Cake

And the Award for Squishiest Cake Goes To...

January 28, 2016

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.

Shop the Story

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“In the capital city, the few cakeshops who make bika ambon often have only small, one-manned shops in random locations. While in its hometown, its popularity as culinary souvenir is now overshadowed by rolled cakes. Why a North Sumatran cake ends up with the name of a city in Eastern Indonesia (Ambon), instead of adopting its hometown name (Medan), remains a mystery.”
— Efiya F.
Comment

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.

Photo by James Ransom

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.

Photo by James Ransom

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.

Recipe notes:

  • 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!

11 Comments

Pauline A. December 21, 2017
Love your story. Trying a few different recipes right now... interesting and I love the chewy taste. ENAK! ;-)
 
rin April 17, 2017
You should also try wingko (also called wingko babat), another Indonesian cake. It's also chewy but is flavored with coconuts. It's similar to the Filipino bibingka that I saw someone else mentioned in the comments.
 
Efiya F. April 14, 2016
Wow, thank you for such a wonderful piece about the cake of my homecountry. It's one of the underappreciated cakes locally. In the capital city, the few cakeshops who make bika ambon often have only small, one-manned shops in random locations. While in its hometown, its popularity as culinary souvenir is now overshadowed by rolled cakes. Why a North Sumatran cake ends up with the name of a city in Eastern Indonesia (Ambon), instead of adopting its hometown name (Medan), remains a mystery.
 
pbf April 13, 2016
To Laura, I think it was nice of Rebecca and Liz to help you with conversions. But really, so yourself a favor and buy a kitchen scale. They are small, cheap and WONDERFUL! Baking -- especially in grams -- becomes much easier and if you have a scale with a tare function -- and I believe all the electronic scales do have this, you can save on the number of bowls you will have to clean up and measuring utensils. But the real boon is that it is exact and reliable. I don't buy baking cookbooks if they don't give weight measurements -- I have become so devoted to my scale!
 
Rebecca April 13, 2016
1 1/4 cups coconut milk (300 millimeters = 10.14 oz.), 1 packet yeast (7 grams = 0.25 oz = 1 packet), 7.05 oz. tapioca flour (200 grams) and 7.5 oz. sugar (200 grams), 0.88 oz. melted butter (~2 Tablespoons). Please correct me if I'm wrong!
 
Rebecca April 13, 2016
Oops, typo - that's 7.05 oz. sugar (200 grams), same amount as tapioca
 
Liz April 13, 2016
There are conversion charts (for grams) available on the internet.
 
Laura H. April 13, 2016
Has anybody converted the measurements to more American-style measurements? I don't have a scale and don't usually measure things in grams.
 
Fairmount_market January 28, 2016
This sounds sort of like the Filipino dessert bibingka, which is absolutely addictive: http://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-markings-bibingka-99486
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. January 28, 2016
Wowowowow that sounds like a cross between this and the mochi cake. That's a match made in (my personal) cake heaven. Gotta give this one a try! Thanks for sharing!
 
Merrill S. January 28, 2016
This is truly a cake unlike any other -- so glad you discovered it!