steamed sponge cake

Chinese steamed sponge cake (ji dan gao)

8 February 2013

Nobody goes to a Chinese restaurant for dessert. Dairy products such as cream and butter, so essential to pastry, were uncommon in China until recent years. Even today, ovens are not typically found in Chinese kitchens. Traditional Chinese treats are made on the stovetop – fried goodies such as sweet, chewy sesame seed balls made with rice flour, or steamed treats such as the sticky Chinese New Year rice flour cake called nian gao. Closer to a Western idea of dessert is this soft, springy sponge cake made simply with eggs, sugar and flour.

In America, steaming as a cooking technique is pretty much limited to vegetables. But the Chinese know how to make use of this versatile method – with succulent steamed fish, moist steamed chicken, and, most notably, the vast array of dumplings and other bite-sized savories stacked in towers of bamboo steamers at dim sum.

During my 20s in New York City, no weekeend dim sum excursion to Chinatown was complete without a steamed sponge cake to take home – a couple of dollars for a square so giant that even after pulling off sweet, cushy bites all the way home I would still have plenty for a snack later that day and perhaps even the next.

Steamed sponge cake is the rare dim sum item that is easily made at home. It has the springiness of angel food cake but a fuller flavor, like a regular omelet compared to an egg white one. Its Italian/French sponge cake cousin, the genoise, can be dry, but steaming makes the Chinese version softer and moister, even without the added butter of many genoise cakes.

This is a cake for snacking. It works for breakfast – not health food, but it is very eggy – or to grab a slice on the run. Its spongy texture makes it convenient for eating out of hand, unlike a regular cake which would be too crumbly, and its light vanilla sweetness is appealing any time of day.

I’ve made this cake many times over many years, and it is never quite perfect. But I don’t make this cake for its looks; a steamed cake will never have the nicely golden crust of a baked one. It’s a cake I make just because I like to eat it.

You don’t need a bamboo steamer to make this cake. Usually I just make it in the steamer basket of my pasta pot after lining it with wax paper. But more attractive is to use a regular 8-inch cake pan. Find a wide, covered pot that will fit the pan, and the only trick is finding a rack to fit in the bottom of the pot that will hold the cake pan above the boiling water. As Grace Young suggests in her classic Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, you can also prop the pan on empty 2-inch cans with the ends cut out.

traditional sponge cake ingredients

This is one recipe that calls for an electric mixer. You can mix manually with a whisk, but an electric mixer will incorporate more air and make a lighter cake.

I like the purity of the egg-sugar-flour approach without additional leavening. But it is hard for me to get a consistent result, and often I get spots in the cake that are denser than others.

I tried the genoise approach of beating the eggs over a hot water bath to incorporate more air into the egg-sugar mixture. But that cake ended up driest of all. And it took a lot longer to beat the eggs sufficiently high.

beating eggs and sugar

In this version I made a smaller batch in a bamboo steamer.

pouring batter into steamer

This one looked the best.

steamed sponge cake

My family liked the simplest egg-sugar-flour version best, with no baking powder and no water bath. It’s denser than the ones you’d buy in Chinatown, and I still had a few spots that fell a bit (see the darker yellow bits). But the kids loved the soft denseness of it.

sponge cake version 1

Old school Chinese cooks made this cake with a bowl each of eggs, sugar and flour, without the aid of measuring cups or electric mixers. But in the end, I think a little baking powder makes for a more forgiving recipe. My last baking-powder version wasn’t visually perfect (left foreground below) – probably because I’m too rushed to sift my flour or make sure my batter is even – but it works and tastes like it should.

test cakes

So rest assured, as with all recipes featured here, perfection is not required. I have no doubt the more careful among you will easily outdo my efforts. But I think even an imperfect rendition won’t disappoint.

sponge cake 1

Happy Chinese New Year on Sunday! Year of the snake, or as the Chinese like to call it euphemistically, “little dragon.” Wishing double happiness to you all.

Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake
Ovens aren’t commonly found in China, so bread products are often steamed on the stovetop. This light, eggy cake, similar to a genoise sponge cake, is traditionally made from flour, sugar and whole eggs. But a touch of baking powder makes for a more reliable rise. Adapted from Grace Young’s classic Widsom of the Chinese Kitchen.

Ingredients

  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup cake flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder (optional)
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Line an 8-inch cake pan with wax paper or parchment paper. Identify a wide pot or wok that can accommodate the pan and a rack that can fit in the pot and hold the pan above water level (you can also sit the pan on 2-inch high cans with ends cut out). Add water to about 1/2-inch below rack. Cover pot and heat water while you mix cake.
  2. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt.
  3. Add eggs to a large mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat eggs for one minute and add sugar slowly. Beat for until mixture thickens, about five minutes.
  4. Gradually whisk flour mixture into eggs. Add vanilla extract.
  5. Pour batter into prepared pan. Set pan on rack and cover pot. Turn heat to medium and steam until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes. If you run out of water during cooking (ie you stop seeing steam), carefully add boiling water to pan. Take care when removing lid so that condensation from lid does not drip on cake. Serve cake warm or cooled.

Notes

  • If using different-sized eggs: total egg volume should be about 1 cup.
  • Cake flour substitution: remove two tablespoons from 1 cup of all-purpose flour; replace with two tablespoons cornstarch (aka corn flour). Or if you don’t have cornstarch, simply use the smaller amount of all-purpose flour.
  • You may also substitute almond extract for vanilla.

Here’s the link to a printable version.

This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

bablu shahani 24 March 2013 at 9:13 pm

How is ppossible chinese cuisine in cake in steame proccer to make cake and other is possible please send mail inform me other dish also thanks

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cg 26 March 2013 at 10:52 pm

hi bablu – i am sorry, i am not sure what you are asking…? you can find a list of recipes here if that helps. thanks.

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kikukat 25 March 2013 at 10:58 pm

This looks so ono (if you are familiar enough with Hawaii to enjoy hurricane popcorn, I’m sure you know this term). I think this is the same thing some of us here call gai dahn biang. Thank you for sharing your technique, and thank you for sharing about your journey with your dad. I found myself tearing up as I read it and know that one day I will need to walk in your shoes. I hope I can show the same resilience and strength you did. Aloha.

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cg 26 March 2013 at 11:00 pm

hi kikukat – mahalo for your kind words and for taking the time to share here! aloha.

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kirsten 6 April 2013 at 2:37 pm

I did the recipe like you said, but it didnt rise after even 25 minutes. What am I doing wrong?

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cg 15 April 2013 at 1:36 am

hi kirsten – sorry for the late response, i was unplugged for a week on holiday. as for your stubbornly unrisen cake…this recipe is harder than most to troubleshoot because of the finicky nature of eggs. did it taste ok, just flat? did you use the baking powder? i like the pure eggs-flour-sugar recipe, but the addition of baking powder does help the cake to rise. even in seemingly identical conditions, the cake is never exactly the same for me – perhaps due to volume differences in eggs, differences in flours, weather conditions (who knows??). so the baking powder is kind of an insurance policy of sorts.

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Kirsten 23 April 2013 at 3:00 pm

No, it didn’t rise at all, I mean, it was just DOUGH….I actually did use baking powder. I also used a 8-8 inchround metal pan with parchement paper. Then I took a wire rack that covered the top of a wok, and put the pan with the batter in it over that when it started to steam. Me and my friend used this recipe before-it was fabulous.

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cg 25 April 2013 at 12:57 am

hi kirsten – sounds like you did everything right, so i’m out of ideas on what went wrong. =( i’m sorry, that is such a bummer when you spend time making something and get frustration instead of reward. but i’m glad that you’ve used the recipe successfully before.

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Ice 11 July 2013 at 1:15 am

just a comment and a thought that are way late after Apr13 :) may be irrelevant to you

I heard my mother mentioned before, when baking/streaming anything over the stove (ie not oven) on chinese pastry, old granny saying is ‘dont talk/laugh’ or whatever when its cooking. Some supersitious saying, that is, the food will become petty and will not raise as it should be even thou one had follow receipe and all. That’s what I’m been told when she’s streaming ‘Fa Gao’ for CNY. :”)
that did happen in our kitchen :)
Since this dish require abit of raising, maybe, that is the cause? Who knows!!

Cassie 28 July 2013 at 5:17 pm

Hi! Can I ask what you use as liner in a basket? I’ve never steamed in a basket before. It looks delicious!

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cg 28 July 2013 at 7:54 pm

hi cassie – wax paper or parchment paper will work. good luck!

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jewels 28 July 2013 at 5:45 pm

i tried this today with half the portions of everything and it work out really well. very yummy. thanks.

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cg 28 July 2013 at 8:04 pm

hi jewels – good to know a half-size works too! thanks so much for sharing back.

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SC 11 December 2013 at 7:01 pm

Hello CG,

I am preparing to make this delicious looking spongy cake. Would you recommend a hand electric mixer or sit-on-table mixer?

Thanks

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hew 15 April 2014 at 5:30 am

Hi..may I know can I used the mental greased mould instaed wax paper with bamboo basket.?

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cg 15 April 2014 at 11:49 pm

hi hew – good question. yes, the metal pan is ok too. you may want to grease with shortening – sponge cakes are tricky, and you want to make sure the cake can climb up the sides of the pan. this post at mommie cooks has a great explanation of the science behind sponge cakes. good luck!

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hew 16 April 2014 at 7:25 am

Thanks! One more question may I know what kind of cup u r using? As I m afraid using the dii size of cup may not b anle to get the same result…

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hew 16 April 2014 at 7:26 am

Thanks! One more question may I know what kind of cup u r using? As I m afraid using the dii size of cup may not b anle to get the same result…

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cg 16 April 2014 at 3:20 pm

hi hew – one cup is 8 ounces. hope that helps!

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Jessica 3 October 2014 at 9:24 am

Hello! I have made this cake so many times and I love it.
However, I am making one at the minute and it it not steaming properly, I am using a bamboo steamer but it is not fully cooked as it is still gooey in the middle. Apart from keep steaming it for longer, is there anything else I can do to get this cake cooked?
Many Thanks,
Jessica

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cg 3 October 2014 at 9:41 am

hi jessica – more steaming is all in can think of. if you have all the ingredients correct, it should cook through eventually. eggs can be tricky – fingers crossed it works out!!

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Kathy 4 October 2014 at 8:36 pm

I don’t know how I managed to miss this recipe after perusing your site so often. Thanks so much for sharing your family’s traditional recipes. We adopted our younger (now almost 11 years old) daughter from China, and I was wondering if you’ve ever had a small Chinese pastry filled with pumpkin? When we were in Jiangxi Province, in Nanchang, we had this delicious dessert –sort of a crescent shaped, very small pie that we were told was “the Chinese version of pumpkin pie” and that pumpkin was a big part of the local people’s diet in this particular area during the CCR. I’ve searched the internet but haven’t found the recipe.

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cg 23 October 2014 at 10:27 am

hi kathy – sorry i’m super late on responding to comments! i haven’t had a chinese pastry with pumpkin, but it sounds delicious. but i did recently see a post by my friend marcella for brown butter pumpkin steamed buns that sound phenomenal. maybe that would do? in any case, they look amazing – i’m hoping to try them too this fall. =)

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Christine 1 December 2014 at 5:00 pm

Could i use almond flour instead of cake flour? would it be 1 to 1?

Thanks!

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cg 1 December 2014 at 5:39 pm

hi christine – substituting flours is very tricky. flours differ in so many ways (weight, absorption, stickiness/gluten) that will affect the final product. my feeling is that almond flour will be too heavy for the egg to hold up the cake. you could try separating your eggs, as in this sponge cake recipe – the stiff whites may help hold the cake. i don’t know if it would work – your best bet is to start with a recipe designed for almond flour – but you could give it a shot. good luck!

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cg 28 July 2013 at 8:00 pm

hi ice – oops, i never replied to your comment! i love your mom’s saying – similar to the idea of not making loud noises when you have a souffle in the oven. though alas, there is no silence in my house! maybe that is my problem with the uneven steamed cakes… =P thanks so much for sharing!

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cg 11 December 2013 at 7:17 pm

either one!

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Sissy Chen 13 December 2013 at 10:15 pm

Hello CG,

I made it. It came out sooooo good. I didn’t use baking soda.

Can i find any other Chinese dessert like red bean cake in your magic cook book?

Thanks

Sissy

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cg 13 December 2013 at 11:52 pm

hi sissy – so glad the cake turned out well for you! you are right – my chinese recipes are far from complete. i’m no expert, but i do try to document the dishes i grew up with. red bean cake isn’t something my mom makes, unfortunately, so i have no idea how to make it! let me know if you find a good one – maybe i should give it a try. =)

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SC 22 December 2013 at 11:20 pm
cg 7 January 2014 at 2:47 pm

hi SC – looks yummy, thanks so much for sharing! =)

Reply

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