My host family began Christmas preparations last week. We carried two small box-sized ovens outside to the front porch and hooked them up to gas. Bu Emi is the matriarch of our all-lady family. She and her daughters Mbak Iin and Mbak Lia prep 150 individual heart-shaped cakes to hand out at the Christmas service at their church down the road. There’s a reason holiday baking warrants so much tradition in the States. It’s the winter air that makes turning on the oven such a treat. And the entire home starts to smell of ginger, molasses, brown sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. Chocolate, mint, cranberry, cream cheese—nearly any ingredient can take on a holiday twist.
But in Madiun, baking means tweaking a small blue flame below a metal box for most of the day, sweating throughout the process. Holiday baking still doesn’t lose its charm outside in 90 degree heat, but it sure is sweatier. So when you enjoy a baked treat here in Madiun, you learn to love the baker.My host family used to run a bakery business. For six years, they distributed homemade cakes and cookies to corner stores called tokos all around town. But now, Bu Emi has retired from the cake business. Baking for a special event or just to enjoy something sweet is so much more enjoyable when you can lazily begin at 8am, rather than, say, three in the morning. Sometimes it’s nice to return to a hobby that is just that—for fun. No side hustle required.
I was surprised to see that these soft sponge cakes require no butter at all. Milk is a key emulsifier. In its place, we’re using what’s called SP mix. When you look at Indonesia’s typical dishes, there’s not so much dairy here at all. It’s why many volunteers lose weight when they first move here. Milk is meant to fatten up babies. And when you cut it out of a diet completely, there’s room for other alternatives. We’ve got soy, we’ve got peanuts, we’ve got piles of coconuts at the neighborhood warung. Here, on the world’s most populated island, delegating so much space and resources to raising dairy cows would be wasteful. Instead, space is reserved for sawa. Rice fields cover Madiun like graph paper.
For the most part, Christmas Day seems the same as the day before. In Bahasa Indonesia, the word for yesterday is kemarin. But kemarin can mean yesterday, or the day before yesterday, or five days ago, or last week, or a few years ago. It can refer to any day that came before today.
This morning, by 6 am, rice farmers—petani—cycle into town dressed in rolled-up celana and straw ubud hats. They park their bicycles and step into the sawa, barefoot and knee-deep in soft, irrigated soil. Mud coats their skin. For growers and harvesters, Christmas Day is any other day. The farmers are in the fields as soon as the early morning downpour stops. They tend to the green grasses that become nasi putih, which fuels more than 140 million people on Java.
We start our day with rice—it’s often nasi pecel for breakfast. But post-breakfast, it’s time to get baking. If you’d like to make Bu Emi’s kue sepon (sponge cake) at home, know that this list below is more of a suggestion than a strict recipe. It’s a mix of weighing dry ingredients and using a measuring cup for the liquids. There’s some disagreement in the family over how many eggs (five versus six) make the cakes spongy enough. But for the sake of writing it all down, it seems more is more. What’s important is that it can be multiplied by 10 for well over a hundred heart-shaped cakes to share.
Bu Emi’s Vanilla Sponge Cake
Makes 1 large bundt cake, about 20 cupcakes, or 14 heart-shaped tins
- 300 grams flour
- 300 grams granulated sugar
- 1 cup cold water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 6 eggs
- 1 teaspoon baking emulsifier
- 1 cup vegetable oil
It’s 90 degrees outside, so we’re simplifying things. All you need is one big bowl and a mixer. Just add all of the above into the bowl, and turn the hand mixer on high. Whip the mix together until it’s thinner than your average cake batter—but still creamy and completely smooth—about five minutes.
Grease and flour the container—whether a bundt or two cake rounds or cupcake liners—and fill it about an inch from the brim. This sponge cake is going to rise.
Ovens fluctuate. Keep watch over your little sponge cake babies. I’d say to bake at roughly 350 degrees F, or 175 C, although we can’t attest to the temps of our oven here. Just keep an eye on this vanilla treat, okay? And all that fuss about keeping the oven door closed goes right out the window here. If you need to, take out the cake. Give the pan a shake. If it’s moving in the pan, it needs more bake time. We want the cake to firm up and nearly burst out of the pan, with no space to shake.
Let it cool, then flip the cake out of the pan and frost as you like. We were in a pinch, so we used store-bought frosting from the toko roti (bake shop) and then colored it ourselves.
Indonesia’s Sunda Strait was hit by a devastating tsunami this week. If you’ve still got some holiday dollars to give, these organizations are doing work on the ground.
If you’d like to give locally, consider donating to the Lea Marie Faraone Foundation. My friend Leeza lost her sister, Lea, this month after a long battle with cystic fibrosis. The Lea Marie Faraone Foundation will support people living with chronic illness.
Sending love back home. Happy holidays ❤