Spend any time in Indonesia and you will soon learn the importance of oleh-oleh. For those fortunate to visit other places, it is expected that they return with some oleh-oleh to share with family, friends, and coworkers. These may be trinkets such as key chains or handicrafts, but the most popular oleh-oleh are local foods. Flights from Jogya have passengers carrying boxes packed with gudeg. Take the northern express train across Java and you will be pressed to buy dodol, wingko Babat, and other local flavors.
Foods don't have to be a specialty of the place you travel to in order to be suitable oleh-oleh. If they are unavailable locally, they are valued. When the first McDonald's opened in Jakarta, I saw people flying back to Surabaya and Jogya with bags of burgers as oleh-oleh. The same thing happened with Pizza Hut. These international brands have an allure that is difficult for me to understand. I would much prefer a fresh plate of even average tahu lontong to a five-hour old Big Mac or slice of pizza. Of course, those were the old days. Now even Kediri has its own McD's and Pizza Hut (where you can get a pizza with canned tuna, creamed corn and mayonnaise, ugh!).
Kue bika Ambon is a cake famous not from Ambon, but Medan in North Sumatra. It is the oleh-oleh of choice for people who have visited Medan. Unlike western cakes which are made from wheat flour and have a delicate, crumbly texture, kue bika Ambon is made from sago starch and has an odd, slightly gelatinous texture. Leavened with yeast, and flavored with kaffir lime, pandan leaf, and lemongrass infused coconut milk, it is unlike any other cake I have ever tasted. While I must say I still prefer a European style cake, I can understand the attraction of kue bika Ambon. Both its flavor and its texture are delightfully distinctive.
The difficulty with making this cake in the United States is that for best results you should use sago flour/starch. While tapioca starch is readily available, this is made from cassava. It is an acceptable substitute for sago flour in most recipes, but I believe it may not work as successfully in making bika ambon. I have tried several recipes, and ones that I substituted tapioca starch for the sago flour called for in the recipe were not as successful. This recipe uses a sponge of wheat flour as well as some glutinous rice flour to produce a much more satisfactory result. This is adapted from the Indonesian recipe found here.
Kue Bika Ambon
(Since getting a digital scale, I find it much easier and more reliable to measure most ingredients by weight. I know many people prefer to measure by volume, so I include both measurements.)
100 grams (4/5 cup) all-purpose flour
125 ml (1/2 cup) lukewarm water
2 1/2 tsp yeast
300 ml ( 1 1/4 cups) coconut milk (I use Chaokoh canned coconut milk)
1/2 tsp powdered turmeric
12 kaffir lime leaves, shredded
2 stalks lemongrass, bruised
2 pandan leaves (we can get these in Sacramento; if you can't, don't worry)
1 tsp salt
300 grams (1 1/3 cups) sugar
225 grams (1 4/5 cups) tapioca starch
25 grams (2 1/2 TBS) glutinous rice flour
7 large eggs
In a bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Add a pinch of sugar, then stir in the flour. Let this sponge rest while you prepare the other ingredients.
Pour the coconut milk into a saucepan. Stir in the turmeric. Add the lime leaves, pandan leaves (if using), lemongrass, salt, and sugar. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Turn off the heat and let the mixture steep while cooling slightly.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the tapioca starch and rice flour. Add the risen sponge and use a mixer to thoroughly incorporate the starch mixture into the sponge. Add the eggs one by one, making sure each is completely mixed in before adding the next.
Strain the solids from the coconut milk. You should have about 450 ml (a scant 2 cups) of liquid. With the mixer running, slowly add the strained coconut milk to the batter. Continue to mix for about 15 minutes.
Grease an angel food cake pan, or a 9" by 13" baking pan. Pour the cake batter into the pan and let it rest for 2 hours.
Bake the cake in a 325º F oven for 40 to 50 minutes.