Earl Carter
Earl Carter
Earl Carter
Earl Carter
Credit: Earl Carter

Steamed Chinese sponge cake with custard

Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.

Credit: Earl Carter

What’s nice about this dessert is the sheer comfort it gives. It reminds me of something that should be wheeled on a trolley, covered tightly in cling wrap. Except that it is actually delicious. It has the kind of texture wasted on the infirm. If I had false teeth, I would happily take them out to eat it.

I cooked this for a group of my chefs recently, while I was testing the recipe, and they were all quite taken. Coming from a world where desserts are always layered and rich and complex, it was a relief to taste something that was entirely unfussy, that was completely honest, that was designed simply to comfort.

The inspiration for this recipe has been lifted straight from the yum cha trolley. The ginger sponge comes in different guises: sometimes they are light as a feather, other times they are incredibly dense. The flavours range from strong ginger to something that focuses more on treacle. I like both, which is why this recipe sits as a hybrid somewhere between the two.

There is a stereotypical presumption in the West that the Chinese are not known for their desserts. This comes from the assumption that ethnic foods as they are served here are a full account of that cuisine. They are not. Greek food is more than grilled meat and saganaki; Indian food is more than butter chicken. 

With Chinese desserts – and a lot of Chinese food – texture plays an important role. There is a focus on glutinous rice, different gelatines and pastries. Generally, though, desserts are not served as part of a Chinese meal. They are really more a part of yum cha. Most of the Chinese desserts we see in this country are Cantonese. 

One Chinese dessert I love is a warm tofu set in a wooden barrel and served at the table, scraped off the top of the barrel for each portion and topped with ginger syrup. Another favourite is a special at Flower Drum in Melbourne: a dessert of toffee apple cooked at the table, with a toffee made in a pan and the apples rolled in this before being plunged into a bowl of iced water to set. It is a delicious spectacle.

At yum cha, this ginger cake is usually carved and presented as a cube. In this recipe, I’ve added custard to dress it up a little. The idea borrows from another Chinese dessert of steamed bread served alongside a bowl of sweetened condensed milk.


Serves 6

  • 150g plain flour
  • 2 tsp powdered ginger
  • 1½ tsp baking powder 
  • 4 eggs
  • 230g castor sugar
  1. You will need a large pot with a trivet placed inside that can hold the cake tin above the boiling water, or a steamer large enough to accommodate the cake tin.
  2. Grease a 15- to 18-centimetre cake tin with butter or oil and line the base with a piece of baking paper cut to fit the bottom of the tin. Make sure to lightly grease the baking paper, too.
  3. In a bowl, sift together the flour, powdered ginger and baking powder and set aside.
  4. Combine the eggs and sugar in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until the mixture is pale, fluffy and triple its original volume. Very gently fold the flour, ginger and baking powder into the egg mixture and pour the batter into the prepared cake tin.
  5. Place the cake in the steamer basket set over a large pot of boiling water or lower it carefully onto the trivet in the pot, so that the cake tin sits above the boiling water. Reduce to a medium heat, cover and steam for about 20-30 minutes or until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Watch the water level in the pot while the cake cooks and carefully top it up as necessary.
  6. Serve the sponge warm with custard.


  • 6 egg yolks
  • 120g castor sugar
  • 500ml milk
  • 1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped 
  1. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl.
  2. In a saucepan, combine the milk, vanilla seeds and scraped-out bean and bring just to the boil.
  3. Pour the hot milk into the bowl of yolks while whisking constantly, then pour the mixture back into the saucepan. Cook slowly over a gentle heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to lightly coat the back of your spoon.
  4. Remove from the heat and pour through a fine sieve into a jug or bowl.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "The lovin’ spoonful".

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Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.

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