Make the best soft fluffy and moist ma lai gao Chinese steamed sponge cake with this easy and fool-proof recipe. No yeast needed. The cake can be steamed with a steamer or Instant Pot Pressure Cooker.
Ma Lai Go or Ma Lai Gao or Malai / Malay Cake is one of my favorite Chinese steamed cakes. I had this very often for breakfast when I lived in Singapore. I stopped by this little shop on my way to work to get them. Now that I’m so far away from home, the only way to enjoy this is, well, to go to a dim sum restaurant or to make it myself. I can certainly do the former, but making your own ma lai gao is really not that complicated and this recipe gives really good ma lai gao!
WHAT IS MA LAI GAO?
This Cantonese style ma lai go steamed sponge cake got its name from “Malay” and “gao” means cake. It is said that ma lai gao was inspired by the British version of baked cakes, but due to lack of oven in Asia back in the olden days, the cooks adapted the cake to be steamed instead and changed up some ingredients by using local Southeast Asian ingredients like coconut milk instead of cow’s milk and pandan flavor. The Cantonese chef later brought this steamed version back to Hong Kong and adapted it to what it is today.
You may see some ma lai gao have a dark brown color and some are pale yellowish in color. It’s all the sugar that is used in the recipe that yields the color. I like to use coconut sugar (gula merah / gula Melaka) because it gives an amazing flavor to the cake.
TRADITIONAL MA LAI GAO VS THIS EASY MA LAI GAO RECIPE
Traditional ma lai gao is made with levain (starter dough). Making levain on its own is a challenge, especially for people like me! Professional chefs swear by levain to produce soft and spongey ma lai gao. In this modern-day, you don’t see ma lai gao made with levain that much anymore, if at all. Levain is being replaced with baking powder and baking soda in this recipe. This ma lai gao recipe does not use levain or any yeast, but I can tell you that the cake is still soft and spongey and pretty fool-proof!
WHAT MAKES MA LAI GAO SOFT WITHOUT LEVAIN
1. Resting the batter
When the batter is resting, it has time to absorbs moisture, flavor, and oil and the batter will actually thicken. The gluten also relaxes, which in return gives you a soft and fluffy cake. I recommend resting the batter for at least 1 hour. Go for 2 hours if you can. The ma lai gao stays soft and fluffy for days
2. Leavening agents
Since there’s no yeast used in this recipe, the baking powder and baking soda help to do the heavy-lifting to let the cake rise so it will be fluffy and airy
MA LAI GAO INGREDIENTS:
1. ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR
You don’t need cake flour for this recipe. All-purpose flour gives a great result because we are resting the cake batter for at least one hour, which is one of the key steps in producing soft tender cake
Cornstarch is not the same as corn flour (at least not here in the U.S, but I know it is called corn flour in most Asian countries). Make sure you use the starch, usually it’s white in color and it’s the starch extracted from corns. Corn flour is coarser and is ground from whole corns. Cornstarch contributes softness to the cake
3. CUSTARD POWDER
Custard powder is usually available in Asian grocery stores. It contributes to a nice soft texture and nice flavor to the cake. If you must substitute, you can try cornstarch
I usually use large eggs, about 58-60 grams with the shell in all my recipes unless I stated otherwise. It is important to use room-temperature eggs in this recipe
5. BAKING POWDER AND BAKING SODA
These two helps to make the cake light and airy without any yeast
6. COOKING OIL
Any neutral taste cooking oil can be used. The oil also keeps the cake really moist
7. DARK BROWN SUGAR
This contributes to the dark brown color and also a nice molasses aroma. You can use light brown sugar too, but try to use dark brown sugar or coconut sugar if you can
I prefer whole milk because it has that extra fat that keeps the cake moist too. You can certainly opt for low-fat milk if you want
A little bit of salt will certainly bring out the flavor of the cake.
The molasses gives a nice extra flavor to the cake
11. VANILLA EXTRACT
Some people may not like the “eggy” aroma of the cake (I have no issue with that). The vanilla extract can help to cover up some of the eggy aromas
HOW TO MAKE SOFT FLUFFY MA LAI GAO (STEAMER OR INSTANT POT)
1. Line the cake pan or bamboo baskets with parchment paper
2. Mix the all-purpose flour, cornstarch, custard powder, and salt. Whisk to combine
3. Mix oil, milk, and vanilla extract. Whisk to combine and set aside
4. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs until they are pale and fluffy with a mixer on medium speed (speed 6 on KA) for 2 minutes. Add dark brown sugar in batches and increase speed to high (speed 8 on KA) and continue to beat until the mixture is thick and creamy and reaches that “ribbon” stage, meaning when you lift the batter up, it will fall down into a thick trail and remains visible for few moments and then slowly disappear. It is important to reach this stage to get a nice fluffy cake. The volume of the batter should be double or triple by now
5. Sift 1/3 of the flour mixture over the cake batter and gently use a spatula or a whisk to swipe down and fold over to incorporate the flour. Continue to do so until you run out of flour. Work gently but quickly to fold in the flour. Do not overwork the flour. As long as you don’t see any white loose flour, you are done mixing
6. Take a bit of the batter and put it into the oil mixture and whisk to combine. We do this so that the consistency of the oil is similar to your fluffy cake batter.
7. Pour half of the oil mixture from the side of the bowl. Use a spatula to swipe down and fold again to combine. Continue to the next half and fold again to combine. Now your cake batter should be evenly combined and you shouldn’t see any more loose flour or oil floating separately
8. Let the cake batter rests for a minimum of 1 hour and up to 2 hours. I usually rest for 1 hour and if I have the time, I’ll do 2 hours. This resting period is important in producing soft fluffy cake. I’ve tried skipping the resting and end up with drier and tougher cake.
9. 10 minutes before the end of the resting period, prepare your steamer by bringing the water to a boil
When the dough is done resting, mix baking soda, baking powder, milk, and molasses together. The mixture should get bubbly. If you don’t use molasses it won’t bubble as much. Don’t let this mixture sit around for too long
10. Gently pour this over your cake batter and use spatula to gently swipe down and fold again to fully combine them
11. Pour the batter into the pan, about 3/4 full
12. Steaming the cake
– If using steamer: Steam the cake over high medium-high heat. Steam for about 30 minutes if you are using bamboo steamer, and 35-40 minutes if you are using metal cake pan. If you choose to use smaller size, such as muffin cups, steam for about 10-15 minutes. If you use a skewer or a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake, it should comes out clean with very minimal crumbs. If it’s wet, steam a bit longer and replenish water in the steamer as needed and count the time when water starts boiling again
– If using Instant Pot (remember to half the recipe for the cake to cook properly):
Press “Saute” on Instant Pot and bring 3 cups of water to a boil and then turn off
Pressure cook on high for 45 minutes and then release pressure immediately after
8. Enjoy. Let the ma lai gao to cool down slightly and then cut into the desired size and serve the cake warm or at room temperature
MA LAI GAO VARIATIONS
Use light brown sugar. Light brown sugar will give a pale brown color cake and not as dark as to when you use coconut sugar or dark brown sugar.
You can add 1 Tbsp matcha powder or use 1 tsp pandan extract or another flavor you like.
My kids can easily down 2-3 of these soft fluffy ma lai gao cake in one sitting!! I can absolutely relate to that!
MA LAI GAO ON THE STOVE VS INSTANT POT PRESSURE COOKER
1. Cake is not as tall
Pressure cooking/steaming cake with Instant pot is not as simple as I thought LOL. My IP doesn’t have a cake function and so I usually use the pressure cooker function. I have retested many of my steamed cake recipes, including this one and I noticed that the one steamed with Instant pot is not as “tall” compared to the one steamed on the stove. The texture is not dense, however. It’s still pleasantly light and airy to my surprise, just not as tall
2. It takes longer
On the contrary with cooking, steaming/pressure cooking cake in Instant Pot actually takes longer than steaming on the stove. Perhaps it’s the pot-in-pot setup, I’m not exactly sure. But my best guess would be the steam built-up when you steam on the stove is actually much more powerful compared to those with Instant Pot. So, the one steamed on the stove cooks faster
1. MA LAI GAO IS DENSE AND NOT FLUFFY
There are a few possibilities:
1. Your baking powder and/or baking soda may have expired or are no longer fresh
2. Please make sure the eggs are at room temperature. Cold ingredients don’t whip as well
3. You did not beat the eggs and sugar until they reach “ribbon” stage. This is important to create that soft fluffy texture
4. You did not rest the batter. It is important to rest the batter for a minimum of 1 hour. It’s best if you can do 2 hours
5. I recommend using bamboo basket instead of a regular cake pan if possible. The perforations at the bottom of the basket help to cook the bottom of the cake evenly to avoid dense spots
2. IF USING INSTANT POT
If you use an instant pot to cook the cake, make sure you bring the water to a rolling boil first using saute mode and then pressure cook as instructed in the recipe. This will shorten pressurizing time to ensure a fluffy cake
How to store ma lai gao
1. Let the cake cools down completely
2. You can keep them in an air-tight container at room temperature for 2-3 days
3. After 3 days, you can keep them in the fridge for another 3-4 days. But please keep in mind, the fridge usually tend to dry out the cake. So try not to keep them in the fridge for too long
How to reheat ma lai gao
1. Microwave: cover the cake with a damp paper towel and microwave on high for 5-10 seconds or until just warm and the cake is soft
2. Steamer: simply reheat in the steamer for 3-5 minutes over medium heat until they are just warm and the cake is soft again
*Recipe is written for 6-quart Instant Pot. Cooking time should remain the same for 8-quart size but will take slightly longer to pressurize*
*June 14, 2021: The recipe has been improved slightly to delay adding the baking powder and baking soda until just before steaming and to rest the batter for at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours. I really like this latest improvement. The ma lai gao stays soft and fluffy at room temperature.
DID YOU MAKE THIS SOFT FLUFFY MA LAI GAO SPONGE CAKE?
I love it when you guys snap a photo and tag to show me what you’ve made 🙂 Simply tag me @WhatToCookToday #WhatToCookToday on Instagram and I’ll be sure to stop by and take a peek for real!
Easy Soft Fluffy Ma Lai Gao (Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake)
Half the following recipe if you plan to use Instant Pot to steam the cake:
- 5 large eggs (room temperature) (from 58-60 grams egg with the shell)
- 150 gr dark brown sugar you can use coconut sugar or light brown sugar too
- 125 gr cooking oil I don't recommend cutting down
- 50 ml milk
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 175 gr all-purpose flour
- 13 gr cornstarch
- 50 gr custard powder
- ¼ tsp salt
To add last into the cake batter:
- 2 ½ tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 Tbsp molasses You can use 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce too
- 50 ml milk
If using regular steamer- use one of these (see notes):
- 9" bamboo steamer with at least 2 1/2 -inch depth
- 8" square or 9" round round cake pan with at least 2 1/2-inch depth
If using 6 quart Instant Pot- (half the recipe and use 3 eggs) :
- 6" round cake pan with at least 2 1/2-inch depth
- Make sure the eggs are at room temperature. I get them out from the fridge 30 minutes before I plan to start working on the recipe. You can also soak them in lukewarm water (NOT hot water, you don't want to cook the eggs) for 10 minutes to bring them down to room temperature.
- You can use 9 inch round bamboo steamer. If you use 8 inch, the cake will be taller and steaming time need to be longer too.
- I highly recommend using a bamboo steamer lined with parchment paper to steam the cake. The bamboo basket has holes at the bottom and the cake cooks better that way and you won't have dense spot. Regular cake pan will work too, but if you have a bamboo basket, I would use that instead
Prepare the batter:
- Mix the dry ingredients with a whisk and set aside. Mix oil, milk, and vanilla extract. Whisk to combine and set aside
- In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs until they are pale and fluffy with a mixer on medium speed (speed 6 on KA) for 2 minutes. Add dark brown sugar in batches and increase speed to high (speed 8 on KA) and continue to beat until the mixture is thick and creamy and reaches that "ribbon" stage (about 5 minutes or so), meaning when you lift the batter up, it will fall down into a thick trail and remains visible for few moments and then slowly disappear. It is important to reach this stage to get a nice fluffy cake. The volume of the batter should be double or triple by now
Fold flour mixture into the cake batter:
- Sift 1/3 of the flour mixture over the cake batter and gently use a spatula or a whisk to swipe down and fold over to incorporate the flour. Continue to do so until you run out of flour. Work gently but quickly to fold in the flour. Do not overwork the flour. As long as you don't see any white loose flour, you are done mixing
- Take a bit of the batter and put into the oil mixture and whisk to combine. We do this so that the consistency of the oil is similar to your fluffy cake batter. Pour half of the oil mixture from the side of the bowl. Use a spatula to swipe down and fold again to combine. Continue to the next half and fold again to combine. Now your cake batter should be evenly combined and you shouldn't see anymore loose flour or oil floating separately
Rest the cake batter:
- Let the cake batter rests for a minimum of 1 hour and up to 2 hours. I usually rest for 1 hour and if I have the time, I'll do 2 hours. This resting period is important in producing soft fluffy cake. I've tried skipping the resting and end up with drier and tougher cake.
Prepare the baking soda mixture:
- 10 minutes before the end of the resting period, prepare your steamer by bringing the water to a boil
- When the batter is done resting, mix baking soda, baking powder, milk, and molasses together. The mixture should get bubbly. If you don't use molasses it won't bubble as much. Don't let this mixture sit around for too long. Gently pour this over your cake batter and use a spatula to gently swipe down and fold again to fully combine them
Steaming the cake on the stove:
- Pour the batter into the pan and let the cake steam over high heat. Steam for about 35 minutes if you are using bamboo steamer, and 40 minutes if you are using metal cake pan. If you choose to use smaller size, such as muffin cups, steam for about 10-15 minutes. If you use a skewer or a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake, it should come out clean with very minimal crumbs. If it's wet, steam a bit longer and replenish water in the steamer as needed and count the time when water starts boiling again
- Remove from the steamer. Let them cool down a little bit and then lift it out from the pan onto a cooling rack so the bottom won't get soggy because of condensation trapped underneath. Serve the cake warm
Steaming in instant pot using pressure cooker setting :
- It actually takes longer when you steam something in the instant pot (whether you use a pressure cooker or steam function) compared to using a regular steamer on the stove over medium-high heat
- Pour 3 cups of water inside the inner pot of the instant pot. Press saute mode and bring water to a rolling boil and then turn it off
- Set the trivet in there and place the pan on top of it. Close the lid and turn the valve to "sealing". Press "pressure cooker" and let it cooks on high pressure for 45 minutes.
- Release pressure immediately after that. Carefully remove the cake and let it cool down a little bit before cutting and serving. Please note that cake cooked with Instant Pot is not as tall compared to the one steamed on the stove
Thanks so much! I was dying to sate my craving for childhood food & I made this! Hmmm… so tasty. So satisfying!
Hi Jasmin, I’m happy to know that the recipe satisfying your childhood craving 🙂 Thank you for trying and for letting me know!
Hi Marv, I made accordingly to your recipe and the ma lai gao turned out perfect! Another success with your detailed recipes, thank you!
Yay!! I’m happy to know that Teng!! Thank you for letting me know 🙂
Hi, I made this for the first time yesterday and it turned out well on my first try, I was so pleased, thank you for your clear recipe instructions. May I ask, how long this cake lasts and should I store it in the fridge?
Thank you, Chris
Hi Chris, if it’s not humid where you are, this can be kept in an air-tight container for 2-3 days. I can keep it for about 3 days. After that they need to be kept in the fridge. Try not to keep them for too long in the fridge as they tend to dry out the longer you keep them, but reheating by steaming usually will bring them back to life again 🙂
Just tried it, and really loved it! If i wanted to make the recipe sweeter, how would you recommend?
Hi P, brown sugar is not as sweet compared to regular sugar. you can try adding 30 grams of regular granulated/caster sugar and see if it’s sweet enough for you.
I tried this again and made sure the eggs were at ribbon stage. I followed the recipe to the T. For some reason, the cake was still dense at the bottom. Perhaps something went wrong with the steaming process? I do not have a huge wok so the water level is only half an inch touching the bottom of the cake pan. Do you think this could be the reason? I’m frustrated because I made this over five times and each time it is dense on the bottom. Any ideas? Thank you!
Hi Yan, Try not to have the water touching the pan and I usually steam this over high heat to make sure the cake rises.
Hi Yan, I just realize that it could be that because regular aluminum pan doesn’t have “holes” at the bottom like bamboo basket does, so that’s how you end up with dense spots at the bottom. I would suggest using a bamboo basket and see if that helps fix the problem! I think it will!
I tried making mah lai go many times and for some reason, the bottom half of cake is always dense. I’ve tried both yeast and non yeast recipes and this always happens. I use aluminum foil pans to steam this in a wok and I know my ingredients are not expired. Do you know what went wrong?
It sounds to me that the eggs and sugar mixture may not be beaten enough. The batter needs to reach a “ribbon stage”, meaning when you lift the batter up it will drip but the trail won’t disappear immediately. It’s thick enough to hold its shape before disappearing. I hope it makes sense. The ribbon stage is very important or you will most likely end up with a dense cake.