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
2tsp vanilla extract
3 tbs brandy
300g butter, diced and softened
1/2 tsp mixed spice
14 large egg whites
(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.