This classic Vietnamese cake is a real showstopper

Last May, Hannah Pham hosted her mother and her mother’s three sisters in Los Angeles, where she was working with her husband, comedian and actor Ronny Chieng. She made them bánh bò nướng, the special-occasion cake she loved as a child in Melbourne, Australia. The women, who were tasting Ms. Pham’s version for the first time, expressed doubts about the quality of the cake. Although Ms. Pham’s mother doesn’t make the cake herself, she had a “bánh bò lady” she would call to place orders.

After years of perfecting her recipe, Pham was confident enough in her cake to serve it to her elders. They were “so impressed,” she said, their skeptical chuckles turning to praise, their expressions of happy surprise captured on camera. Pham first wanted to learn how to make the cake because she remembered the excellent cakes that neighborhood aunties would make for community meals.

Known in English as honeycomb cake because of its interior pattern of holes, stretched like yawns, bánh bò nướng is a jade-tinted pandan paste that flavors the coconut milk batter. The bright green pandan leaves from which the paste is extracted impart a scent that hovers like jasmine and vanilla with a background of sweet herbs and toasted rice. The blend of tapioca starch and rice flour results in a stretchy, sticky, and soft texture.

Pham enjoys it as a comfort food, but she now knows that anyone she gives it to, whether they’ve tasted it before or not, experiences the chewy candy as a delight.

“I just love spreading joy,” Ms. Pham said, both of her work as an executive producer on comedy, television and film alongside Mr. Chieng, and of sharing good food. When she’s not on tour with her husband, she hosts dinner parties and brings this cake to parties. She didn’t start cooking seriously until 2016, when she moved to New York. Longing for the excellent Vietnamese cuisine in Melbourne, where her parents and older siblings had settled as refugees in 1978 and where she was born, Ms. Pham taught herself her favorite dishes and started a food blog.

In 2019, Pham posted a video and recipe for bánh bò nướng, but she’s only perfected it in recent years. To achieve an even, generous rise, she uses double-acting baking powder and avoids over-whipping the eggs, which can cause the cake to collapse. Sifting the ingredients through each step—mixing the flours, whisking the eggs, stirring the final mixture—ensures an airy, even interior.

In addition to finding a foolproof crust, Pham added her own twist by creating a crispy outer crust. She opted for a Bundt pan to get more of the golden brown crust in each bite, and to make the exterior even more caramelized, she reduced the amount of butter applied to the heated pan. While her crispy, crunchy crust stands out, Pham said, “my version is not much different than the classic version.”

It may even be closer to earlier versions of bánh bò nướng. According to historian Vu Hong Lien, author of “Rice and Baguette: A History of Food in Vietnam,” the term “bánh bò nướng” appeared in an official Vietnamese dictionary in 1895, and bò was defined as “creeping” to describe the way the dough crawls up the sides of a bowl. Bánh means cake and nướng translates to “grill,” usually referring to cooking over charcoal, the way most dishes were traditionally prepared.

Traditional Vietnamese cakes and French cakes brought by settlers to the region were cooked over charcoal in metal pans, pots, or molds covered with metal lids that balanced the embers. This close, enveloping heat may have given the cakes a golden, crispy crust.

In the 1960s, some cooks took up making cakes when portable aluminum ovens were introduced into Vietnamese homes. From the late 1970s, some Vietnamese refugees who moved to Australia, Britain, Canada, France, and the United States used Western-style ovens to make cakes. Even before the changes in kitchen appliances, there was no single way to make bánh bò nướng.

“The fact is that each cook has his own recipe and only slightly differs from the original,” Dr. Lien explains. “That’s why each village’s bánh bò nướng is different from the next. That’s what’s best. In fact, it’s the cook’s recipe.”

Ms. Pham’s cake may not taste exactly like the ones her mother has been ordering for years, but it’s definitely a great version—and her mother’s favorite now. It’s so good that Ms. Pham has been dubbed the “bánh bò lady,” creating flavors of home even when she’s halfway around the world.

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