The only thing better than a good recipe? When something’s so easy you don’t even need one. Welcome to It’s That Simple, a column where we talk you through the dishes and drinks we can make with our eyes closed.
Billions of Asians, myself included, are lucky to have Lunar New Year in our lives. Not only do we indulge in the festive treats of December, but after a short recovery session, we are back in action, craving tasty dishes in celebration of the most important festival on the calendar: Spring Festival, a.k.a Lunar New Year (which falls on January 22 this year).
Much of the food eaten during Lunar New Year is symbolic. There are many must-have items that bring good fortune to those who open their mouths to eat, eat, and eat some more. Dumplings promise wealth in the upcoming year, and if you want abundance and prosperity, there must be a whole fish on the table. Sweets are equally as important and, when it comes to Lunar New Year, I’m satisfied with no other dessert except this quintessential staple: nian gao (年糕).
Nian gao translates to “sticky cake” and, to the untrained eye, this squishy, mildly sweet, rice flour treat may look unassuming. But its simplicity makes it one of a kind. Historically speaking, nian gao has many lores: It repelled monsters, and was invented as a bribe to ancient kitchen gods; the sticky cake sealed their lips so tightly that they couldn’t divulge housewives’ secrets to nosy neighbors.
No matter what mystic story you’ve heard, millions of Asians and Asian Americans grew up with the brown sugar nian gao found in many Asian grocery stores around Lunar New Year. You can also find variations on the traditional nian gao can with coconut, pandan, red bean paste, and black sesame added to the mix. I can never decide which version I like best, so I usually make all of them.
Although traditional nian gao recipes call for the cakes to be steamed in a bamboo steamer for at least an hour, you can bake them instead. While decorative aluminum molds make for beautiful nian gao, they’ll cook up just as well in a regular muffin tine. Baking nian gao relatively new method of preparing them, but adored by many because the hot oven creates a crackly, golden brown crust.
Here’s how to make Baked Nian Gao:
Preheat the oven to 350°. Get out decorative aluminum molds or a muffin tin. You can grease them or not; leaving the decorative molds ungreased yields a more distinct pattern.
In a medium bowl, combine 1 cup dark brown sugar and 1 cup canned coconut milk (give the can a good shake before opening and measuring). Mix until the sugar is dissolved. In a separate bowl, pour in 2 cups glutinous rice flour. Make a well in the center, then add 1 beaten egg. Slowly whisk in the sugar-coconut milk mixture. Stir to combine and add in ¼ cup neutral oil (like vegetable oil or refined coconut oil). If you want, you can mix in 1 15-oz. can sweetened red beans. The consistency should be close to a loose pancake batter and easily pourable—add a splash of water if it seems too thick.
Pour the nian gao batter into your pan of choice. Bake for about 40 minutes, until a skewer comes out batter-free. It will be sticky—it is sticky cake, after all—but there shouldn’t be any wet batter on it. (It firms up upon standing, so don’t fear a little bit of jiggle.) Let the cakes cool completely in the molds before removing. In an airtight container, these keep for up to three days.