Fluffy Steamed Cantonese Cake

Our family had a typical Chinese kitchen, that is, one that was small and compact. We did have a small oven in our Chicago fat, but my mother used it for storing extra pots and pans. In the traditional Chinese home, ovens are a rarity because they are too bulky and so expensive to use. Commercial bakers were resorted to when necesssary for a banquet or family celebration.

At home, we relied on the ever-useful wok for all our cooking needs. Instead of baking a cake in the oven, my mother steamed cakes in the wok. The result was a light, fluffy cake that was absolutely delicious, and still remains one of my favourite childhood memories. I recall very clearly waiting by the wok for the cake to be done, always ready for that first slice.

Here, I have added to my mother’s recipe my own touches of butter, lemon zest and vanilla essence. This cake is delicious served warm or cold.

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  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 200 g (7 oz) plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • A pinch of salt
  • 5 eggs, separated
  • 185 g ( oz) caster sugar
  • 150 ml (5 fl oz) skimmed or semi-skimmed milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla essence
  • tablespoons finely chopped lemon zest
  • Vanilla ice-cream to serve


Generously butter a 20-cm (8-in) cake tin. 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 incorporated. Add the milk, vanilla essence and lemon zest. Mix well and add the sifted ingredients. Continue mixing well until you have a smooth mixture.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they are stiff with soft peaks. Fold the egg whites into the cake mixture. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared 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 on to the steamer or the rack. Turn the heat to low and cover the wok or pan tightly. Steam for 25 minutes or until a cocktail stick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Remove the cake from the steamer. The cake should be light and springy to the touch. Unmould the cake on to a platter, slice and serve. It is delicious with plain vanilla icecream.