Every month, in Off-Script With Sohla, pro chef and flavor whisperer Sohla El-Waylly will introduce you to a must-know cooking technique — and then teach you how to detour toward new adventures.
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I like foods with a little chew. I'm endlessly entertained by springy tteokbokki in their spicy sauce. I love sucking up squishy tapioca pearls in boba tea through a fat straw. And every kind of mochi gets me excited, from the ice-cream-stuffed mochi bites at TJ's to pink sakura mochi wrapped in a cherry blossom leaf. Lucky for me — and you! and all of us! — mochi cake is not only simple, but also incredibly adaptable. There's no folding, no sifting, no tempering, no whipping. Once you learn the basic steps and ratio, you can dream up any kind of mochi cake. Lemme show you how.
But first, what is mochi cake?
Mochi cake, aka butter mochi, is a staple throughout the Hawaiian islands — everywhere from school cafeterias and sporting events to potlucks and local bakeries. Cut into snackable squares, it's squidgy from glutinous rice flour and custardy from coconut milk (and, yeah, butter). According to Sonoko Sakai in "Japanese Home Cooking," "Apparently the early Japanese immigrants in Hawaii did not have steamers to make rice cakes, so they baked their mochi in ovens instead, discovering along the way that adding butter gave the mochi a nice brown crust and richer flavor." Butter mochi also has a lot in common with Filipino bibingka, a bouncy coconut-rice cake. Over 100,000 Filipino laborers immigrated to Hawaii in the early 1900s ("and about 65% stayed on the islands," writes Alana Kysar in "Aloha Kitchen").
Glutinous, aka sweet, rice flour is made from cooking, pounding, and drying a glutinous variety of short-grain rice. It is not interchangeable with rice flour. While both flours are made by removing the outer husk and milling the inner kernel of rice, they use two completely different types. Rice flour is made from the medium- or long-grain stuff, while sweet rice flour is made from glutinous, short-grain rice called mochigome. If you can't eat gluten, don't worry! Even though it's called glutinous rice, it is completely devoid of gluten. Sweet rice flour is easily found in Asian grocery stores or online. The brand I prefer is Mochiko Rice Flour by Koda Farms.
This cake is actually a custard
Mochi cake isn't technically a cake, which might be the best thing about it. Cakes are fussy, requiring precise steps and measurements to bake up just right. Try to swap brown sugar for granulated sugar, and the delicate balance of the leavening will be thrown off. Add too many mix-ins and the whole thing might collapse.
Mochi cake, by contrast, is more of a custard — thickened with enough sweet rice flour to make it sturdy and sliceable. Some mochi cake recipes include baking powder to lighten the texture, but precise leavening isn't required because the structure of the cake doesn't depend on it. These cakes are so forgiving, you're free to use any sweetener, fat, liquid, and mix-in. Swap some of the sweet rice flour for cocoa powder, matcha powder, toasted rolled oats, or buckwheat flour to change the flavor and texture. You've got room to groove with the ratios, adding more sweet rice flour if you like it extra dense and chewy (up to 1/2 cup), and more liquid (up to 1 cup) if you want pudding vibes.
Grease and flour flavor your plan
Yes, you can simply grease your pan with butter or oil if all you're looking for is a nonstick surface. But I prefer to use this opportunity to amp up the flavor and texture of my cake with an extra layer of awesome. After greasing the pan, just sprinkle on a light coating of a fine ingredient, which will stick to the butter and create a crazy-good crust. Going for a cheesy cake? Shower on finely grated cheese, like pecorino or Parmesan, which will brown and add another layer of cheesy punch. Want a merry berry situation? Dust that greased pan with some powdered freeze-dried berries. Cocoa, finely ground nuts, shredded coconut, and crunchy turbinado sugar all work great, too. My Upside-Down Peach Mochi Cake takes inspiration from flan, where I line the bottom and sides of the pan with molten caramel.
Play with the ratios
The base of your mochi cake batter requires a flavorful, rich liquid. It can be anything: Buttermilk if you want tang, heavy cream for pure decadence, a combo of fruit nectar and coconut milk for tropical feels, and even puréed veggies for a sweet-savory vibe. Your batter may look thinner than a cake batter made with wheat flour, but that's OK — sweet rice flour sucks up a lot of liquid while baking.
Sugar enhances the soft, chewy texture of mochi cake, so I never recommend omitting it entirely. You can reduce it, but adding less results in a drier cake that's best eaten just after baking. Play around with the type of sweetener. Granulated is a great neutral option if you want other flavors to shine, which is why I use it in my Cheesy Corn Mochi Cake. Or melt sugar into caramel for malty bitterness, as I do in my Upside-Down Peach Mochi Cake. A liquid sweetener like maple or golden syrup will give you a crunchy, crackly top.
Double the fat for a rich cake with a tender squish, or even omit it entirely if you like it drier. Play around with different fats for various flavors, from brown butter for a hazelnut-studded cake to extra-virgin olive oil in a savory beet cake. In the winter, when I'm missing some sun, I like to go for an all-coconut extravaganza where I line my pan with coconut flakes, use coconut milk as my base, coconut sugar as my sweetener, and coconut oil as my fat.
My favorite part of this process, just like at everybody's favorite '90s frozen yogurt store, is choosing my mix-ins. Everything from ripe fruit to chopped-up candy bars work great in a mochi cake. Just make sure to add it at the end and stir well to incorporate evenly. Most of the time I like my mix-ins evenly sized, but if I'm feeling chaotic I've been known to throw half a banana in there. If you're going savory, try adding some spices, like za'atar, smoked paprika, or everything seasoning. Fold in tender vegetables that don't leach out too much water, like fresh beans, corn, or peas.
Make it your own
I wholeheartedly believe there is a mochi cake for every mood. With these base instructions, you can create a recipe to your exact chewspecification™. It's a multiple-choice test where all the options are right. So go forth and make your wildest fantasies come true! Some flavor inspo:
Chocolate-Hazelnut Mochi Cake
Liquid: whole milk and heavy cream
Fat: brown butter
Mix-ins: chopped dark chocolate, toasted salted hazelnuts, and vanilla extract
Line the pan with: butter and finely ground raw hazelnuts
Liquid: whole milk and heavy cream
Sweetener: light brown sugar and golden syrup
Fat: salted butter
Swap: 1/3 cup sweet rice flour for ⅓ cup cocoa powder
Line the pan with: butter and cocoa
Berries and Cream
Liquid: heavy cream and puréed strawberries
Sweetener: granulated sugar
Fat: unsalted butter
Mix-ins: blueberries, halved strawberries, lemon zest, and vanilla extract
Line the pan with: turbinado sugar and ground freeze-dried berries
Two New Recipes!
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