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Ma Lai Gao (Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake)

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Ma lai gao (Chinese steamed sponge cake) is a very popular dim sum dessert in yum cha restaurants globally. The direct translation from Cantonese is Malay Sponge Cake. Especially prevalent in Hong kong and Guangdong province in both yum cha restaurants and traditional tea houses. CNN has even listed ma lai gao as Hong Kong’s national cake. The most traditional method of making ma lai gao is with: levain, flour, white sugar, milk and eggs. The levain or starter dough is a leavening agent made from: water, beer and flour. Then left to ferment for at least 24 hours. Easier method is without the levain, using lard or butter and baking powder and/or baking soda as raising agents. Followed by steaming the cake batter in a bamboo steamer. Resulting in a sweet, light, soft and fluffy yellow round cake. The cake is most tempting when served steaming hot.

This cake has a simple and satisfying aroma and flavour that not many can refuse. Modern variations include using brown sugar as an alternative to white sugar, adding of custard powder, evaporated milk and honey. Some recipes also use yeast instead of levain, baking powder or baking soda. For my gluten free ma lai gao recipe, I am using: gluten free self-raising flour, corn starch, coconut sugar, maple syrup, vegan butter, rice milk, vanilla extract, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Resulting brown cake is light, fluffy, moist and buttery with caramel toffee flavour from the coconut sugar and maple syrup. You can’t tell that it’s gluten free too! This recipe is also low carb, dairy free, nut free, soy free, yeast free and refined sugar free.

Check out my other gluten free cakes recipes: Chinese New Year Steamed Prosperity Cakes (Fa Gao) and Chinese Egg Cakes (Paper Wrapped Cakes).

Ma Lai Gao (Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake)

Ma Lai Gao (Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake)
History of Ma Lai Gao (Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake)

Highly contested is the origin of ma lai gao, but many believed that it originated from England. The British took their English baked sponge cake to the Malay peninsula. The locals then adapted the Malay sponge cake to their own preferences. They used coconut milk and pandan leaves and steaming instead of baking the cake. Subsequently, the Cantonese chefs took their own adjusted version of the cake to Hong Kong and Guangdong province and modified this symbolic cake to suit local tastebuds. They called it ma lai which means malay and gao means cake in Cantonese. Steaming is a traditional and very popular cooking technique for making cakes in China and Southeast Asia before the invention of ovens. Steaming is still a cooking technique widely used for making cakes and Malay or Nonya kuihs/cakes in these regions of the world.

Ma Lai Gao (Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake)
Ma Lai Gao (Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake)

Ma Lai Gao (Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake)

Ma Lai Gao (Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake)
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2 Responses

  1. Maxine Brown
    | Reply

    do we line the pan or the steamer with the parchment?

    • Daphne Goh
      | Reply

      Line the cake pan with parchment. If using bamboo steamer, line it with a whole piece of parchment paper covering the sides and the bottom.

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