Lunar New Year: Prosperity Cakes

Every Lunar New Year, my grandmother used to make prosperity cakes—steamed cupcakes that split open at the top, like a blooming flower or a smile splitting open. The concept of abundance to the point of breaking, of excess, wasn’t something she had much of growing up, but it was something she wanted for her children, and her children’s children.

Looking back through blurry memories of her scooping brown sugar without measuring and stirring it in with the pancake mix was barely of any help when trying to recreate her recipe. Reimaginations of the past were saboteurs that convinced me there was an egg involved...maybe even two. My attempts to find some similar recipe were thwarted by my lack of Chinese language skills as well as the increasing rarity of my grandmother’s dialect. In her dialect, these sounded something like “fatt tei.”

Eventually, I stumbled upon Mooncakes & Milk Bread and found just what I was looking for: huat kueh, or fa gao in Mandarin. Certainly neither of these romanizations look like they could sound exactly like “fatt tei,” but it’s not unusual for dialects to vary and they were close enough. The photo in the cookbook looked almost exactly what I remembered, and the ingredients were what my grandmother used: brown sugar and pancake mix. These prosperity cakes were steamed and split open at the top like a smile, or a blooming flower, as though bursting with excess. And I felt a piece of my history slide back into place. The sense of knowing, of a mystery solved, of a torn page in my memory being glued back was so, so satisfying.

But that brings me back to one of the things I love about libraries. In our quest to share the breadth of the human experience through access to accumulated knowledge, whether that be by online resources, books, music or cultural celebrations, we’re preserving things that could easily be lost over time, wonderful things.

So here’s my challenge to you and myself this New Year: identify the stories you carry that are too important to lose, and be adventurous in your attempts to retain and reinvent them.

On that note, between starting my attempts at recreating my grandmother’s recipe and finding Mooncakes and Milk Bread, I was able to put together my own recipe for prosperity cakes from scratch that I like to think is just as good. I’ve included that recipe below.

Prosperity Cakes Recipe

Adapted from Mooncakes & Milk Bread

What you’ll need:

1 Cup Flour

½ Cup + 2 Tablespoons Water

2 Teaspoons Baking Powder

2-5 Tablespoons Dark Brown Sugar (depending on your sweet tooth)

2 Teaspoons Neutral Oil (such as vegetable oil)

Instructions:

Line the containers you plan to use (ramekins, a half-size muffin tray, individual muffin cups).

Prepare a large steamer with water and have it ready on the stove on medium-high.

Mix ingredients in a large bowl until smooth, with the consistency of a thick but just-pourable batter. If batter is too dry, feel free to add a little more water. Pour into prepared containers.

When you can hear the water in the steamer bubbling, place your prepared containers in the steamer basket. Steam for 15-20 minutes, or until the cakes have risen, broken open on top, and have a bouncy surface texture. Try not to open the lid of the steamer early on—trapping the steam and heat ensures the cakes can rise properly!

Let cool before serving.

It’s easy to riff on this for different flavors! Add a half cup of pumpkin puree and some autumnal spices like cinnamon, cloves, ground ginger and nutmeg for a winter treat, or bloom a quarter teaspoon of coffee with four tablespoons of cocoa powder in the warm water with a little extra oil and sugar for a decadent chocolate delight. Since there are no eggs or butter involved, it’s easy to keep this recipe vegan-friendly.

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