Aunty Pearlie’s Cantonese-Style Steamed Cake

Aunty Pearlie is not related to me by blood; she is, in fact, my friend Ivy’s mother. In Asian culture, we call our friends’ parents “aunty” and “uncle” as a form of respect. This was a concept my husband, let’s call him hungry_ hobbit (yes, he loves Tolkien!), could not fathom. When we were dating, I explained this cultural quirk to him and he asked if he could call my parents by their first names instead. I spoke with my parents and they agreed, seeing as he was American and all. The funny thing was, hungry_hobbit was still uncomfortable since he knew my parents were not used to their childrens’ friends (let alone boyfriends) calling them by their first names, so he ended up not calling them anything at all! Their conversations went something like this:

Mum: Good morning, *hungry_hobbit*. How are you?

Hungry_hobbit: Hello err (pause) … I’m fine.

Mum: Have you eaten, *hungry_hobbit*? (Our lives center around food so we always ask this question when we greet each other)

Hungry_hobbit: No. Have you and ermm … **mumble mumble** … (his head nodding toward my dad) had breakfast?

And so the conversation would go …

Thankfully, now that hungry_hobbit has settled into being the perfect son-in-law, he calls them comfortably by their first names.

Anyway, back to Aunty Pearlie. Aunty Pearlie is originally from Hong Kong, and moved to the U.S. in 1967. Her parents owned a butcher shop in Hong Kong which employed 13 employees. Together with her and her 11 siblings, plus her parents and a grandmother and grandaunt, there was a lot of cooking to be done in her household. (Yes, the employees were fed too!) Thankfully, they had two maids who cooked up two big meals a day and Aunty Pearlie observed them with a keen eye in the kitchen. Considering the family business, there was always a gamut of meat to choose from: chicken, duck, pork, goose, fish, etc.

Aunty Pearlie was visiting Seattle from Ohio and I asked her to share some of her favorite recipes. She obliged and I now have her recipes for sweet and sour pork, minus the glow-in-the-dark sauce served at many Chinese American restaurants, cold white chicken (both to come!) and this Cantonese-style steamed cake below. It’s a very simple recipe and while Auntie Pearlie dictated, I went through the motions. I used a stock pot with a steamer insert but for other ideas and tips on steaming see my previous post: My rise as steam queen.

Cantonese-style steamed cake

This sponge cake is quite like an angel food cake but uses whole eggs instead of just the whites. Sometimes you can find it at dim sum restaurants as ma lai go. Aunty Pearlie likes to make it in a round pan because she says, “The Chinese believe round means smooth for everyone. Square has sharp edges which means stubborn.” Try it with whipped cream, the way Aunty Pearlie’s grandkids like it!

Important: do not leave the batter to stand, the steamer must be ready when the batter is done.

Makes: 8 servings

4 eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

Fill the bottom half of your steamer with water, cover and bring to boil over high heat. Turn down heat to medium.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat eggs and sugar with a hand mixer until all the sugar dissolves. About 2 minutes. Test with your fingers to see if any granules remain.

Add flour and beat until pale and fluffy, about 4 to 5 minutes. Pour batter into an 8″ round glass casserole or soufflé dish.

Place in steamer rack. Cover the top of the steamer with a kitchen towel (to catch condensing water droplets). Place the lid on top andsteam for 20 to 25 minutes or until cake has puffed up and surface looks like it’s covered with moon craters. Insert a knife into the middle and it should come out clean.

Cool completely before cutting into slices.

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