Along with lucky red envelopes, I received a gift for Lunar New Year that I could use immediately in the kitchen: a package of water chestnut flour.
Water chestnut cake (ma tei gow in Cantonese) is another snack, along with turnip cake, that is eaten all year round but especially during Chinese New Year. It’s also much easier to make. While the main ingredient, water chestnut flour, may not be a staple on Western grocery store shelves, it is readily available in large Chinatown markets. When I lived in Boston we had a few varieties to choose from. The best kind has a coarse pebbly texture, as opposed to finer dust.
I love how the translucency makes the cake look like marble. I also love tasting the crunchy chestnuts with the jelly texture of the steamed cake.
The recipe also allows for numerous variations. The one below adds a bit of fresh ginger juice to the traditional version, but you can always leave ginger out. I also made a variation using the same amount of almond milk instead of water. My mother used to be even more inventive, substituting with coconut milk, orange juice, or adding black sesame paste. Thinking of variations is half the fun.
Water Chestnut Cake with Ginger
250 g water chestnut flour
1000 mL water, room temperature
500 g dark brown sugar
2 to 3 whole water chestnuts, roughly chopped (or 1 can of water chestnuts, drained and roughly chopped)
1- to 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated
Squeeze the grated ginger through a sieve to strain out juice; set aside.
In a large bowl, mix 300 mL of water into chestnut flour, working in a little at a time. Make sure all the flour at the bottom of the bowl dissolves into the water.
In a large pot, bring the remaining 700 mL water to boil. Pour in brown sugar, and mix until dissolved. Remove from heat, and mix in about 1/4 of the chestnut flour liquid. (Don’t pour all the flour liquid in at once, because too much heat will cook the flour on the spot.) Set the pot in a basin of cold water to cool, then remove and mix in ginger juice and the rest of the chestnut flour liquid. The mixture should have a thick and pasty texture.
Pour the mixture into a 10-inch round cake pan. (No need to grease the pan, since the cake will pop out easily after it cooks.) To steam: Place pan in a large steamer or wok. Bring 8 cups water to boil, cover, and steam for 20 to 25 minutes.
Check for doneness by sticking a toothpick in the cake; if the toothpick comes out clean, you can remove the cake from the heat. Place on a cooling rack or in a basin of cold water to allow the cake to set. When cooled (about 15 to 20 minutes), you can slice and serve immediately.
This cake can be stored in tupperware at room temp, in the fridge, or frozen. (Obviously the colder the storage temp the longer it keeps.)
To reheat, you can either pan-fry the same way as with turnip cake, or steam for 5 to 10 minutes to get the jellylike texture again.