Ring in the Lunar New Year with Nian Gao, Chinese New Year Cake!
Every once in awhile, an extraordinary recipe falls into your lap. That’s how I feel about this Chinese New Year Cake. It’s truly special.
Perhaps a better name for this cake should be, Mrs. Leong’s Nian Gao. Nian Gao (or Leen Goh) is traditional Chinese New Year Cake. Eaten year round, it’s especially beloved during the Lunar New Year.
Mrs. Leong’s recipe carries a long and notable history. But essentially, it remains true to its originator: an Admiral’s daughter born in China during the late 1800’s. A thoroughly modern woman, she had unbound feet and also worked as a medical doctor.
Amazingly, her recipe escaped civil war in China to arrive safely onto the harbored shores of Hong Kong. Then it traveled to Malaysia, where it received a coconut milk makeover. By the time it reached Canada, the grandchildren of the Admiral’s daughter were all making their own variations of this family dessert.
Mrs. Leong, who married into the family, took the recipe in another direction: she learned to multiply and mass produce this wonderful cake as gifts to family and friends.
That’s how I became the lucky recipient of this cake. Unassumingly wrapped in plastic wrap, I knew it was special the moment I opened it.
First of all, the cake was beautiful. Glossy and gleaming with a shiny patina, the cake was perfumed with a coconutty aroma. A carefully cut wedge revealed an exquisite layer of red bean paste inside.
One bite told me all I needed to know. This was the kind of dessert I could eat forever. The cake was irresistibly soft and pillowy, with a mochi-like chew. Silky and smooth. Not too sweet yet decadently rich. A sublime balance between red bean and coconut flavor.
I understood why this treasured recipe had been handed down for 4 generations!
Not gonna lie, this cake is complicated. There’s multiple steps that will leave behind a slew of dirty pots and pans. The ingredients are very specific and require a separate trip to the Chinese grocery store. Also, the recipe requires a food scale and steaming station.
But is it worth it? Yes, of course it is!
All that rich history and meaning, poured into a cake pan. All that tradition and family love, spanning continents and generations.
Ring in the Lunar New Year with this wonderful cake!
**Special thanks to Mrs. Jenny Leong for sharing this wonderful recipe.**
Ingredients for Chinese New Year Cake:
Red Bean Paste. You can buy red bean paste at the Chinese grocery store or you can make your own. Mrs. Leong makes her own, by taste and sight. In the past, she used her Thermopot. Nowadays, she uses her Instant Pot. For reference, The Woks of Life has a similar recipe. I adapted by making a much smaller portion.
Rock Sugar vs Bar Brown Sugar. Traditionally, Nian Gao (Leen Goh) is made with Bar Brown Sugar. This Chinese sugar gives the cake a characteristically brown color and sweet, caramel-y depth. Mrs. Leong’s recipe uses Rock Sugar, leaving the cake with a milky-white hue instead.
You’ll need both sugars as the Red Bean Paste calls for Bar Brown Sugar. Both can be found at the Chinese grocery store.
Glutinous Rice Flour and Wheat Starch. Look for both in the flour/baking aisle at the Chinese grocery store. Out of the two, wheat starch is harder to locate. Refer to the photo below for an easy visual cue.
Coconut Milk (canned) + Coconut Extract. Canned coconut milk usually separates. Before adding to the batter, whisk to combine the solids and liquid together in a separate bowl. Also, don’t skimp on the Coconut Extract. It’s a fragrant MUST!
PIN FOR LATER:
Chinese New Year Cake is a steamed cake. Traditionally, steaming is a big part of Chinese cooking. I referred to this guide to set up my steaming station.
To steam all 3 cakes at the same time, you will need three tiers of steamer baskets — one steaming basket for each cake. Be very careful to set up the baskets evenly, as even a small tilt will result in slanted cakes!
Also, Mrs. Leong recommends 7-inch disposable tinfoil pans (they actually measure 6 3/4 inch), even if they don’t look as fancy as straight-edged cake pans. Once it’s inverted on a plate, it will look pretty enough.
How to Make Chinese New Year Cake:
Make the red bean paste. (Can be made the day before.)
Make the sugar water and leave to cool at room temperature overnight or in the fridge. (Can be made the day before.)
Make the Coconut Milk Batter: Whisk together the (cooled) sugar water, glutinous rice flour, and wheat starch. Add coconut milk, coconut extract, and vegetable oil. Whisk until smooth and thick.
Add some Coconut Milk Batter to the red bean paste. The texture should be like chocolate pudding. This makes it easier to spread.
Grease the 7-inch tinfoil pans with oil. Add 3/4 cup of Coconut Milk Batter to the bottom of all the tins. Steam until set, about 7-9 minutes. It’s ok if it’s bumpy looking.
Add Red Bean Paste Filling. Spread to the edges, leaving a 1/2-inch border.
Gently pour additional Coconut Milk Batter directly on top. Steam until set and an inserted skewer comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool.
Invert onto a platter and serve!
The recipe makes 3 cakes. If you think 3 cakes is too much, remember that the Lunar New Year is a time for sharing and gifting. Make one cake for yourself and give two cakes away! Or, make all 3 cakes and bring them to your extended family gathering for the Lunar New Year.
The cake will harden over time, even if well-wrapped. Once the cake loses its soft and pillowy texture, dip in egg wash and fry in a non-stick pan.
Chinese New Year Cake [Mrs. Leong’s Nian Gao]
- 3-tiered Steamer Baskets
- Wok or big pot (to fit steamer baskets)
- 3 7-inch tinfoil cake pans
- Instant Pot (for red bean paste)
- Cast Iron Skillet or thick bottomed/non-stick pan (for red bean paste)
Red Bean Filling:
- 1/3 cup/ 2.5 oz/ 70 g (dried) red beans
- 1 1/3 cup water
- 40 grams/ 1 oz bar sugar
- 2-3 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup Coconut Milk Filling
- 15 oz rock sugar
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 2 cups/ 10 oz / 280g Glutinous Rice Flour
- 1 1/4 cup/ 6 oz / 170g Wheat Starch
- 1 cup/ 8 oz/ 250ml coconut milk (from a can)
- 1 tsp coconut extract
- 3 Tbsp vegetable oil (any neutral oil will work)
Red Bean Filling:
- Add dried red beans and water to the Instant Pot. Secure the lid and set Instant Pot to Bean function, 25 minutes. When the timer beeps, release the steam manually. If there's liquid, drain the beans in a sieve.
- Transfer cooked beans to a food processor. Pulse until fully pureed and smooth, scraping down the sides once or twice.
- Heat a cast iron skillet (or any other thick bottomed or non-stick pan) to medium heat and add 2 Tbsp oil. Add the pureed beans and sugar. (You can use a mortar and pestle or rolling pin to break the bar sugar into smaller pieces.) Using a spatula, cook down until a thick paste forms. In the beginning, the red bean puree will look loose and thin. After 10-15 minutes of constant stirring, it will thicken. When the red bean paste holds its shape and the spatula comes out clean, it's done. Cover and set aside to cool completely. (You can complete this step the day before.)
- In a small saucepan, heat water on medium heat. Add rock sugar and melt until fully dissolved, about 5-10 minutes. Stir from time to time. Boiling is not necessary. Cover and set aside to cool completely. (You can complete this step the day before.)
Coconut Milk Batter:
- In a large bowl, add glutinous rice flour and wheat starch. Add sugar water and whisk until smooth. Add coconut milk, coconut extract, and oil. Whisk until smooth and no lumps remain.
- Transfer 1/2 cup of the Coconut Milk Batter and add to the red bean puree. With a stiff spatula, mix until smooth. The texture should be similar to chocolate pudding. Roughly divide into thirds.
- Set up your steaming station. Stack a 3-tiered bamboo basket into a wok and fill with water. Heat the water on medium heat and wait until there are thick, steady clouds of steam.
- Note: the water should not be a roiling boil but it's not a gentle bubble either. There should be enough bubbles coming from the bottom of the wok/pot to provide steady, consistent steam. But not so much that it bubbles furiously and touches the bottom cake pan.
- Grease 3 tinfoil cake pans well with vegetable oil. (Any neutral oil works.) When the water is steaming, add 3/4 cup of Coconut Milk Batter to each pan. I transfer batter into a measuring cup, making sure it measures 3/4 cup exactly. Then I use a small spatula to scrape into the tinfoil cake pan. The batter is quite thick so scraping is a necessary step for measurement accuracy. Repeat for all cakes.
- Steam until the first layer sets, about 7-9 minutes. Gently shake the pan — there should be no jiggle. It's ok if it looks bumpy. If the first layer is too soft, the red bean filling will sink through the batter and be difficult to spread.
- Remove from heat and layer red bean filling on top. Make sure the red bean filling is evenly leveled and leave a 1/2-inch edge for sealing. Repeat for all cakes.
- Add additional 3/4 cup of Coconut Milk Batter directly on top. It should cover the red bean filling and go all the way to the edge. Repeat for all cakes. Steam until cooked through, an additional 45 minutes. Check the water, from time to time, to make sure the water does not run out. When a skewer comes out clean, it's done.
- Cool completely and invert onto a platter. Serve and enjoy! This cake tastes best the day it's made. Leftovers should be wrapped tightly with plastic wrap and placed in a air-tight container.