In the Taiwanese village where my wife grew up, three or four of the burliest men made the traditional New Year cake called nian gao ("year cake"). Bent over a cavernous wok, they gripped wooden paddles and stirred a flubbery goo made of glutinous rice flour, sugar and water. The mixture was placed in molds to cool and congeal, later to be cut into squares and placed on family altars to propitiate the Kitchen God (a moral record-keeper who residejan.s in the kitchen, some say because that's where the juiciest gossip is to be overheard). Over the 15-day New Year holiday, bustling mothers ferried platefuls of nian gao to the mahjong table, along with tea-smoked pumpkin seeds and endless pots of the superlative oolong tea that had been carried down from mountains visible from the window.
These recollections are picturesque, but there is not much flavor to be wrung from glutinous rice flour, sugar and water. According to my wife, the nian gao of her village memory was rubbery and tasteless. She nibbled as many Jews nibble their gefilte fish: as a grim act of holiday piety.
In the U.S., nian gao has happily collided with oven technology and Western baking technique. The crucial additions—no surprises here—are milk, cream, butter, baking powder and vanilla extract. The resulting confection is chewy, tender and crusty, a version of Japanese mochi in the key of browned butter. At Chinese-American picnics and potlucks, nian gao holds its own against American classics like Rice Krispies Treats and brownies. Even 'tweens, those ferocious enemies of everything "weird," will issue a grudging snort of what seems to be approval. On my side of the family—the hypercritical, aggressively gastronomic Jewish side—nian gao has become a highlight of the annual eating calendar, with talk turning to "that Chinese dessert thing" around November.
Even better is deep-fried nian gao. Unlike the deep-fried Twinkie of state fair infamy, deep-fried nian gao is not a gratuitous bow to the obesity culture but a legitimate holiday tradition and a frugal way to revive days-old leftovers. My wife remembers cubes of nian gao battered in egg yolk or wrapped in wanton skin and fried until at once crispy and gooey. The egg yolk method is improvable (see below), but the wonton has always been and will always be an irresistible delivery device, turning even the bad idea of fake crab and cream cheese into a timeless revenue stream.
The recipe below is a serendipity of the local Taiwanese-American community. It drifts about the listservs and winds up taped to refrigerator doors at this time of year (Chinese New Year begins on Jan. 23 this year). Chinese don't seem to mind the massive infusion of dairy, while potluckists of all ethnicities will prize such a fool-proof departure from dessert bar cliché.
Chinese New Year Cake (Nian Gao)
1 lb. glutinous rice flour (nuo mi fen)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
6 tbs. unsalted butter, melted
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 cup sweetened coconut flakes (optional)
Butter, oil or spray a 9 x 12 x 2-inch baking pan, preferably made of ceramic or glass. In a large bowl, mix the glutinous rice flour, sugar and baking powder. Add the wet ingredients and whisk until smooth. Stir in the coconut (optional). Pour the batter into the pan and bake at 350 degrees until the nian gao is browned and crusty and fills the kitchen with an intoxicating buttery fragrance, 60 or 70 minutes. Cut the nian gao into small squares, brownie fashion. Serve warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate leftovers.
To deep-fry: Cut the cooled nian gao into square-inch pieces. Coat in beaten egg and dredge in tapioca starch. Alternately, place in the center of a Shanghai-style wanton skin (white rather than yellow). Brush the edges of the skin with water and fold into a triangular pocket, snugly sealing the nian gao inside. Press the edges to ensure a complete seal. Whether using tapioca starch or wanton skin, deep-fry at 325 degrees for a minute or two, until golden brown. Finish with a dusting of powdered sugar.
Notes: Glutinous rice flour is available in pound bags at all Chinese grocery stores. It should not be confused with nonglutinous rice flour. In the Triangle, the most common brand of glutinous rice flour is Erawan. Look for a transparent plastic bag with green lettering and an elephant logo. Tapioca starch is likewise available in all Chinese grocery stores. Tapioca starch is ideal, but, in a pinch, you can substitute corn starch or panko-style breadcrumbs.
Those not interested in adding oil fat to their milk fat can refresh leftover nian gao in the microwave (10–15 seconds).
Rule of thumb: If you've ever been tempted to steal a Mounds bars from your kid's Halloween stash, add the coconut.