Serves a Crowd

Kek Lapis Sarawak (Sarawak Layer Cake)

October 23, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food stylist: Yossy Arefi. Prop stylist: Brooke Deonarine.
Author Notes

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

  • Prep time 1 hour
  • Cook time 2 hours
  • Serves 6-8
Ingredients
  • 6 egg whites
  • 1 cup icing sugar, sifted
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup condensed milk
  • 12 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons brandy, or rum
  • 1 1/4 cups cake flour (low protein flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice powder
  • natural food colouring (I used red, purple, and green, but you can go wild with it!)
  • 1/2 cup apricot jam
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on high speed for 1-2 minutes, until it starts to become fluffy. Add in half of the sugar (1/2 cup), salt and cream of tartar, and beat for another 2-3 minutes until the egg whites form medium peaks. Transfer the beaten egg whites into a separate bowl.
  2. Wipe the mixer bowl clean and change the attachment to a paddle. Cream the butter and the remaining half cup of sugar in the mixer until light and fluffy. Then, add in condensed milk, egg yolks, vanilla extract and brandy, and keep beating for another 2-3 minutes until well-combined.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine the cake flour and allspice powder. Fold this into the batter in 2-3 incorporations. Then, gently fold in the whipped egg whites into the batter, again in 2-3 incorporations, until well combined.
  4. Preheat your oven to 360 °F with the grill/top broiler function on. While the oven is preheating, grease the base and sides of an 8-inch cake tin, and line a separate, half sheet tray with parchment paper.
  5. The half sheet tray will be used to bake the outer layer of the cake, which we’ll tackle first. So, scoop out roughly 2 cups of the cake batter onto the lined sheet tray, and place another piece of parchment paper on top. Using a small rolling pin, spread the batter in between the paper into a rough rectangle, reaching the edges of the sheet tray, making sure that it’s spread evenly. Let this bake in the oven for 3-5 minutes, until lightly browned, then remove it from the oven and let cool.
  6. With the remaining batter, divide them into 4 different bowls, and color each one with a different food coloring according to your liking. (I’d suggest red, purple, and green, and keeping the last one pale, but you do you! You can also do less colours for convenience.)
  7. Pour a ladle (~3 oz) of batter of any color into the greased cake tin, and spread it evenly across the base. Place this into the oven, and let it grill for 2-4 minutes, watching it closely until the top of the cake is nicely browned, careful not to let it burn. (The first layer always take the longest to brown, so pay extra attention with consequent layers!)
  8. Add another layer of batter—a different colour this time—into the cake tin, and spread it out evenly so it forms a flat layer. Put it back into the oven to grill until well-browned, and then repeat this ladling, spreading, and grilling process with the rest of the batter, alternating colors as you go. You should have around 6-10 layers from this!
  9. When the last layer is grilled, cover the cake tin with aluminum foil. Turn the oven setting to bake, and let it bake at 360 °F for 5 minutes. This is to ensure the layers cook through. When the cake is done, remove it from the oven and let it cool in the tin for 10 minutes.
  10. Now onto the fun part—assembly! Remove the cake from the tin, and slice the cake into 4-5 logs with a square cross-section (~1.5-2 inches). (You can use a ruler to measure the height of the cake, and then use that same value from the width. Take four logs, and stack them into a 2x2 square, rotating 2 opposing logs so they form a trippy, contrasting pattern. Brush a thin layer of apricot jam on each sides where the logs touch, and stick them back together. (You might end up with an extra log, which you can eat.)
  11. Ready the half sheet tray of cake for the outer layer (from step 5), and brush apricot jam onto one side of the cake. Place the 2x2 log onto one end of the sheet cake on top of the jam, and roll it up to form a tight log. Trim off the ends and any overlapping parts, then slice it into 1-inch thick pieces to serve!
  12. Kek lapis is pretty filling so you probably won’t be able to finish it all in one sitting. But good thing is they can be stored for several days in an airtight container at room temperature. Even after a week, they should still be, as Mary Berry puts it, “scrumptious!”

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Engineer + cook + food blogger. All about cross-cultural cooking, funky-fresh ferments, and abusing alliteration.