'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Cantonese-style sesame cake 芝麻糕

The Asian answer to brownies?

The semester finished a few weeks ago and here I am with almost four months of holiday awaiting me! That should mean that I have a lot more time for cooking and baking, and for the most part, I have been cooking more. That said, I've been sticking to simple-but-true kind of cooking and baking and have steered away from fancy frosted cakes and pastries.

I've also been making and experimenting with Chinese desserts. Compared to western desserts, Chinese (and Asian) desserts are more straightforward, usually concentrating on one or two flavours and textures. There're simply no plated desserts as such. I personally think that western desserts are a more developed and sophisticated art form, Nevertheless, there's still something homey and comforting about Chinese desserts that I return to from time to time.

Chinese desserts can be divided into two kinds: sweet soups and solid cake-like desserts called gao 糕. They're usually starch-based, and the texture of the gao ranges from soft to chewy, almost jelly-like. I think most people translate it as 'cake', even though they are worlds apart in texture!

I recently noticed that I have two jars of sesame paste that I bought in Beijing last year sitting in my cupboard. I decided to put them to good use by making a sesame cake that is quite popular in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the commercial ones are often too sweet and lacking in sesame flavour. Fortunately for us, it's quite easy to make at home if you start with store-bought black sesame paste/butter. The drawback to that it is that it's usually pretty pricey. You can, of course, toast the sesame seeds yourself and grind it to a puree with a food processor!

The other ingredient that you'll need is water chestnut flour (馬蹄粉), which is often used for thickening soups and gao-making (water chestnut cake 馬蹄糕). This flour gives a chewy but light texture that works well in cutting down the richness of the copious amounts of fat in sesame puree. I've tried making it with some rice flour (粘米粉) in addition to the water chestnut flour, but it made the cake unplesantly sticky and heavy. Better to stick with water chestnut flour only!

Cantonese-style sesame cake 芝麻糕

The preparation is actually quite simple: you mix the batter and steam it in small doses until all the batter is used up. If you pour the batter into the pan in one go, the starch will sink to the bottom before the cake is cooked. You could, however, partially cook the batter on the stove so that the batter becomes a gluey substance before pouring the mixture into the prepared pan and steam.

Incidentally, I've tried making this cake with white sesame. It just doesn't work!

Black sesame paste (unsweetened) 黑芝麻醬 100g
Granulated sugar 80g (5 tbsp)
Pinch of salt
Room temperature water 750g (250g+500g)
Water chestnut flour 馬蹄粉150g

One 20cm square baking tin, oiled

1. Mix the water chestnut powder with 1 cup (250ml) of water. Set aside.

2. In another large bowl, add sesame paste, sugar and salt. Mix with a whisk to loosen the sesame paste.


3. Gradually add the remaining 500ml of water to the sesame paste. Oil and water don't mix. You want to add the water very slowly in the beginning like making a mayonnaise. You're forming an emulsion here, and once you see a sesame soup-like consistency, you can introduce the water more quickly.

4. Give the water chestnut solution in the other bowl a stir, and add it to the sesame batter through a fine-mesh sieve to remove any undissolved bits of powder. Use a spoon to press on the sieve to help dissolve the flour. Remove the sieve, and mix again with a whisk to form a smooth batter.

5. Place the baking pan on a steaming rack in a wok. When the water in the wok reaches a boil, add 125ml of batter to the pan using a soup ladle (the volume should be 125ml). Put the wok lid back on, and steam on high heat for 5 minutes. Repeat for the remaining layers - remember to give the batter a good stir with your ladle each time. You should have 7-8 layers in total. As you pile the layers up, you need to steam for slightly longer because of the increased thickness of the cake. Take your time!


6. When done, the cake should feel firm to the touch. Remove from the steamer and let cool completely. Loosen the edges gently with your fingers, and invert the pan. Stand back, admire the gossamer layers, and serve at room temperature.

Alternatively, you could roll up each layer like a roulade while it's still warm:

This was a classic snack in Hong Kong, affectionately known as 'film' because of its look.


  1. How can the recipe be adjusted if using black sesame powder in place of the sesame paste? Also, can you show me a picture of the bag of water chestnut flour that you use? There are two brands of water chestnut flour/powder at the Chinese market - one is way more expensive than the other, so just wondering which one is the correct one to use. Thanks.

    1. If you use black sesame powder, it won't dissolve in water, so you'd have to blend it with water in a liquidizer first and then strain out the bits - quite a gruesome process! This is actually the traditional method but I devised using sesame taste for ease as well as for a stronger sesame flavour.
      This is the brand that I use: https://skyfoods.com/content/images/thumbs/0003941_-.jpeg Different brands do vary in chewiness. If yours doesn't have an off smell (it should have a fresh whisper) and gives a chewy texture it should be good to use.

  2. I ate some black sesame cake at the Po Lin Monastry at Lantau Island and fell in love with it. I wanted to make it at home. Thx for the recipe! Now i need to figure out where i can get these ingredients from as I live in India.