Festive cakes can make any occasion special, and the Malaysian delicacy called kek lapis Sarawak is so beautiful that no other table centerpiece is needed. First baked in the 1970s, layer cakes from Indonesia originally inspired bakers in the state of Sarawak to develop their own version with complex designs comprising thin, naturally flavored layers. The confections were initially crafted for special holidays, but the popular dessert has become a source of regional pride and is now sold year-round from master bakers who have spent years perfecting their skills.
The construction of kek lapis Sarawak is labor-intensive; one cake can take up to eight hours to complete. It's thanks to the geometric designs that help give the dessert its name. (“Lapis” means layers in Bahasa Malaysia, the official language of Malaysia.) To create these motifs, the batter must be baked in large pans, adding a new thin layer of color every 10 minutes. The cakes are then strategically cut based on a sketch designed by the baker. They are then reassembled, using condensed milk or jam as a binding agent, and their kaleidoscopic beauty appears as cross-sections that are revealed with each slice.
Baking kek lapis Sarawak requires years of skill and practice—just ask Jennifer Chen. She first baked the delicacy in 1980 at the request of a friend who missed her own mother's recipe. Through experimentation with flavors, Chen built a successful business. Although she retired from professional baking in 2003, Chen has said that while her decades of practice allow her to easily bake kek lapis Sarawak, “For a learner…I don’t think they can pick it up so soon. It’s very confusing.”
Kek lapis Sarawak became a passion for Chen and her family. Chen's daughter, Karen Chai, continues her legacy with her business Kitchen Confidante. Chai builds off her mother's expertise and knowledge with her own background as an engineer and her training at Le Cordon Bleu, the legendary cooking school in Paris. In an email to My Modern Met, Chai reflects on how her kek lapis Sarawak has evolved, writing, “The designs are much more complex, and the taste is refined from the continuous exploration of better-quality ingredients and micro changes in the baking process that can significantly influence the outcome.”