Last March, I thought I had found the squishiest cake in the world. And I might have continued in this state of blissful ignorance had it not been for an airplane snack.
Twice during my trip to Indonesia was I handed a yellow, plastic-wrapped block mid-flight. Twice was I fascinated. Neither time was I sure it was cake.
There were so many tubular air pockets running from the top to the bottom that I figured I was eating something made up of thousands of miniature bucatini noodles. That first flight, I bit right in, using my teeth to tear the springy, resilient thing apart. The second time, I was smarter: I pulled it into pieces with my fingers, using the vertical strands for assistance; I knew to save the custardy bottom, dense with egg flavor, for last.
But what was it? And would I be able to find it below 30,000 feet in the air? Forty years ago, I may never have found this food again. I would have had to say goodbye forever.
All hail the internet. A Google image search of "Indonesian desserts" pulled up lots of photos of the many-layered spice cake spekkoek that was developed during colonial times and the shaved ice dessert es campur—and, eventually, a sole picture of a squat mass that was yolk-yellow, deeply-striated, and glorious.
What I had eaten on those airplanes, I learned, was bika ambon, and its floor-to-ceiling air bubbles were the result of yeast, its bouncy resistance a product of tapioca flour.
It's a north Sumatran specialty and a relative (but not a twin) of Malaysian kek sarang semut (known in English as honeycomb cake, beehive cake, and ant's nest cake), Chinese white sugar steamed cake, and Vietnamese pandan honeycomb cake.
To make the cake at home (because surely I could not live without the flavor of egg custard in sponge form), I turned to Dr. Good Baker. All I know about Dr. Good Baker is that she (or he) had posted a "Recipe for successful Bika Ambon" on her (or his) blog, and nothing else. With a headnote this earnest, and a website devoted entirely to the recipe, I knew my cake was in good hands:
After 7 attempts at making Bika Ambon I am happy to say that I have cracked the secret of Bika Ambon recipe. I had tried many recipes on the Internet and found out that somehow they did not produce the quality of Bika Ambon that I was happy with. In fact some recipes gave disastrous results. So I was determined to create a simple recipe that is fool proof. After several experiments here it is.
And so Dr. G.B. helped me to crack the code, too. Soon, I had something in the Food52 offices that could pass for the airline's bika ambon.
Its taste and texture, as Amanda and Merrill put it, are "as if cannelés and crumpets had a destination wedding in Asia." It's eggy like challah, and when you add cinnamon and vanilla to the batter, it's as if you turned that challah into French toast, then concentrated that flavor into a soft yet elastic cake.
If you're not sure about squishy cake, try the Chocolate Mochi Snack Cake first. But when you're ready for something more intense, bika ambon is ready for you.
- 300 milliliters full-fat coconut milk, divided
- 7 grams instant or active-dry yeast
- 8 egg yolks
- 200 grams tapioca flour
- 200 grams sugar
- 25 grams melted butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
- 1 pinch salt
- Brûléed grapefruit and/or frozen yogurt, for serving
- Bika ambon is most often flavored with pandan leaves. If you can find fresh pandan, use them to infuse the coconut milk.
- I prefer the cake best when it's entirely cool and has had a few hours to rest: The flavors get better with time and the squishiness becomes less of a burden (you don't want to feel like you're chewing a stress ball) and more of a boon.
- In this recipe, the cinnamon and vanilla rise to the top to form a speckled, slightly crumbly crust. Do not be alarmed.
What the next squishy cake I should try? Tell me in the comments below!