Baked Nian Gao (Chinese Sticky Rice Cake)

Snake-Happy-New-Year-of-snakeGong Hey Fat Choy! Happy Chinese New Year to you all!

As a Chinese American I have become more and more interested in my ancestry and culture as I’ve grown older. I grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania where there were about ten Asian kids in my school, one of whom was my big brother. My Mom was born in Singapore and immigrated to the U.S. when she was eight years old. My Dad was born in Boston after his parents and older brother moved here from China. Growing up, we didn’t practice any Chinese customs but instead, made up our own bi-cultural traditions: frequenting our favorite Chinese restaurants in the area, eating my Dad’s fried rice out of Tupperware containers at the truck stop on the way to visit my Grandmother in Boston because my Dad was too cheap to pay for fast food, and making potstickers from scratch in the kitchen with my Mom showing us how to press the dough just right.

I remember inviting a friend over to play when I was in the third grade. Upon entering our home she looked around and said, “Wow! This isn’t what I thought your house would look like AT ALL!” I asked her what she meant to which she replied, “I expected there to be red lanterns and dragons all over the place!”

Needless to say, I, regrettably, went down a path of trying to emphasize my American-ness over my Chinesey-ness (yes, that’s a word Chinese Americans use all the time). : ) That is, until I reached college. My studies and socio-cultural learnings led me to embrace my heritage and seek to explore it even further. I was a Creative Writing major with an emphasis on poetry and the bulk of my work was centered on my Chinese American identity. After having kids, I became even more interested in passing down to my children the (limited) knowledge I have of their ethnic identity, along with every ounce of pride I have for the richness of our shared bloodline.

A huge part of that is food. As with many cultures, the kitchen is the center of life for the Chinese family. My kids see me in the kitchen most of the day, every day. I sometimes joke that all my neglect of them as I cook will be made up for by the fact that they’re vigorous, adventurous eaters and that one day, they’ll know their own way around a kitchen, to the benefit of their future spouses and children!

And so it makes perfect sense to celebrate the New Year on One Happy Table with a post featuring the most popular Chinese dessert of the Spring Festival: Nian Gao or Sticky Rice Cake. It’s served most traditionally as a steamed cake but for ease of use, I’m presenting you with a vegan version of Baked Nian Gao. The preparation of this baked version is more similar to that of an American cake, but the results are largely similar. You still get that sticky, chewy rice texture but in this version, it’s highlighted by delicious sweet red bean paste and the subtle crunch of roasted sesame seeds. YUM!

Here’s what you’ll need to usher in the Year of the Snake with Baked Nian Gao:

  • 16 oz of glutinous rice flour, plus a bit extra for sprinkling on the baking dish
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • equivalent of 3 eggs with Ener-G egg replacer
  • 2.5 cups almond milk
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp baking soda
  • one can of sweet red bean paste (Adzuki beans)
  • 1/4 cup roasted white sesame seeds
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You can find glutinous rice flour at most Asian food markets. Buy two 16-oz bags so you have that little bit of extra for sprinkling on the pan.

Preheat your oven to 350. In a large bowl, add the rice flour, oil, egg replacer mixture, almond milk, sugar and baking soda. Beat the mixture with an electric mixer for 2 minutes on medium speed.

Next, lightly grease a 9 x 13 baking pan. I used vegetable oil for this. Then place a spoonful of the extra rice flour onto the pan and shake until it’s evenly coated.

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Any brand of sweetened red bean paste will do!

Pour half of the batter into the pan, spreading it into an even layer. Open the can of red bean paste and spoon it evenly on top of the batter. I used my hands to flatten each spoonful out to make it as flat and even of a layer is possible. It’s a bit of a messy job but much easier with your hands than with any type of utensil. Don’t worry about it being super even (it will spread out as it bakes) or about it sinking into the batter.

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It’s okay for the bean paste to be in globs and lumps. Just do your best to flatten it as much as possible with your fingers, and to make sure the globs are placed evenly around the pan.

Pour the other half of the batter into the pan over the red beans. Bake in the oven for about 50 minutes. About 20 minutes in, pull out the pan and sprinkle the sesame seeds in an even layer atop the batter. Place back into the oven for the remainder of the cooking time.

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Fresh out of the oven. The crispy crunchy outer layer marries perfectly with the chewy gooeyness on the inside!

Allow to cool and then slice into small squares. Nian Gao is rich and sweet so portions do not need to be large! Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate if you plan to eat it later.

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niangao5Happy eating, and Happy Chinese New Year to you all!

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