If you’ve been tuning in to this year’s Great British Baking Show (aka the Great British Bake Off, or “GBBO,” as it’s affectionately known in the U.K.), you may have spotted a kaleidoscopic showstopper; a kooky, colorful monster of a cake which Paul Hollywood introduced as “one of the hardest cake designs” to ever grace the GBBO tent—kek lapis Sarawak.
"Kek lapis" directly translates to “layer cake” in Malay (the national language of Malaysia and Indonesia). While this might seem fairly standard—layers are a common feature in dessert, after all—kek lapis Sarawak takes the idea of layering to a whole other level.
Unlike conventional cakes, which are baked once through before layering via assembly, in a kek lapis, the layers are cooked progressively. You start by pouring a ladle of cake batter into a square cake pan—just enough to cover the base—spreading it out thin, then popping it in the oven to cook for 3-5 minutes. You then spread on another ladle of batter, cook it some more, ladle on more batter, cook it again, repeat ad nauseam (or until you run out of cake batter).
And this meticulous layering process isn’t the only unorthodox aspect of this cake, because kek lapis isn’t baked like conventional cakes. Instead, it’s broiled (or, as the British say, grilled). This might seem counterintuitive, but since the layers are cooked one after the other, the heat from the top element of the oven will ensure that only the raw, topmost layer of the cake will be browned, without overcooking the layers below.
All this is only half the story, because what results from this layering-and-broiling process is a classic kek lapis, a cake first conceived on the island of Java, Indonesia. It's a cake that’s thought to be heavily influenced by the butter-and egg-heavy desserts of 18th century Dutch colonizers. But as the latter half of its namesake suggests, kek lapis Sarawak was then brought over to the Malaysian state of Sarawak in the 1970s, where it gained all its modern-day pomp and pizzazz.
While the original Indonesian kek lapis were mostly monochrome—left pale with shades of caramel-brown from the grilling process—in Sarawak, kek lapis got a drastic palette swap. By dyeing it in vivid colors, and then cutting the cake into logs before reassembling those logs to form intricate designs reminiscent of indigenous tribe motifs, the Sarawakians turned kek lapis into a cake of celebration—“a kaleidoscope of colored layers,” as GBBO host Sandi Toksvig put it.
Bakeries like Maria Kek Lapis and Kek Lapis Dayang Salhah in Kuching (Sarawak’s state capital) made the cake famous by selling elaborate, show-stopping versions of it for weddings, birthdays, and cultural celebrations like Deepavali, Hari Raya, and Christmas. So popular is the cake that it’s entered into the realm of home bakers throughout Sarawak and the rest of Malaysia.
Don’t get me wrong, kek lapis Sarawak can be a tedious, meticulous, gung ho-weekend-project kind of cake, but without the time pressure and the glares of other contestants in the GBBO tent, making kek lapis Sarawak is a whole lot of fun, especially when it comes to assembly.
You can go wild on the design, turning it into a gift-box cake like the ever-endearing Bake Off contestant, Henry, did, or give it an artsy, MoMA spin, as David did. But for a simpler introduction to kek lapis Sarawak, start with the classic—one fashioned after a Battenberg, with four square logs of the cake layered with tangy apricot jam, then wrapped with more cake to bind it together. It’s one of the more common designs, a staple at cake shops across Sarawak. And, most importantly, despite being a far easier endeavor than any of the GBBO contestants’ versions, it will definitely still draw plenty of “ooh”s and “ahh”s (or coos of “simply scrumptious,” if you’re Mary Berry).
So, GBBO fans, home bakers, and showstopper-makers, what are you waiting for? "On your mark. Get set. Bake!" —Yi Jun Loh