Making Sarawak layered cakes (or kek lapis) requires creativity. You need a touch of artistic flair, special baking skills and, not least, the passion to make the best cake possible. Just ask singer-turned-entrepreneur Sharifah Hadijah Wan Moss, a.k.a. Deja Moss, who has turned her passion for the Sarawak delicacy into a viable business.
“The principle is quite simple — like creating an image from a grid of squares. But the baking and layering of the cake is time-consuming and needs pre-planning,” says the Sarawak-born Deja, who started making the cakes when she was 17.
Layered cakes are famous in Sarawak because of their vibrant colours and beautiful designs. It is often served during Hari Raya and other festive seasons or parties. Some say it originated from Indonesia and was formally introduced to Sarawak in late 1980s.
The Indonesians are famous for their traditional Kek Lapis Rempah, which has at least 20 layers, but it is usually made in one colour – yellow – and features a special spice mix that includes cinnamon, anise and cloves. Apparently, the Indonesians first learned to make the Spiced Layered Cakes from the Dutch during colonial times.
“However, it was the Sarawakians who introduced the modern version of layered cakes and became very innovative in their creations. We started experimenting with many flavours and colours like peppermint, coffee, chocolate, Horlick, almond milk and strawberry.
“The list of modern layered cakes is endless, and it all depends on your creativity. The best part is everyone would make their layered cakes differently, depending on their whims and fancies,” says Deja, who started her Hadeeja Kek Lapis Segar business after marrying Azfendy Datuk Azzuddin Ahmad in 2008.
Deja has been operating her small cafe, Hadeeja Kek Lapis Segar, in Ukay Perdana for six years. Prior to that, she was running a small cake business from home, catering to friends and relatives.
“I was making and selling these layered cakes as a side business for so long – until I finally got the courage to do it full-time. Business has been good so far because of my loyal customers. Apart from the long hours and a few hiccups in running the cafe, I can’t complain much,” says the singer who is popular for the song, Di Matamu Aku Di Jiwamu.
Deja makes more than 40 types of layered cakes and has coined interesting names to go with them, like Ameera, Lapis TV3, Lapis Rozana, Isabell, Jelita Biru, Kek Lapis Oreo and Lapis Sisik Ikan, and Lapis Di Jiwamu Dia (after her hit song).
“Apart from the taste, it’s the patterns, designs and colours that determine if the cakes sell. The cakes can be baked in a conventional oven or a microwave oven. The batter is made of butter or vegetable oil, milk and eggs, but I prefer using premium butter and ingredients. There’s a lot of difference if you use premium butter instead of the low-grade butter as the cake will have a different aroma, firmer texture and lasts longer,” says the 37-year-old businesswoman.
The layers are glued together using jam, milk, egg white or any sweet sticky substance.
“However, if you want to maintain the perfect layer of thickness, you have to use a special mould. And it’s always better to make two cake lapis at one go because that saves a lot of time,” says Deja, who spends more than two hours to finish just one cake.
According to her, even if you know the recipe of Sarawak Kek Lapis and are good at baking, chances are you might not have the patience to make layered cakes. This is because the process is laborious, time-consuming and costly.
For just a small tray, you need about 30 egg yolks and two 250g of good quality butter, depending on the recipe.
“Cutting, moulding, arranging and assembling the kek lapis takes long hours. It also takes a lot of patience to design a nice pattern. The colours of the batter are equally important. You have to bake it layer by layer and alternate the colours to achieve the desired effect.
“I would normally sketch the design and visualise it in my head first before I get down to doing the cake. I have to imagine the whole picture in terms of squares and triangles and visualise the cake from all dimensions before I can put it together. Believe me, it’s not as easy as it looks. Imagine you have to arrange the squares and clusters for each layer and figure out how to arrange them to become an attractive, neat pattern,” says Deja.
Once the baking is done, Deja will wait for the cake to cool to room temperature before putting it in the chiller. The cake is then cut into strips about 2cm in width, stuck together with jam and then rolled up tightly in a plain cake skin.
Making layered cakes with flower patterns requires the same principles, but instead of a full square, Deja incorporates triangles to form the petals, stalk and leaves on a square-by-square basis. She also makes layered cakes with letters or names. These are popular for birthdays and special occasions.
“We have different flavours to cater to different taste buds like Prune, Haw Flakes, Cadbury, Chocolate Rice, Oreo, Chocolate Chips, Cheese, Horlicks, Milo, Strawberry, Orange and Plum which are all inspired from home-made ingredients.
Each layer is tastefully arranged with various natural flavours in between. As a result of the lengthy preparations and all the hassle, it’s understandable why layered cakes are quite pricey,” explains Deja.
An 8x8-inch cake can easily cost up to RM120, RM180, or even RM250, depending on the ingredients used. Though the process is time-consuming and tedious, Deja loves making layered cakes.
“It’s because of the passion for it. I am still hooked to it, just like singing.
“The secret to making a best-seller kek lapis, apart from the artistic flair, is to use the best ingredients,” stresses Deja whose last album was Mulanya Di Sini in 2006.
Deja says layered cakes have a symbolic meaning behind them.
“Underneath all the striking colours within the layers, it’s actually a symbol of strength in unity. All the shades come together under one beautiful cake, reminding one of the different ethnic groups in Sarawak,” she says.
Deja who will open another branch in Wangsa Maju soon.
Apart from the layered cakes, Hadeeja’s cafe also serves traditional Sarawak dishes like Mi Kolok, Laksa Sarawak, Mi Udang Lobster, Mi Udang Galah, Nasi Goreng Dabay, Nasi Aruk, Umai and Ambuyat.
The most popular is Mi Udang Lobster, Mi Kolok and Mi Udang Galah.
A big bowl of Mi Udang Lobster is between RM40 and RM120, while the Mi Udang Galah is around RM20 to RM60 depending on the size of the prawns used.