December 5, 2018
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Sugee Cake Traces Semolina’s Path to Malaysia
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Sugee cake is a dessert that, on paper, sounds undeniably Western—it’s made with creamed butter, plenty of eggs, semolina, and a capful of brandy. But in reality, it’s a celebration cake of Eurasian communities in Malaysia and Singapore, a vestige of the region’s colonial past.

For centuries, semolina has been linked with the cuisines of Europe and the Middle East. The durum wheat flour is used extensively in dishes like couscous krupicová kaše (a sweet porridge-pudding), and fresh Italian pastas and breads. Even the name itself is rooted in the Italian word semola, meaning bran. But 6,000 miles east, nearly half a world away, semolina can be found in the waning heritage of Eurasian cooking in Malaysia and Singapore, in the form of a rich, nutty dessert called sugee cake.

For Eurasians (people of mixed European and Asian ancestry) in the region, sugee cake is an essential dessert. It’s made with an excess of creamed butter, whipped eggs for fluffy levity, and more often than not, a bit of brandy. But instead of using bland, industrially milled wheat flour to coax the butter and eggs into cake form, sugee cake makes use of semolina, which when toasted has a deliriously nutty scent and a sweet heartiness as warming as a hug from an Italian nonna (or in this case, a Eurasian auntie). A bit of crushed or ground almonds is often added, too, further complementing the earthy fragrance of the semolina. The result is a dessert that, while similar to citrusy Neapolitan migliaccios (semolina ricotta cakes) and revanis (syrup-soaked Greek semolina cakes), doubles down on the robust flavor of semolina without the need for scented syrups or silky cheeses to bolster its appeal.

This cake found its way into a Southeast Asian sub-cuisine through Portugal’s colonization of the Malay Peninsula during the 1600s. Ingredients like lemons, tomatoes, wine, and vinegars appeared for the first time ever in the port cities of Malacca and Singapore. And among it all, there was semolina. The hearty durum wheat, combined with the egg-heavy desserts of Malaysian cuisine at the time, inspired the creation of the hybridized sugee cake.

In the centuries since, however, sugee cake has never quite taken off in the greater cuisine of Malaysia. It is a cake mostly only baked by Eurasian families, many of them fourth or fifth-generation Portuguese-Malays and Portuguese-Chinese, descendants of European settlers who married into the local communities. Despite their colonial ancestry, many of them now consider themselves, and are considered, fully Malaysian.

But within these Eurasian families, sugee cake has lasted, making an appearance upon important life occasions—birthdays, weddings, graduations, anniversaries, and yes, even funerals. It is a cake that is as familial as it is detached from the larger Malaysian food scene, its recipe often a secret closely guarded by the family matriarch, each believing her sugee cake to be the best.

Some families’ sugee cake recipe calls for soaking the semolina in melted butter overnight, some use whipped butter in its place, and some skip the soaking step entirely. There are Eurasian grandmothers who espouse fluffing up the egg yolks to the consistency of a sabayon, and there are those who don’t; some whip their meringues to soft peaks, others to peaks so stiff they almost split. As such, there’s no set rule for making a sugee cake, other than its constituent ingredients of semolina, butter, almonds, and eggs.

Ultimately, there is one common thread that runs through each and every sugee cake. Each cake serves as a symbol of celebration and togetherness, a reminder of the harmony between different cultures and families, of the transience of life and death and joy and comfort. Because whatever happens in life, there’ll always be cake.

Sugee Cake

Sugee Cake

4-8 servings

Ingredients

  • ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons semolina flour
  • 2 sticks butter, softened at room temperature
  • ¾ cups sugar, separated into three equal portions, ¼ cup each
  • 8 egg yolks
  • 4 egg whites
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon brandy or cognac
  • ¾ cups ground almonds, or for a more rustic feel, substitute with roughly chopped/crushed almonds
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ tablespoon baking powder

Sugee cake is a nutty, semolina-rich dessert that’s not unlike an all-American butter cake, only it originates from the Malay Peninsula during colonial times. Today, they’re baked by Eurasian families in the region, a culinary constant throughout the ups and downs of life, baked for celebrations big and small, joyous or otherwise, eaten through laughter and tears.

  1. Toast the semolina in an oven heated to 320°F for 15-20 minutes, until it turns a light shade of brown, making sure not to let it smoke and burn. When done, remove the semolina from the oven and let it cool to room temperature.
  2. Meanwhile, cream the butter and the first ¼ cup of sugar in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Mix it on medium-high for 2-3 minutes, until it becomes pale and fluffy. Then mix in the semolina flour until well combined, and transfer this mixture in a bowl and let it sit at room temperature for 1 hour to allow the semolina to hydrate.
  3. While waiting, grease and line a loaf cake tin with baking paper. (You can double the recipe if you’re using a larger cake tin.)
  4. Separate the egg whites and yolks, and whip up the egg whites in the mixer (with the whisk attachment this time) until it reaches soft peaks. Then add in the salt and the second portion of sugar, and continue whipping it until it reaches medium peaks. For the best results, make sure the stand mixer bowl is cleaned out with soap after step 1, as any butter will inhibit the egg whites’ ability to fluff up. Transfer the meringue to a separate bowl.
  5. In the same mixer, pour in the egg yolks, brandy, and the last ¼ cup of sugar. Let it mix briefly for 30 seconds to 1 minute until the mixture doubles in volume and turns slightly pale. Add in the semolina butter mixture and beat for 10-20 seconds until well incorporated.
  6. Combine the ground almonds, all-purpose flour, and baking powder together. Now, fold in the dry ingredients and the meringue into the egg yolk and semolina mixture, incorporating it in 3-4 batches, alternating between the dry ingredients and meringue, and ending with meringue.
  7. Transfer the cake batter into the lined loaf cake tin, and bake for 35-45 minutes, until a cake tester or skewer poked into the cake comes out clean. When done, remove it from the oven and leave the cake to cool down in the tin for 20-30 minutes before taking it out. Then slice it into 1-inch-thick pieces and serve!

Yi Jun Loh

Yi Jun Loh is a freelance writer and cook. An engineer by training, he immersed himself into the food industry right after graduating from Cambridge, learning to cook in Paris and then at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. He is now based in Malaysia, obsessing over food culture and science through his blog Jun & Tonic.

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