Food Word: Spit Cake
Updated: Nov 30, 2018
I promise, it’s far more appealing than it sounds! Read on...
What is it? Found in many European cultures, spit cake originally got its name because it was baked 1 layer at a time while being rotated on a spit or open fire. Colonialism then brought spit cake to places like Indonesia (via the Dutch) and Japan.
Traditional spit cake has a thick circular ring shape – very much a cross-sectional view of a tree trunk; which is why it’s sometimes called Tree Cake. With the industrial revolution and the birth of ovens, the spit cake diversified into many of the popular horizontal versions we now see.
The cake base consists of sugar, eggs, butter, flour, spices, and some form of milk. Then you’ll have additions. For example, the German Baumkuchen contains almond paste. Some recipes call for a rising ingredient like yeast or baking powder and flavors like rum or prunes can be added. Despite the relatively simple ingredients, the cake is time-consuming to make. Each layer must be spread just so and then perfectly cooked before the next layer is added. It can take hours to make. Then more time is needed for the cake to mature and soften.
It took every bit of willpower not to eat the whole damn tin – sooo good!
Why I like it: This cake is a beauty. Even if the presentation is on the simple side you can still appreciate the effort. The complex designs are works of art!
The texture is also unique. Every variation is going to give you a different taste. Some spit cakes are airy, slightly chewy, and you can feel the tiny layers on your tongue. Others feel richer and more compact, which is not surprising since the cake is packed with butter and eggs. Usually you’ll find spit cake in thin slices. IMHO, it’s best savored with a hot drink sans sugar after a satisfying meal.
Anything more: Other names you may come across for these types of cakes are ‘Thousand Layer Cake‘ or ‘Kueh Lapis‘. Literally translated in Asian cultures kuih/kueh/kue (depending on the country) means bite-sized snack and lapis means layers. Nyonya kueh lapis is yet another variation. From what I can tell, the nyonya has steamed layers made of rice and tapioca flours, coconut milk, sugar, and bright colorings.
I came across Spekkoek in 2007 in the Culinary Arts Institute (CAI) Cake Decorating Book. A co-worker asked me to make a birthday cake and I chose Spekkoek although I never made before. I’m famous for doing things like that – using new opportunities to try recipes (it’s as close as I get to having an adrenaline rush!) Ninety percent of the time it works fabulously. 10% of the time it does not and within that, 5% is an epic fail. The birthday cake was an epic fail.
Needless to say, I didn’t charge her. It’s not that I didn’t follow the recipe. It’s that I didn’t understand the importance of allowing the cake to ripen for 2 days. I figured a few hours would be just fine…what can I say, I was young (er 📷).
Then last Christmas, a new co-worker brought in Kueh lapis. Even though it was a decade since I had the Spekkoek and it was a different name, I knew it was that cake. It took every bit of willpower not to eat the whole damn tin – sooo good!
Because of the labor involved, the cake is quite pricey. But I get it on an, ‘I’ve been there’ level and I’m not complaining. Now that I’m kitchen savvier, another spit cake attempt is in my near future. Here is an adaptation of the CAI’s 1981 Spekkoek recipe and a few websites that looked promising!
Reference: Culinary Arts Institute (1981). Cake Decorating Book. New York, NY, Delair Publishing Company.
Global Table Adventure (Sasha Martin): German Tree Cake/Baumtorte/Baumkuchen http://globaltableadventure.com/recipe/german-tree-cake-baumtorte/
Piece of Cake (Michele Soon): Traditional Kueh Lapis http://eatapieceofcake.blogspot.com/2013/01/traditional-kueh-lapis.html
Nasi Lemak Lover™ (Sonia): Kueh Lapis http://nasilemaklover.blogspot.com/2011/02/kueh-lapis-indonesia-layered-cake-cny.html