What is spekkoek?
Spekkoek is a type of firm textured layer cake traditionally made from eggs, sugar, butter, and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and mace (nutmeg flower) Spekkoek is a Dutch adaptation of the Indonesian spice cake recipe kue lapis legit. And it is a signature treat in Indo-Dutch cuisine.
What is the origin of spekkoek?
There is no clear indication of exactly when this cake was first created. It is said that it originated during colonial times in the Dutch East Indies, when Indonesia was a Dutch colony. The cake was originally made by the wives of Dutch administrators in the Batavia region of the Netherlands, and served at the end of evening tea.
During the colonization of the Dutch East Indies (Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, India, Taiwan, and Vietnam), the Dutch brought their flavors and culinary techniques to Indonesian kitchens, and using readily-available local ingredients, were able to create some of the most lavish and flavorsome dishes that are still enjoyed in modern times.
How to make spekkoek
Spekkoek is usually made up of over 18 layers of cake, although it can be made with fewer. Truly spectacular show-stopping cakes may have far more, hence its nickname, “thousand layer cake”. Once the mixture is prepared, it is separated into two portions. The spices are added and folded into one portion of the mixture.
A small amount of batter is poured into the cake tin where it is traditionally placed in a Dutch oven with coals piled on top of the lid to bake the mixture. Once cooked, the next layer is spread over the top, and allowed to cook. The whole process is repeated until both portions of batter have been used up.
To save on time in modern cooking, gas and electric ovens and overhead grills (broilers) are used to speed up the process. It is thought however, that using a Dutch oven gives the cake a much more authentic taste.
This laborious process of layering and cooking is repeated as many times as necessary to get the final amount of layers required.
Once a layer has cooked, an alternate layer is added. First the plain, then the spiced, and so on. Some cooks also brush spiced or plain butter between layers to give the cake even more flavor and richness. Once the cake is finally together, it is sometimes finished with confectioners’ sugar lightly sprinkled on top.
In Indonesia, instead of a Christmas spice layer, pandan is used. Prunes and other dried fruits can also be added. Designs range from simple two-color layers to intricate multi-colored geometric designs. Because of the work involved, spekkoek is expensive to buy in shops.
Where does this layer cake get its name?
The name, spekkoek, was originally formed from two words. The word spek translates as bacon or fat, while koek means cake or cookie. Essentially, spekkoek translates to “fat cake”, which doesn’t sound terribly appetizing but given that the primary ingredient is butter, it is easy to understand why this delicious dish was given its name.
Another school of thought is that the cake is named after the pork belly, spek, because the layers resemble the cut of meat.
The Indonesian version of spekkoek, kue lapis legit, translates to “sweet layer cake” – which does sound a lot more appetizing than the literal translation of the Dutch name.
The importance of a Dutch oven in traditional cooking
Dutch ovens pre-date the 17th century, and still play a vital role in everyday cooking across the globe.
In Dutch history, they are referred to as braadpan or sudderpan. They were first fabricated from brass. In today’s cooking across the Netherlands, and indeed the West, they are made from steel, aluminum, or cast-iron, and often have an enamel coating on the inside. They are mainly used for slowly cooking meats and stews.
However, in European history, the evolution of the Dutch oven played a pivotal role in English cooking. In 1704, a man named Abraham Darby visited the Netherlands to study how the Dutch worked brass.
At the time, Darby was working in Bristol (United Kingdom), where he made “malt-mills” for various breweries. He discovered that a finer finish was given to the brass pots if they were cast from a sand mold, opposed to the loam and clay ones they had been using in England.
In 1706, Darby opened his own brass mill in Bristol and soon realized that he would be able to increase his profit and productivity if he used a cheaper material, such as cast iron. At first, his attempts to create the same product using cast iron were futile and unsuccessful but with the insight and assistance of one of his colleagues, James Thomas, he was able to successfully recreate the Dutch oven from cast iron. He later went on to patent the technique of casting of iron in sand molds.
All over the world, it is possible to find cooking pots that bear a strong resemblance the traditional brass cooking pots that were historically used.
In Britain, Dutch ovens are referred to as casserole pots or dishes, and are often ceramic or made from Pyrex.
In Australia, they are called bedouries. South Africa calls them potjies, and across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, they are called chavunoks or chugunoks.
When is spekkoek eaten?
Traditionally, spekkoek is eaten in the winter months, around Christmas time. It is also a very popular sweet treat enjoyed across Indonesia during festivals such as Eid and Chinese New Year. Due to the time it takes to prepare, this layer cake is not considered an everyday treat.
In today’s world, thanks to advances in cooking technology, spekkoek can now be found all year round across various cities, and sold in numerous bakers, supermarkets and candy shops. Spekkoek can also be bought from some butchers’ shops in the Netherlands.
- 1¼ cup unsalted butter, soft
- 1 cup caster sugar
- 8 eggs (at room temperature)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1¼ cup all-purpose flour , sifted
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon mace
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
- ⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 5 tablespoons melted butter (for brushing)
- Separate the eggs.
- With a hand mixer, whisk the butter until smooth, then add half the sugar and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and vanilla extract and beat well.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites until light and fluffy.
- Gradually add the other half of the sugar to the egg whites, while continuing to whisk the egg whites slowly.
- After incorporating all the sugar, increase the speed of the stand mixer and beat until the egg whites form stiff peaks that stick to the whisk.
- Add 2 tablespoons of egg whites to the butter mixture and mix well.
- Using a spatula, gently fold in a third of the flour mixture into the butter dough, followed by a third of the remaining egg whites.
- Repeat twice, folding each time into a third of the flour mixture and then a third of the egg whites. Do not mix for too long.
- Pour half of the batter into another bowl.
- Mix all the spices and the salt and gently fold them into the batter from one of the two bowls.
- Heat the oven grill.
- Grease an 8-inch (20 cm) diameter springform pan.
- Using a spatula, spread a quarter of the unspiced batter on the bottom of the pan, ensuring a uniform and smooth layer about ½ inch (1 cm) thick.
- Place the pan about 6 inches (15 cm) under the broiler for about 2 to 3 minutes or until the top is set. The first layer will take longer than the others because it is slightly lower in the mold and therefore further from the heat source. So make sure the layer is baked before adding the next layer of dough.
- Remove the pan from the oven.
- Using a pastry brush, brush the top of the cake layer with melted butter and evenly spread a quarter of the spiced batter on top, about ½ inch (1 cm) thick, and place the pan under the grill.
- Once this layer is baked, after about 2 to 3 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and brush with melted butter.
- Again, spread a quarter of the unspiced batter over the cooked layer and repeat this process using contrasting layers of spiced and unspiced batter until all the batter and the melted butter are used up.
- There should be around 8 layers with alternating light and dark colors.
- When the last layer is baked and removed from the oven, gently unmold and let cool on a cooling rack.
- Once the cake has cooled, cover it with plastic wrap and place it in a cool place for at least 6 hours before tasting it.