What’s worse than getting poppy seeds  stuck in your teeth? How about black sesame? That stuff can stain, but it’s worth it. Besides being one of my favorite flavors, black sesame is high in anthocyanins (the stuff of blueberries), calcium (more so than white sesame), magnesium, and other minerals. It’s even used in Chinese herbal medicine. Black sesame lends an almost smoky flavor to brittle, soup, and sticky rice desserts. Curiously, it’s not in nian gow, but I set out to change that.
Nian gow literally means “sticky cake,” but since it also sounds like “higher year,” folk wisdom says it’s good luck to eat on Chinese New Year. Sweet versions have sticky rice flour, water, sugar, and sometimes red beans or dates. They’re steamed, and leftovers are pan fried till crispy. Since I don’t have a large steamer, I prefer to bake mine and skip straight to the golden brown deliciousness. If you like brownie edges, you’ll like baked nian gow. Some years ago, Chow posted a baked version, and people cried fowl over the nontraditional recipe . So what? I’m Chinese and I approve. So does my family. In fact, they’ve eaten it 24 times in a year.
Sweet rice flour, also known as glutinous rice flour or mochiko, is made from ground sticky rice grains. It's actually gluten free and not the same as regular rice flour. Find it in Asian markets or health food stores in the baking or starch section. It typically comes in one-pound bags.
You can use Chinese black sesame paste (tahini is different; its seeds are untoasted) and sweeten to taste, but it's less expensive to make at home. If starting with raw seeds, heat in a pan over medium heat. Keep shaking the pan (so seeds don't burn) til two or three seeds jump. Remove from heat immediately and cool completely.
- Combine the sesame seeds with 2 tablespoons oil in a food processor, occasionally stopping to scrape the seeds down the side. Process until smooth, adding oil by the tablespoon as you see fit. It will take take some time for the seeds to release their oils and smooth out.
- Add the honey and process till smooth.
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a 9"x13" pan and dust with rice flour.
- Combine all ingredients except sesame paste and vanilla with an electric mixer at medium speed for two minutes.
- Add vanilla and mix just until combined. Batter will have the consistency of a thin milkshake.
- Pour half the batter in the pan. Drop the sesame paste by rounded teaspoons evenly into batter (the paste will be too difficult to spread). Pour the rest of the batter on top.
- Bake for 40-50 min., or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Cool and cut into squares. Serve at room temperature or slightly warmed.
Dairy-free version: substitute the milk with 2 cups water.