What’s the Secret to a Perfectly Layered Malaysian Lapis Cake?

A slice of Malaysia’s famed lapis cake, known locally as kueh lapis, reveals an intricate tapestry of thin layers, each one bringing its unique burst of flavour and texture to the mix. The cake’s allure lies in its complexity; every layer represents a step in the process, a testament to the attention to detail and patience required in its creation. But what exactly goes into crafting this piece of culinary art? Let’s unravel the secrets behind the perfect lapis cake.

Understanding the Lapis Cake

The lapis cake is a shining example of the intricate desserts of Southeast Asia. Its name, "lapis," means "layer" in Bahasa Malaysia, aptly describing its multi-layered structure. Each layer is a separate entity, yet they come together to form a harmonious and delicious whole. The art of making a lapis cake lies in the precision of layering and the balance of its ingredients.

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The main ingredients for a typical lapis cake are plain flour, butter, sugar, eggs, and coconut milk. However, other elements like cocoa powder, spices, and food colouring can be added to diversify the flavours and aesthetics. Regardless of the variations, the essential components remain the same, and their exact amounts and consistent application will determine the outcome of the cake.


The most distinctive feature of the lapis cake is its layers. Each layer is individually prepared and baked or steamed, one on top of the other. This process is meticulous and time-consuming, often requiring hours of dedicated work. The effort, however, is well worth it when you see the multi-coloured, multi-flavoured cross-section of a perfectly executed lapis cake.

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The Process of Making a Lapis Cake

Making a lapis cake involves a series of steps, each crucial for the final result. The process generally involves the preparation of the batter, the layering, and the baking or steaming.

Preparing the Batter

The batter preparation starts with beating the butter and sugar until fluffy and light. This process incorporates air into the mixture, giving the cake its soft texture. Next, eggs are gradually added, followed by the flour and the coconut milk. It’s essential to add these ingredients slowly and gradually, mixing well after each addition to prevent curdling. Once all components are well incorporated, the batter is divided into portions. These portions can be flavoured or coloured differently, depending on the desired outcome.

Layering and Baking

The layering begins by pouring a portion of the batter into a greased pan. It’s important to use a flat spatula or the back of a spoon to even out the layer. The pan is then placed in a pre-heated oven for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the layer is baked and a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Once the first layer is done, another portion of the batter is poured onto it, spread evenly, and baked again. This process is repeated until all portions are used up. Each layer must be thoroughly baked before adding the next to prevent them from mixing and to ensure distinct layers.


In some variations of the lapis cake, such as the kueh lapis, the layers are steamed instead of baked. A portion of the batter is poured into a greased pan, smoothed out, and steamed over boiling water for about 5 minutes or until set. The process is repeated with the rest of the batter portions, ensuring each layer is well set before adding the next. Steaming the layers gives the cake a slightly different texture, making it softer and more moist compared to its baked counterpart.

Tips for a Perfect Lapis Cake

Making a lapis cake can be a daunting task, especially for beginners. However, with a few tips and tricks, you can master this art and create a cake that is not only visually appealing but also delicious.

Precision is Key

Precision in measuring ingredients and timing the baking or steaming of each layer is essential. Any inconsistencies can lead to a lumpy batter or uneven layers, affecting the cake’s overall taste and appearance.

Patience and Diligence

Patience and diligence go hand in hand when making a lapis cake. Each layer requires undivided attention. Rushing the process or neglecting a layer can easily ruin the cake.

Use of Tools

Using the right tools can make a huge difference. A flat spatula or the back of a spoon can help spread the batter evenly, while a toothpick can check the doneness of each layer. A good-quality, non-stick pan is also a must for easy removal of the cake.

The lapis cake, with its beautiful layers and complex flavours, is a testament to the richness of Malaysian cuisine. While it may seem daunting at first, with precision, patience, and the right tools, you can master this intricate dessert and create a truly delicious piece of art.

A Closer Look at Kueh Lapis and Kek Lapis

While the term ‘lapis cake’ is generally used to denote the distinctive layered cake from Southeast Asia, we can find different variants of it within Malaysian cuisine itself. Two such variants are kueh lapis and kek lapis.

Kueh Lapis

Kueh lapis is a traditional Malaysian steamed layer cake, primarily made using rice flour, tapioca flour, coconut milk and pandan leaves, which give the cake its vibrant green colour. The pandan leaves also lend a unique fragrance to the cake, which is further enhanced by the addition of sugar for a sweet finish. The batter for each layer is steamed individually, leading to the characteristic stratified appearance.

Kek Lapis

On the other hand, kek lapis, also known as lapis legit, is an Indonesian-influenced variant of the lapis cake that has found popularity in Malaysia. This version of the cake is baked instead of steamed and contains a high quantity of egg yolks. The extensive use of spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves, gives kek lapis a distinctive spicy tang that contrasts beautifully with the sweetness of the cake.

The Art of Layering: More than Just a Method

The process of layering a lapis cake – whether it’s a kueh lapis or a kek lapis – is more than just a cooking method. It’s an art and a testament to the patience and skills of the baker.

Varying Colours and Flavours

To make a lapis cake visually striking, you can add different food colouring to each portion of the batter. For instance, the traditional kueh lapis often features alternating white and green layers, the latter achieved through the use of pandan leaves. In the case of kek lapis, each layer can be flavoured differently by adding various spices to the batter.

Layering Technique

A crucial point in layering is to ensure that each layer is fully baked or steamed before adding the next one. For a well-baked layer, the inserted toothpick or skewer should come out clean. If you’re steaming, check that the layer is set and firm to the touch. Remember that the time each layer takes to cook can vary, so you’ll need to keep a close eye on your layer minutes.

Ensuring Perfect Layers

A good trick to maintain uniform layers is to weigh your batter. This ensures equal amounts for each layer, leading to a symmetrical lapis cake. Also, using a cake pan with straight sides will help achieve well-defined layers. When pouring the batter, start from the center and gently spread it towards the edges to avoid thicker sides.

Conclusion: Crafting Your Own Lapis Cake Masterpiece

In conclusion, mastering the lapis cake requires a deep understanding of its ingredients and process. From the creamy texture achieved from the coconut milk and egg yolks, to the unique flavors infused by the pandan leaves and spices, each component has a role to play. The precision in layering each colored or flavored batter, whether by baking or steaming, and the patient wait for each to cook perfectly, all contribute to the final masterpiece.

While it might seem daunting at first, remember that precision and patience are key. As you gain more experience, you’ll develop a sense of how much batter to pour, how long to bake or steam each layer, and when to add the next layer. Whether you’re making a kueh lapis for a festive occasion like the Chinese New Year, or a kek lapis as a special treat, your efforts will surely be rewarded with a visually stunning and deliciously layered cake that will impress and delight everyone who tastes it.

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