Friday, 11 May 2007

Spekkoek; Indonesian Layer Cake

The warm company of my family and the day-to-day leisurely pace that I have become quite accustomed to the past months will soon be replaced with a sense of stressful urgency (a.k.a. work) as my vacation is now drawing close to an end. I get wistful whenever it is time to leave and I suppose my attempt to cling on to what is dear to me, that is, my family (with one new little guy) and my home, is to dedicate my last week in Kuala Lumpur to preparing several simple sweet and savoury favourites which are heavy on sentiment and nostalgia.

When I was a wee child, Mum used to buy this cake at quite a cost from a (rather enterprising) woman who's daughter or son attended the same school as my brother and myself. I enjoyed this occasional treat tremendously and often thought how lucky the woman's kid must be (but now I am certain the kid could have been deprived of her attention while she was busy making this labour-intensive cake to sell to the parents of luckier children, like myself, at the school). Anyway, characterised by multiple layers of moist, spring-y and tight-crumbed sponge redolent with aromatic brandy and the sweet mixture of spices, this cake - simply known as layer cake, is not just rich in taste, it makes quite a visual impact too.

Although the layer cake has many guises and names including: spekkoek, kueh legit, kuih lapis Java, thousand-layer Indonesian spice cake and Sarawak layer cake, depending on the South East Asian country it happens to be come across, they all follow the same method of preparation and may vary only slightly in flavour. Word has it that spekkoek was introduced to this part of the world by the Dutch when they were colonising the East Indies and although there is no record of a similar cake that was baked back in Netherlands during this time, the cake does bear the closest resemblance to baumkuchen which the Germans have been making with great pride for over 200 years now. But it intrigues me as to why these Dutch settlers who would have been unaccustomed to the tropical weather of this region would subject themselves to the hot, uncomfortable and lengthy process in front of a flaming spit or grill to produce the many (not quite 1000 but often more than 12) eye-catching layers of this cake and did the locals really have the luxury of resources to produce such a rich cake? Perhaps, I am being a little too cerebral here but I have to admit I get as much pleasure in knowing the origins, culture and story behind the foods I adore as I do in eating them.

My advice is to make this cake on a cold, lazy afternoon or evening in the company of a good friend, family member, or both, as it really does make it a more convivial experience. Making this cake in the absence of company is great too as it allows you a moment (somewhere close to an hour) away from life's distractions to quietly reflect on... well, life. Baking can be such a therapeutic exercise, wouldn't you agree?

When the cake has cooled completely, enjoy thin slices with a cup of warm black tea and may I suggest to eat this cake by gently removing and relishing each layer at a time, the way I did as a child and the way I still do today.

Indonesian Layer Cake
14 large egg yolks
200g sugar
2tsp vanilla extract
3 tbs brandy
300g butter, diced and softened
180g flour
1/2 tsp mixed spice
14 large egg whites
100g sugar
(makes one 18x18cm cake)
preheat oven to 180C - grill setting, place rack in the top shelf of the oven.
sift flour and mixed spice and set aside.
line the base of the baking tin with baking paper. Do not grease the sides of the tin.
beat yolks, sugar, vanilla and brandy until mixture is very thick and pale.
gradually add softened butter and beat until well combined.
fold flour and spice into this mixture and set aside.
whisk egg whites in a separate clean and dry bowl gradually adding sugar until soft shiny peaks form.
fold egg whites into the buttery mixture gently knocking as little air out of the mixture as possible.
(meanwhile, place the tin in the oven to heat... caution: tin will be very hot!!)
remove pre-heated tin from the oven (very hot!!!) and spread cake batter evenly. You may tap the tin on the kitchen counter to help distribute the mixture evenly.
cook until the top of the layer is golden brown. This takes around 5-7 minutes. Keep a close eye on it!
remove tin when the surface of the layer is brown and spread another layer of cake batter on top of this.
repeat until all the cake batter is used up.
run a knife along the edges of the cake and invert the cake onto a wire rack to cool.
remove the baking paper on the base of the cake before the cake has cooled completely.


fatboybakes said...

layer cake is one cake that i doubt i'll EVER have the patience to make. i admire people who have. (the patience) bow bow bow.

cin said...

ahh! absolutely one of my all time favourite cakes. mum used to make this and spend all afternoon in front of the oven. i haven't quite plucked up the courage yet.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE THIS CAKE my boyfriends mom baked it and she let me try a piece it was DELICIOUS! best cake i have ever tasted =)

Anonymous said...

Your recipe calls for mixed spice. What is mixed spice?

li said...

hi anon,
mixed spice is a blend of sweet spices which typically includes cinnamon, clove, allspice, ginger and nutmeg. it should not be confused with allspice which is the dried unripe fruit of a pimento (pepper) plant.

Chantal said...

Lovely! I want to give this a try, I came across this cake quite by accident the other night and I've been thrown into an obsession with it since. When I first saw it I though hmmm, sounds like a Daring Bakers challenge, lol.

One question though, your recipe lists ingredients in metric, which suggests you weighed. I don't have a kitchen scale, do you think it will be ok for me to convert to ounces and use my cup measure?

Anonymous said...

On the layer cake - when you bake the first layer how do you prevent it from burning from all the other layers that you will be adding. Some insight and help here please. This will be my first attempt. Thank you

Li said...

Hi Anon,
To prevent the bottom most layer from burning I took the following steps:

1) Line (only) the base of the tin with baking paper
2) Adjust the oven rack so that the cake tin sits just below the grill
3) Ensure the oven grill is well heated to the prescribed temperature.

Technically, this cake is not baked but each layer is grilled. You must make sure the oven temperature is "solid" ie. preheat your oven at least 20-30 minutes before you cook the cake.
Because the layers are so thin, each layer takes only 5-7 minutes to cook - the colour of the surface is a good indication, aim for golden brown as if they are too light, you will not be able to see the layers.
A good thing to bear in mind is, if you cook each layer for too long, they will not only burn, but they will dry out resulting in a tough and dry cake.
I hope this helps - Good luck!

Jacqueline said...

Thanks for the comments on the techniques. When you say keep the oven rack below the grill, you are saying to keep the rack at the highest point in the oven?

Also, where can I buy baking paper? You are not talking about wax paper, right?

Any other techniques? What did you use told fold the whites and the yolks? I can tell that this is a pivotal step in the process.

I am helping my best friend to make this for her boyfriend for his 30th birthday for the first time.

Thanks for this post!!!

Li said...

yes, place the rack at the highest position.
baking paper can be purchased at baking supplies store or at the supermarket - i like the brand Gladbake. i have never used wax paper but i am guessing it is not very heat resistant and should only be used for packaging?
over the years i have moved from using a spatula to a giant balloon whisk to fold the eggwhites/yolks into a mixture - although a more efficient tool, the whisk can knock out too much air from the mixture so i would suggest start with a spatula and be mindful :)
good luck!