Birthday vanilla flavored cake made in the tradition of the Malaysian Sarawak Layer Cake (Kek Lapis Sarawak): one sheet cake is baked in increments to create a large layered cake. The cake is sliced and then strategically stacked to create a gorgeous geometric design.
Shortly after my second daughter was born, my exhausted husband and I began a before-bed ritual: watching the tenth season of The Great British Bake Off. It’s always a great watch, especially to wind down with at the end of a tiring day with young kids. But one night, on episode seven, instead of blissfully drifting off to sleep, I was up for hours obsessively googling kek lapis sarawak Sarawak layer cake.
According to TBBO hosts, this cake would have several separate layers that were ‘grilled’, then cut, and then reassembled into intricate, precise, even layers and patterns. The cake is widespread in Malaysia and is often baked for the holidays (here is a very cool video of a bakery that specializes in it).
That sounded quite challenging, but I was so enamored with the design! Was there a way to make it more home-baker friendly?I tried it, using some of the techniques I have learned from making Italian Rainbow Cookies and had mild success. I then, very happily stumbled upon this recipe by Jun which gave a very clear baking technique that I adopted for this version.
Before you get intimidated let me say two things: it turns out, “grilled” is the British for broiled (but broiling a cake is rather odd too isn’t it? We’ll get there..) and our layers, unlike the traditional Malaysian kek lapis sarawak, are in no way going to be precise in cut or shape, but they will still turn out wonderfully eye-catching.
The way this cake bakes goes against everything you have learned about making a perfect cake: you will open the oven several times, you’ll use the broil feature and you won’t actually turn on the baking part of the oven until the very end. It’s crazy, but it’s gonna work and it’s gonna be beautiful and delicious and just wait until you slice into it and everyone ooohs and aaahhs.
We’re making a wonderful white cake recipe that uses no yolks. I use BraveTart’s technique of using coconut oil in place of the egg yolks so we can have the right amount of fat but none of the color (this way we can dye it anyway we like). You’ll note the recipe calls for six (!) egg whites. With the remaining egg yolks, I usually make ice cream 😉
Cake flour has a finer mill than all purpose and is made from a more stripped down wheat so you get a very very tender cake. If you don’t have it, you can use all purpose but swap out 3 tablespoons of the flour for cornstarch.
Refined coconut oil has a very mild flavor so it’s optional for this birthday flavored cake. No substitutes, sorry!
American or European butter is fine. It *must* be softened and at room temperature in order for it to be beaten until fluffy with the sugar.
These should be at room temperature so separate your eggs while they are cold then leave out the whites while you prepare everything else to warm up a bit.
Low or full fat, you can also use a plain kefir instead of the buttermilk.
I use a mix of pure vanilla extract and imitation extract which creates a very special birthday cake flavor.
Fine sea salt, if you use table salt, halve the amount of salt for the cake (and buttercream!).
There is a roughly five minute video below that you should watch before you begin. At the very least you’ll see what the white cake batter should look like at different stages, how to spread and bake the colored cake batter, and a rough idea for how to stack them (I might be terrible at the stacking part, I’m sure you guys will do better!).
Make a note of the bowl’s weight
This is so you don’t have to dirty another bowl later, as you’ll want to know the weight of your cake batter so you can divide it equally.
Beat butter and sugar well
To get a fluffy white cake we’re going to beat together the butter and sugar very, very well until a good amount of air has been whipped in. You’ll see it change color from yellow and heavy to nearly white or cream colored and airy.
Add eggs slowly
This too is to allow for air to get whipped into the batter.
Divide & color the batter
Since you’ve already taken note of the weight of your bowl, you can now just weigh the bowl and subtract the weight of the bowl so you know how much the batter weighs. Divide it by five or six, so you know how much batter to add to each bowl.
With five colors the cake will need a few extra minutes of baking time, and will rise high. In the past I have made it with six and because they are thinner layers, they bake quicker. I used to also weigh down the cake to squash the layers but I don’t do that anymore (it’s quite nice fluffy!).
Broil one layer at a time
You’ll have the oven ready on a low broil and each layer will bake separately. The first (I usually start with red) goes straight onto the pan, and broils for about 4 minutes. Then you’ll gently spread the next color over the baked first (it will start to melt a bit as you are spreading, don’t worry!) and put it back in the oven to broil. It’s best to use an offset spatula for this task.
Keep doing this until all layers are broiled and mostly firm.
Bake fully, then cool
Once the final color has been broiled (usually purple) you’ll cover the cake with foil and allow it to bake fully = you can check for doneness as you would a regular cake, with a toothpick.
Once it’s firm enough to move out of the pan turn it onto a cooling rack. Let it chill completely.
Stack & Frost
Prepare a pullman loaf pan with a sheet of parchment paper (this will make it easier to release the cake later). And have your buttercream ready. Slice the large cake into strips, about 1 inch wide.
The easiest way to stack this would be to place three vertical strips on the bottom, with buttercream to hold them together like glue, spread buttercream over the top then another three vertical strips on top and repeat. But it’s much more fun to play with the design a bit and do some of them horizontal.
If you do some horizontal you can cut some of the strips in half (to make half inch strips) to fit them into the pullman mold.
Once you have all your layers in, cover the top with buttercream and place it in the freezer. When you’re ready you can remove the cake by turning it upside down onto a cutting board. Now you can frost and decorate.
Can I use a regular white cake recipe? Or even a boxed mix?
Yes and no – you can of course use any white cake recipe and use the method listed below. However, it will look different than mine as my white cake recipe is unique because of its tight crumb.
How many people will this cake serve?
I’d say it’ll serve about 20 if you are slicing the cake twice (first like a loaf and then each slice into half). With the five colors & the pullman pan, and not weighing it down, these are BIG slices.
How far ahead can I make this cake?
The cake, like most layer cakes, freezes very well so you can make it weeks ahead of time.
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