Steamed Sponge Cake

Our Sunday table always included two reassuring foods, what I call our standard ‘comfort foods’: fresh chicken (which my mother most often dispatched, plucked and prepared herself) and sponge cake, which was central to the almost ritual afternoon tea with the neighbours. ‘Chicken every Sunday’ is as Chinese-American as sponge cake. (But rice remains the king of southern Chinese comfort foods.)

The chicken was usually either steeped or steamed, these being my mother’s favourite ways to ensure that the delicate chicken taste was at once preserved and yet enhanced by the added seasonings.

Early in the morning, before she left for the Chinatown live-poultry market to select a chicken, my mother would steam the sponge cake in the wok. She would then rest the cake on top of the refrigerator until teatime, in the late afternoon. One of our neighbours, Mrs Tsai, would sometimes make a sweet almond purée to go with the cake. Tea was an event I always looked forward to and enjoyed. We need such pleasant rituals of friendship and community.

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  • 210 g ( oz) unbleached plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • 250 g (9 oz) caster sugar
  • 120 ml (4 fl oz) milk


Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt together.

In a bowl, beat the egg yolks with the sugar for 5 minutes, until they are well blended. Pour in the milk. Mix well and add the sifted ingredients. Continue mixing well until you have a smooth batter. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Fold the egg whites into the cake mixture. Generously butter a 20 cm (8 in) cake tin. Pour the mixture into the tin.

Next, set up a steamer, or put a rack into a wok or deep pan, and fill it with 5 cm (2 in) of water. Bring the water to the boil over a high heat. Put the cake into the steamer or onto the rack. Turn the heat to low and cover the wok or pan tightly. Steam over a medium heat for 25 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean. Remove the cake from the steamer: it should be light and springy to the touch. Turn the cake out onto a platter, slice and serve.