What better time to make a cake meant for Lunar New Year than the middle of June? Today I’ll be making red bean rice cake (hong dou nian gao) (红豆年糕), a sweet dessert made out of sticky rice flour. For those unfamiliar with how Asians like using red beans, making a sweet dessert with an ingredient that is used in Western cooking for savory dishes may seem really strange. However, red bean is used for so many sweet treats in Asia, from the filling of sesame seed balls, the filling of mochi, to a flavor of bubble tea.
This is a recipe that my mom has had for a while, so she doesn’t remember its origins. It’s also in Chinese, so it’s even harder for me to try and find where it came from. I have no claims to creating this recipe! It’s just something I’d like to share.
- 8 oz dried red beans
- 16 oz glutinous rice flour
- 3 cups + 2 tbsp (to taste) sugar
- Soak 1 cup (8 oz) of the red beans in water for at least 4 hours but overnight for the best results. Drain and bring to boil in a pot with about a 2:1 water to bean ratio. Once the water is boiling, turn the heat to low and cover, letting the beans soften. If the beans are still not soft enough but there isn’t water left in the pot, add a little bit of water at a time.
- Once the red bean is a mushy paste (no excess water) and the beans have cracked open, add about 2 tbsp of sugar. Adjust to taste. Keep in mind that you will be adding most of the sugar later to the overall mixture.
- In a separate pot, bring 2 cups of water to a boil and dissolve 3 cups of brown sugar in it. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, turn off the heat.
- Pour the glutinous rice flour in a large bowl, and create a well in the middle. Slowly stir the sugar water into the rice flour a bit at a time. Stir out the clumps in the mixture until it is completely smooth.
- Combine the red bean paste with the rice flour/sugar water mixture and stir until even.
- Line the container in which you will be steaming the red bean cake with aluminum foil and lightly grease the foil with vegetable oil. Depending on how large you want to make your cakes, you may have to make multiple batches.
- Pour batter into container and steam with 1-2 cups of water. After the steamer is done, let it sit for another 5 minutes before testing to see if a toothpick or fork, when inserted, comes out clean.
- Let the cake cool completely before trying to take it out of the container and unwrapping the foil. This is important because if the cake is still warm, it will be very difficult trying to get it out. Remember that it’s a sticky rice cake!
Alternatively, you can bake the cake. This was my first time baking rather than steaming, so I used an 8″ round cake pan lined with greased aluminum foil and baked it at 325° F for around 35 minutes. Halfway through, when the cake had somewhat solidified, I brushed some unsalted butter and a pinch of salt onto it to moisten the top and add some flavor.
Personally, I enjoy the steamed version more, but I figured baking it once was worth a try!
Check out the pictures of the process and finished product below!
Soaking the red beans in water. The bag of red beans actually had 12 oz in total, and using all 12 oz would have been fine too. Just adjust the sugar to your liking.
Make sure there’s no excess water in the red bean paste. Below, it still has a little bit too much water and the beans aren’t soft enough yet.
Now, the red beans are ready! Here, the paste is still pretty chunky, which is how I like my sticky cake, but if you want a smoother cake in the end, you can mash it up more evenly. It’s really just a pulp-vs-no-pulp-orange-juice situation.
I have a Tatung steamer, which automatically stops steaming when the water in the outer container is used up. If you don’t have a steamer, you can use a large pot and place the red bean container inside, making sure to separate the bottom of the red bean container from the bottom of the larger outer pot. The Tatung steamer comes with the hole-y vent apparatus you can see underneath the red bean container. Add the 1-2 cups of water to the outer container, cover, and steam for about 1 hour and 20 minutes or until a fork comes out clean.
Remember to let it cool before you remove the red bean from the container and peel off the foil! The foil indentations into the cake offer a lot of opportunities for different designs if you’re willing to put in the effort.
Perhaps mash up the beans to be really smooth, use some food dye to lighten up the cake, and make some brain-like patterns in the boil for an interesting Halloween treat?
Here’s a shot of the baked version. It has a hardened layer on top that gives it a different overall mouth-feel. Still delicious!
Fun story about this cake: my mom made one for my sister a few years ago, and when my sister was going through security at the airport with this in her bag, TSA stopped her because they thought it was really suspicious (and maybe was a bomb)! Something about the weird texture, I believe. Upon further investigation, she was able to convince them that it was just a harmless cake. So if you happen to be traveling with this cake for whatever reason, be prepared to defend its honor.