One of the hardest cakes to make isn’t one of those pretty creations that you can find in most cake bakers’ shops – it’s actually touted on The Great British Bake Off as “one of the hardest cake designs to make”. That cake is actually something familiar to all of us in Singapore: kek lapis Sarawak. Slicing off a piece of kek lapis reveals a kaleidoscope of colourful layers, arranged in elaborate geometric designs – each cake truly showcases the talents of the baker.
History of the kek lapis
The origins of this cake can be traced to the kueh lapis that we know today – which was introduced to Sarawak by the Betawi people from Indonesia in the 1970s. The original Indonesian kek lapis incorporated spices like cinnamon, cardamon, and clove into the batter, which resulted in a cake with monochromatic layers of brown and beige.
Bakers in Sarawak made a drastic palette change to this localised cake, once enjoyed by the Dutch colonists, by adding layers of vivid food colouring and natural extracts.
Baked layer by layer
Unlike conventional cakes, which are assembled after each layer is cooked, kek lapis layers are cooked progressively, by adding layer by colourful layer of batter in a deep cake pan. Each layer of colourful batter has to cook in the oven – in under 10 minutes per layer – before the next layer is added, and things can go wrong at any point in time.
Bakers carefully cut up the cooled cakes and reassemble them, using jam or condensed milk as glue, to form intricate designs reminiscent of indigenous tribe motifs. Some of the more creative bakers come up with cakes that include Oreos, chocolate, or raisins, and have to be careful not to break the cake when including these ingredients. Because designs can become really intricate, some bakers sketch their designs before baking.
Unsurprisingly, building these cakes requires a vivid imagination, an almost mathematical mind for detail, and a very steady hand. Mistakes during the layering process can spell disaster for the final cake – however, it’s satisfying when the vibrant pattern appears when the cake is sliced.
Enjoying the cakes
Making one kek lapis Sarawak can take anywhere from four to 12 hours, depending on the complexity of the design, and can cost up to RM250 per cake. Kuching-based bakeries like Maria Kek Lapis and Kek Lapis Dayang Salhah popularised the cake by selling elaborate, show-stopping versions.
Because of the lengthy time it takes to bake a kek lapis Sarawak, it’s usually baked for holidays like Gawai Dayak or Hari Raya but these days, they’re increasingly being sold year-round for other celebrations like weddings, birthdays, and cultural celebrations like Deepavali and Christmas.
In 2010, the Sarawak government designated the cake as a “protected geographical indicator,” so that only those made within state borders can be called “kek lapis Sarawak” or “Sarawak layer cake”. While you can get the cake in Johor or even Singapore, they can only be considered “Sarawak-style” kek lapis.