Steamed Banana Cake with Chinese Jujubes

香樵蒸糕

In the realm of traditional Chinese tea snacks and brunch eating, there is a wide variety of steamed, flour-based concoctions called gao or “cakes.” Made variously of wheat or rice flour, with or without eggs or leaveners, they range in flavor from savory to cloyingly sweet and in texture from feather-light to leaden. The unifying factor is that they are all steamed as opposed to baked and are served with or between meals with tea—never as a dessert.

  • This is a teatime cake I “invented” one day in Taiwan, when in a fit of craving for sweets I dumped a favorite banana bread batter into the greased pail of our large family rice cooker. Well-endowed with walnuts and contraband raisins from the PX and topped with a pretty mosaic of date-like jujubes, the cake was a huge success. Moist, fragrant, and lightly spiced, it is my annual Chinese New Year’s gift to my older Chinese friends, who praise it unceasingly as a “real” Chinese cake.
  • For lack of a 10-cup rice cooker, steam the cake in a large deep pot outfitted with a high-legged trivet or a wide, open-ended tin can on which to place the cake mold. I use a rice cooker pail 8 inches in diameter and 4 inches deep, available in Chinese hardware stores. Substitute any 8-inch-wide, 2–3-quart baking dish or pudding mold. The batter must come only ⅔ to the top, to allow for expansion during steaming.
  • For best flavor, use black, soft, overripe bananas. I like to put the more presentable store-bought ones in the freezer, where the skin turns black and the pulp acquires a marvelous, liqueur-like edge. I leave them there for months and use them when the cake craving hits.

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Ingredients

To garnish

For the batter

  • ¼ cup dark raisins
  • 1 cup broken walnut meats
  • teaspoons all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • teaspoons double-acting baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 2 medium, soft, and blackened bananas, peeled and mashed
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ pound room temperature sweet butter, cut into cubes
  • ¼ cup packed light brown sugar
  • ⅔–¾ cup white sugar
  • 2 large eggs

Method

Preparations

(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)

Steam the jujubes and raisins in a heatproof bowl over medium-high heat until plump and soft, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and remove the raisins, leaving the jujubes in the steamer. Let the raisins cool a bit, then toss them with the walnuts in a mixture of 1½ teaspoons flour and the allspice to coat. Put aside.

Choose an 8-inch round cake pan, soufflé dish, or pudding mold that is 3½–4 inches deep. Cut out a circle of waxed paper to fit the bottom. Grease one side of the paper and the bottom and sides of the pan, then put the paper in the pan, greased side up. If you want a sweet, glossy edge to the cake, sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar into the pan, then rotate and tap it to dust the bottom and sides evenly, adding more sugar if required. Otherwise, dust the mold with flour in the same manner.

Making the batter

Sift together the sifted flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

Combine the milk and vinegar, then put aside at room temperature for about 10 minutes, until curdled. In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, combine the curdled milk, banana, and vanilla. Process 1 minute, scrape down, then process another full minute until thick and smooth. Scrape the mixture into a bowl.

Return the blade to the bowl, add the butter and sugar, and process until creamed, scraping down as needed. Add the eggs, then process for about 1 minute until the mixture is satiny, scraping down once or twice. Remove to a large bowl.

If you do not have a food processor, combine the milk mixture and cream the butter in a mixer or by hand.

Add half the flour mixture and half the milk mixture alternately to the creamed ingredients, stirring after each addition until well blended. Add the remaining flour and liquids, stirring after each addition, then stir until smooth. Fold in the floured walnuts and raisins, scrape the batter into the prepared pan, then shake the pan gently once or twice to even the top.

Remove the plumped jujubes from the steamer and cut them in half lengthwise. Arrange round side up evenly around the top of the cake, reserving 1 for the center. Place them gently on top of the batter. Do not press or they will sink when steamed.

Cover the pan with a greased sheet of heavy-duty tin foil, tenting the foil slightly if the pan is less than 4 inches high to allow for expansion during steaming. Press the foil tightly around the sides of the mold. Secure it with string for a light-textured cake, or leave it untied for a moister consistency.

Steaming the cake

Center the pan on a high trivet in a large deep pot at least 1 inch larger in diameter than the cake pan, to permit a good circulation of steam. Fill with boiling water to come within 1 inch of the pan, then bring to a gushing boil over high heat. Cover the pot tightly, reduce the heat to medium, and steam the cake for 1½–1¾ hours, until a dry bamboo skewer inserted into the center comes out relatively clean. (It will not be as clean as with a baked cake, but the clinging bits should look cooked, not pudding-like.) Check occasionally and replenish with boiling water if required, lifting the lid as little as possible to maintain a constant steam.

Unmolding the cake

Turn off the heat and let the steam subside for 5 minutes before removing the cake from the covered steamer. Transfer the pan to a rack, remove the foil, then let the cake cool undisturbed for 30 minutes. As it cools, it will deflate and shrink from the sides of the pan.

Run a knife around the edge of the mold, then invert the cake onto a plate. Peel off the wax paper, then quickly invert the cake, jujube side up, onto a serving platter. If flour is clinging to the sides, dust it off with a pastry brush.

Serve the cake warm or cool. Cut into thin wedges, centering a jujube in each slice.

Leftovers keep upwards of a week, sealed airtight and refrigerated. They may be wrapped in foil, steamed about 10 minutes, and served warm, if you like.

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