Chestnut gao 栗糕


Air dry and peel chestnuts, crush into flour, add 1/3 as much glutinous rice flour. Mix with sugar and steam. Delicious.

— 食宪鸿秘

Another set of vague instructions from ‘Secrets of the Table’. Let’s start with that gao 糕, a word that usually gets translated as ‘cake’ but can actually mean any cakey thing. That term is as broad in Chinese as it is in English, where you can have a chocolate cake, but you can also have a cake of lime, or mud caked on your shoes.

My first instinct on hearing the the name of this dish was that it would be something chewy and glutinous, like the radish cakes (萝卜糕) you get in dim sum. These are made by cooking the ingredients with glutinous rice flour, creating a goopy mixture that congeals as it cools. So I was expecting a chestnut gao to be sweet version of that, but made with chestnuts. Sounds nice!

Until I noticed–there’s no added water. Instead, these would have been pressed ‘cakes’ made of steamed flour that is compressed into a mold. The only liquid is the amount that sugar can absorb–which we’ll get to.

I peeled the chestnuts, which were in my case already pretty dry and rock hard. No mortar and pestle here. These went right into the blender, though you could also use premilled chestnut flour if you are sufficiently fancy to have some on hand. I added the rice flour as indicated and estimated that I would need about twice as much sugar. So chestnut:sugar:rice flour 3:2:1. Everything went into a flat pan and was steamed for 20 minutes.

Luckily I have a press on hand, but you could also just press the mix very hard into any lightly oiled pan. I discovered that my mix wasn’t holding together, so added more sugar and resteamed. That did the trick.

These are fairly easy to make once you get the proportions right. I had been a bit careless with the grinding. It would have been better to make sure that the chestnuts were a completely fine powder. Despite being half sugar, they did have a strong chestnut taste. Like a few of the previous recipes, I was expecting to recommend adding my own flourishes but ended up liking them exactly as they are.

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