Although the Chinese sticky rice cake dessert called Nian Gao is commonly eaten during Lunar New Year, it’s usually steamed.
Chewy rice cakes, in many forms both sweet and savory, are popular in several Asian cuisines. The sticky rice cake dessert, Nian Gao, is not the same as the chewy rice cake ovalettes, also called Nian Gao, that are stir-fried in Shanghai cuisine. (Confused yet?) My baked Nian Gao is dense and chewy, similar to the texture of a soft gummy bear. The enjoyable bouncy chew is one of its big draws. If you’re a corners and edge fan of brownies, you’ll really dig the corners and edges of baked Nian Gao.
The sticky rice cake dessert I grew up with came as heavy steamed cakes of sweet rice flour, sugar, and water and were usually gifted to us, the way other cultures gift fruitcake. The Nian Gao were meant to be sliced into slabs, dipped into egg, and then pan-fried. They were soft, chewy and gooey, and tasty enough, but not something I would go out of my way to make.
Then, I found a children's book in the library, a Chinese version of The Gingerbread Man, which included a recipe for a baked Nian Gao with a red bean paste layer sandwiched inside the rice cake. Intrigued by this, I gave it a try and brought it to my young son’s class for a Lunar New Year celebration. They liked it, they really, really liked it and now I’m sharing my own version of it with you.
Baked Nian Gao is a sweet, dense and chewy rice cake made of glutinous rice flour. It’s sticky, soft and chewy, a little greasy, and very addictive. Hot out of the oven, it’s very sticky and gooey and difficult to wrangle. It’s much easier to cut and handle if you let it cool down to room temperature.
Why Sticky Rice Cake is Served at Lunar New Year
There are two stories behind eating Nian Gao for the Lunar New Year. The first is that the translation is "sticky cake" with the homophones also meaning "high year," a reference to advancement.
The other story has to do with feeding the Kitchen God something sticky so his mouth is stuck shut and he can't report anything negative to the Gods.
How to Make Nian Gao
While this is a dessert that I usually only bring out for the Lunar New Year, it’s easy enough to make any time of year.
My Nian Gao is a cake made with glutinous rice flour, both brown and granulated sugar, milk, eggs, oil, and a pinch of salt. It is layered or dotted with a sweetened red bean paste, a common ingredient in Asian desserts. However, if you’re not a fan of red bean paste, you can leave it out.
All of the ingredients, aside from the bean paste, are beaten together, half of it is poured into a baking dish and partially baked. The red bean paste is spread or dolloped, over the par-baked cake, then the rest of the batter is poured over it and baked until cooked through.
I will admit, this is not the prettiest dessert you’ll ever see. Like a Dutch baby pancake, it puffs up and then collapses. But when cut into small squares, it’s more than respectable.
Not only is baked Nian Gao quick and easy but it’s filling. A 9x13-inch pan of it, cut into 2-or 3-inch bite sized pieces can feed a crowd. Additionally, it can be made ahead of time.
What is Glutinous Rice Flour?
Despite the name, glutinous rice flour is gluten-free. Glutinous rice flour, also known as sweet rice flour or glutinous sweet rice flour, is made from grinding glutinous sweet rice into flour.
Do not use regular rice flour for this recipe, it will not work. I’ve always used a Thai brand, Erawan, easily recognized by their clear plastic bag with a green label that has three elephant heads on it.
Kado Farms Mochiko sweet rice flour, packaged in a cardboard box, is another reputable brand. I haven’t tried this recipe with non-Asian brands but if using, be sure to use one that is very finely ground.
What is Red Bean Paste?
Sweetened red bean paste is made with adzuki beans which have been boiled and then mashed into a paste and sweetened with sugar. You can find sweetened red beans in different forms: paste, mashed, or whole beans. They are packaged both in cans or in plastic bags.
Look for bean paste with the least amount of ingredients, preferably containing only red beans, water, sugar, and salt.
If you want to make this a gluten-free dessert, make sure there are no gluten ingredients in the paste. If for some reason, you can only find packages of mashed or whole beans, purée the beans in a food processor, or mini chopper if you have one.
I sometimes do this additional step anyway so the bean paste is whipped and loosened up which makes it easier to spread if you want a cleaner looking layer. It’s also perfectly fine to dollop spoonfuls of either the paste or mashed into the middle layer.
Ingredient Swaps and Substitutions
This recipe is pretty forgiving and can handle many substitutions. Use what you have in your pantry.
- You can use all granulated sugar in this recipe instead of the combination of brown and granulated sugar.
- I usually have 2% milk on hand so that’s what I use, but whole milk and 1% work as well.
- Any neutral oil can be used. I use avocado oil, but vegetable oil, corn oil, or grapeseed oil can also be used here.
Sticky Rice Cake Variations
Baked sticky rice cakes are popular in both Hawaiian and Filipino cuisine. Using these ingredients will make versions similar to their cakes or just to mix it up for a different flavor profile.
- Swap half of the milk with full-fat canned coconut milk.
- Top with 1/4 cup shredded coconut or coconut flakes before baking.
- Use unsalted melted butter instead of oil.
Nian Gao is best served with hot tea. If served at the end of a Lunar New Year meal, which usually includes a fresh fruit course, serve this dish following the fruit.
If you’re not eating the Nian Gao the same day or have leftovers, you can cover it in plastic wrap and hold it at room temperature for up to two days.
You can also store in the refrigerator for up to a week. Once you are ready to eat, bring it back to room temperature, or better yet, microwave it briefly, about 10 seconds, before serving.
You can also freeze Nian Gao for up to 3 months. If freezing, wrap in plastic wrap and place in a tightly sealed container. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight and bring to room temperature before serving. As with Nian Gao store in the refrigerator, warming it in the microwave makes it softer and chewier.
Nian Gao (Baked Sticky Rice Cake with Red Bean Paste)
- Cooking spray
- 1 (500g) bag or box glutinous sweet rice flour
- 1 cup (191g) dark brown sugar
- 1/2 cup (114g) granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 3 large eggs
- 2 1/2 cups 2% milk
- 1 cup avocado oil
- 1 1/2 cups (414g) sweetened red bean paste
Preheat the oven and prepare baking dish:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9x13-inch baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.
Whisk together flour, sugars, and salt:
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, and salt. If the brown sugar is clumpy, use your fingers to break it up.
Combine the wet ingredients:
In a separate bowl or 8-cup liquid measuring cup, whisk together the eggs, milk, and oil until fully combined. I tend to use a large liquid measuring cup since I need to measure out the milk and oil and it allows me to pour it out into the batter easily.
Combine the wet and dry ingredients:
Pour the liquid mixture into the bowl of dry ingredients. Use a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to mix the ingredients together.
If you start with the whisk, everything clumps up in the whisk. Switch over to a whisk once everything is mixed together, and beat until smooth, about 2 minutes.
The batter will look and feel like a slightly loose pancake batter.
Add half the batter to baking dish:
Pour half of the batter, about 3 cups, into the prepared baking dish. Set the remaining batter aside, you’ll add the remaining batter later. Bake, until partially set, 12 to 15 minutes. The edges should look somewhat dry, but the center will still be damp.
Add bean paste and remaining batter to baking dish:
Carefully remove the pan from the oven. Dollop the bean paste in small spoonfuls (about 1/2 teaspoonfuls) all over the cake. Pour the remaining batter over the bean paste and return to the oven.
Continue baking cake:
Bake until golden brown on the top and the cake springs back when pressed, another 40 to 45 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the cooking time. Sometimes the cake will puff up like a Dutch baby pancake and then fall as it cools.
Cool cake on wire rack:
Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely in the pan. Let it rest for at least 4 hours. It’s very sticky and gooey if you cut it while it’s still hot. The longer it rests, the easier it is to handle.
Cut cake and serve:
Cut into 2 or 3-inch pieces. Serve Nian Gao with tea, if you like.