Kek Lapis Sarawak – Sarawak Layer Cakes
Want to know what goes into making such beautiful cakes? So did we!
Getting to Know You
Kek Lapis, or Layer Cake, is originally from our neighboring country of Indonesia. It is made of many, millimeter-thin layers of cake, baked one layer at a time to emphasize the layers. The recipe usually calls for butter, eggs, sugar, flour, and other coloring or flavoring ingredients, but no leavening agents. It’s more like a pound cake than the light layer cakes that we have baked in the House of Annie’s own oven.
About 20 years ago, Sarawakians took kek lapis to the next level by incorporating vibrant colors and different flavors than the original Indonesian recipe. They went even further by crafting intricate designs into the middle of the cakes. These beautiful designs are what makes Sarawak Layer Cakes so unique. The cakes are served on special occasions like birthdays, weddings, or cultural celebrations such as Aidilfitri, Christmas, and Chinese New Year.
Getting to Know All About You
I first discovered Sarawakian Layer Cakes back in my University Malaya days when my classmate, who hails from Kuching, would bring back these cakes after going home for the semester breaks. I was amazed by how tasty they were and also how beautiful. I’ve always thought that if I had a chance to visit Kuching, I would love to get more of these cakes and, if I happened to live here long-term, I would want to take classes to learn how to make them.
Well, it just happens that here we are, living in Kuching and we have been quite enthralled by a lot of the things that Kuching has to offer. When we visited the Satok market a month ago, we found some vendors selling these Sarawakian layer cakes. I was very excited and bought one to try at home. It was decent but not as good as the ones I remembered from back in college.
So it was a nice coincidence that one day when we were looking for a place to eat out, we ended up at a restaurant that happened to be next door to this Sarawak Layer Cake shop.
My Sara Sarawak Layer Cake Shop, Kuching
While waiting for dinner to be served, I ended up walking next door into the store and was greeted by a friendly staff who showed me a catalogue of all the different Sarawak layer cakes that they made. They had numerous cakes all stacked up in their chiller ready to go. But because it was the Hari Raya season (this was about two weeks before the end of the Ramadhan fasting month), ALL the cakes in the chiller were already reserved. Not only that, they weren’t taking any more orders until Raya was over.
Getting to Like You
Being one who never takes no for an answer, I asked if they had any samples at all that I could at least try. Off he went to the back of the shop and came back with not just a small sample, but large strips of discarded end pieces for me to try. With one bite, I could tell that these were no ordinary cakes. They were delicious—moist and buttery and with just the right amount of sweetness.
Lapis Masam Manis – “Sour-Sweet” Layer Cake
I hurried back to dinner next door and told Nate that he absolutely had to try these cakes. After tasting the sample, he too agreed that it blew the first cake we had bought out of the water. We ended up going to the shop after dinner because I wanted Nate to have a look at the store himself.
The staff member (who was actually the nephew of the owner) let us into the back of the store and showed us how they were baking the cakes. We told him we were food bloggers, and asked if we could come back next time with a camera to document the process. Astonishingly, he was more than happy to welcome us back. We got the number of the owner and promised we would return.
When Foodbuzz sent out the call for proposals for this months 24, 24, 24 blog event, I immediately thought that this would make a great event. These Sarawak layer cakes are truly beautiful and labor intensive. The opportunity to learn more about how they were made in a small family-run business was too good to miss out on. We were so excited when they accepted our proposal! We called the owner and arranged to meet him in his store on Saturday afternoon.
Getting to Hope You Like Me
Idris Ibrahim, Owner of My Sara Sarawak Layer Cakes shop
Idris Ibrahim and his wife Hamsiah own My Sara Enterprise. They have been baking Sarawak layer cakes for over 15 years. The storefront, which is located across from the Four Points Sheraton near the airport in South Kuching, is actually only 3 months old. Prior to that, all their baking was done out of their home.
His wife first learned how to make the Sarawak layer cakes from his sister, who teaches baking and other home skills at classes out in the rural communities of Sarawak. After observing her sister-in-law from a distance, she decided that she could do it herself. Without much training of any sort, she took it upon herself to make these cakes and found that she had a knack for doing it. Soon, people started ordering her cakes. Thanks to word-of-mouth advertising, business took off. Last year, they did 700-800 cakes during the Hari Raya season alone.
Idris works only part-time at the store, as he still has his full-time job as a site supervisor for a construction company. One of his best customers and enthusiastic supporters encouraged him to open the store in town to be closer to his customers. At first, he didn’t want to do it because, as he put it, “you don’t have to pay rent if you’re working out of your house.” But the move paid off – this year, they doubled their production with the new store.
In fact, they are so successful, that they were fully booked for the whole month leading up to Hari Raya. In the last few days, he and his staff worked from 7 am in the morning to 4 am the next morning to fulfill all the orders. It was grueling work, but they filled every order. They even managed to make a few extra for last minute customers.
Their layer cakes are famous throughout Sarawak. They are sold to the Sheraton across the street, served to visiting Sultans, sent to stores in Kuala Lumpur, and even shipped to Switzerland.
What is the secret to their success?
Putting it My Way
In a word, QUALITY. They do not cut corners on the ingredients. “Many layer cake makers use vegetable oil or margarine instead of butter. With margarine, the cakes come out drier. We use butter, but not just any butter. We have found that our cakes come out best with Golden Churn brand.” They also use only Grade A eggs and real chocolate flavoring.
Interestingly, it doesn’t take an expensive oven to turn out the best layer cakes. They use inexpensive, gas-fired ovens from Indonesia to make their cakes. Furthermore, they only use the bottom section of the oven. The reason this is that you are not really baking a whole cake – you are actually grilling (broiling) each layer with top heat very briefly. If you tried to bake the cake in a conventional oven, you would end up with a dry, overcooked cake.
Gas-Fired Oven for Baking Sarawak Layer Cakes
When Idris bought his wife an expensive, industrial electric oven for the store recently, he was scolded by the wife. She told him that the electric oven would not produce cakes that were as moist and delicious. With an electric oven, the heat circulates over the whole oven, thereby drying out the layers that are already done. In the gas ovens, the cakes remain tender and moist. This expensive oven now sits in his office unused as they continue to use the gas ovens.
When we arrived on Saturday afternoon, Idris told us that they had gotten a rush order, so his wife and their remaining staff who were not on holiday were back at the home, making cakes. But he stayed behind because he knew we were coming. He even started baking a layer cake for us, so he could demonstrate the process of building a Sarawak layer cake to us. How nice is that?!
A normal layer cake has between 12-20 parallel layers of cake. This particular Sarawak layer cake design has 5 parallel layers on the bottom, a fanciful design section in the middle, and 5 more layers on the top. For each layer, a small amount of batter is measured out, ladled on, and spread evenly in the pan. Then the pan is put in the oven for about five minutes before it is taken out and tamped down flat with a special tool before the next layer of batter is spread on.
Spreading Batter on Sarawak Layer Cake
The middle design will take strips of different colored layer cakes, cut into either square or triangular face.
Green Square Strips for Sarawak Layer Cake Design
Yellow Triangular Strips for Sarawak Layer Cake Design
You Are Precisely
Idris demonstrated how to get a triangular slice by holding a square slice between two, right-angle brackets and cutting between the brackets with a utility knife. The utility knife makes a very clean cut with no ragged edges.
After baking and tamping down flat the bottom layers, he laid down the triangular strips in parallel rows.
Laying Down the First Layer of Triangular Strips
Oh, I forgot to mention that Idris uses condensed milk as the “glue” to hold the Sarawak layer cake design section together. Other cake makers will use jam to hold the layers together but then the cakes don’t last as long.
Drizzling on Condensed Milk Glue for Sarawak Layer Cake
Next, he laid down the square green layer cake strips in the grooves created by the triangular trips.
Laying Down the Green Strips Layer
Another application of condensed milk “glue” and another layer. This time, it’s yellow square strips in the grooves of the green strips.
Laying Down Next Layer of Yellow Strips
And green strips again…
Followed by a last layer of yellow triangle shaped strips, which he then presses down so it is even and parallel to the bottom of the pan.
Pressing Down the Sarawak Layer Cake Design Section
With the design section done, he can continue baking on the top layers.
Spreading Batter for Top Layers of Sarawak Layer Cake
The final layer is the most crucial one. As each layer is baked on, the cake gets higher and the layers get closer to the gas flame. If you are not paying close attention, you will burn the top layer. If that happens, the cake cannot be salvaged and you must start over.
Tamping Down Top Layer of Sarawak Layer Cake
Once the cake is done baking, he cools it to room temperature before putting it in the chiller.
The process of building a Sarawak layer cake is so laborious and time-consuming. Here is a slideshow I put together of the entire process.
Slideshow of Sarawak Layer Cake Making Process
We stayed a full two and a half hours to watch him make one cake (and even then, he had already prepared some of the other layers ahead of time). I can only say that, after having the privilege of watching him make this cake, I am in awe of the people who bake these cakes. I certainly have changed my mind about baking it myself. Even if I knew how to do it, I don’t know if I have the patience to bake something that takes so long and yet is so quickly devoured!
For all the work he put in to making his Sarawak layer cake, his prices are so reasonable. He only charges $25 for a small 2”x2”x8” cake and $100 for a full 2”x8”x8” cake. Thanks to Foodbuzz and the 24, 24, 24 event stipend, we could afford to take home 8 cakes that day.
Before heading off, we walked across the street to the Four Points Sheraton. We went in to see the buffet at the Eatery Restaurant. There we found My Sara’s Sarawak layer cakes, neatly sliced and displayed on the dessert table
My Sara’s Sarawak Layer Cakes at Four Points Sheraton Eatery
My Cup of Tea
After dinner, we called up our food blogger friend Mike to let him know we were coming over to his house with some Sarawak layer cakes to taste. Mike set up his special photo lighting stand in his kitchen so I could take pictures of some of the cakes.
Sarawak Layer Cake Medley
After all the photos were taken, we sat down to enjoy the cakes over cups of tea and conversation. Mike and his wife both agreed, these were top quality cakes. Each individual cake had its own delightful character and flavor.
We’re so glad that we found the My Sara Sarawak Layer Cake shop by chance. We were totally amazed by Idris’ warmth, humility, and willingness to share by allowing us into his store to document his cake-making process. And we are very thankful to Foodbuzz for allowing us to share this experience with you, dear readers!
Cheers and Aloha, Annie and Nate
My Sara Sarawak Layer Cake Shop has closed their shop near the Four Points Sheraton. They are now located at:
MySara Sarawak Design Layer Cakes
Lorong Merdeka 4, Jalan Merdeka