My family has always enjoyed lots of different foods, benefiting greatly from our father's extensive restaurant experience as a Chinese chef and our mother's economic, healthy home cooking. She collected us from school each day and gave us a snack before homework, TV then a proper dinner. We had crisps and shop-bought biscuits quite often, with a pot of tea or mugs of fruit squash but occasionally, our mother would make a simple, satisfying cake that she learned to make at school in Hong Kong.
Chinese palates aren't as keen on sweets as Western tastes, and the cake she made was very plain. We appreciated it as a change from brightly coloured fondant fancies, rich fruit cake under thick royal icing and Battenbergs wrapped in teeth-melting marzipan.
Our mother's cake didn't involve baking, but steaming the cake mix which produced a light and airy sponge with no crust or burnt bottom that I still enjoy today.
The beauty of steaming the cake is the evenness at which it is cooked, and the swiftness with which it can be put together, all without turning on the oven, which used a lot of fuel and heated up the whole kitchen. Steaming is fuel friendly and good for hot summer days as the heat dissipates quickly - and it is always a delight to pull apart a warm, light, fluffy slice of sponge cake with your fingers, better than any iced multi-coloured cupcake from a packet.
The ingredients are simple and the recipe follows a rule of four that my mother learned from her headteacher:
4oz margarine or butter
4oz self-raising flour
4oz sugar of any type
First cream the butter and sugar together. Then add the self-raising flour and mix to form a dry paste. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl until foaming - this is important to give the necessary lift to the cake. Add eggs to the sugar, butter and flour to make a thick batter. If the eggs are small and the mixture is a bit too stiff to pour, add some milk until the consistency is right.
When the batter is mixed, prepare a saucepan for steaming. You will need a large saucepan deep enough to hold a trivet with your chosen cake tin on top, and wide enough to manouevre the tin in and out. There should be some room between the top of the cake tin and the lid, for the steam to circulate and for the cake to rise. The lid needs to fit tightly, preferably with a vent. Add an inch of water to the bottom of the saucepan, place your trivet in the middle and set the water to boil.
Meanwhile, grease and line a cake tin with greaseproof paper extending an inch or so above the edge - this is important as steaming encourages a lot of lift and the extra paper pre-empts any overrun. Pour the batter into the cake tin and then put the tin onto the trivet above the boiling water. Be careful when doing this, it is worth doing a dry run before batter and hot water is involved, just to make sure of the fit.
Put the lid back on and let it steam for 20 minutes, keeping the water at a rolling boil. Don't turn it down if it seems a bit fierce - an insistent, even heat is important for a well-risen cake.
After 20 minutes, test the cake with a skewer or knife; it should come out clean and if it doesn't, steam for a little longer.
When cooked through, turn off the heat and carefully lift out the cake tin. You should have a pale golden crustless sponge cake which can be served straight away as a super-light, very plain warm snack. Or allow to cool and serve like a Victoria sponge with cream and jam.
It is a blank canvas, adaptable for any cake situation, and it was a great back-up for my mother when we were all clamouring for something to eat. It's a recipe I treasure and will serve myself, when my own children clamour for a simple, sweet treat that has stayed fresh through the generations.