Every Lunar New Year, Mama Lin will steam fat goh (發糕, also known as fa gao), lightly sweet cakes that open up and blossom once they’re steamed. As a matter of fact, many Chinese families steam fat goh to celebrate the new year because of its auspicious symbolism. In Chinese culture, you eat dishes that carry auspicious meanings during new year celebrations. That means eating foods with names that sound similar to lucky new year’s greetings.
In terms of fat goh, the word fat (發) can mean “prosperity,” “wealth,” or “growth.” The word goh (糕) also sounds like the pronunciation of the character “高,” which means “high” or “tall.” When you put 發糕 together, it can carry the meaning of prosperity and wealth getting higher in the new year. Sometimes, you’ll see fat goh translated as “prosperity cake” or “wealth cake” in English.
TWEAKING MAMA LIN’S RECIPE
The fat goh recipe below is based on a recipe that Mama Lin shared with me years ago. Admittedly, I’ve always found my mom’s fat goh to be a little bland, which is why it has taken me a while to test and tweak the recipe. I decided to add spices to the cake and use brown sugar (instead of plain white sugar) to give the cake more malty flavor. I have called my mom to tell her what I’ve done with the recipe, and she has given me her approval. She said, “That’s fine! Do whatever you like to make the cakes suit your taste.”
I’ve added ginger and cardamom to the flour blend, but feel free to substitute any of those spices. By the way, the Iniya and Baraka Cardamom from Diaspora Co. are the best I’ve ever used. The cardamom is so fresh and fragrant that it’s easy to see why they are so popular.
I have also halved my mom’s original recipe to yield about 8 muffins. That is the perfect amount for our household of 2 people. However, feel free to double up the recipe if you’re cooking for a larger party.
LANGUAGE NOTES FOR FAT GOH & FA GAO
Fat goh (發糕) comes from the Cantonese pronunciation. I typically transliterate 糕 (which means cake) as “go” in English. However, the words “fat go” look a little odd together in English. A quick Google search of “fat go” led to many results related to weight loss, which is not what this recipe is about at all. Therefore, I opted to use “goh” for the English spelling of 糕 in this recipe.
This cake is also known as fa gao, which comes from the Mandarin pronunciation. If you do a search online, you’ll probably see this cake more commonly referred to as fa gao.
FLOUR BLEND FOR FAT GOH/FA GAO
To make the batter, my mom uses 3 types of flours: cake mix, all-purpose flour, and glutinous rice flour.
Traditionally, fat goh are made with glutinous rice or glutinous rice flour. Over the years, many Chinese families started using store-bought cake or pancake mixes for the batter. That’s because the leavening agents in these mixes do a very good job of helping the cakes rise high and crack open once steamed.
While some families use Bisquick, my mom has always used Betty Crocker cake mixes to make her fat goh. I suspect my mom learned about the cake mix from her friends years ago and has recognized the brand with the red spoon ever since.
For the recipe, I recommend using the Betty Crocker Super Moist white cake mix because it has the least amount of artificial flavor and coloring. You can also use white cake mixes from other brands like Pillsbury. (Recipe testing note: I made a batch of fat goh using Pillsbury’s Moist Supreme yellow cake mix, and the fat goh looked good. However, I was put off by the artificial flavor of the cake, which seemed to mimic vanilla.)
My mom also uses all-purpose flour in her fat goh. Her reasoning is that all-purpose flour tends to be less expensive than boxed cake mixes. In order to conserve the more expensive cake mix, my mom started adding all-purpose flour to her flour blend.
Personally, I prefer adding cake flour instead of all-purpose flour. By cake flour, I’m not referring to formulated cake mixes. Instead, I mean the plain, unflavored lower-protein flour that one uses to make cakes. The lower protein content in cake flour means less gluten development when you make the batter. As a result, the cake has a softer, less chewy texture. You can find cake flour in grocery stores or refer to this tutorial on how to make a cake flour substitute at home.
GLUTINOUS RICE FLOUR
My mom also uses a small amount of glutinous rice flour in her flour blend to give the cakes a light sticky texture. Typically, she uses the glutinous rice flour made by Erawan (they come in bags with green labels). You can find them in Asian grocers or on Amazon (affiliate link). It is important to note that glutinous rice flour is not the same as white rice flour. The former has a stickier quality once it’s heated up with liquid. If you do not have glutinous rice flour, feel free to use sweet rice flour, like the one by Bob’s Red Mill or Mochiko.
USING WATER VS MILK FOR BATTER
Mama Lin’s original recipe uses water for the batter. When testing this fat goh recipe, I found that the cakes made with milk had better flavor. The big downside is that the cakes don’t crack and blossom as nicely when they’re made with milk (see photos above). I have no idea why this happens, but if you do, please let me know!
HOW TO ENSURE CAKES BLOSSOM NICELY
Everyone wants their cakes to blossom into a pretty 3-petaled or 4-petaled cake. To encourage the cake to crack open in this manner, you need to draw a large plus sign or a cross over the batter before steaming the cakes (see photo below).
The batter needs to be thick enough so that once you draw the plus sign on the cake, those lines don’t flood over immediately. The photo below shows what the plus signs will look like if the batter isn’t thick enough. Notice how the lines are less defined in this second batch.
The question then becomes, how do you test thickness of the batter before it’s too late? Right after you mix the batter, use a toothpick or skewer to draw a line into the batter. If the line floods over very quickly, it means your batter isn’t thick enough, and you should add 2 tablespoons of flour (the cake mix or all-purpose flour) into the batter. If the line remains well defined after 15 seconds (like you see in the photo below), the batter is thick enough.
I typically steam the fat goh in a 6-muffin pan lined with paper liners. I find the texture of the cake comes out the best when it’s steamed this way. The downside to this steaming method is that you can only steam 6 cakes at once.
Alternatively, you can steam the cake in silicone muffin cups. Simply line silicone cups over a large plate or pan, pour batter into the silicone cups, draw the plus signs, and steam. This method allows you to steam more cakes at a time, and the fat goh releases from the silicone cups very easily. Moreover, these cups are reusable, so you won’t generating as much waste as you would with paper liners.
The downside of using silicone muffin cups is the texture of the fat goh. I found that the cakes have a slightly chewier quality when I steam them in the silicone cups, which I don’t like. I could just be overly picky, as my husband doesn’t seem to notice or mind the difference.
Finally, you can probably steam these cakes in lightly greased ramekins, but I have not tested this method yet.
MY RECIPE TESTING BLUNDER
When I first tested the fat goh, I placed paper liners on a plate and poured the batter into them before steaming. Because there was no pan to hold up the structure of the paper liners, the batter simply spilled out, and I was left with flat cakes.
Of course, after the blundered first batch, I blamed the paper liners I used and not my flawed logic. So I decided to test the recipe again with thicker paper liners this time (the batch you see in the left). Unfortunately, the results where the same, so I decided to dig up old photos I took of my mom making fat goh.
When I found this photo of the muffin liners and batter in the muffin pan, I started laughing. I didn’t think that my mom owned a 6-muffin pan, so I didn’t bother using one the first 2 times I tried the recipe. I showed a photo of my mistake to my mother and she laughed and said, “of course that wouldn’t work!” Lesson learned.
By the way, I discovered during my blundered first attempts that you shouldn’t use colorful paper liners for this recipe. The color of the paper cups will transfer to the cake.
HOW LONG DO THE FAT GOH KEEP?
You can store the fat goh in a tight container at room temperature for 1 to 2 days. If you live in a humid climate, you should probably refrigerate the fat goh after a day. The cakes will keep in a container in the refrigerator for about 4 to 5 days. You can heat up the cakes in the microwave for 15 to 30 seconds.
The cakes also freeze well. To reheat frozen fat goh, steam the cakes at medium-high heat for 9 to 10 minutes.
MORE LUNAR NEW YEAR RECIPES
- Dumpling Wrappers
- Nian Gao (New Year’s Cake)
- Turnip Cake (Lo Bak Go)
- Tapioca Thousand Layer Cake Cake (a Toisan cake for LNY)
Fat Goh (Fa Gao, 發糕, Chinese Prosperity Cake)
- 4 oz (113g) Betty Crocker white cake mix (see note 2)
- 4 oz (113g) all-purpose or cake flour (see note 3)
- 1 oz (28g) glutinous rice flour (see note 4)
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom preferably freshly ground
- 1 large egg
- 3/4 cup (175mL/175g) water can sub with whole milk (see note 5)
- 5 tablespoons (62g) dark brown sugar can sub with light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon sunflower, coconut, or vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- large wok
- steaming rack
- 6-muffin pan (see note 6 for alternative steaming setup)
- muffin liner cups (see note 7)
- toothpick or bamboo skewer
In a bowl, whisk together the cake mix, all-purpose flour (or cake flour), glutinous flour, ginger, and cardamom. Set the bowl aside.
In another bowl, lightly whisk the egg. Add the water (or milk) and give everything a quick whisk. Next, add the brown sugar and whisk until the sugar dissolves. Finally, add the oil and vanilla and whisk again.
Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients in two additions. Using a wooden spoon, mix the wet and dry ingredients together, until you no longer see any streaks of dry flour and you get a relatively smooth batter. It’s okay if there are small lumps in the batter, but break apart any big ones.
In order for your fat goh to blossom nicely once it’s steamed, the batter needs to be relatively thick. To test if your batter is thick enough, use a toothpick or a skewer to draw a line on the batter. If the line floods over very quickly, it means your batter isn’t thick enough, and you should add about 2 tablespoons of flour (the cake mix or all-purpose flour). If the line remains well defined after 15 seconds, the batter is thick enough.
Place a tall steaming rack inside a large wok. Fill the wok with water, until there’s about a 1/2 to 3/4-inch gap between the top of the steaming rack and the water line. Bring the water to boil on high heat.
While the water is boiling, line the muffin pan with paper muffin liners. Fill each muffin cup until it’s about 80% full of batter. I like using a large ice cream scoop for this (you’ll need about 1 level scoop of batter).
Using a toothpick or a bamboo skewer, draw a large plus sign inside the center of the batter for each cake. Again, if your batter is thick enough, the lines that you draw into the batter should remain well defined for at least a few minutes.
Once the water boils, reduce the heat to medium high. Carefully place the muffin pan over the steaming rack, cover the wok with the lid, and steam the fat goh for 20 minutes.
Remove the muffin pan from the wok. Let the fat goh cool in the pan for 5 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.
The water in the wok likely will have evaporated slightly. Pour more water into the wok and steam the remaining fat goh.
Serve the fat goh slightly warm or at room temperature
You can store the fat goh in a tight container at room temperature for 1 to 2 days. If you live in a humid climate, you should probably refrigerate the fat goh after a day. The cakes will keep in a container in the refrigerator for about 4 to 5 days. You can eat up the cakes in the microwave.
The cakes also freeze well. To reheat the fat goh, steam the cakes at medium-high heat for 9 to 10 minutes.
- Volume Measurements for Flours (use spoon-and-sweep method to measure flour into measuring cups): Betty Crocker cake mix: 1 cup minus 1 tablespoon; all-purpose flour: 1 cup minus 1 tablespoon; and glutinous rice flour: 1/4 cup minus 1 teaspoon
- Cake Mix: My mom generally uses Betty Crocker cake mix to make her fat goh. She uses whatever flavor she can find, but I prefer using the white cake mix, as it has the least synthetic flavor in the cake mix. You can also try using cake mixes from other brands, such as Pillsbury.
- Using All-Purpose or Cake Flour: My mom’s original recipe, and many fat goh recipes I’ve seen, use all-purpose flour in the flour blend. I actually prefer fat goh made with cake flour because the crumb is less chewy. By cake flour, I’m not referring to formulated cake mixes. Instead, I mean the plain, unflavored lower-protein flour that one uses to make cakes. During recipe testing, I used King Arthur cake flour.
- Glutinous Rice Flour is not the same as white rice flour–the former turns sticky once it’s mixed with hot liquid. I use the Erawan brand that comes in plastic see-through bags with the green label. You can probably replace it with sweet rice flour (Bob’s Red Mill or Mochiko).
- Water vs Milk: Mama Lin’s original recipe uses water for the batter. When testing this fat goh recipe, I found that the cakes made with milk had better flavor. The big downside is that the cakes don’t crack and blossom as nicely when it’s made with milk (the batch on the right in the photo above).
- Alternate Steaming Directions: You can steam the fat goh in silicone muffin cups! Simply line a large pan, plate, or bamboo steamer with silicone cups and and pour batter into the the cups. I noticed that the cakes were slightly chewier when I steamed the cakes in silicone muffin cups. I prefer a more cakey texture, which is why I opt for steaming the cakes in paper liners with a muffin tin. You can probably steam the cake in ramekins too, but I have not tested that method.
- Muffin Liners: Don’t use colored paper liners because the color can transfer to the cake during the steaming process.