Cantonese

The Underused Technique My Mother Relied on for Her Cakes

Challenging the status quo of baking for years.

February 18, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Steaming is such a grossly underrated cooking technique, especially when it comes to desserts. Sure, you’ll find many steamed dishes in East Asian cuisine, whether it’s the dainty dumplings served at dim sum brunches; spicy, citrus-heavy pla neung manao (Thai steamed fish); or salaciously supple chawanmushis (Japanese steamed egg custard). Even if you’re unfamiliar with Asian cooking, you’ve surely encountered steamed broccoli or carrot dishes that many vegetable-forward diets call for. But very little has been said about steaming’s potential in desserts.

In Chinese families like mine, the makeshift steamer—often just a wok half-filled with water, with a wooden rack instead of a proper steamer basket—is the most industrious of kitchen appliances. It is in some ways comparable to the ovens in typical American households. If you don’t know what to cook for a weeknight dinner, just throw it into the steamer for the steamed equivalent of a sheet-pan dinner. (Funny aside: We did have an oven in our home growing up, but like in most Asian families, it was used as a storage space for pots and pans and baking trays, instead of for roasting or baking. Heck, I didn’t even know of the oven’s capabilities until I saw Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson using it on cooking shows!)

So, growing up, many of my childhood dinners were steamed. Whether it was a whole chicken and grouper fillets, bundles of kailan and bok choy, egg custards and tofus, they were all steamed to softened perfection. But the true capabilities of our steamer came to light over the weekends, when mom would make sweet baos, dumplings, and classic Cantonese steamed cakes. And of all the treats she’s made over the years, it’s a steamed white sugar sponge cake that truly, ahem, takes the cake.

This steamed sponge cake, called bak tong gou (literally "white sugar cake") is a Cantonese classic often eaten at the end of a dim sum meal. It has the makings of a traditional cake—there’s flour, sugar, and a leavener (though perhaps an atypical one in yeast)—but through the process of steaming, it’s turned into something otherworldly, into a cake that breaks all expectations of what a cake should taste and feel like.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Gosh, this article brings back wonderful memories of my mother's steamed cakes. As a Cantonese family growing up in the '60s, we didn't often have dessert, so the occasional homemade cake was a real treat. I think my mother sprinkled sesame seeds on top of the cake before steaming. The light airy spongy cake was such a contrast to the American-style sheet cakes or pound cakes. Hers were so good. Thanks for bringing back these fond memories!”
— SophieL
Comment

In stark opposition to the typically buttery, fluffy texture of a Victorian sponge, or even the airy consistency of a chiffon, bak tong gous are slightly tacky, chewy when bitten into, and pulls apart almost like a wet brioche. It’s a texture that’s unlike any other cake, and does take some getting used to. But as you chew on it, the cake will grow on you, as it gently disintegrates in your mouth and releases this supple sweetness that’s tempered with an unexpected tang from the yeast. It’s taste and texture is surprising to say the least, but really it’s only the tip of the iceberg of the sweet wonders steaming can produce.

A decade ago, bak tong gous were a common find in dim sum shops all over the world. But their popularity has waned since; you’d be hard-pressed to find them even in the most old-school Cantonese establishments nowadays. It is quite a pity, as I believe this cake to be a precious primer into the world of steamed desserts. Because not only does it surprise the palate, it boldly challenges the status quo of Western cakes, flipping our expectations on what a cake can taste like.

Steaming is such a grossly underrated cooking technique, especially when it comes to desserts.

So as weird as bak tong gous might sound, I urge you to try it out for yourself. It really takes a first-hand experience to appreciate this wondrous, mold-breaking cake that only steaming can create. Trust me, before long, you'll be craving more steamed delights. And I’m glad to say that there’s a myriad of them—from sweet dumplings to lau sa baos (salted egg custard baos), layer cakes to ma lai gous (Malay steamed cakes)—all waiting to be explored.

Have you ever tasted a steamed cake? Let us know in the comments below.
Tags:

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Claudia T
    Claudia T
  • a raisin + a porpoise
    a raisin + a porpoise
  • liz
    liz
  • Carlos C. Olaechea
    Carlos C. Olaechea
  • Jeannie
    Jeannie
Comment
Engineer + cook + food blogger. All about cross-cultural cooking, funky-fresh ferments, and abusing alliteration.

20 Comments

Claudia T. February 24, 2019
Lovely article! I love steamed cakes and breads, but never really thought about how they're uncommon.
 
a R. February 22, 2019
Eastern European Jew by birth, I was lucky to grow up with a second mother, ABC via Texas, who taught me so much about Chinese food, including to look for bak tong gou in every bakery in every Chinatown I have visited in my life. It has led to some surprised looks when I ask for it by name. I AM SO HAPPY to be able to make it myself now, and love the details that came along with the recipe. Thank you!
 
liz February 21, 2019
While I don't believe I've eaten a gao, I have eaten (and made!) steamed cake. Traditional fruitcake is a steamed cake. (And made-from-scratch, it's soooooooooooooo much better than anything in the stores.)

These sound wonderful. I can't wait to make up a batch!
 
Carlos C. February 21, 2019
Believe it or not, this brought back memories of my childhood kitchen projects. My mom got me an electric steamer as a Christmas gift, and my grandfather gave me an old Chinese cookbook. I saw a recipe for a steamed coconut cake and figured I should give it a try. I put the batter in tiny little teacups and placed them in the steamer. I was able to see them puffing up, and the end result was rewarding to a 10 year old - sweet, cake-like, light, and something different from anything my mom would make. I want to try your recipe now.
 
Author Comment
Yi J. February 22, 2019
Ahh it warms my heart just reading your little story! Thanks for sharing it. Steamed cakes are truly something else, eh?
 
Carlos C. February 22, 2019
They sure are. I forgot all about it, but I felt so accomplished as a kid making them. I think that was the first time I made a "cake" on my own without a mix or my parents helping me. I haven't thought of it since reading your story. But now I want to try it out as an adult.
 
Jeannie February 19, 2019
So many Vietnamese desserts are steamed! All the buns, tapioca cakes, or banana leaf wrapped desserts are all made in the steamer. Love seeing this method called out. It's such a commonplace thing in asian homes.
 
Author Comment
Yi J. February 22, 2019
Mmhmm! Gotta shine more light on these little-known Asian techniques and flavors!
 
Zozo February 19, 2019
Lol so true about the oven! Man when my teenage self discovered roasting though... My life changed. Still, this does remind me that I should pull out the steamer again. Craving my Mum's pickle and pork casserole in the steamer! Thanks for this post xx
 
Author Comment
Yi J. February 22, 2019
HAHA same! And you're welcome, thanks for taking the time to read it!
 
coffee317 February 18, 2019
Thank you for this post! As a Chinese American growing up in San Francisco, I pretty much ate these throughout my childhood and honestly do not see them much anymore in the restaurants in my neighborhood. One of my best memories was when I would come home from elementary school to my grandpa steaming some up for me to eat as a snack, this post definitely hit home for me.
 
Author Comment
Yi J. February 22, 2019
Thank YOU for taking the time to read this! And yeah they're a dying cake, but maybe, just maybe, someone will re-popularize it again!
 
SophieL February 18, 2019
Gosh, this article brings back wonderful memories of my mother's steamed cakes. As a Cantonese family growing up in the '60s, we didn't often have dessert, so the occasional homemade cake was a real treat. I think my mother sprinkled sesame seeds on top of the cake before steaming. The light airy spongy cake was such a contrast to the American-style sheet cakes or pound cakes. Hers were so good. Thanks for bringing back these fond memories!
 
Author Comment
Yi J. February 22, 2019
Aww thanks so much, I'm so glad this resonated with you in some way. :) Steamed cakes are pretty special, eh? And yes I do recall some places sprinkling sesame seeds onto their steamed cakes too!
 
Smaug February 18, 2019
I don't suppose it's quite the same, but steam ovens are available and have a devoted following- never used one myself.
 
Author Comment
Yi J. February 22, 2019
True! Though I don't know many people with a steam oven. But yes you're right.
 
Carmen February 18, 2019
So true about the oven! It was the same for our dishwasher which I still don’t get or use to this day. Thanks for bringing up steaming, which I often use for cooking fish. I have often wondered why Americans don’t utilize this method. Will try the cake soon.
 
Author Comment
Yi J. February 22, 2019
Yeahhh it's so underutilized, and let me know how the cake-making goes!
 
Sheila February 18, 2019
Omg! Firstly I laughed when reading your description of the storage oven as it was also true for our home, and even more so after the oven broke down. Secondly, I had forgotten about this classic cake, and am grateful for this recipe. And thirdly, I made your miso-mushroom pasta dish last week - divine!
 
Author Comment
Yi J. February 22, 2019
Hahaha glad that bit tickled you! And yesss that miso pasta is killer, it's one of my favourite recipes.