While growing up, my mom often made this baked niango, or “mochi cake” to bring to potlucks with other Taiwanese-American families. Since most Asian desserts are not very sweet, this was always a special treat for me and my more Americanized sweet tooth. The consistency was always very chewy (a texture called “QQ” in Taiwan), and my mother usually studded the cake with dollops of sweetened red bean paste. I know a lot of Westerners can’t abide the idea of sweetened beans as a dessert, so I’ve made it an optional ingredient, but if you know, you know good it is.
This cake is traditionally eaten for the Lunar New Year because niango is a homonym in Chinese for “year” and “high”. Thus, eating it at the beginning of the year was supposed to bring forth an auspicious year. There are many different kinds of niango: Shanghainese niangao is a dense, savoury rice cake that is sliced up and stir fried with meat and vegetables. And usually sweet niangao is steamed rather than baked, but my mom found it easier to bake due to the ubiquitousness of ovens in American kitchens. She said that the results were always more consistent than with steaming. The addition of butter in this recipe makes it very similar to Hawaiian butter mochi, but this version uses milk instead of coconut milk, and I find it to be generally less sweet.
My favorite part of niangao is the crusty edges, so I’ve started baking it in my Baker’s Edge brownie pan to maximize the crust:center ratio. I’ve also found that the type of glutinous rice flour used makes a difference. I usually love Mochiko sweet rice flour, but I find that I get a crustier niangao if I use Thai glutinous rice flour; just make sure you grab the green bag instead of the red bag, which is regular, non-glutinous rice flour. —Joy Huang | The Cooking of Joy
1 hour 10 minutes
unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
milk, warmed to a little hotter than a fever
1 1/4 cups
large eggs, lightly beaten
glutinous rice flour
red bean paste or sweetened red beans (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 °F. Grease a 9"x13" inch baking pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, warm milk, sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract.
In a large bowl, whisk together the glutinous rice flour and baking powder. Add the liquid mixture to the dry mixture in 5-7 increments, stirring well after each addition to prevent lumps from forming. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
Drop red bean paste by scant teaspoonfuls onto the top of the cake. If spoonfuls are too big, the filling will sink to the bottom.
Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes in the preheated oven, or until cake springs back when lightly touched. It should be golden and crusty. Let cool completely before serving.
For extra decadence, you can slice the niangao into thin slices, dip them in beaten egg, and pan-fry for Cantonese-style niangao.