A heartstoppingly rich Eurasian favourite
I was organizing my pantry over the weekend when I found some leftover semolina from my sugee cake experiments two years ago. I had been introduced to it by cookbook writer Sasha Gill, who considers it quintessentially Eurasian, even more so than curry devil or pang susi. At that point, I had never eaten a sugee cake and my interest was piqued.
It turns out that sugee cakes are a cousin of pound cake, named so because they were originally made with a pound each of butter, sugar, and flour. In the same way, many sugee cake recipes have butter, sugar, and semolina added in equal proportions, resulting in a crumbly texture from the semolina while retaining the richness and denseness of pound cake. But how did semolina come to be a substitute for flour?
Sugee cake derives its name from ‘sooji’, Indian semolina. Often confused with Italian semolina, a coarse yellow flour made from hard durum wheat, Indian semolina is white, sand-like, and made from soft wheat. The Indians have a whole range of traditional sweets made with this ingredient such as halwa, but these are mostly cooked on the stove top. It was only when the Portuguese colonised Goa and Sri Lanka in the 15th century that sooji was used in baked sweets in Asia. Under Portuguese rule, the Goans invented batk, a cake with coconut and semolina, while the Burghers - Eurasians of European and Sri Lankan descent - became known for love cake, made with semolina flour and ground cashews.
When the Portuguese seized control of Malacca, they brought the craft of making semolina cakes with them, resulting in the birth of the sugee cake in the region. For the Eurasian community in Malaysia and Singapore, it was the celebratory confection of choice. It appeared at Christmas, birthdays, Easter, weddings, christenings, anniversaries, baptisms, and even funerals. At its most festive, the cake would be brushed with apricot jam, which behaves like a glue for a thin layer of marzipan to enrobe it entirely.
By the 1980s, the cake had become such a national favourite that it was included in national home economics textbooks. Funnily enough, despite its popularity in that time period, the cake became less mainstream over the years and largely enjoyed within the confines of Eurasian homes or the few Eurasian eateries that dot the island.
The first time I made it and tasted it for myself, it brought to mind a rich banana cake in the way that it left my fingers and lips with an oily sheen. The texture was also special. Unlike your usual light-as-air sponge cake or finely textured pound cake, this cake had heft. It had bits of nuts running through the cake; these were so tiny that they almost were part of the ‘crumb’, and made walnut chunks in banana cake seem unrefined. But the defining trait of the sugee cake was this: just as how a good croissant leaves flaky shards all over your lap, a slice of sugee cake almost falls into moist ‘grains’ - what some say resembles rice - as you slide your fork through.
While some bakers utilize semolina exclusively for texture, others see it as a gateway for flavour. In fact, my Eurasian friend Maxine (who now runs Tigerlily Patisserie) swears by toasting the semolina, saying that it is important for the cake’s flavour. True enough, as I toasted the semolina, it took on a nutty, popcorn-like flavour that made even the raw batter taste good.
Because browned semolina is very dry and gritty, it has to be soaked in some form of liquid or fat until it loses its crunch. This is not as big a deal if you use untoasted semolina - I’ve seen recipes that mix untoasted semolina into the batter and whisk the tin into the oven not long after. I chose to add the toasted semolina to my creamed butter and let the mixture sit for at least an hour:
Butter & eggs yolks
Almost everyone who talks about sugee cake points towards how rich it is, akin to butter cake. It not only features lots of butter, but also often has a higher yolk to white ratio. This ratio determines the end texture of the cake: an equal ratio promises a fluffier end result, while a yolk-heavy cake will be rich and substantial. It is not unusual to see sugee cake recipes with egg yolks in the double digits.
Sugee cake is such a rich cake that you might come across the instruction in some recipes to allow the unmoulded cake to cool on kitchen paper to absorb any oozing butter. While this might alarm some, cookbook author Denise Fletcher writes on her blog that, made the “traditional Eurasian way”, sugee cake “will leave butter stains on the serving platter, storage box, liner, your finger tips, lips, plate, cutlery and napkin”. Inauthentic is a sugee cake that is not very rich and buttery.
Apart from semolina, nuts are the other key ingredient in the cake. While Burgher bakers in Sri Lanka use cashews in their love cake, almonds are the nut of choice in a sugee cake. Traditionally, bakers began by blanching almonds or soaking them in hot water, before peeling off the skins and either finely chopping or grinding the nuts by hand. These were the days before store-bought almond meal was widely available.
To use almond meal or finely chopped almonds are completely up to the preference of the eater, but in general, finely ground almonds produce a fluffier cake. If you like a heftier cake that has a little crunch in every bite, use chopped or coarsely ground almonds. This time round, I toasted my almonds until they took on a golden colour before chopping them and adding them to the batter. It turned out to be a very good decision because it reinforced the deep flavour of the toasted semolina.
In goes a very minimal amount of flour and baking powder for lift:
And beaten egg whites:
Baking and ageing
Fresh out of the oven, the cake had a wonderful nuttiness and a pleasant chew from the semolina. I also loved how the hand-chopped nuts gave the crumb so much character. Here’s the cake fresh out of the oven:
It was good. But then, I had another slice on the second day, and another on the third to compare. Apparently what ageing does is give the nuts time to releases their natural oils and flavours to mingle and meld, just like a braise. Overall, moister, richer, and more complex. Here’s a three-day old slice - look at the shiny film of fat on the plate:
So rich and so sinful, but what a cake!
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Makes a 9” cake