These days, most people buy a round of nian gao from the supermarket, or a Chinese restaurant. At this time of year, they even serve it in the restaurants when you're having dim sum. Not all nian gao is made equal, however. Some manufacturers put in copious amounts of red dye (red being a lucky colour); I would avoid any pink- or red-looking cakes.
On Thursday, when I was calling all my aunts and uncles to wish them a happy New Year (it took over an hour and a half), one of my aunts suggested that I make my own nian gao, saying that it was very simple. Well, she told me how and, indeed, it sounded very simple.
Nian Gao recipe (provided by Hing-Yuk Lau Chan)
Ingredients (to make two rounds of nian gao):
1 lb glutinous rice flour
5 slabs of brown, rock candy sugar
3 Chinese rice bowls full of water (around 3.5 cups)
Make a light syrup by heating the water and sugar together in a saucepan until the sugar has melted. There is no need to reduce the liquid; this syrup is not meant to be thick.
Place the glutinous rice flour in a large bowl. Very gradually, add the syrup, mixing well after each addition. Aim to produce a smooth, lump-free batter. After all the syrup is added, it should resemble pancake batter.
Divide the batter evenly between two shallow, round containers that have been brushed with vegetable oil. I used 8-inch round baking pans. At this point, you can decorate the top with a dried, red date and/or some lotus seeds if you like. If you plan to cook the nian gao in the microwave, use glass or plastic containers. My aunt suggested that I use two takeout containers, the kind we often get from Chinese restaurants, and told me to cook the nian gao on the high setting in the microwave for around 8 minutes. Now, I don't know about you, but I have been trying to cut back on microwave usage, because I don't believe that it's healthy. In particular, I no longer put plastic containers in the microwave, so I wasn't about to zap my nian gao in plastic for a full 8 minutes! Either use a glass container, or do what I did, which is to use the more traditional method of steaming.
Make sure that there is plenty of water heating in your steaming vessel, because steaming takes much longer than microwaving! I used a wok with a metal rack set in the bottom to hold the pan above the water. Place your containers of nian gao batter into your steaming vessel and steam for 60-90 minutes. You'll want to check the water level once or twice, to make sure that you still have enough liquid. It pays to keep a kettle of hot water available, so you don't reduce the temperature of the steaming water too much when you add liquid.
You'll know that the nian gao is done when it has become slightly translucent, and there are no pale, batter-coloured patches left. If your nian gao isn't done after 8 minutes in the microwave, cook it for another 1 to 2 minutes.The top of the nian gao may have developed bubbles and become uneven while cooking. Brush the bottom of a large plate that fits into your pan/container with oil (or use the smooth bottom of a glass) and use it to press down on the top of your nian gao while it is still warm, to smooth it out. Cool the nian gao to room temperature, and then chill in the refrigerator overnight.Whether you're cooking your own nian gao, or nian gao you bought from the store, the process is the same. Slice your round of nian gao into pieces roughly 3/8-inch thick and approximately 2 1/2- by 2-inches in size. If your slices are too thick, the outside of your nian gao will burn before the inside heats properly.
In a bowl, lightly beat an egg. Heat a pan and add a little bit of oil. Dip each slice of nian gao in the beaten egg and place them in the pan. Pan fry for around 1 minute on each side, until the nian gao is heated through, develops a slight crust on the outside, and is soft and pliable, but still retains its shape. You don't have to dip the nian gao in egg if you are vegetarian. The egg just helps to prevent sticking.
Eat your nian gao while it is still hot and soft and chewy, but be careful not to burn your mouth! My roommate, and people at work, for whom I've made nian gao say it reminds them of french toast. I am happy to report that, although my round of nian gao wasn't as hard (think of a round of parmesan cheese) as what you buy from the store, it fried up beautifully and tasted great.