A bamboo basket is great for dumplings, but even better for this impossible-to-overcook cake.
With a bowl of eggy batter ready to transform into cake, I default to a bamboo steamer instead of flouring an eight-inch baking pan and preheating the oven.
On a typical dim sum cart, nearly everything is steamed, from pork bundled in tofu skin to crystal-skinned shrimp dumplings—and dessert is no exception. Ma lai go, a spongy brown-sugar cake, serves as a sweet foil to the savory, soy-sauce-kissed bites of dim sum. Its initial airy, pale beige batter slowly steams away for about half an hour and becomes a caramel-colored cake that’s warm and fluffy to the touch. It’s part of a whole genre of cakes that are cooked with delicate steam on the stovetop instead of the blasting dry heat of a 350ºF oven.
When it comes to selecting a steamed cake, the spongy ones are ideal. “It gives you a very light and moist cake,” Sarah Leung, the blogger and founder of Woks of Life, tells me. Plus, ovens aren’t traditionally common in Chinese kitchens, so other “baked” goods like custard-filled baos or rice-flour-based cupcakes (fat go) have always depended on a gentle sauna-like steam to reach their final form of pillowy sweetness.
Shaped buns and poured batters softly solidify into their feather-light forms inside a covered bamboo basket while water boils below. As Leung points out, the construction of the basket means that any condensation that could potentially drip onto the cake while it cooks is absorbed by the bamboo. Plus, steaming means you’ll cook at a lower temperature (since water boils and creates steam at 212ºF), ruling out the margin of error for a bone-dry interior that can be all too familiar if you have a finicky, high-heat oven.
But don’t just go throwing any old batter into a parchment-lined steamer. Steaming won’t yield the same dense crumb that an olive oil cake flaunts or give you the fudgy richness of a flourless chocolate cake. Cakes that require crisped-up tops or gooey interiors are best suited for the oven.
A steaming setup excels at transforming whipped, airy batters into finished cakes lighter than a cloud—think cardamom-and-nutmeg-spiced sponge cakes or a modified chiffon cake drizzled with honey. Beyond ma lai go, which is made with eggs, brown sugar, flour, oil, and custard powder (adding a distinctively richer, vanilla-pudding-like flavor), Leung mentions that regular yellow cake batter from the box would work just as well—her father’s grandmother put the theory to the test when he was growing up.
Once your steamed cake is moist, spongy, and springy to the touch, treat it as you would any other cake straight from the oven. Sneak a bite before it’s fully cooled and stay true to its dim sum form, or spoon on a dollop of almond-scented whipped cream for extra backup—the choice is yours. You can have your cake and steam it, too.