Steamed brown sugar and coconut milk cake (Ma Lai Gao)

Helen Goh's steamed Chinese New Year cake can be served hot or cold.
Helen Goh's steamed Chinese New Year cake can be served hot or cold. Photo: William Meppem

Cakes have a special place in Chinese New Year celebrations since their sweetness symbolises a rich, sweet life. The way this light sponge cake rises when steamed makes it particularly appropriate – it is also seen as a harbinger of a year full of growth and prosperity. You will need to rig up a steam cooker: a wok, tiered bamboo or metal steamers all work well. The important thing is to have a tight-fitting lid, so that the cake rises quickly with the rising trapped steam.


5 large eggs, at room temperature

180g dark brown sugar

zest of 1 orange

90ml vegetable oil

100ml coconut milk

220g plain flour

25g custard powder

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

¼ tsp salt

golden syrup, to serve (optional)


1. Grease and line an 18cm round cake tin with baking paper. The look here is rustic, so you just want to press a large circle of the baking paper into the tin, allowing it to form pleats naturally up and around the sides. (You could also use a bamboo steaming basket.) Fill the wok or bottom vessel of a steamer with water two-thirds of the way to the top. Bring to a boil, then turn it to a low simmer. 

2. Combine the eggs, brown sugar and orange zest in the bowl of an electric mixer, and beat with the whisk attachment on high speed until very thick and pale, and trebled in volume, for 6-7 minutes. In the meantime, combine the oil and milk in a medium jug or bowl and set aside. Sift the flour, custard powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt together into a separate bowl.

3. When the egg has trapped as much air as possible and the mixture is at maximum volume, remove the bowl from the mixer, and use a hand whisk to gently incorporate the oil and coconut milk. Sift the flour mix directly into the mixture in two batches, using the whisk to fold gently until combined.

4. Scrape mixture into the lined cake tin and place inside the perforated steaming tray. Increase the heat to bring the water in the bottom vessel of the steamer to a rolling boil, then place the steaming tray with the cake tin inside. Place the lid on top, ensuring it is a tight fit. Steam the cake for approximately 40 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

5. Allow the cake to rest for 5 minutes in the tin before gently lifting it out and onto a plate. Leave the paper collar on until ready to serve, warm or cold, drizzled with golden syrup.

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