Monday, 8 October 2012

My Mother's Homemade Kaya

My mother's kaya is something that I grew up with.  Kaya slathered thickly over buttered bread for our morning breakfast.  She's made these regularly through the years, and I still remember how she would keep the eggshells for us to draw cartoon faces on.  This was the easiest way to get almost-whole eggshells as she could make a small hole on the base and let the eggs flow out slowly for the kaya.  That's why we looked forward to kaya making days.  Eggshell faces...Simple pleasures.

Many years have since passed, and we've grown out of eggshell faces.  But she still makes her own kaya and we still have them for breakfast.  The benchmark has been set for so many years, so much so that store-bought ones have always been found lacking and we go back to making them.   However, I do admit that kaya is a very personal thing and everyone swears by their own recipes.

Despite the many recipes, kaya is made from simple ingredients - eggs, sugar and coconut milk flavoured with pandan.  The main difference is usually in the cooking method, colour and the number of hours spent slaving over the stove stirring the mixture to its finally custard-like consistency.  I have seen kaya double-boiled, steamed, double-boiled and steamed, made in bread-machines etc.  In fact, my mother remembers my grandmother making kaya over a charcoal stove and stirring continuously for at least 4 hours.  
traditional breakfast - kaya spread on bread with soft boiled eggs and black coffee

If it's so much work, then why make them?  Isn't it easier to just buy them off-the-shelf? I've been told that commercial kaya is thickened with starch and nasty preservatives.  Ugh...If I wanted additional starch, I'd rather reserve them for some McDonald's French Fries. And unpronounceable additives?  Same as starch - reserve them for other foods that you can't get at home.

The good news is, my mother's kaya recipe can be made up in less than 1 hour, from all natural ingredients with no additives.  The secret I believe is in the caramel.  Not only does it give the kaya a lovely dark brown caramelly colour, it also thickens it.  She learnt this from a friend and has been making it this way for the last 30+ years.  The original recipe is still in katis and uses fresh dessicated coconut for the coconut milk.  We have adapted it to reflect this day and age.  This uses the double-boiled method, so have 2 pots ready. 

Homemade Kaya
Yields 2 jam jars

5 large eggs
250gm caster sugar
1 packet coconut powder, reconstituted in 300ml of water
some pandan leaves, torn and knotted up
80 gm caster sugar - this is for the caramel

1.  In a large mixing bowl, hand-whisk the eggs and 250gm sugar until the sugar is dissolved, about 3-5 minutes. You don't need to whisk for aeration, only to dissolve the sugar.  Mix will be pale and slightly foamy at this stage.
2.  Add in the coconut milk, stir until fully blended into the mix.
3.  Pour the egg/sugar/coconut mix through a sieve into a small pot. Toss the pandan leaves into the sieved mixture. 
4.  Put some water into the large pot and heat it up to barely simmering point.  Place the small pot in.  Ensure that water level is not too high or too low when you place the smaller pot in.  Too high and you will splash the kaya.  Too low a level and it won't cook.
5.  Stir the mixture every 30 seconds or so initially.  This will ensure smoother kaya as the eggs will start to cook and thicken the mixture.
6.  After about 15 minutes, the kaya will start to thicken.
7.  Using an old ladle or small pot, heat the 80gm caster sugar over low heat until it starts to turn brown.  Use a spoon to stir the sugar so that it melts and colours evenly.  This is the caramel.
8.  Very quickly, pour the caramel into the kaya pot, and stir the kaya vigorously.  Be careful as the kaya may splatter.  You will see the kaya thicken immediately, and its colour will darken.
9.  Continue to cook the kaya for another 5 - 10 minutes, depending on how thick you like it to be.  It will thicken slightly once cooled. 
10.  Once done, remove from heat and spoon into clean glass jars.  Remove the pandan leaves from the kaya.  Cool before storing in the refrigerator. 
11.  The kaya will keep for at least 2 weeks in the refridgerator.

pandan leaves
the ingredients - sugar, eggs, coconut
step 1 & 2 - whisk eggs, sugar and coconut milk
step 4 - double boil


step 7  - making caramel over stove

step 8 - after stirring caramel into kaya


step 9 - kaya is done



  • Sieving removes undissolved sugar and other impurities and helps give a smoother kaya. 
  • I like using a pair of wooden chopsticks to stir as there's enough length to prevent getting splattered.
  • The final colour depends on the caramel.  If you like pale kaya, then ensure you have a much lighter caramel.
  • Be careful with the caramel as it can burn quickly.  Use low heat and stir continuously.
  • Stirring kaya is like making risotto.  Not necessary to stir continuously, but enough turns to prevent clumping.  I have read about people who insist the secret is stirring in only 1 direction.  Believe me, that's not true.  You can stir it anyway you want, clockwise or counterclockwise.  Just make sure you stir and get to the bottom and sides thoroughly.
  • Some people like really smooth kaya.  So you can 'cheat' by blending the final product.  For me, it isn't necessary as I think my kaya is quite smooth already :)
  • If you are particular about using sterilised jars, you can sterilise them in the same pot of boiling water.  Otherwise just ensure all your utensils used are washed and cleaned.   


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