I remember the first time I celebrated Chinese New Year in Taiwan. I spent it with my Taiwanese friend’s (he was actually my boyfriend, but shh!) family in their hometown. I remember there was loads of food; the number 8 is a lucky number because it’s pronounced very similarly to the word for prosperity (ba八 vs. fa發)
Of the food, one thing stands out in my memory even now: a small, light brown, fluffy cake with four points. While looking for a recipe, for the life of me I thought this had been a niangao (粘糕). Which is nothing like what I was looking for. Only with the help of a friend and fellow baker did I realise that I was actually looking for fagao(發糕)!
My friend sent me a recipe, bless her. I also browsed through Youtube because, why not? All the recipes I came across were simple; this should be easy, right? Wrong! It seems that I need to do things three times before they come out right; it happened with my profiteroles and it happened again this time.
The testing begins…
Fagao are cooked in a steamer, which I don’t have and didn’t want to buy. I tried making a steamer in my oven, but that was a big fail. The oven space was too big, the steam didn’t do anything for my first batch of cakes. They came out like dense cupcakes, but tasted fine.
For my second batch I decided to use the stovetop. If I placed ramekins upside down all around the bottom of a pot, filled it with just enough water and put the lid on, I had a steamer of sorts. Since I was testing a different method as well as a different recipe (with rice flour in it), I just made enough batter to make one cake. I put a couple of ramekins (I should have put all of them) in the pot, poured some water and made sure there was enough steam before putting in my lonesome little cake.
Oh, how it rose and fluffed up! It was really a fist-pumping moment.
Until it fell in the water.
That’s the thing about boiling water… It moves violently, and without the support the extra ramekins could have provided my cake plopped straight into the water with about 5 minutes’ cooking time to go. I fished it out with some tongs and placed it back on the ramekin. For the last 5 minutes I watched it like a hawk, nudging it back to the center of the ramekin if it came to close to the edge. About a quarter of that cake got soaked in water, but I still managed to taste the rest. It was very pale compared to the first ones, and due to the amount of rice flour it left a floury aftertaste. Not my favourite so far.
Having tried those, I then went back to YouTube. There are loads of fagao recipes, using different flavours and colours, as well as varying ingredients. The recipe my friend sent me had no rice flour, but I imagined that if it did contain rice flour, the cake would be ultimately lighter. The second recipe had a higher proportion of rice flour to plain flour, so I decided to find and try one recipe with the opposite proportion (more plain flour than rice flour).
Out of all the videos that I watched, this one by SiuKitchen appealed to me the most. Even though the video is in Cantonese, the English recipe is in the description box. Also, considering the process is pretty straightforward, this was not an issue.
Actual Recipe 發糕
(The amount of ingredients they used was enough for 6-8 portions, so I halved them)
40g Brown sugar
75g Cake flour/ Low protein flour (I used plain flour)
15g Rice flour
2g Baking powder
I also added some vanilla essence and salt, to give it more flavour
(It’s all the same basic method, but I’ve added bits from the other recipes, such as heating the water prior to adding the sugar)
Boil the water, remove from heat and pour sugar in, stir until it has dissolved. Let cool. Sieve the flour and baking powder into a separate bowl and slowly add sugar water. Using a whisk, mix until there are no lumps of flour. Pour batter into molds to about 90% full. Steam the cakes for about 10-15 minutes.
So I made my third batch just before one of my friends arrived to cook Chinese New Year dinner (no worries, we didn’t make 8 dishes). I was so nervous about them falling into the water, that I placed silicone cupcake molds in the crevices between the ramekins, to stabilize the whole thing. Miraculously, my weird setup worked!
After 15 grueling minutes, with much hovering and staring, I was rewarded with 3 of the cutest and fluffiest cakes. That, plus Taiwanese popcorn chicken and full-moon prawn pancakes.