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01.12.2006

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new year, take two 
how to host a Chinese New Year's feast 

by Yee-Fan Sun
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1 2 3 4 5
continued from page 3
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and for dessert…
Perhaps one of the things I love best about Chinese New Year, however, has always been the chance to eat nian gao. Made from glutinous rice flour, this cake is a sticky-soft, chewy, sweet delight; it clings to your teeth, your tongue, the roof of your mouth when you first bite in, then quickly releases itself. Unlike Western sweets that you might think of as chewy – say, caramel or taffy – nian gao yields quickly to the bite. It’s one of my favorite textures in the world. And the only time it appears on Chinese tables is during the period surrounding the lunar new year.

In addition to being a hearty winter dessert that’s perfect for this time of year, nian gao has a double meaning that’s earned it its perennial place at the new year table. Nian gao literally means “sticky cake,” but the Chinese word for sticky is a homophone for the word meaning “year,” while the word for cake sounds like the word for “high.” So nian gao has the symbolic meaning of raising oneself higher in the coming year. As an added bonus, it’s also a very tasty dessert. You can find readymade vacuum-sealed nian gao at most Asian markets this time of year, which just need to be sliced up and pan-fried before serving (this is important: the chilled nian gao will be hard and unappetizing). But the cake is easy to make at home too, and will be yummier to boot. Cook it up the morning or afternoon of your gathering and you won’t even have to bother with the pan-frying; the fresh homemade cake will be perfectly soft and chewy.

chinese new year cake (Nian gao)
Steamed nian gao are more traditional, but a few years ago, my mom sent me this recipe for a baked version, and I’ve been a convert ever since. Baking frees up valuable stove space; moreover, the finished cake ends up with a gorgeous and delectable crust.

1 lb. glutinous [sweet] rice flour (preferably Mochiko brand)
1 tsp. baking powder
3 eggs
1 ½ cups sugar
1 stick (8 Tbsp.) butter
3 cups milk

serves 12 or more (this stuff is heavy)

1 Mix the glutinous rice flour and baking powder in a bowl and set aside. Grease a 9”x13” baking dish. Preheat the oven to 350F. Melt the butter and let cool for 10 minutes.
2 In a big bowl, beat the eggs. Beat in the sugar; then add the cooled melted butter and stir some more. Beat in the red bean paste.
3 Now pour in the milk. The mixture will be quite liquidy, and you might find it easier to switch to a whisk. Whisk until combined; add the dry mixture gradually, beating it into the liquid until you have a fairly even batter.
4 Pour the batter into the greased baking dish and bake for 1 hour to an hour and a half*. The cake should feel set when pressed; a toothpick inserted into the cake should come out mostly clean. Let the cake cool for at least 30 minutes, then cut up and serve.

*Start checking at this point; actual cooking time can take much longer.

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