vegan sugee cake (semolina almond cake)

It has been a while! There's no room for a proper update here 
but I am back in York, England. I'll leave some links at the
bottom of this page, but I hope to bring proper news sometime.

Semolina was never a pantry staple to me; we never knew one another intimately, always some interceding intermediary between us. In the eating of a soft English muffin, deflected by the incurious nonchalance with which I dusted my fingers off after they were freckled with gritty grain, a coat of fine semolina like pollen on a bee. The once-removed presence of yellow durum in bowls of pasta: the first byproduct in milling those ears of wheat, but ultimately not quite the same thing. Sometimes the interim was beguilingly material, like the glass bakery case pane of an Indian sweets stall, or the wraithlike clingwrap over tessellated trays of these beautifully geometrical sweets: the snowballs of rava laddu; the upside-down pudding mounds of kesari in their bright shiny colour like the purest distilled orange juice, freckled with saffron and cashew. Squares or long diamonds of rava burfi, the sharpest edges tapering to near translucence with the toffeed gleam of gritty sweet fudge, shards of cardamom the colour of fresh shoots in spring pressed onto their tops… (I could go on forever about those beautiful desserts but that is another subject). Sometimes the interim was language – I read ‘rava’, ‘sooji’, ‘suji’ off recipe books and recipe sites, and only knew them to be the same later.    

Semolina, in Situ

In that vein, it is only right to acknowledge that this vegan sugee cake that I’ve developed — as much as it is a product of Singaporean Eurasian culinary precedence — is also in honour of Indian bakers and their eggless cakemaking, the expertise from which is crucial to my recipe development process in this cake and beyond. I only came to know semolina when pursuing personal baking interests; it was, to my joy some distant internet rabbithole ago, the subject of many naturally eggless cakes – not quite vegan, yet, but already with a massive chasm closed. From the videos of many Indian bakers, I learnt about the leavening wonders of yogurt, or ‘curd’, with oil and sometimes sparkling water; the binding and conditioning properties of sweetened condensed milk, with its long sinuous stream; hot milk cakes, with steaming vats of white liquid that emulsified into creamy smooth batters with an easy few whisks. There was so much joy, so much boundless possibility in exploring eggless baking – I loved the video titles with exuberant labels of ‘No egg’ ‘No butter’ ‘No oven’ ‘No cooker’, like battlecries of success or the service stripes of a veteran. Less the miserable endings of culinary adventures (which is what most would otherwise be inclined to believe!) than heralds of future exciting wanders and forays into unchartered territories. 

Through the algorithm, it took only a few clicks to navigate from eggless rava and sooji cakes towards the extended semolina universe. There was Lebanese sfouf cake with semolina, tahini and turmeric. The basbousa cake, an Egyptian cake made with yogurt, honey and ghee. Less vegan is the ravanija (also revani/ravani) cake from the Middle East/Mediterranean, but still beautiful and dewy from a generous soak of syrup, glistening like an ingot. And, at the end of this global tour, I found myself re-routed on a flight back home: the Singaporean sugee cake, which I had only tasted once at an end-of-year class party at primary school. 

Sooji / Suji / Singaporean Sugee

I think there is so much to be proud of in our sugee cake, an Eurasian cake made with semolina and ground almonds frequently served at festive events or celebrations. There are denser versions, with the almost textureless fine pores of rich poundcake; the most common versions have the delicately soft and even-sheared crumb of a sponge cake, sandy from the semolina. 

Most of the aforementioned semolina cakes rely on semolina alone, or a proportion of all-purpose flour – our sugee cake boasts semolina, all-purpose flour and ground almonds, this last special ingredient already hinting as to what makes sugee cake so special in my eyes. There is so much to be curious about: I keep wondering how the ground almonds got in there, an ingredient rare to Southeast Asian pantries — I can only think of the almond cookies we make for Lunar New Year which liberally employs almonds in that state. Semolina in Southeast Asia baked goods is easier to trace as the direct result of combined cultural influences: I think of biskut suji, a popular biskut Raya with its cherrypout of red glacé, often made with ghee and descended from the Indian nankathai cookie. Aparna Balasubramanian, sharing her recipe for Goan Baatica cake — popular amongst Goan Catholics during Christmas — hypothesises that the sugee was developed as a result of the period of Portuguese colonisation in Malacca, due to how that formed the point of diffusion for Goan recipes into the Peranakan community’s culinary lexicon.

The cake is meant to be bouffant and softly spongy, a bounce from the shiny meringue whipped to stiff peaks that is folded into the batter; but its trademark lies in a decadent richness. An import from the butter that the semolina hydrates in until it becomes a plush, pouring silk the colour of claret gold; the winking eggyolks which form the base alongside the semolina mixture; the oils in the almond meal and crushed almonds alike, that continually perfume the cake even after baking. It is especially fragrant, with the nuts in the meal and on the top filling the entire kitchen with the golden warmth of almonds — both the smoky sweet roasted tannins of the outside and the milky, fatty butter of the pale white insides — and the process of toasting the semolina only infuses the cake with more extreme nutty, earthy flavour. It is probably the most intense cloud you would ever meet. And to top it all off, the cake is traditionally infused with brandy or syrup: something bracingly snappy or spicy, or sherbet sweet. There is something so sensuous thinking about heaping gold upon gold, the quiet moist midnight quality of the crackling sound when the already rich sponge just takes in further flavour, makes space for more. The fresh hot steam of fragrant almond-waxed cake in your face as you bend over, spooning more and more. 

Pamelia Chia of Singapore Noodles wrote a really beautiful description alongside her wonderful recipe and video which I feel honours exactly the singular experience of eating the sugee. The unique particularities of the tactile exchange you have, just you and your slice of sugee, a fork to prong and prod. She describes it as reminiscent of “a rich banana cake, in the way that it leaves your finger and your lips with an oily sheen (in a good way). While banana cake often comes with huge chunks of walnuts, imagine bits of nuts running through the cake, so tiny they almost become part of the ‘crumb’”. 

Solving the Sugee

 This is the exact experience I wanted to capture with my version of the sugee cake. I wasn’t aiming to recreate the meringue-raised sponge using enough aquafaba to rival the methane export of a cowherd. My aims with this cake were threefold: trap as much air as possible — that is, maximise volume, minimise dry weight; target all ingredients towards concentrating richness and butteriness even in pure flavour without expensive baking block or overpowering coconutty taste; and allow the cake to rise evenly with no humps.  I wanted a cake that was tender, buttery rich; to have an even brown top that gives softly, under the weight of a fork, into a bed of creamy yellow crumbs. The cake must break apart in moist, fragile crumbs, forkfuls which must melt in your mouth, rather than condense into a claggy clump. 

Vegan baking (myself included, as I am wholly and constantly immersed in that mode!) is so often pressured to engage in premeditative apologetics about an impossible task of perfect emulation, the terror of attempting dishes mentally rarefied into some platonic ideal. But I have to continually remind myself that there is no such static object, because every single dish has the ingredients of time and place; chasing those unseen, unavoidable variables would be fruitless. My fellow vegan Singaporean recipe writer Sasha Gill (author of Jackfruit and Blue Ginger) has a beautiful version of her own available here, a recreation testifying to her personal family connection to the sugee cake, and with an icing and marzipan top just like the most famous sugee commercially available back home, which is Quentin’s. I think the most wonderful thing is having the option of which sugee cake to choose (and how incredibly different our recipes are, testifying to the plenitude and abundance possible!). Make mine, or make hers, or make both and then make your own vegan sugee based on what you liked best. Like the sugee cake soaking in brandy, there is always room for more ways to dream, how our past gains longevity in future life. 

Some Very Important Notes

  • Temperatures are very important here, as we will be working with a lot of ingredients that react differently depending on their state at fridge cold temperatures or room temperature, especially the coconut products. Ensure all ingredients are room temperature! 
  • I use turmeric and black salt to deepen the flavour of the existing fat sources in the recipe: they highlight the milkiness and creaminess. The cosmetic yolk gold the cake turns with the turmeric is a bonus, and I really love how the addition draws a connection to the sugee’s intercontinental semolina cake heritage. You can omit the turmeric and swap the black salt for fine salt, but I feel that this will lose some of the cake’s essential character; the cake I tested without them was delicious but not quite it. 
  • Traditionally the semolina is soaked in the butter, but here we will use the butter to voluminise the cake instead of eggs, by whipping it till stiff and doubled with sugar. So we’ll be soaking the semolina in the coconut milk solution instead. It’s important to note the amount of fat — mine was 18% — and please do not use coconut cream, as there is a fine line to tread between the perfumed butteriness of sugee and something cloyingly rich. 
  • The semolina mix after hydrating overnight should be the texture of a Bircher muesli/soaked weetbix — thick and creamy, but not dry at all. 
  • Traditionally nibbed almonds are used in the cake, but the vegan crumb here is very delicate and I don’t want the bullets of almond to snag and compress it into heavy clagginess under the sawing serrated edge of the knife. Using almond flakes keeps the same real estate of almond but spreads it over a wider, thinner surface area, making it more brittle and swiftly snapped when cutting the cake; I find that it is easier for them to distribute evenly throughout the cake, as they’re less inclined to sink to the bottom even if you are careless with mixing. 
  • A note on the nondairy yogurt: I recommend a Greek-style soy or oat as they are neutral in flavour but still creamy. Coconut yogurt has a distinct coconuttiness and can vary widely across brands in terms of its consistency and amount of fat, on top of contributing to additional coconut flavour. Hence why I would not advise using it! Similarly, see the notes on all-purpose flour (Asian VS Western brands) in the instructions on making the cake.
  • A last point on added flavours. The cake has such a distinctive semolina and almond fragrance; the vanilla and brandy are up to your discretion. Some people have added orange to their versions or even rosewater, but I feel that the cake doesn’t need this at all. This is my personal opinion — your cake, your choice! 

Vegan Sugee Cake / Eurasian Semolina Almond Cake

Makes 1 7 ” square tin/8″ round tin

200g fine semolina

10g coconut oil

200ml coconut milk (I use an entire small packet of Kara UHT coconut milk – around 18% fat content)

180g oat milk or soy milk

Toast fine semolina in a dry frypan over low heat in an even layer, stirring occasionally, until it smells graham-like and nutty – it should be a darker shade of gold. This took me around 10 minutes. Add the coconut oil and turn off the heat; it should melt immediately, and the semolina will fry a little in the residual warmth. Add the coconut milk and oat milk and stir till everything is evenly incorporated – it should be a wet, mulchy batter, almost like an oat porridge. Transfer to a bowl and leave to cool. 

Let the semolina hydrate overnight (at least 8 hours). I kept it at room temperature in a dry and cool climate, wrapped tightly in clingfilm; you can keep it in the fridge in a wetter, humid climate but it is crucial that you bring this to room temperature before using at later steps. 

80g all-purpose flour

80g ground almonds/almond meal

¾ tsp baking powder

¾ tsp baking soda

½ tsp turmeric

½ tsp black salt

50g flaked almonds, roughly chopped or broken up by hand + more to top

150g nondairy spread, softened 

150g fine granulated sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract 

2 tbs brandy (optional)

Semolina mix

120g nondairy vegan yogurt – preferably Greek-style soy, or thick equivalent

2 tbs brandy to soak (optional) OR I used a syrup made with fig jam, maple syrup and water

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Sieve the dry ingredients into a medium bowl and toss the almonds in the dry mix. Set aside.

Whisk your vegan butter and sugar together until doubled in volume and all sugar has been beaten in – you should not be able to feel any sugar grain or grittiness. This is extremely important – it should be creamy and pale and light. Add your extracts and liquor if using and beat in. Add your soaked semolina and nondairy yogurt and whisk in well – it should be light and airy. Switch to a spatula and fold in the dry ingredients (with almonds) in two batches until well incorporated; do not overmix. After all flour pockets disappear, give it about 6-10 more folds (where you run your spatula around the entire circumference and fold inwards). If you are using AP flour made by an Asian brand (such as Phoon Huat), you can be more strenuous with your folding as it has a lower gluten content than Western brands; beat in the dry ingredients with a confident, vigorous folding motion. 

Let the batter rest for 10 minutes – here, you can prepare your tin. Grease a 8 inch cake tin well, and line the bottom with parchment paper.  Scoop into the prepared pan and top with additional almond flakes. Bake for 40-45 minutes until a skewer inserted emerges clean – it should be shiny with a few crumbs clinging, without any wet batter, and should have rose evenly and flat. If required, you can turn on the grill function for 1 to 2 minutes to get the nice browning on top.

While the cake is still warm, you can brush/drizzle the brandy or syrup over the surface. Let it rest for 30 minutes, before transferring out of the tin to cool completely on the wire rack. Apparently aging the cake for at least 2 days before eating helps improve the flavour as the crumb is rehydrated by almonds slowly releasing their oils into the cake – I left it for a day before serving, stored in an airtight container. 

This cake will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for 3 days, best wrapped in clingwrap/beeswax wrap. Afterwards, store in the fridge for up to a week. Warm the cake for a few seconds in the microwave to revive it, right before serving.

More links

To start on Eurasian cooking and the sugee cake: this video (sugee and devil curry, the most well-known dishes but by no means the end) from Our Grandfather Story and this (on Eurasian cuisine in general) too; local Eurasian cooks/writers Denise Fletcher and Sarah Huang Benjamin; the Singapore Noodles substack on Feng. If you don’t mind a slightly denser read, Alexius Pereira’s 2006 paper ‘No Longer “Other”: The Emergence of the Eurasian Community in Singapore‘ is a good one (message me if you cannot find access to it within your institution or otherwise).

This recipe is part of a larger recipe collection I’m working on, after SHELF LIFE – I’m hoping to include a few variations on this cake, including a prune one. You may get a hint of other recipes if you look at my Instagram feed, but I’ve only just came up with a name for it. Stay tuned!

My most recent published piece of work was on Andrew Janjigian’s newsletter, Word Loaf – an essay, In pursuit of vegan ‘milk bread’, as well as a recipe for my go-to vegan bread dough as of now, a vegan milk sponge loaf. You can also see it as part of larger incredible conversations about infrastructure and access, as well as how colonisation puzzles our understanding of food genealogies, in Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter On Regionality and Andrea Aliseda’s newsletter Tortilla de Harina: A Moon of Mystery respectively. I would love to (and am trying to!) do more food writing and recipe work, and am open to any opportunities or leads.

3 comments

    1. Hello! The ‘semolina mix’ refers to all the semolina and milk in the separate soaking process above, please scroll up to read that. I hope this helps! x

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