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Monday, September 28, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: The Making of a Sarawak Layer Cake

Kek Lapis Sarawak – Sarawak Layer Cakes

kek lapis sarawak layer cake medley - copyright house of annie

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

my sara sarawak layer cake shop kuching - copyright house of annie

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

lapis masa manis - 'sour-sweet' sarawak layer cake - copyright house of annie

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, owner of My Sara Sarawak Layer Cake shop - copyright house of annie

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

gas-fired oven for baking sarawak layer cakes - copyright house of annie

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.

But Nicely

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

ladling batter onto bottom layer of sarawak layer cake - copyright house of annie

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

green square strips for sarawak layer cake design - copyright house of annie

Yellow Triangular Strips for Sarawak Layer Cake Design

yellow triangular strips for sarawak layer cake design - copyright house of annie

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

laying down the first layer of triangular strips for sarawak layer cake design - copyright house of annie

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

drizzling on condensed milk 'glue' for sarawak layer cake design - copyright house of annie

Next, he laid down the square green layer cake strips in the grooves created by the triangular trips.

Laying Down the Green Strips Layer

laying down next layer of green square strips for sarawak layer cake design - copyright house of annie

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

laying down next layer of yellow square strips for sarawak layer cake design- copyright house of annie

And green strips again…

laying down second layer of green square strips for sarawak layer cake design - copyright house of annie

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

pressing down last layer of yellow strips to make the sarawak layer cake level - copyright house of annie

With the design section done, he can continue baking on the top layers.

Spreading Batter for Top Layers of Sarawak Layer Cake

spreading out batter for top layer of sarawak layer cake - copyright house of annie

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

pressing down last layer of sarawak layer cake - copyright house of annie

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

Idris' sarawak layer cakes at four points sheraton kuching - copyright house of annie

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.

kek lapis nilam - peanut butter flavor sarawak layer cake - copyright house of annie kek lapis mustika hati - copyright house of annie kek lapis mutiara - Sarawak pearl layer cake - copyright house of anniekek lapis nescafe - coffee flavor sarawak layer cake - copyright house of annie

Sarawak Layer Cake Medley

kek lapis sarawak layer cakes - copyright house of annie

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 is located at:

Lot 9957, Aras Lantai, RH Plaza
Jalan Lapangan Terbang, Kuching
Tel: 082-459842

It's near the Kuching airport, just across the street from the Four Points Sheraton, next door to the Bella Italia restaurant.

During the Raya season, you can also find their cakes in West Malaysia, at the Shazzen Sarawak Layer Cake outlets in Jaya Jusco, various locations, KL.

We have so much more to learn and share about the foods of our new home in Kuching. Don’t miss a thing! Subscribe now to receive our latest posts to your RSS reader or to your Inbox.


Tummywise said...

oh those are beautiful!! and thanks for taking the trouble to post on the process of making those cakes. One of the most interesting posts I've read.

Ninette said...

That's unbelievable. Thank you!

marta said...

Thanks for posting the details on how this is made. I really enjoyed it when I visited Kuching in February. It was so tasty and I had heard it was pretty laborous to make.

Irene said...

I was thinking of submitting a proposal too but haven't find the time and ideas to do so. I guess this is the first Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 from Kuching.

Making the cake is a very tedious process, one wrong step in making the layers, everything will be ruined.

Lucky you to spot a shop for this.

K and S said...

that is intense! I think I will stick to eating these rather then trying to make them :)

Kong-Kay said...

wow, that was quick. i can attest to its yumminess esp. the cho. lattice ones.

MaryMoh said...

what awesome, beautiful and mouth-watering cakes!!!

raquel of Cafe Nilson said...

what an awesome post! you can tell how labor intensive it is to make these cakes! they all look yummy, too!

Cate O'Malley said...

Gorgeous - such happy colors~

Sonia ~ Nasi Lemak Lover said...

This is really a awesome post. I just had Sarawak Layer cake in the recent Raya Open House and I just wonder how they make the layer with all kind of patterns., but now I know already..Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this cake sounds like it takes some time & effort to make but totally worth it - the result is amazing! I love the gorgeous designs and colors!

Borneoboy said...

Kek Lapis is one of the most tedious cakes to make. I'm glad you get to document the whole process.

Queenie said...

Truly fascinating! Thanks so much for taking the time to post all of this. If only I had some sarawak layer cake to taste right now, I would be completely happy. :)

Srivalli said...

Yes, its truely beautiful and takes so much patience!..thanks for posting this detailed one..though I may never ever try this, glad I saw how its done..:)

Jen said...

Wow, what an incredible post! And those cakes are beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing. :) I must say those prices are really reasonable!

Diana said...

Wow...looks really intricate and labor intensive! Congrats!

Jada said...

breathtaking! Hard to believe all that work goes into these cakes!

smile4me8p said...

wow, what an awesome experience to see first hand how they are made! the cakes are beautiful! wish i could've been there to taste them with you too!

Ram said...

Thank you very much for posting this cake. I've never seen anything like it. It's a work of art. In fact too beautiful to eat!

Unknown said...

Cake lapis is my favorite, one cake you can't miss at Raya open house :)

almadenmike said...

Wow. What gorgeous looking cakes! Several years ago, Lilian made the plain "Indonesian Layer Cake" at home, and I must say that it seemed like a lot of work expended for a pretty blah-tasting result.

I can see that this Sarawak variety is visually extraordinary and, I'm glad to read you report, also tasty as well.

Sippity Sup said...

That's some cake! Great 24 as usual. Glad to have re-discovered this blog. I got side track during your move. But you are back on my list. Thanks GREG

Catherine said...

Excellent 24 entry! I had never seen these cakes before and found it very interesting and educational. Great job!

Bee Lee Tan said...

if you like to visit.
nyonyapassions bee lee tan

Dorach said...

Wow, being a Sarawakian, I hadn't even realised these kek lapis are specific to Sarawak and originated from Indonesia. Shame on me. You make me appreciate my hometown even more now. I used to take these things for granted.

Jenster said...

I got light-headed just watching all the steps involved in the video! How someone can have the patience to do such meticulous work is beyond me, but I admire them for doing it.

penny aka jeroxie said...

So beautiful and lovely. I am sooo intrigued and amazed. The patience and time that is required to make this is insane. I love the colours as well. Thanks for sharing.

Krissy @ The Food Addicts said...

Oh wow... I have never had the pleasure of trying a Sarawak Layer Cake before. The colors are amazing and the process looks very lengthy! What a great experience you had!

Ju (The Little Teochew) said...

The Kek Lapis are stunningly beautiful. Too pretty to eat. Thank you for this wonderful post. I enjoyed reading it tremendously and I am sure everyone else did too.

Tricia said...

Amazing! Excellent write up! I learnt alot! Thanks!

Next time, I am back in M'sia will make it a point to try it!

Khai Ven said... colourful..amazing!

Tasty Eats At Home said...

Wow, these are awesome. And making them looks intense!

Salt N Turmeric said...

Oooh I love love love kek lapis Sarawak! Those elaborates ones, id actually peel them according to the layer so i can appreciate it more.

I made a simple layered cake once a long time ago in kuching with my late cousin during ramadhan and it took me 5 hours! Suffice to say that I stick to buying them ready-made. lol.

Graet 24 entry Nate/Annie!

Nurit - 1 family. friendly. food. said...

Wow, this is truly amazing!

i bake for you :) said...

They look amazing!! I wish I could make that.. :)

Deeba PAB said...

Absolutely amazing. what a load of hard work for a truly gorgeous cake. Well worth the 24,24,24! WOW!!

Babe_KL said...

yeah these cakes are indeed marvelous. i was told sometimes they come in designs of cakes, flowers etc! amazing!

Rosemaryandthegoat said...

Beautiful cakes. I so enjoyed reading about this. I would never in a thousand years understood how these were made. Thanks

Nate @ House of Annie said...

@all - thanks for your comments!

@Tummywise - thank you so much!

@Marta - they take so much work, it's better to buy them. Only problem is, you can only get them in Malaysia.

@Queenie - come on over!

@Smile4me8p - see you soon! We'll bring cake ;-)

@Ram - edible art, I say.

@almadenmike - the quality of the flavoring ingredients has a lot to do with it, but also the skill in making it. If the cake is too dry, it won't taste as good.

@Sippitysup - don't be a stranger!

@Bee Lee Tan - if you can't find them in Penang, surely you can find them in KL.

@Dorach - thanks! We love discovering new (to us) foodie things and sharing them with the world. Sarawak has a lot to offer.

@Jenster - these workers do it with lots of skill, patience, and joy.

@penny - thanks!

@Little Teochew - you're welcome!

@Salt n Turmeric - thank you!

@Deeba - thanks!

Carolyn Jung said...

These are gorgeous! I've never ever seen cakes like this. Wow, the work that goes into each one is incredible. It's like modern art work.

Katja said...

whoa-what an amazing thing to make! what were the flavors?

Nate @ House of Annie said...

@Katja - if you hover your mouse cursor over the pics, you will see a description of the cake flavors.

Bigarade said...

WOAHHHHHHHH! They look amazing! its great to know people still believe in putting effort into the look and taste of food! great post :)

Cheryl said...

Beautiful! And I bet they are delicious too.

Gillian Larmond said...

Wow! Neat, beautiful, mouthwatering are just some of the words that came to mind when I saw these pictures of delicious looking pastry. Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing.

Susan said...

Incredible! I don't know any other cakes that are constructed in this way. Intricate and beautiful and how generous of the owners to give you such access to their bakery.

Unknown said...

Im a sarawakian who has been leaving abroad for years, but recently just moved to KL. I have been seaching to find Kek Lapis but to no avail. Can anyone tell me specifically where i can get one of those My Sara Sarawak Layer Cakes? I have seen a few sold in Jusco but there are a few from different production house. How is the packaging look like from My Sara?

I cant wait to satisfy my years of cravingness..the last time i had was my teenage age... been almost 10 years! I can tell My Sara is the best of the best from its colors.

Nate @ House of Annie said...

@bigarade - thanks!

@Cheryl - *very* delicious.

@Gillian - thank you!

@Susan - I know...they are very nice people. I wish them all the success.

@Sarah - I don't know what they look like, packaged for sale in KL. Look specifically for the "Shazzen Sarawak Layer Cakes" outlet.

Unknown said...

For the past few days i had been sesrching for the cake at Jusco (various location), Carrefour and Cold Storage. But wat i could find are other brands; Lazat and Anne-Lee.

And i have never heard abt Shazeen outlets in Jusco. Can you provide more specific information? I would appreciate it if u can do so

Erlin said... said that these cakes are also shipped to Switzerland? I have never seen it you know where I can find it here? They look very beautiful!

Nate @ House of Annie said...

@Sarah - we'll go back and ask Idris for more info on where you can find his cakes in KL.

@Erlin - I think this was just a one-time thing where someone who really really missed his cakes paid a lot of money to ship it there.

Nate @ House of Annie said...

@Sarah - we went back to see Idris and asked about where you could find his cakes in KL. Unfortunately, they are only sold in KL during the Raya holiday season. I guess you'll have to get them the next time you come to Kuching!

Zurin said...

This is a very interesting post. Sarawak leayer cakes are so colourful and interesting but the thoughtof making them...oh my! thanks for a lovey post! Ive rediscovered your blog n ill be back :)

Jamie said...

Thanks so much for this link! Fascinating!

Baking Fiend said...

Hi Annie,

I read this post of yours some time back and recently booked a trip to Kuching and now I'm revisiting your post.

may I know if you have any recommendation of any of the sarawak layer cake shops in the city? This shop you posted here is probably too far for me to reach.

Thanks in advance!

Nate @ House of Annie said...

@Baking Fiend - We've no recommendations for other layer cake shops...and it seems that Idris has closed his shop in town as well :-( . If you go to the Satok Market on Saturday and Sunday, then you should be able to find a few layer cake vendors there.

Baking Fiend said...

Thanks Nate. I'm back from my trip and had a great time in Kuching (tho' the weather is abit of a killer. LOL). I managed to get the lapis from the vendors along the main bazaar.