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 or Nian Gao. It’s truly special.
Last year, I became the lucky recipient of Mrs. Leong’s Nian Gao. Unassumingly wrapped in plastic wrap, the cake was beautiful. Glossy and gleaming with a shiny patina. 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 Lunar New Year cake was the kind of dessert I could eat forever.
What is Nian Gao or Chinese New Year Cake?
Nian Gao is a traditional steamed Chinese cake, eaten to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
Made with glutinous rice flour, the texture is soft and bouncy, like mochi. Chewy and stretchy, it’s very pleasing to eat. And, not too sweet!
Nian Gao or Chinese Sticky Rice Cake represents prosperity or good luck. It’s one of the many food items enjoyed during the Lunar New Year. Eating oranges, dumplings, and yes — Nian Gao — symbolizes the hopeful expectation for a good year.
FYI, this special cake goes by many names: Nian Gao, Sticky Rice Cake, Leen Goh, or Chinese New Year Cake.
Mrs. Leong’s Nian Gao
Perhaps a better name for this cake would be, Mrs. Leong’s Nian Gao. This is her Nian Gao recipe, which she generously shared with me. Different from the typical Chinese lunar new year cake, her version is made with Coconut Milk and a delicious layer of red bean filling in the middle.
Mrs. Leong’s recipe also carries a long and notable history. 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 this steamed Nian Gao recipe reached Canada, the grandchildren of the Admiral’s daughter were all making their own variations of this family dessert.
Ring in the Lunar New Year with this wonderful steamed cake! All that rich history and meaning, poured into a cake pan. All that tradition and family love, spanning continents and generations. A truly special cake to be enjoyed with family and friends!
Don’t be intimidated by the ingredient list! They can all be found at the Asian grocery store.
- Glutinous Rice Flour. Glutinous Rice Flour provides that characteristically stretchy and slightly sticky texture. Please note, regular Rice Flour is not the same! I use the Thai Elephant brand. Also known as Sweet Rice Flour or Sticky Rice flour.
- Wheat Starch. Wheat starch is NOT the same as flour. Refer to the photo below for an easy visual cue.
- 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 AND 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. But you’ll need both sugars as the Red Bean Paste calls for Bar Brown Sugar.
- Coconut Milk (canned) + Coconut Extract. Full fat, canned coconut milk gives a beautiful milky-white hue and subtle flavor boost. Also, don’t skimp on the Coconut Extract. It’s a fragrant MUST!
Please note: The recipe makes 3 cakes. If you think 3 cakes are too much, remember that the Lunar New Year is a time for sharing and gifting. Make one cake for yourself and give two away! Or, make all 3 sticky rice cakes and bring to your extended family gathering for the Lunar New Year. Also, leftovers are delicious when panfried in a little oil.
Cooking Tips + Technique:
- Cool the sugar water. After making the sugar water, cool completely. This steps can be made the day before and stored in the fridge overnight.
- Set up a 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! You can also steam the cakes one at a time. It will take longer this way but the method is the same. Refer to this guide by Woks of Life for questions regarding how to steam food.
- Generously grease cake pans. To make the cakes easier to remove, make sure to grease the cake pans well! Mrs. Leong recommends disposable 7-inch tin pans, which actually measure 6 3/4 inches.
- Cool cakes. Before inverting onto a platter, cool for at least 1 hour. They should pop out easily when cooled.
- Store cakes in air proof container. The cakes will harden quickly, especially if exposed to air. Leftovers should be well-wrapped with plastic film. Store at room temperature for 1 day. Otherwise, keep in the fridge.
How do I eat Nian Gao?
Nian Gao is best enjoyed on the day it’s made. The texture is perfectly soft and stretchy, bouncy and pliant.
Serve the cake as you normally would — on a platter and cut into wedges with a sharp knife. It will be sticky.
Once the cake loses its soft and pillowy texture, fry in a non-stick pan on medium low heat with a little vegetable oil. The outside will be delightfully crispy and the inside will become stretchy and soft once again.
Can I freeze Nian Gao?
Yes, Nian Gao freezes well. Cut into wedges to easily defrost the cake by individual portions. Otherwise, freeze the entire cake as is. Either way, tightly wrap in plastic film and place in an air-tight container.
To defrost, transfer to the fridge until it’s no longer frozen. Then fry in a non-stick pan on medium low heat with a little vegetable oil. The outside will be crispy and the inside will become stretchy and soft once again.
You can also pan fry directly from the freezer, using the same method. However, it will take longer.
PIN FOR LATER:
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.
Get ready to steam the cakes. See note above about setting up your steaming station. In this photo, I’ve set up 3 bamboo steamers in a wok, filled with water at the bottom.
Grease 7-inch tinfoil pans (they actually measure 6 3/4 inch)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 they are bumpy looking.
Remove from the steamer basket. 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!
**Special thanks to Mrs. Jenny Leong for sharing this wonderful recipe.**
Chinese New Year Cake [Mrs. Leong’s Coconut Nian Gao with Red Bean]
- 3-tiered Steamer Baskets
- Wok or big pot (to fit steamer baskets)
- 3 7-inch tinfoil cake pans (they actually measure 6 3/4")
- 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 adzuki beans
- 1 1/3 cup water
- 40 grams/ 1 oz bar sugar
- 2-3 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup Coconut Milk Batter (see below)
- 15 oz rock sugar
- 1 1/2 cups water
Coconut Milk Batter:
- 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.