February 12 kicks off the Lunar New Year, a 15-day long celebration of the beginning of the new year in the traditional Chinese calendar. For those who celebrate, the very light takes on a bright red hue. For these 15 days in China and all other countries that celebrate the Lunar New Year, the cheery glow of red lanterns illuminates the roads, with red paper pasted over windowpanes and doorways for good measure. At night, fireworks shout across the horizon in rapid succession and burst in dazzling, rhythmic fashion – an unsurpassed spectacle considering the Chinese invented fireworks. At the close, thousands of lanterns are lit and sent to the sky, with hopes and dreams scrolled on the paper that will soon be consumed by the growing internal flame.
But perhaps the quietest tradition is the most important, the reunion dinner, held on Lunar New Year’s Eve. The entire extended family gathers around the dinner table to dine on a multicourse meal made up of dumplings, rice cakes, and more. Food plays an integral part in welcoming the new year, and there is much to feast on. Start this new year, the Year of the Ox, in sweet fashion with the following recipe, Coconut-Almond Rice Cake.
For Chinese New Year, a number of rituals ensure luck and fortune, wearing red, not cleaning, burning fake money and coins and most deliciously, eating nian gao. This traditional steamed sticky rice cake is almost 2,000 years old, first coming to prominence around 200 AD. The cake’s potential luck is due to being a homonym, with nian gao sounding similar to the Chinese character for “higher year.” Meaning you’ll have a bountiful year by eating a slice of this iconic rice cake. Of course, consuming cake is always lucky in our book!
Coconut-Almond Rice Cake / makes 1 (9-inch) cake
This recipe for nian goa doesn’t require a steamer basket – its baked in the oven. And though there are thousands of variations, this shares DNA with all the others through the use of gelatinous rice flour, the secret to its signature sticky texture.
16 ounces (454 grams) mochiko sweet rice flour*
2 ¼ cups (450 grams) granulated sugar
¼ cup (55 grams) firmly packed light brown sugar
½ teaspoon (1.5 grams) kosher salt
1 1/3 cups (320 grams) whole milk, room temperature
1 2/3 cups (400 grams) unsweetened full-fat coconut milk
4 large eggs (200 grams), room temperature and lightly beaten
3 tablespoons (42 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
½ teaspoon (2 grams) almond extract
¼ teaspoon (1 gram) vanilla extract
¼ cup (21 grams) lightly toasted sweetened flaked coconut
3 tablespoons (21 grams) lightly toasted sliced almonds
• Preheat oven to 325° (170°C). Spray a 9-inch round cake pan with baking spray with flour, line bottom with parchment paper. Lightly spray parchment. Place a fine-mesh sieve over a large bowl.
• In another large bowl, whisk together flour, sugars, and slat. In a medium bowl, whisk together whole milk, coconut milk, eggs, melted butter, and extracts. Gradually add milk mixture to flour mixture, whisking until smooth and well combined. (Batter will be very thin.) Pour strained mixture into prepared pan. (Pan will be very full, but batter will not overflow.)
• Bake until top is just nearly set, 50 to 55 minutes. Sprinkle with coconut and almonds. Bake until set and lightly golden, about 40 minutes more, lightly covering with foil halfway through baking to prevent excess browning, if necessary. (Trapped steam may cause cake to puff slightly out of pan while baking; run a small offset spatula around edges to gently release steam and push cake back into pan.) Let cool in pan for 15 minutes. Invert cake onto a large flat plate; discard parchment. Invent cake onto a wire rack and let cool to room temperature before serving.
*You can find Mochiko Sweet Rice flour at local specialty Asian markets or online at amazon.com. Raley’s Grocery Stores carries this in their Asian specialty food aisle