recipe: steamed brown sugar sponge cake (ma lai gao/马拉糕))

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Ma lai gao (马拉糕) is a popular dim sum dessert, alongside the ever-popular salted-egg yolk custard bao. It’s essentially a sponge cake with a beautiful caramel color due to the brown sugar, and because it’s steamed, ma lai gao is a fluffy, soft and gorgeous cake (it will literally spring back if you push down on it!).

The ingredients for a ma lai gao are pretty simple: flour, sugar, custard powder, evaporated milk and some rising agents. Of course, the exact ingredients and recipe will vary based off of where you’re at, and who’s making it.

This recipe doesn’t use levain, the starter dough that is made of flour and water and then fermented. The levain makes it super soft and fluffy, but here we’ll just sub in the rising agents for simplicity.

As the name suggests, Ma lai gao refers to “Malay” or “Malaysia.” But history has not yet settled the debate as to whether the cake originated from Malaysia and ended up in China, or whether the cake was brought to Malaysia from Chinese immigrants (another theory is that the sponge cake was introduced from Portugal to Malaysia, and then to China). Either way, it’s now super popular in Southern China, and is even the national cake of Hong Kong.


☐ Eggs (2)
☐ Cake flour (100g)
☐ Dark brown sugar (85g)
☐ Evaporated Milk (130g)
☐ Corn Flour (25g)
☐ Baking soda (4g)
☐ Custard Powder (10g)
☐ Baking Powder (6g)
☐ Vegetable Oil (20 mL)


  1. Combine the dry ingredients into a large bowl, and mix well.
  2. In another bowl, add the eggs, evaporated milk and vegetable oil. Beat the eggs and mix well.
  3. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl containing the dry ingredients.
  4. Mix thoroughly, making sure that there aren’t any lumps left.
  5. Use a 3-quart glass baking pan, spray the bottom and the sides with oil.
  6. Pour the batter into the baking pan, and let it sit for an hour.
  7. Cover the top of the baking pan with aluminum foil (to ensure that liquid condensation doesn’t fall onto the sponge cake).
  8. Set up a steamer, and place the baking pan inside.
  9. Allow the water to come to a boil, and wait another 25 minutes.
  10. Turn off the heat, and leave inside steamer for about 3 minutes. This will prevent the sponge cake from collapsing if you remove/cool it immediately.
  11. Enjoy with some green tea! 🙂

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