17 September 2013

Cooking with the Mamas: Congo Cakes

Before we returned to Congo this year, I did some deep thinking. We're entering our 8th year abroad. What have I learned? What's the one rule that applies to every place we've lived and every place we've visited? All I came up with was one profound truth: Don't eat the cake.

I get tripped up by this every. single. time. I've had most of my international cake experiences in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. They look nice, but really they're always dense, dry and covered in shortening pretending to be icing. Once in Thailand, we tucked into the most delicious looking cake and soon realized the icing was just butter with a hint of food coloring. This is a typical cake experience abroad.

So my resolution for Year 8 was don't get fooled by the foreign cakes. Unless the cake is served at an American embassy function and the baker can confirm that a.) it was his/her grandmother's recipe or b.) it came from a box, I'm out.

And then Mama Youyou started a cake-baking business from our house. Remember Mama Youyou's surgery? It cost about 1/3 of her yearly salary. All out of pocket because obviously there's no such thing as health insurance. So she asked us if she could use our oven to bake cakes. Correction: She asked Adam if she could use his oven. (This is a true statement in our house because as our 3-year-old said this morning, "Boys cook. Womens do not cook." My job is done.)

Several times a week Mama Youyou makes a ton of cakes and gives them to a woman in her neighborhood to sell to school children during their recess. Each cake costs 200 francs, or about 20 cents USD. They share the profits. Here is her recipe:

Mama Youyou's Cakes 

3 kilos flour
1 cup powdered milk
5 eggs
4 cups sugar
75 cl. oil
1/2 tsp. salt

Mix together. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes. Makes one giant, plastic tub's worth.

Unless you too want to feed an entire school of hungry children, I've scaled-down the recipe:

5 cups of flour
1/4 cup powdered milk
1 large egg
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup oil
pinch of salt

Honestly, they're not bad. I quite like them. I've broken my Year 8 resolution more than once for these cakes. I asked her why she calls them "cakes" (which she pronounces "kek") and not the French word for cake, gâteau. She said she thinks it's because they're more like American cakes than French gâteaux. Well, that's not true. They're nothing like American cakes nor French gâteaux. They taste like Congolese cakes for school children. And I love that. 

I asked Mama Youyou how much she profits off each giant batch and she says she hasn't done the math, but guesses around $10. I did the math, it's less than that.

Sometimes friends will pass by our house and smell a batch of cakes fresh from the oven. I charge them at least double the going rate for local school children. Mama Youyou thinks that's unethical. I explained sliding scales. Or really, the value in ripping off your rich, white friends.

P.S. Rich friends: Please stop by our place for a good old-fashioned ripping off. Well worth the warm cake and the closest feeling you'll get to being a Congolese school kid.

Other recipes in the Cooking With the Mamas series:

Pili-Pili Sauce


  1. It looks like Charlotte will have to rethink her stereotype. People who enjoy cooking should cook and people who don't enjoy cooking can assist greatly with clean-up. I sure wish I could have cake and tea on the porch with the mamas.

  2. You are so right about cake abroad. It always looks so good, but it's always deceiving! I've only been an expat for a few years and sometimes still succumb to the pull of the pretty icing. It's better now that I'm in Sydney but the cake in South Korea (where I lived before) was not good at all!

  3. I LOVE this post!

    1. You are dead on about sweets in developing countries looking pretty good and tasting awful, or missing something key to make you want to keep eating it.

    2. I laughed out loud about what your little girl said. :)

    3. And I love that Mama Youyou is working hard to pay for her surgery. She's a gem.

  4. I just was wondering if I should add water? The dough seems like it would be dry. We adopted our son from the DRC and I am always looking for recipes.

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