Chinese Black Sugar Sponge Cake (Ma Lai Go) 馬拉糕

malaigo2A few days ago, during some Dim Sum Brunch, I overheard the table next to mine lament on the state of Ma Lai Go (Chinese Brown Sugar Sponge Cakes) these days. The old couple said that Ma Lai Go was either unavailable in dim sum restaurants, or more often than not, relied on baking soda and powder for leavening without a yeast-starter. After some research on the interwebs, I discovered that a yeast-based Ma Lai Go requires around 2 days to prepare, most time spent on patiently letting things proof and rise and ferment.  Another difficulty was finding good quality black sugar (sometimes referred to as red sugar, and often erroneously labelled as brown sugar). Most commercially available brown sugars found in mainstream grocers are made from mixing white sugar with molasses, whereas black sugar is less refined sugar that has naturally containing “molasses” (because it wasn’t refined out), and other minerals, imparting more character into the sugar’s flavour profile.

A good Ma Lai Go usually is moist, fluffy, lightly sweet, with a characteristic honey-comb structure. The honey-comb structure was missed in this version of the recipe (but I have a theory as to why, refer to notes). Overall, I was happy with the flavour and the softness of this recipe, but will continue experimenting and improving. (Some recipes involve a bit of soy sauce to add a briny balance and umami to the cake!)

Chinese Black Sugar Sponge Cake (Ma Lai Go) 馬拉糕

Makes an 9 inch sponge

Sponge/Starter Ingredients
150 g       cake flour
2 tbsp      granulated black sugar
75 ml       warm water (110F/ 43C)
1 tsp        active dry yeast

Cake Batter Ingredients
5              eggs
180 g       granulated white sugar
35 g         custard powder
35 g         bread flour
2 tbsp      milk powder
100 ml     canola oil
30 g         butter, melted

Pre-Steam Ingredients

1 1/2 tsp  baking powder
1/2 tsp     baking soda
1 tsp        lye water/ alkaline water (*refer to note)

The Fun Part:

  1. For the sponge: Add sugar and warm water in a bowl, and add yeast. Allow to yeast to proof for about 10 minutes or until a layer of foam has developed. Add in the remaining sponge ingredients to form a dough. Wrap bowl tightly with cling film, and leave dough to rise/ferment for 24-32 hours (The longer you leave it, the more yeasty/boozy flavours you impart in the cake). After fermenting, the dough ball will have expanded, and become less dense due to the fermentation bubbles.
  2. For the cake batter: When starter dough is ready, prepare the cake batter. Beat eggs and sugar until pale yellow and fluffy. Then, gradually add in flour, milk powder and custard powder. Continue to beat until creamy and pale. Gradually add to starter dough and mix until it is smooth. Cover tightly with cling film, and allow to ferment for at least 12 hours in the fridge. Be patient!!
  3. When the cake batter has been allowed to sit for 12 hours, prepare a wok/steamer that is big enough to fit a 9-inch cake tin. Line the bottom of cake tin with parchment paper and oil the sides. Add the rising agents to the cake batter, mix until incorporated, and pour batter into the cake tin.
  4. Steam for 30-40 mins. DO NOT open the lid for the first 30 mins to prevent collapsing, so ensure there is enough water in the steamer for 30 minutes. Make sure that the lid for the steamer is tall enough, the cake will rise and having the cake touch the lid will impede even steaming.
  5. Enjoy!



  1. A potential solution for the honey comb texture: try adding the pre-steam ingredients at stage 2. Then pour batter into prepared cake tin and allow cake to ferment for 12 hours in the cake tin. When cake has fermented enough, prepare the steamer as in stage 3, and steam for 30-40mins.  I suspect the yeast may develop some more air-pockets over night as the batter sits, and whisking in the pre-steam ingredients may have destroyed the pockets that would have created a nice honey-comb. However, yeast’s activity is often gravely limited in environments high in fat and sugar, so I shall see if this technique will improve things.
  2. Lye/Alkaline water: This is added to bump up the pH of the batter so as to promote the Maillard reaction, which is important for crisping and browning. (This is used often when making pretzels).
  3. Recipe adapted from:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s