The thing about sugee cake is I know of no one who is indifferent to it. Those who love it, wax lyrical while those who dislike it, scrunch up their faces at the mere mention of the word sugee. It's not your everyday, nibble with your cup of tea or coffee kind of cake.
Neither is it meant to be eaten as dessert, as it is probably too stodgy and substantial, to serve as the close of a full meal. I suppose it's best described as a festive or commemorative cake and is traditionally served in Kristang (local Portuguese descended Eurasians) homes to commemorate and celebrate occasions such as Christmas, christenings, weddings, funerals, birthdays and anniversaries. Many people know it as a happy occasion cake and are surprised to learn of its sombre connection to funerals.
|soak that semolina till it becomes like ...|
While you will often see platters of rich, golden, fragrant sugee cake being served at christenings, weddings and yes, even birthdays and anniversaries (if you really like the cake), you will hardly see it at funerals. These days, a surprising number of younger Eurasians too, do not know that sugee cake is also a funeral cake. I have to elaborate though that it is traditional to serve sugee cake at the funerals of the unmarried deceased only, including infants.
The rationale behind this almost forgotten practice is to give those souls who left this earthly existence deprived of the opportunity to experience the joy of marriage, or the pleasure of planning a wedding, a taste of a bride's or groom's joy on her or his wedding day. Hence the deceased, if over the age of thirteen, would be dressed in full wedding regalia. Infants would be dressed in a christening gown and bonnet while the very young would be dressed in First Holy Communion garb before being laid to rest in their coffin. For departed babies, and the very young, sugee cake would be served with cocoa, while at the funerals of unmarried teenagers and adults, it would be sugee cake and sweet wine.
It may appear unseemly to serve sweet, luxurious treats at such a solemn occasion, especially in the past, when foods like butter, almonds, eggs, sugar and wine were beyond the reach of most people, but in the Christian context, physical death is only the beginning of a better and eternally joyful existence in the kingdom of God. Hence we who remain on earth celebrate the release of our departed loved ones from the struggles and sorrows of earthly life and believe physical death to be a happy occasion, though we feel the pain of parting and miss their presence in our daily lives.
|cake magic, mix with coke and lime, sip while whisking batter. your cakes will never be the same again|
To this day, my mother always feels a pang when she eats sugee cake as it brings back memories of the death of her beloved eldest brother, Anthony. He died at the tender age of 15, just three days after his birthday, from a freakish traffic accident, while on his way to work. I never met my uncle, who was by all accounts, an angel walking this earth, but my mother's tears, vivid recollections and recounting of how loving and protective he was, make me long to have known him personally. I suppose it's true; the good do die young....
|even a cake is happy when full of rum|
Back to more mundane, earthly matters, there are as many sugee cake recipes as there are krill crammed into a brick of belacan, but all revolve around the same basic ingredients, semolina, ground almonds, sugar, lots of butter and lots and lots and lots of eggs. So many eggs, that when I've eaten 2 slices and still long for another, I fear the third slice will make me keel over from a heart attack.
So, I have devised this recipe which uses less than half the usual amount of egg yolks. The unique flavour and aroma of sugee cake comes from the insane amount of yolks, the rivers of butter and piles of ground almonds. Many Eurasians also include brandy, sweet spices like ground cardamom, nutmeg, ginger or cinnamon and even rose or almond essence for added fragrance.
I like to keep things simple so I only use dark rum which I think is more fragrant than brandy and vanilla which combines well with rum. You may also use sherry or whiskey if you have no rum or brandy. I like the nutty flavour of semolina and the almonds to ring through so I omit the spices. While it's fine to serve the cake unadorned, for weddings and christenings, a covering of apricot jam, marzipan and royal icing is de rigeur. If it's for a boy, the royal icing decoration on the white icing covered cake is done in blue and for girls, a pretty soft pink. Wedding cakes are grand multi tiered affairs, intricately adorned with sugar scrolls, wreaths and flowers, traditionally all in pristine white.
I usually omit this step as our hot and humid weather makes working with marzipan and icing tricky, but I am all happy squeals when I am served a beautifully iced slab of sugee cake as the icing really adds to the flavour and texture, turning sugee cake into a moist, super rich and almost fudgy treat. This is not an easy cake to make, and requires careful handling and a little mollycoddling too.
Whatever you do, do not skip soaking the semolina in the melted butter or you will be very sorry to have wasted a good chunk of your time and a pile of rather pricey ingredients, as the cake will be oozing ungodly amounts of unabsorbed butter all over your plate, fork or fingers and all over your lips :P Also be sure to whisk the yolks and sugar very thoroughly before adding the soaked semolina and almonds. Finally, ensure the egg whites are whisked to a stable foam that forms soft peaks before folding into the batter. Do not overwhisk the whites or they will turn grainy and disintegrate as you fold them into the batter and fail to aerate the batter, resulting in a low rising cake.
Don't be intimidated by the large amount of baking powder. This is a very dense cake and it needs a lot of help to rise well. It will improve the texture of the cake and you will not taste the baking powder in the finished cake because of all that butter, almonds, rum and vanilla. The one golden rule for good cake remains this, as often repeated by my grandmother: be happy and calm when baking a cake. If you're in a bad mood, your cake won't rise. That's probably the best advice anyone can give you!
Prep 7 hrs Cook 1 hr Makes 2 loaves
300 g (3 cups) fine semolina (sugee)
500 g (3 1/3 cups) butter melted
300 g (2 cups) sugar
160 g (1 1/2 cups) ground toasted skinless almonds
4 tbsp dark rum, brandy or sweet sherry
3 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp plain flour
4 tsp baking powder
7 egg whites
Combine semolina and melted butter in a large mixing bowl and stir to mix well. Set aside for 6 hours, giving mixture a few stirs every 30 minutes or so, to ensure even absorption of the butter.
Line two loaf pans with parchment paper and preheat oven at 150 C (310 F).
Combine sugar and yolks in a separate bowl and whisk until very pale and creamy and sugar has completely dissolved.
Alternately add large scoops of the soaked semolina and ground nuts to the yolk and sugar mixture, beating each addition in thoroughly before adding the next.
Pour in the rum and vanilla and fold in thoroughly. Sift in the flour and baking powder and fold in gently but thoroughly.
Whisk the egg whites to soft peak stage then fold gently into the batter until well combined. Do not overmix or you will deflate the batter and your cake will not rise well.
Tilt pans gently to level batter and bake for 1 hr - 1 hr and 10 minutes or until cakes start to shrink back from tins.
Remove from oven and cool on rack. Store cold cake in a clean, dry air tight container. Eat within 4 days.