Steamed Squash Rice Cakes

These little squash cakes are inspired by khanom tan (ขนมตาล), a traditional Thai dessert made of rice flour, the pulp of the toddy palm fruit, palm sugar, and coconut milk. The batter, traditionally made with no leavening agent other than the wild yeast that comes with the fruit, is left to ferment in the sun for a couple of hours to create the natural “sourdough” effects. After that, they get steamed in little cups made from fresh banana leaves.

I started out wanting to make the traditional recipe only to find out that the canned toddy palm fruit purée that I could find at my local Asian store didn’t come with enough wild yeast to get the batter fermenting properly. So, I ended up with this version that is leavened with both baking soda and baking powder. The appearance of these little cakes is exactly the same as the classic toddy-palm cakes, but without fermentation, the taste and the aroma do not come close to the original.

They’re good on their own merits, though—soft, fluffy, only very mildly sweet, with no spices or anything else to hide the taste of the pumpkin. These little snack cakes are great with hot tea.

Any low-moisture winter squash that I’ve recommended in the post on the best pumpkin varieties for Thai cooking works well here. All you need is a winter squash big and meaty enough to yield about 1 1/2 cups of mashed flesh once it’s peeled, deseeded, and steamed. The purée shouldn’t be lumpy, so use a food mill or a high-speed blender; otherwise press the mash through a fine-mesh sieve. (You can use canned pumpkin purée, but the texture of the cakes will be sticky and not so light and fluffy—gotta keep that moisture low.)

To the mashed squash pulp, add 1 cup of rice flour (the superfine Asian-style rice flour; I recommend the Thai brand called Erawan; be sure to get one that says “rice flour” and not “glutinous rice flour” because they’re not the same), 1 cup of granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon of baking power, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, a cup of full-fat coconut milk or evaporated milk, and 1 teaspoon of coconut or vanilla extract. Whisk everything together just until homogenous and free of lumps.

Get the steamer going over high heat, arrange your vessels into the steamer basket, and close the lid. When the molds are too hot to touch and the water is boiling hard, spoon the batter into the molds about half-full.  (I used the old-school ceramic molds which I purchased from a market in Bangkok last summer. The mere sight of these little molds will automatically trigger fond childhood memories in any Bangkokians over 20 years of age. You can also use small ramekins or other small heatproof vessels.) Top each with a couple of teaspoonfuls of grated coconut or dried coconut flakes.

Steam the cakes until the tops crack open, exposing the fluffy and spongy interiors. The time it takes depends on the type of steamer you use, the distance between the bottom of the basket and the water, the size of your molds, etc. These little cakes made in these little molds (about 2 inches across and about 1/2 inch deep) takes about 15 minutes in a multitiered steamer.

Unmold the cakes and cool them on a rack. They keep in a lidded container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

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