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Seriously Asian: Steamed Chocolate Cake

[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

Why is this cake sitting in a bamboo steamer? Because it's been steamed rather than baked for moist, chocolate-y perfection. Check out the stats on this cake: an eight-inch cake containing four ounces of unsweetened chocolate, three tablespoons of butter, and one-half cup of sugar. Five eggs go into the batter. The cake takes eight minutes to cook.

Are you impressed? If not, you either a) don't do much baking or b) don't like cake. Assuming that the latter is logically incoherent, the former possibility invites me to offer some typical measurements for a cake of this size. It's generally common, for instance, for an 8-inch chocolate cake to contain three times as much butter and twice as much sugar, if not more. Thirty minutes, at least, is the standard baking time.

The modest use of butter and sugar, as well as the speed with which the cake cooks, owes entirely to the steamed preparation. Cooked in its bamboo sauna, the cake needs much less fat and liquefied sugar to stay moist. Light but creamy, the texture falls somewhere between a cake and a chilled mousse. Try it for a change from your typical butter-laden holiday baking.

Steamed Desserts

Unlike Western-style kitchens, the line-up of Asian kitchen appliances rarely includes the oven. In lieu of ovens, Asian cooks will often steam their sweets. Japanese and Chinese cakes, such as the sponge cakes served at Cantonese dim sum or Japanese-style cheesecake soufflés, are steamed. Other confections, like Vietnamese and Thai glutinous rice patties, are wrapped and steamed in banana and pandan leaves. Oftentimes, cakes cooked in a steamer taste purer than those baked in the oven; without too much butter, the flavor of the main ingredient really comes through.

Components of the Cake

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20091218-steamedcake-chopping.jpgThe majority of this cake is comprised of chocolate and egg. Like a soufflé, this cake is leavened by beaten egg whites rather than baking powder or baking soda, and just one-half cup of cake flour and one tablespoon of rice flour are added to the batter.

In trial runs of the cake, I found that too much flour imparts a dense, gummy heaviness to the cake, while too much chocolate makes it difficult to achieve a perfectly smooth batter that blends well with the beaten egg whites. When melting the chocolate, be sure to finely chop the chocolate before adding it to the double boiler. (A serrated bread knife makes quick work of the task.) Let the chocolate melt undisturbed in the double boiler after it's been taken off the heat. Doing so is a foolproof way of achieving a smooth texture without risking the separation of the oil from the solids in the chocolate.

Finally, I like to add a spike of rum or a spoonful of instant coffee for additional depth. Orange zest and liquor, or vanilla and almond extra, would be fine complements as well.

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor."

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Steamed Chocolate Cake

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