I don’t know what got me started on this Kueh Bingka/Bika Ambon recipe, but my first attempt was in April this year where I used a recipe from Mrs Leong Yee Soo’s cookbook. You can see the disastrous results below. (Main photo) To be fair, I don’t think it is a problem with her recipe, it just didn’t contain enough details for a newbie like me to achieve the perfect result. But it did get me intrigued. Up till then I haven’t even eaten the original Kuih Bingka Ambon from Medan, but I knew that what I baked was no where close to the real thing.
I consulted Christopher Tan’s Nerdbaker cookbook and was surprised that he didn’t have a recipe for this though there was a photo of it in his book. When I asked him about it, he told me that this was one of the most difficult kuihs to get right and he wasn’t 100% happy with his own recipe yet. That gave me the impetus to master this confounding confectionery. There really isn’t much incentive in publishing a recipe that every internet cook already knows. But to publish a recipe that many regard as really difficult, now, that is a challenge!
There are many recipes online and I have probably looked through all of them, including the ones in Indonesian. None of them have all the information you need in order to create a kuih that looks like the one in this photo. In this post, I will share with you everything that I have learnt through the numerous attempts at making this enigmatic cake.
First, let us define success. A successful Bika Ambon means that the strands in the honeycomb structure go all the way from the bottom to the top so that you can peel it strand by strand when you eat it. That is, to me, the defining characteristic of this kuih. To be able to do this properly, not only do the strands need to stretch all the way from one end to the other, but it has to be long enough so that you can feel the satisfaction of stretching and pulling each strand off. That means that the kuih has to be at least 2 inches high. If it is too short, you won’t get the same stretchy satisfaction!
I had the great fortune of being able to taste the real thing from Medan since starting this bika ambon pilgrimage, thanks to a dear friend whose mom brought it all the way back for me. With this as the gold standard, I would say that I have succeeded. It might not be as good as the one from Medan but it is close enough.
I must confess that after failing umpteen times, I was almost at the verge of giving up. I even went to the extent of changing my oven to one that had only bottom heating but it still wasn’t able to get the result I wanted. I had tried all sorts of hacks, like wrapping good morning towels around the baking tin, placing trays of water over the kuih, baking it on a pizza stone, covering the top with baking paper, using different brands of tapioca flour, altering the yolk to whites ratio, baking it over steam ………… after trying different permutations and combinations for 6 months, I was out of ideas. Just what does it take to bake this kuih properly? Can it ever be done successfully at home or do I really need a proper bika ambon oven to bake this?
I came to the point where I was desperate enough to pray. I do pray regularly, but it had never occurred to me to specifically ask for a recipe! Well I did. Then two things happened.
Firstly I met Chef Damian at Folklore, and was blown away by his Kuih Kosui. He was kind enough to invite me to his kitchen and gave me step by step instructions on how to make Kuih Kosui (my next project). Then we began talking about Bika Ambon and things started to fall into place.
Up till then I had already worked out some basic principles of baking the kuih, based on my own failures and observations. Chef Damian helped to confirm my working hypothesis on how the kuih should be baked and how the batter should be handled. For example, I had come to the conclusion that some egg white was essential in the recipe but a lot of the recipes I have come across use only egg yolks! Chef confirmed that a bit of egg white was important for a good structure. That helped me to fix that variable so that I don’t need to experiment with an all yolk recipe. Then he also told me that in the old days, Bika Ambon was baked in old Jacob biscuit tins over a charcoal fire. That got me to change to a square tin and eschew the oven altogether and bake it on my BBQ grill!
The second thing that happen was nothing short of a miracle. I had been using a basic recipe which used 8 yolks. After a few experiments, I changed to a combination of 3 yolks and 3 whole eggs. The extra 3 egg whites gave the kuih a better texture. Because the batter takes a few hours to ferment, I sometimes ask Mylene to make it for me so that I can bake it when I come home in the afternoon. She misread my recipe and instead of either 8 yolks or 3 yolks and 3 whole eggs, she read it as 8 yolks plus 3 yolks and 3 whites! I only found out the mistake the day after my first successful bake! You can call it fortunate mistake but to me, I felt God saying: “Son, here is the recipe you asked for!”
So, after almost half a year of experiments, I am pleased to share with you everything I have learnt in this baking journey. My advise to you is to follow the recipe exactly the first time round. Once you have succeeded, then go and try tweaking the recipe. Things like the shape and size of the baking tin is important. The baking tin costs less than $10, so rather than trying to tweak the recipe to fit your existing tin, just go out and buy the exact one that I use. Trust me, it will save you a lot of heartache as well as chicken eggs.
Leslie’s Bika Ambon Recipe
1. Mix all the ingredients in Group A together and leave to ferment for 15mins. It should be foamy or else you need to buy some new yeast.
2. Using a pair of scissors, cut up the lemongrass, lime leaves and pandan leaves and add the rest of the ingredients in Group B in pot. Slowly heat it up, stirring constantly till it is almost simmering. Turn off the heat and leave to infuse for 15mins and then stir in the sugar to dissolve. Leave it to cool. After sieving you should be left with around 400mls of coconut milk.
3. Separate the eggs and place in mixing bowl. Using a spatula, stir the eggs to mix. Don’t beat as we don’t want to thicken the batter. Add the tapioca flour and all the ingredients in Gp A and B into one bowl and stir to mix. Do not use a whisk or egg beater to mix.
4. Pour the mixture through a sieve and leave to ferment for 5 hours. (I have done it in 3 hours but the extra time means more flavour).
5. Prepare the baking tin by making a paste from flour and water and use it to seal the seams in case your baking tin leaks.
6. Heat up the tin and when it is hot, spray or brush with oil. This will help to render it non-stick. Leave to cool.
7. Stir the batter and leave it for 10 – 15mins for the foam to settle. Pour through a sieve into the baking tin.
8. Skim off the foam and then bake on a 1cm high rack in a heavy stainless steel bottom pot at medium to high heat at 230°C-250°C for 1.25 – 1.5 hours or until the top of the cake has solidified. You should see bubbles appearing on top around 15 – 20 mins into the baking. If not you will need to turn up the heat. Remove from heat once all the bubbles on top have burst and the top of the cake is firm and full of pock marks.
9. Place in oven at 200°C for 5 mins to brown the top.
10. Leave to cool completely before de-panning!
According to many kuih experts this is one of the most difficult kuihs to get right, so it is important to follow all the instructions closely. Do read through these notes carefully and note every detail as it will save you a lot of heartache.
The first step is to make the starter. Traditionally, this kuih is made with a fermented palm wine aka tuak which contains the yeast that produces bubbles in the batter. But this is difficult to get, so we are using ordinary bread yeast. Just add all the ingredients in Gp A together in room temperature water and give it a good stir. After 15mins, you should see it foaming. If not, it means your yeast is too old and you need to buy fresh ones.
In order to make the kuih more authentic, I have tried fermenting coconut water overnight and using it in place of water in Gp A. It is easy to do. Just put 500ml of coconut water in a jar and add 1 Tbsp sugar and 1/4 tsp instant yeast. Cover with cloth and leave it on the kitchen counter for 24 hours. After that, you can leave it in the fridge for a few days. When you are ready to bake, measure out 100ml of the liquid and use it in place of water in Gp A. It does give the kuih a nice subtle fragrance but it isn’t spectacular. So, if you have time and are trying to impress your future mother-in-law, you could do it so that you have something else to brag about. I am still trying to get my hands on some real toddy to see what difference it will make to the kuih!
Prepare the coconut milk by cutting up the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and pandan leaves and adding it all in a pot. Heat up the coconut milk, stir constantly but don’t allow it to come to a boil or the milk might separate. Freshly squeezed coconut milk is the best, of course, but if you can’t get your hands on that, then the fresh coconut milk sold in packets in the fridge section of the supermarket is your next best choice. If you are using UHT coconut milk make sure you get those without thickeners added. Kara is widely available but it has carrageenan added to stabilize it and this will thicken the batter and affect the rise. It still works but I prefer the ones from Thailand which have 100% coconut milk written on the packets. Heat and stir the coconut milk until you can smell the floral aroma of the leaves. Leave it to infuse for 15 mins before adding the sugar. Stir to dissolve and leave it to cool then sieve. You should be left with around 400ml of coconut milk.
Eggs are a big part of the recipe and it is important you get eggs of the right size. In this recipe, I used Seng Choon’s carrot eggs which are 640g for a tray of 10. If you use small, 55g eggs, then your kuih will not look the same as mine and the texture will be different as well.
The key is NOT to whip the eggs as you don’t want to thicken the batter. The runnier the batter, the finer the strands will be. I have tried using recipes with no egg whites but I found that the structure was not strong enough and the rise was not as good. In the end, through a fortunate mistake, I struck on the 11 yolks and 3 whites ratio which gave me the perfect combination of rise and tenderness.
Just stir the eggs till the whites are broken up and add the rest of the ingredients then sieve the batter to make sure the whites and the tapioca flour are well mixed.
I sort of worked this bit out when I saw an online video of a lady mixing the batter by hand in a big plastic tub in a village somewhere. Then it occurred to me that this cake is supposed to be simple and made with the most basic equipment. Essentially, when you beat with your hands, you don’t incorporate air into the batter like what you would with a electric egg beater which I had been using for my previous attempts. What you want is a batter that is dark yellow rather than pale yellow in colour.
Fermentation adds flavour as well as produces the tiny bubbles required for the batter to form the tunnels in the kuih. I think 3 hours is the minimum and 8 hours is about the longest you would want to leave it. If it ferments too long the flavour will become too strong for some people. 5 hours is my preferred time. (based on the ambient room temperature in Singapore)
After mixing the batter in the mixing bowl for all my previous attempts, I finally worked out that a blender is the perfect equipment for mixing the batter. Just throw everything into the blender and blend it at low speed till everything is mixed and leave to ferment. About 15 mins before you want to start baking, give it a few pulses to mix the batter and allow to rest so that the foam rises to the top and then pour through a sieve into your baking tin.
The bake the kuih, you will need a 7x7x3 in baking tin. This should cost less than $10 at the bakery supply store. Don’t use those black, non-stick tins as the bottom of the cake will tend to burn. Don’t use a round baking tin as you want the cakes to be in nice oblong slices so that you can tear the strands from top to bottom from one end of the kuih to the other. Just go get one of these 7x7x3in aluminum tins, ok?
You might need to leak proof your tins before use. Just fill it up with water and see if they leak. (most of them will). If it does, make a paste with flour and water and use it to seal the seams before you add the batter.
Before adding the batter, you need to render the tin non-stick. To do this, heat the tin over the fire till it is hot, then spray or brush some oil onto the bottom and sides. It has to be heated up as it opens up the pores in the metal which the oil will seep into to render it non-stick.
Do not use baking paper as they tend to float up and destroy the nice honeycomb pattern. Yes, they do, even if you oil the tin before placing the baking paper. DON’T do it! It destroyed my kuih a few times already, so unless you are a masochist, don’t use baking paper! Just DON’T do it!
After the fermentation stage, give your batter a gentle stir so that all the tapioca flour at the bottom is well mixed. Don’t whip or introduce more air into the batter. Allow the batter to settle for 10-15 mins or till you see the batter turning back to dark yellow and a layer of foam settles. You can give the mixing bowl a few sharp taps on the table top to burst the bubbles and get the foam to settle. Pour the batter through a sieve discarding any foam trapped in the sieve.
Next you will need to skim off the foam. This layer of foam, if not removed will become a dense layer on top of the kueh. This has been a problem from day 1 but I did not realize it until recently.
After skimming off the foam on the top, you will be left with a nice yellow batter IF you followed my instructions about not whipping air into the eggs. This is how you want it to look like just prior to baking. More foam will form during the baking process but that is fine.
How I wish someone had just told me categorically to forget about using the oven to bake this cake from day 1! That would have saved me countless heartaches and sleepless nights! Many people say that this kuih is the most difficult to do. But, it is in fact, very simple and uses only very basic equipment. All you really need is a shallow heavy bottom stainless steel pot, a baking tin, a rack, a stove and you will be able to make this kuih with great success!
The basic principle is this. The batter must be runny and the heat must only be applied from the bottom so that the bubbles will form and rise to the top creating a nice long track. The top of the cake must remain below 65°C or else the egg will start to thicken on top and form a thick dense layer which will stop the bubbles from rising to the top. This is the commonest problem with many home made kuih ambon.
When you try to cook this in the oven, the heat will usually circulate even if you use just bottom heat and open the oven to let the heat escape. The sides of the cake will also start cooking first, so that the sides don’t rise as much as the middle, causing the kuih to dome. I tried to get around this by doing all sorts of things. I tried wrapping the baking tin with a towel and foil to insulate the sides and a tray of water on top. I even went to the extent of changing my oven to one with only bottom heat! But it still did not work! So let me say this categorically, DON’T use the oven, use the STOVE!
My breakthrough came when Chef Damian told me that the cake was traditionally cooked in an old Jacob biscuit tin over a charcoal fire! That got me thinking of starting a charcoal fire! (I was desperate enough by that stage) Then it occurred to me that rather than cooking over charcoal maybe I can cook it in my gas BBQ! That was my moment of epiphany, the climax in the kung fu movie when the vision of sifu appears just before the enemy strikes the final deathblow!
After two successful bakes on the gas BBQ, I decided to try it over the stove because I wanted a recipe that everybody can use. My hypothesis was that since the kuih requires infrared heat from the bottom to bake, this can be simulated by heating a stainless steel bottom pot! I had seen someone do it online before, but I wasn’t convinced. But, lo and behold, it worked! And it actually worked better than the gas grill!
What you will need is a shallow stainless steel pot that is at least 26cm in diameter. Why 26cm? Because your 7×7 in tin has a diagonal length of 25cm, so it will fit nicely into the pot. (That is why you should not use your existing 8x8in tin because you will then need a 29cm pot which is huge!).
I repeat, go buy a 7x7x3 square baking tin!
You will also need a rack that will elevate the tin about 1 cm above the bottom of the pot. It will be best if you get a heavy bottom pot as you will be heating the pot to a temperature of 230-250°C for over an hour and you don’t want it to warp. These pots are not designed to be used in this manner, so it’s best to use an old pot which you don’t mind throwing away. It must also be shallow enough so that the rim of your baking tin is ABOVE the rim of the pot. If your pot is too tall, the heat will build up above the kuih and it will cook too early, resulting in the same dense layer that you get when you bake it in the oven.
Don’t use a non-stick pan as the non-stick material may melt. Don’t use a cast iron pan as you will destroy the non stick surface and you will have to re-season the pan again. (Guess how I know?) If you have an electric stove, you can try to put a rack directly over the heating element (legs around the heating element, not in direct contact) and placing your tin on the rack. I haven’t tried it but in principle, it should work. I tried using an induction cooker to heat up the pot but it didn’t work. I think somehow my induction cooker will not continue to heat up the pot unless there is something in it.
You will need to heat the bottom of the pot till the temperature reaches 230°C to 250°C and cook the kuih for 1 hr15min to 1 hr 30 mins. If you are using gas fire like mine, use the double ring one and turn it to about 3/4 of maximum heat. (see photo) You should see lots of bubbles on the top of the kuih by the 15 min mark. If you don’t see any bubbles, you will need to increase the heat. The kuih is ready once the bubbles at the top have all broken and it is marked with lots of holes. (see photo below)
Please keep a close eye on it when it is baking and make sure there is nothing flammable around. If the pot starts to smoke a lot, then you will have to turn off the heat. I have done this on my stove top four times already and it has been ok. I used a laser thermometer to monitor the heat and it is around 230-250°C. There is a chance that the pot might might burst into flames especially if there is some oil around, so do make sure you keep an eye on it. If you walk away and forget all about it then you might have a fire to deal with! Make sure you have a fire extinguisher or fire blanket handy!
PLEASE KEEP AN EYE ON IT! ieatishootipost will not be liable for any mishaps that happen in your kitchen. You bake this kuih at your own risk!
The cake is ready when all the bubbles on the top have burst and the top of the kuih is dotted with pock marks. Now remove it and place in the oven at 200°C for 5 mins or until the top turns golden brown. If you don’t have an oven, you can simply place the pot over the tray for a few minutes. The browning may not be as even, but it will work. You can even serve it as it is. It just doesn’t look as good but it will taste fine!
Once the kuih is done, leave it to cool completely before de-panning it. I know there is a great temptation to take it out and slice into it see if you got the honeycomb pattern, but if you try to remove the kuih when it is hot, you might break it as the starch is still soft. (Guess how I know?) If you are in a hurry, place the whole pan in a tray of ice water. Once the cake is completely cooled, it should be easy to remove.
Once the cake is completely cooled, slice the cake in half and then into 1.5cm thick slices. To make cutting easier, use a wet towel to clean and moisten your knife before each slice. This is the optimum thickness as you can fully appreciate the honeycomb structure. Please tell your guest to peel off the layers and eat it instead of just taking a bite like any other cake. It took a lot of effort to get it this way, so teach them how to appreciate it.
Another reason for not cutting it too thick is because you will invariably come across people on a diet who will not even want to take a slice when they see that it is thick. Others might not even want to try, giving the excuse that they are too full or on a diet or that their goldfish had just died and they are in mourning. Make a mental note of such people and don’t ever offer them anything else because, really, how many times do you want to suffer rejection? Just “unlike” and “unfollow” them and go find yourself a group of new friends who will rejoice with you at your success, shower you with endless praise and peel away the strands of your kuih with squeals of delight! (Just kidding……. )
One last thing. You don’t really need to put this cake in the fridge if you are planning to eat it in the next day or two. But if you do, slice it first and warm it up in the microwave for 20 secs before serving. This will help soften the kuih and make it tender and chewy again.
All the best with your baking and do snap a photo of your kuih and share it with us! Here are some of my other “everything you need to know” recipes: Japanese Cheesecake, Roti Prata, Pandan Chiffon Cake, Tau Huay.
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