Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake (Ma Lai Gao) – Whip It UP!

Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake (Ma Lai Gao)

Before the oven became a regular item in the kitchen, our Mothers still baked cakes. This traditional Chinese cake recipe that has been passed down the generations is steamed to yield a light, airy crumb. Literally translated, Ma Lai Gao means Malay cake. While it remains quintessentially Chinese, it’s also enjoyed in Malay households and is particularly popular in Hong Kong in dim sum places. Happy Mother’s Day!

Total time: 1 hour
Difficulty: 2/5
Cost: S$3.00
Yields: 22cm x 5cm cake

A: Batter
5 eggs, approximately 55g each
150ml fresh/evaporated milk
3 tablespoons water

B: Dry Ingredients

280g cake flour
280g brown sugar
1½ teaspoons instant yeast
½ teaspoon fine salt

C: Leavening Agents

1½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda

80ml vegetable oil


1. Line base and sides of a round 22cm x 5cm bamboo steaming basket with parchment paper. See notes.

2. Using a whisk, beat eggs together until mixed well.  Next, pour in evaporated milk that has been mixed with water. Whisk until batter is well combined.


3. In a separate mixing bowl, combine B ingredients well.

4. Make a well in dry ingredients. Pour batter gradually into well. Gently mix until it forms a smooth batter. Set it aside.


5. Using a strainer, sieve batter into another clean mixing bowl to remove lumps, if any.


6. Cover batter with a tea towel. Set it aside at room temperature for 2 hours to proof.


It will become frothy and double in volume.


7. Scoop out 5 tablespoons of batter that has been proofing. Sift in C ingredients and mix it in well. Then pour in oil. Combine this yeast mixture with remaining batter.



8. Pour batter into a prepared lined basket – the parchment paper prevents cake from sticking to the base.

9. Fill a wok with water reaching steaming rack. Place steamer with holes on rack.


10. Bring water to a rolling boil over high heat. Gently place basket filled with cake batter inside steamer.


Cover with a wok cover – the dome shape allows room for steam to circulate well during cooking.

Steam for 45 minutes.

11. Unmould cake immediately. Place it on a wire rack to cool down completely. Peel off parchment paper and store it in a container overnight. This yields a moist and tender crumb.


TIP: Use fresh eggs that are at room temperature. When batter is ready, steam cake immediately – this is because yeast is active within a 2-3 hour time frame. Don’t allow batter to sit on the kitchen counter for too long as the cake will not rise well. 

NOTES: A Chinese steamer pot comprises a stainless steel or aluminium receptacle with one layer that is punctured with holes – this allows heat to reach and cook items that are steamed. The second layer of the pot is filled with water to steam food throughout the cooking process. For this recipe, just use a layer with holes. Place it on a rack inside a wok filled with water. Steamer pots are easily available is Chinatown stores and major supermarkets. Use a wok cover instead of cover for steamer pot.

TECHNIQUE: While the cake is steaming, do not open up the cover. As it rises, crumb structure is weak. A sudden fluctuation in temperature will cause the cake to deflate. Cake crumb firms up during the cooking process and becomes sturdy when it is fully cooked.

PHOTOS: Candy Wong

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