KLANG, Sept 25 — It is an institution known for one thing: the pandan layer cake created by Cheng Yew Hoe, 68. Generations of Klang residents and beyond have grown up eating his pandan layer cake with its distinct five layers of cake and the green kuih-like filling.
However, future generations may not get to taste this treat as Cheng wants to call it a day by year end. Tired of running the place himself as none of his four children is willing to take over the business, he plans to shut it down to get some much needed rest.
The story of Cheng’s baking career started with a passion for cakes. Born in China back in 1948, Cheng’s family migrated to Klang where his father found work in a bakery.
It was hard work for Cheng senior as there was no instant yeast or electric mixers back then. Those days, as Cheng tells us, they would start work from 4am and the dough would be painstakingly kneaded by hand.
As the dough takes time to ferment, it’s only at noon that they can start to bake the tall Benggali bread loaves in the charcoal oven.
Cheng recalls that the oven would be the size of a room! Usually it took another two more hours before the bread is ready. “I see also I’m scared as you mix with your hands until you want to faint,” said Cheng.
Since there was always leftover bread available to the family, he admits he was sick of eating stale bread.
It was a different thing with cakes, since it wasn’t readily available at that time. He recalls that those days, baked cakes were rare since not everyone had access to an oven or the ingredients to make the cake.
Instead, steamed egg sponges or kai tan koh made with a hand beater was more commonly found. Moreover as the eldest son who had to look after his four younger sisters, he also wanted to pursue a career that would help his family who were just barely making ends meet on his father’s meagre salary from the bakery.
In 1975, Cheng took private classes with a hotel chef at his home. Every day, he would travel down to KL and learn how to make cakes. It took him about one year to pick up the skills.
After that, he started his cake shop in Klang on New Year’s Day in 1977 with only three varieties of cakes — chiffon, butter and Swiss roll.
In the old days, bakeries had limited choices as cakes were only reserved for special occasions. Since there was no choice, people weren’t too fussy or demanding about the taste of the cake, accepting any cake the shop sold. “If you can eat cake, they were happy enough,” he explained.
Cheng reflects that it is an entirely different ball game nowadays since there are abundant choices. “If your cake is not nice, people do not bother about you.”
He reckons that nowadays a cake shop needs at least 30 varieties of cakes before it can start business. “Once you know how to bake, you may not be successful... if people do not know who you are, you are not successful. There’s no point you know how to make it, you need to also sell it.”
Beleaguered by competition, Cheng decided to invent the pandan layer cake about 35 years ago to capture the customers’ tastebuds.
His choice for a pandan flavoured cake was driven by his own observations that Malaysians love anything to do with pandan. Moreover the plant was easily available.
You will find that Cheng’s version uses a cake layer that has a texture which is sturdier and stronger compared to a typical sponge cake. This allows it to hold the denser filling and the cake also does not absorb the moisture and become soggy.
The kuih-like filling is made with a mixture of freshly squeezed pandan juice, fresh santan and Hoen Kwe flour, a starch made from mung beans. As it tends to coagulate when it cools down, you need a quick hand to fill the cake layers..... a total of five. Some liken the texture of the filling to jelly since it’s smooth and cool when refrigerated.
The response was immense especially in Klang. As word spread about the cake, loyal fans requested he open a branch in PJ.
Following their lead, he opened his first Golden Bake in SS2 in the mid-1980s. Despite the cake’s popularity in Klang, word still had not spread within the KL & PJ area about the bakery’s presence.
In the early years, it took much effort on Cheng’s part to market the pandan layer cake. He recalls cutting the cake and asking his neighbour, the hairdresser Peter & Guys, to help him to distribute complimentary pieces of it to their customers.
That caught the eye of a McDonald’s executive who approached Cheng to supply the birthday cakes for kids’ parties held at their SS2 outlet. As Cheng recalls, it was a great way to market the Golden Bake name even though it was just a small piece of cake. Sometimes, parents would order bigger sized cakes.
As business was brisk, he opened two more Golden Bake outlets. By 1989, he had four outlets in Klang and PJ and he was feeling stretched running all of them.
The turning point came one night when he was driving back from PJ to Klang. In those days, the roads weren’t well lit and Cheng almost hit a cow that was crossing the road. That near fatal accident shook him up and he realised that he couldn’t continue going up and down to PJ to manage the cake shops.
Instead, he offered to rent it out to one of his workers who was also taught by the same cake master. Initially he rented the bakery to him for two years but business dwindled.
Since he knew there was no way he could manage it, he decided to sell the business at a reduced market value. About five years ago, Golden Bake in PJ closed after the owner died from cancer. The other two Golden Bake bakeries in Klang are now run by Cheng’s son and daughter where the cakes are supplied by Regent Pandan Layer Cake Shop.
Cheng didn’t just stop at the pandan flavour as he also introduced a yam version in 1988 as customers wanted more variety. The light lavender coloured cake has a filling made with steamed yam; there are tiny diced pieces of yam in the cake.
Most people don’t realise it but there’s actually a third flavour that is made with corn since it tends to be less promoted. As Cheng insists on using the best ingredients, only the Ayam brand of creamed corn is used as the corn is not too hard or soft.
After years of R&D, Cheng is also proud that he has perfected his Phillipine chocolate cake. What makes it exceptional is unlike those chocolate cakes that tend to harden when refrigerated, this cake blanketed with a fudge-like filling remains moist and tender straight out from the refrigerator!
It’s also not too greasy or sweet which makes it the perfect light yet decadent bite for an afternoon treat. Previously when Cheng was testing out the recipe, the filling tended to crack after two days. The trick he discovered was to steam the filling that uses chocolate and whipped cream.
Customers come from afar for the pandan layer cake, calling to book their cakes before they pick it up from Klang. A recent order from Yong Peng saw about 70 cakes being prepared.
Most of their regulars like Elton Tan, 39, have grown up eating the cake. He has been eating their pandan and yam layer cakes since he was eight. Nowadays, he returns to buy the cake for his children, making it a second generation loved cake.
The cake has even provoked a fight! Cheng tells the story of how his friend almost ended up in a fistfight with his colleague, when he discovered he had eaten up his precious stash of pandan layer cake from their communal office refrigerator.
As he was based in Singapore, he was incredibly upset since that particular cake wasn’t available there. Cheng also takes customised orders and his biggest has to be the whopping 80 kilograms Phillipine chocolate cake ordered by the Majlis Perbandaran Klang! It took about five people just to carry it!
The cake shop originally started business at shophouse no. 82 but in 1995, following a neighbouring fire, they relocated to the present premises. In 2000, Cheng purchased this shophouse making it their permanent home.
Since pandan layer cake was his signature item and there were many copycats, Cheng also changed the name of his bakery from Regent Confectionery to Regent Pandan Layer Cake Shop to reflect that this was the origin of that legendary cake.
Throughout the day, business is brisk as customers of all races pop in to grab a cake. For special celebrations, you can request Cheng to decorate it for you or write a greeting. Keeping to the old school theme, it’s decorated with pastel wafer roses and brightly coloured icing.
For something simpler, you can also dust the cake with desiccated coconut. Most of their customers like to combine two flavours together, joining the rectangle cakes or just order the dual pandan and yam layer cake.
Some even combine the three flavours so it looks like a pastel praline with its delicate green, yellow and lavender colours. The price for the 1 kilogram cake is set at RM45, even though as Cheng shows us, the cake actually weighs about 1.5 kilograms. Despite the difference in prices for the ingredients used in the three flavours, he prefers to maintain the same price, as it’s easier for customers.
When asked why he does not consider selling the business, he is adamant that without a proper heir, he refuses to continue the business since he is getting on in years. As he has built up the business to be so popular, he prefers to maintain the high standards and not let its name be tainted in any way. “I prefer to shut it and they can remember it. If you fail, then people will scold and remember it.”
Regent Pandan Layer
No. 70, Jalan Raya Timur, Klang
Tel: 03-3371 8382
Open: 9am to 8pm (Monday to Friday), 9am to 6pm (Saturday and Sunday)