, nuòmǐ fěn, in Mandarin) with regular rice flour, or finely-milled Asian rice flours with U.S. rice flours. None of these are interchangeable.
You can find Erawan rice flour for about $2.00 at any Asian supermarket. Don’t mix up the green (glutinous) packaging with the red (regular) version!
Fresh baked nian gao is almost ooey-gooey straight out of the oven. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out mostly clean, crumbs okay. If you’re not sure whether it’s done, go by the browning of the crust.
For a cleaner cut, restrain yourself from slicing for at least one hour while the sticky center sets! It’s easy to think you’ve underbaked the nian gao, when really it requires time to cool down and firm up.
Enjoy this baked nian gao at room temperature, where it will keep best up to three days covered tightly. It starts getting a little drier, though by no means less delicious, after day four or five on the counter. Store in the fridge up to one week if you somehow don’t manage finishing the pan within the first couple days (happens easily, trust me).
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I make baked nian gao as frequently as once a month without even realizing, so rest assured, this simple new year cake is anything but a once-a-year specialty. My last batch was shared to great acclaim among random neighbors hanging out across the street, and yes, they loved it too—make this your next great bake!
For more traditional Chinese desserts, read about Kathy’s family’s Snow Fungus Jujube Dessert Soup (Yin’er Tang, 银耳汤), another year-round refresher.