Spekkuk, an Indonesian spice cake, is rich in butter and scented with nutmeg,
cinnamon and clove.
This aromatic spice cake is a sweet, if haunting, legacy of the 350-year Dutch colonization of the islands now known as Indonesia. Like other Europeans, the Dutch were lured to that part of the world by their lust for spices, but once in control, they ruled with a brutality nearly unparalleled for the times. This cake, known as spekkuk (after the Dutch spekkoek), is a sort of cross-cultural dessert—rich with butter like a pound cake, but perfumed with the very spices that drove the conquest of the East Indies—nutmeg, cinnamon and clove.
Although nutmeg seems to have fallen out of favor these days, once it was the most eagerly sought of all the spices—as much for its curative powers as for its flavor. As Giles Morton relates in Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, the pale shriveled-looking nut “was the most coveted luxury in seventeenth-century Europe, a spice held to have such powerful medicinal properties that men would risk their lives to acquire it. Always costly, it rocketed in price when the physicians of Elizabethan London began claiming that their nutmeg pomanders were the only certain cure for the plague…” At one point, a pound of nutmeg sold for a premium of 3,200 percent on the London market.
The recipe for this cake comes from The Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. (See SpiceLines review here.) The author, James Oseland, was given it by his friend Mami, an elderly woman who shared a box of handwritten recipes with him one sleepy afternoon in the town of Bandung. As James tells it, the recipes “were like pressed flowers in a diary, each revealing some moment in Mami’s past.” The spice cake is made with three sticks of butter—and because of this extravagance, Mami only baked it for “important guests…or for her berbuka puasa (literally ‘opening the fast’) feasts during Ramadan.”
When I made this cake, I was fortunate to have a supply of nutmeg that grew in the Banda Islands. Most of the nutmeg consumed in America comes from the much closer island of Grenada, and this Indonesian spice, which James shared with me, was a revelation. The nutmegs, encased in shiny brown hulls, are double the size of any I’ve seen before, and when freshly grated, their sweet, warm aroma is almost intoxicating. (Consumed in large quantities, nutmeg is said to induce hallucinations and euphoria—but that is another story.) I have never smelled a batter as fragrant as the one for this cake.
Be sure to eat the spekkuk warm, as James suggests, with a glass of milk.
Indonesian Spice Cake
(from James Oseland, Cradle of Flavor)
2 cups sifted cake flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Pinch of kosher salt
1-1/2 cups unsalted butter (3 sticks), at room temperature, plus more
1-2/3 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon powdered sugar (optional)
1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and lightly flour a 9-inch tube pan with 3-1/2-inch sides (or, my preference, use a nonstick pan of the same size but don’t grease and flour it).
2. Resift the flour along with the baking powder, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon and salt into a bowl. Now, resift the flour mixture and then set it aside.
3. In another bowl, using an electric mixer on high speed, beat the butter until it’s soft and very pliant, about 1 minute (or 4 to 6 minutes by hand with a wooden spoon). Gradually add the granulated sugar and beat on high speed until the mixture is pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes (or 6 to 8 minutes by hand).
4. One at a time, add the 4 whole eggs and beat on high speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes (or 5 minutes by hand).
5. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in 3 equal parts, beating on low speed or stirring with the wooden spoon until the batter is smooth and the flour is well combined with the butter mixture. Add the egg yolks and vanilla and continue to beat or stir until they’re well mixed into the batter.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the surface. Place on the middle oven rack and bake until a toothpick inserted into the thickest part of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour (though I’d recommend checking it after 45 minutes).
7. Remove the pan from the oven and let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. If necessary, carefully run a thin knife around the perimeter and the inner rim of the cake to help loosen it from the pan. Invert the pan onto the rack and lift it off of the cake. Turn the cake right side up and let it cool on the rack.
8. Transfer the cake to a serving platter. Using a fine-mesh sieve, dust the top with powdered sugar, if desired.