Pastry chef Ollyvia Putri’s 20-layer cakes are legitMike Sulaon September 1, 2022 at 4:00 pm

Ollyvia Putri insists on only canned Wijsman sweetcream salted butter for her bacon cake.

“I cannot change that,” she says of the imported Dutch butter. “My grandma would kill me.”

“For problem-free use in tropical countries,” the distinctive red cans of Wijsman can run up to $10 for less than half a pound. But that’s not the only reason Putri’s buttery 20-layer kue lapis legit, aka “dense layers cake,” aka spekeok, aka “bacon cake,” sells for $88 apiece. Each one requires about four hours to build, its successive batter strata spread thinly and baked individually, pulled from the oven, and pressed with melted butter, all on repeat until the result is something the Dutch colonial housewives in Jakarta—in their attempts to recreate cylindrical baumkuchen, or spit cake—thought looked like slabs of pork belly.

“They say it’s the layers, but I think it’s because of the amount of fat in it,” says Putri, who makes the cakes four at a time out of a Naperville shared kitchen. These she sells mostly online in four flavors—along with a variety of Indonesian cookies—under the handle Lapis312.

Given the volume she moves—she ships to all 50 states—Putri is arguably the queen of kue lapis legit in America. Her sister Marcella, with whom she opened a pastry shop in Singapore, is her southeast Asian analogue. But they owe it all to their late grandmother who passed the recipe on to them. “My grandma was a great cook,” says Putri. But “growing up I did not care much about cooking or baking. I was just an eater.”

It wasn’t until she was a junior engineering student at the University of Michigan that she caught a fever for pastry, eating exam stress by baking cupcakes and tiramisu for friends. “I was very fortunate to have my parents’ support,” she says. “I guess being the youngest I didn’t have any burdens or anything, and they allowed me to go to pastry school.”

That’s how she wound up in Chicago studying under Sébastien Canone and Jacquy Pfeiffer at the French Pastry School. “I didn’t really know any fancy technique like chocolate work or sugar work,” she says. “Going to school really opened up my eyes.” After graduating she worked for a year under another instructor at the Peninsula—then-executive pastry chef Dimitri Fayard—and then landed a two-month stage in Paris at the pinnacle of French pastry and chocolate: Pierre Hermé, rotating through all the kitchen stations in the renowned patisserie.    

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In 2015 she returned to Singapore where she opened Ollella with her sister, specializing in French choux pastry and kue lapis legit (not to be confused with the multicolored steamed rice flour kue lapis sagu, which Marcella now offers). “My sister really wanted to incorporate Indonesian pastries and my grandma’s legacy,” she says. “Other than us no one would have continued making kue lapis because it’s such a crazy cake to make,” she says. “I think the process is a dying tradition. The younger generation doesn’t have the time nor patience to make traditional cakes. And given how labor intensive kue lapis is, it is not a common cake to be made at home to begin with.”

They sold traditional kue lapis legit, spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and a “secret” fourth—popular with the old folks—along with the unspiced “butter” variety for the youngsters; and another common variety made with prunes, each layer of the latter two misted with dark rum. But they wanted to make a mark. “At that point in time there weren’t many funky flavors of kue lapis. It’s quite an expensive cake to play with. We definitely wanted to make a chocolate version, but everyone loves Nutella and I thought it will make for prettier layers. It was a huge hit; our second bestseller behind butter.”

In 2018 Putri married and returned to Chicago where her husband worked. “It’s been awhile since I worked for someone else, so I decided to start something on my own. I saw there was a need for good lapis in the U.S.”

She tested the recipes in her home kitchen, adjusted to North American ingredients, but realized there was no substitute for the 82 percent butterfat Wijsman. “When you open it it kind of smells like a very mild cheese,” she says. “But it’s not as oily as a normal European butter.”  

She posted her cakes for sale on expat Facebook groups and set up a table at the annual consulate-sponsored Indonesian Independence celebration. Word quickly spread among Indonesian, Singaporean, and Malaysian communities across the country. Before long more than half her online orders were coming from the coasts, LA, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Philadelphia. Her business exploded after COVID hit, when folks couldn’t travel home to get their kue lapis legit fix. Today more than 80 percent of her orders come from out of state.

Putri also introduced sweet and savory cookies typically eaten on holidays like Chinese New Year and Eid. Nastar are orbs of crumbly shortbread-like dough encrusting deposits of pineapple jam spiced with clove and cinnamon. Sagu keju are savory gluten-free rosettes made with cassava flour roasted with fragrant pandan leaf and mixed with cheddar cheese. She recently introduced a favorite: her grandmother’s kastengel, fingers of shortbread baked with edam cheese.

“That one’s personal to me because when we grew up she used to make nastar and kastengel a lot, especially for Chinese New Year. It’s really something you can keep popping in your mouth.”

Putri recently offered her whole line of treats at a Monday Night Foodball pop-up, the Reader’s weekly guest chef series at the Kedzie Inn in Irving Park. You can always order online, but the only regular local retail outlet that stocks them is the Indonesian market Waroeng in Schaumburg, where she also sells her kaya: pandan-infused coconut jam, typically eaten on toast for breakfast.

When you consider that she simmers coconut, eggs, and caramelized sugar for more than three hours to achieve its exact custardy consistency, a drive to the western suburbs doesn’t seem too much of a burden. “You have to cook it low and slow and keep stirring it,” she says. “But everything good is always labor-intensive.”

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