This layer cake from Goa, bebinca, is a splendid example of the Portuguese bakers’ legacy to Indian cuisine.
Surprisingly, it is gluten-free. The recipe uses rice flour, which shows how the Portuguese adapted local ingredients into their cooking. At that time, wheat was not common in Goa, so wheat flours were not readily available and nor would they have been cheap. Rice, however, is the local staple grain.
The family version, as presented here, has seven layers. One version of the dish’s history has it first made by a nun called Bebiana of the Convento de Santa Monica in Goa. She made it with seven layers to symbolise the seven hills of Lisbon, and offered it to her priest. Apparently, he found it too small, so the layers were increased to twenty-one, which is now the way the dish is prepared on formal occasions. Or so the story goes…
If you intend to make such a version, you need to increase the quantities specified here by half, and make each layer somewhat less than half the size this recipe calls for.
One of the other variants is make two batches of batter. One will use white sugar, and the other will use the jaggery. You then cook the cake using alternate layers of the batter, giving a more pronounced layer appearance. Halve the batter ingredients, and use 500g of caster sugar in one, and 500g of jaggery in the other.
Technique and patience are critical for this recipe to be successful.
The cake is cooked from top down, one layer at a time. It is time-consuming – it will take the best part of an hour and a half to cook, and it needs frequent attention.
Further, you must be careful with your oven. You are grilling this as much as you are baking this, and getting the two techniques in balance requires some skill. You need to set your oven to only use the top element, and you must not use any fan assistance. You want to limit the amount the earlier layers continue to cook as you add further layers on top.
All of which should not put you off cooking this. Yes, it is time-consuming, and yes, it is easy to over-cook it. But the results are impressive.
- 50 g almonds - slivered
- Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Only use the top element and do not use any fan assistance.
- Open the cardamom pods and remove the seeds. Grind the seeds to a coarse powder. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, mix the jaggery with the coconut milk until it is dissolved.
- Beat the egg yolks until creamy, then add the rice flour. Mix thoroughly until the mixture is smooth.
- Add the egg yolks and flour to the mixture of coconut milk and sugar. Add the nutmeg and cardamom. Mix well to make a smooth batter.
- Put one tablespoon of melted butter In a deep baking pan, about 22cm in diameter and place it under the grill. When it is hot, take it out and pour enough batter into the pan to cover the bottom to the depth of about 1cm.
- Put in the oven, on the top shelf, for about 10 minutes and let it cook until the top is deep brown in colour. Remove, brush melted butter over the cooked layer ,then put back in the oven for another minute.
- Remove from oven and pour enough batter to cover the first layer to a depth of about ½ cm. Place back in the oven and cook for eight minutes, or until top is dark golden brown. Remove, brush top with butter, then return to the oven for another minute.
- Repeat this process until all the batter and melted butter have been used up. Make sure each layer of batter after the first is the same thickness. Traditionally, bebinca has seven layers. The final layer should be just melted butter.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool.
- When cool, turn out on to a plate, putting the first, thicker layer on top. Decorate with the almond slivers and serve.
- The cooking times for each layer are given as a guide only. Depending on the efficiency of your oven, and how close to the element your cake can be placed will determine the actual cooking time. You can use a skewer to test – you want the layer just cooked enough, with a golden to deep brown top.
- Take care not to allow the top of the each layer to burn.
- We cut our bebinca into a square, by removing each of the curved edges. This square is then cut into nine portions.