Chocolate Cake with Strawberries and Cream

I’ve been on a strawberry kick lately. It just seems that I’ve been waiting forever for the rain to stop and the sun to break through the clouds, and now that the time has finally come, I resolved to enjoy it to the max. Among other things, it means I pretty much live on berries these days. I could easily go through a carton of strawberries in a day all by myself. I won’t, because there are always four of us fighting over them, but I absolutely could. I’m putting them in everything: from morning smoothies, oatmeal, and pancakes, through various muffins and cakes for the afternoon coffee break, to evening margaritas. (As they say, it’s important to know when to give up and have a margarita. For this mama, it’s been around seven p.m. lately. I’m just done for the day. “Put my feet up and have a margarita” done.)

What’s not to love about strawberries? They’re sweet and juicy, taste terrific, are powerhouses full of vitamin C, really healthy and good for you. Unless you mash them up and mix them with quart of heavy cream, as we do for this cake I suppose… but hey, what’s life without a little cream, right?! And I’m sure some of that vitamin C is still lurking under that creamy goodness somewhere!

I knew this cake would be a winner right from the start. The strawberry – chocolate combo is a classic that never disappoints. The cake base is light and airy, and the filling is rich and smooth, with distinctive pink color. The addition of gelatin firms it up a bit, and gives you a nice clean cut. All in all, a great dessert choice for any springtime celebration.

Go ahead and give it a try. Celebrate berry season! And please, don’t worry about the cream too much – after all, nobody ever eats “a cake”. Usually, you have a *slice* of cake – as a treat, but even more, as an experience, as a sweet moment in time with those you love. And as such, this cake is worth every its creamilicious bite.

Strawberry chocolate cake title pic

Chocolate Cake with Strawberries and Cream

Cake:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, grated
  • 40 g (1.5 oz.) butter
  • 8 eggs, room temperature, separated
  • pinch of salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 250 g (8 oz.) white sugar
  • 8 tablespoons water
  • 200 g (7 oz.) all-purpose flour
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 6 tablespoons raspberry liqueur for sprinkling the cake layers
Filling:
  • 1 kg (2 lb.) fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 200 g (7 oz.) white sugar
  • 2 envelopes (7 g, 2 ¼ teaspoon each) Knox powdered gelatin
  • 1 l (1 qt.) heavy whipping cream

+ powdered sugar, dark cocoa powder, fresh strawberries, pistachios

sliced strawberries

Method:
  1. To make the cake: Melt chocolate and butter; set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Line two 9×13 inch cake pans with parchment paper, and butter/flour the sides.
  2. Combine egg whites with salt and cream of tartar; beat until stiff. Combine egg yolks with sugar. Start beating, and gradually keep adding water. Beat until light and fluffy, about 10 minutes. Add the butter – chocolate mixture and the beaten egg whites.
  3. Sift together the dry ingredients, and add them to the chocolate – egg mixture. Mix just until combined. Divide the cake batter evenly between two pans. Bake until the cake springs back to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
  4. Transfer the cakes to a cooling rack, remove the parchment paper, and let cool completely.
  5. To make the strawberry – cream filling: Combine the gelatin with ¼ cup of water and set aside for about 10 minutes to “bloom”. Puree the strawberries with sugar in a blender. Liquefy the gelatin over a pot of boiling water, stirring constantly. Be careful not to cook it, or it won’t set.
  6. Let the melted gelatin cool until lukewarm but still liquid. While the gelatin is cooling, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Combine the gelatin with the strawberry puree, and carefully mix in the whipped cream. Chill the strawberry cream for about 10 minutes so it’s easier to spread.
  7. Sprinkle one of the cakes with 3 tablespoons of liqueur. Spoon the filling on the cake and smooth it out. Moisten the remaining cake with 3 tablespoons of liqueur, and place it carefully on the filling. Chill until the filling is set, at least 4 hours.
  8. To finish the cake: Dust the cake with powdered sugar. Place 1.5” wide paper strips in regular intervals on the cake. Dust the cake evenly with the cocoa powder, and carefully remove the paper strips. Chill the cake until ready to serve. Right before serving, decorate the cake with strawberries and pistachios.

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Slovak Honey Crescent Rolls (Lúpačky/Makovky)

If there truly was reincarnation and I could choose what I’d be born as in the next life, I’d love to be Sleeping Beauty. No question about that. The beauty part might come in handy, but that’s not my main motivation at all. Honestly, being able to sleep for hundred years straight sounds like heaven to me. You see, I love my sleep. The problem is, the older wiser I get, my sleep doesn’t love me back as it used to. I usually don’t get to go to bed before midnight, and more often than not I’m wide awake at 4 a.m., listening to Mr. Photographer sleeping soundly, and running through the list of things I need to do the next day: Drive the kid to school in the morning. Be the first in line at the department of [whatever] and get them to stamp the form that son’s school requested. Take the filled-out form to said school. Come home and start the laundry. Get a move on that darn translation assignment that’s going so slowly.  Call a handyman about the kitchen faucet that’s been dripping for weeks.

The thing is, once I start doing that, there is no coming back. The wheels in my head start turning, and I’m not able to go back to sleep no matter what I do or how many darned sheep I count. (Last night I got to 555. Then I got up, went downstairs and cleaned the kitchen.) I’d do anything for somebody to fix my internal clock. It’s abso-freaking-lutely out of whack – I’m most productive in the middle of the night, and then dream of going back to sleep around 6:30 in the morning. Unfortunately I can’t really afford to do that, because by that time I’m usually already behind the wheel, trying to transport somebody or something from point A to point B. Unless… it’s the WEEKEND.

Enter lúpačky  (LOO-patch-ki, plural) – soft sweet rolls served with butter, honey and jam, which are a rather typical breakfast food in Slovakia. I’m sure you’ve seen commercials depicting happy families, sitting at the breakfast table, smiling sweetly at each other and having meaningful conversations first thing in the morning. Well, Slovak happy family would be cramming down lúpačky smothered in butter, and drowning them in coffee or milk. I admit I hate such deceptive advertisements with the heat of a thousand suns, as they do nothing but make me feel like a horrible mother. That’s not how it works in our family at all. No one is an early riser at our house. Meaningful conversation?  Yeah, right. The first half an hour after we get up we try really hard to keep our mouth shut, lest we say something we’d later deeply regret. To tell the truth, I learned to make lúpačky for entirely selfish reasons – to buy myself an extra hour of blessed sleep on the weekend. Being constantly sleep-deprived, I openly and shamelessly tell my men on Friday night: “There are fresh lúpačky on the counter. Jam and honey is in the pantry. Make yourself some hot cocoa and don’t you dare to wake me before 9 a.m. tomorrow.”

There, I said it. Go ahead and judge me. Or let out a sigh of relief that you’re not the only one. We can sit on the couch for horrible mothers together. I’ll even make some coffee and bring freshly baked lúpačky. As long as we can eat in quiet and you won’t want me to smile at you and have a pleasant interaction before 9 a.m., we should be good.

Lupacky miska

Slovak Honey Crescent Rolls (Lúpačky/Makovky)

(adapted from http://www.bonvivani.sk)

Dough:
  • ¾ – 1 cup lukewarm milk, divided
  • 5 tablespoons sugar, divided
  • 1 tablespoon instant dry yeast
  • 450 g (16 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • pinch salt
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 10 tablespoons mild tasting oil (or butter)
  • 1 egg yolk

+ 1 egg, beaten – for egg wash
poppy seeds for sprinkling

1 crescent detail

Method:
  1. Combine ½ cup milk with 1 tablespoon sugar and yeast. Set aside for about 15 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. Place all the other ingredients except milk in a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. When the yeast mixture looks foamy, add it to the bowl. With the mixer running, gradually add the rest of the milk until the dough comes together in a ball. If the dough is too dry, add a little more milk and/or 1 more egg yolk. Knead the dough on a low speed for about 10 – 15 minutes, until it is soft, smooth, and elastic.
  3. Place the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm spot for about 1 hour, until doubled.
  4. Line two big baking sheets with parchment paper.
  5. Punch the dough down and divide it into 12 equal portions. Keeping the other dough portions covered, roll each one into an oval. Stretching the oval with one hand, roll it into a slightly curved crescent. (Keep the crescent fairly thin; it will rise substantially in the oven, and you want to keep the nice crescent form.)
  6. Place the crescent rolls onto prepared baking pans, 6 per pan, to leave them plenty of room to rise. Cover and let them rise a second time while you preheat the oven to 350 °F (180 °C).
  7. After about 35 minutes of rising, brush the rolls with egg wash and sprinkle with poppy seeds. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until nice golden brown.

I also whipped up a quick orange marmalade that goes with the crescent rolls beautifully. If you have a couple of oranges on hand, you can have it ready when the hot rolls come out of the oven!

Quick and Easy Orange Marmalade
  • 2 navel oranges, organic
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons fresh orange zest
  • ½ tablespoon fresh lemon zest
  • ¾ cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon orange liqueur (optional)
Method:
  1. Zest the oranges and set 2 tablespoons of zest aside.
  2. Process the oranges in a food processor fitted with an S-blade. Place the orange mixture into a pan. Add all the other ingredients, bring to a boil, and cook, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes, until the marmalade is thick to your liking.
  3. Place into a clean jar and store in the refrigerator.

lupacky cut open

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

I grew up on fairytales and still love reading them to this day. There is something very soothing in the predictable dynamic of the struggle between good and evil and in knowing that everything will work out in the end – the evil will be conquered and the brave heroes will live happily ever after.

There is this old Slavic tale about a wicked stepmother and her ugly daughter, who wanted to get rid of their beautiful and kind stepdaughter and stepsister, and so they sent her out in the middle of hard winter to bring them violets and fresh strawberries. They were sure she would perish under the snow somewhere, but being the good soul that she was, wandering in the woods she bumped into twelve strange men, who turned out to be twelve months of the year personified, and who helped her to accomplish her task. They thawed the snow on that little clearing, and she was able to pick the berries and flowers the old hag and her daughter back home sent her for.

I often think of this tale when I’m walking through the produce section of a supermarket in January. No, I don’t have to wade through deep snow, that’s true. We don’t do snow around here, just five solid months of rain and gloomy skies. But all I want at that moment is some fresh fruit to brighten my day (I can even do vithout the violets!), and the only thing I see around are heaps of boring potatoes, wilted carrots and rutabagas, with maybe some sad bruised apple here and there. What I wouldn’t do to meet some handsome fella, who’d turn out to be Mr. May, and hand me a pint of juicy strawberries right then!

But the time is coming, folks. Spring is in the air, as my stuffed-up sinuses are telling me! The watery, pale and sickly-looking berries from the supermarket will soon be a thing of the past, and we’ll be back at the farmers’ markets, picking up only the plumpest and most fragrant fruit for our cakes and pies. I just couldn’t hold off any longer, so today I’m offering you a little teaser. This is what your spring desserts will look like. Sweet, tender, moist and delicious. (Maybe you’ll be able to resist and won’t put as much filling in as I did, in which case your pie will be beautiful, too, and won’t crack as mine did. But honestly, I’m not one bit sorry. More cinnamon scented berry goodness!) Close your eyes and have a bite. I guarantee you’ll think you’re in a fairytale. And since we’re dreaming… who knows, maybe even Mr. May will show up 🙂

 Strawbery Rhubarb Pie

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Pie dough (makes two 9-inch pie crusts):
  •  3 cups (390 g) all-purpose flour, sifted
  • pinch of salt
  • ½ tablespoon sugar
  • 12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced
  • 1/3 cup cold shortening
  • ½ cup ice cold water
 Filling:
  • 1 ½ cups fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 1 ½ cups fresh rhubarb, thinly sliced
  • 1 ¾ cups granulated sugar, divided
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon framboise liqueur (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 3 tablespoons tapioca flour
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons butter, diced

+ 1 egg white for egg wash
coarse sugar for sprinkling the top crust

Empty pie dish

Method:
  1. To make the pie dough: Place the flour, salt, and sugar into a bowl of your food processor, fitted with an S-blade. Add the (cold!) butter and shortening and pulse couple of times until the mixture resembles peas. With the processor still running, add as much cold water until the dough forms a ball. Divide the dough ball in half, wrap it and refrigerate for at least 1 hour (dough can be made ahead and refrigerated, or even frozen).
  2. On a floured surface, roll out the first half of the dough to no more than ¼ inch (6mm) thickness to make the bottom crust. Ease the crust into the pan. Dock the dough with a fork. Brush the crust with a beaten egg white. Put the pie pan with the bottom crust into a refrigerator to chill while you preheat the oven to 425 °F (215 °C).
  3. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: Place the sliced berries into a bowl and sprinkle them with ¼ cup sugar. Let stand for about 10 minutes, and drain the accumulated natural juices. Add all the other ingredients for the filling except the butter to the strawberries and mix well.
  4. Roll out the other half of the dough into a circle a bit bigger than your pan. Pour the filling into the chilled crust, dot it with butter, cover with the top crust, and crimp to seal the edges. Brush the top crust with egg white and sprinkle with coarse sugar.
  5. Collar with foil and bake at 425°F (215 °C) for 15 minutes. Lower the temp to 375°F (190 °C) and bake additional 45 – 50 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbly. Let cool before serving.

Pie dish filled w/dough

Easter Egg Cookies with Boozy Vanilla Buttercream

Slovak Easter traditions are abundant, varied, and… weird. As many other cultures around the world, we decorate eggs, bake traditional sweets, and feast on ham. Bring it on, there’s nothing wrong with stuffing your face in the name of tradition, right? The custom I’ll let you in on, though, takes place on Monday after Easter, when the actual Easter holiday technically ended. It’s widespread all around Slovakia and for someone who didn’t grow up in Slovak culture may seem rather odd at best, and bordering on abuse at worst. On Monday morning Slovak men go from door to door visiting their favorite girls and women, and they don’t come empty-handed. No, no. Visiting somebody empty-handed would be rude, and all the Slovak men know that. So they have a hand-woven willow whip in one hand, and a bucket of icy-cold water in the other, and cheerfully knock on the door. When the poor female lets them in, they whip her and drench her in water. The rationale behind it is that by doing so, the girl would keep her health, beauty, and vitality for the entire next year. In exchange for the cold bath and the privilege of being whipped, the girl gives her manly visitors a decorated egg, and ties a colorful ribbon around their whip. As a bonus, the men almost always get a bite to eat and a shot of spirits as well. And off they go, because another girl from across the street is already waiting – schizophrenically hoping they’d stop by so she’d have something to brag about the next day, and praying their water won’t be so horribly cold as she remembers it from last year.

Easter cookies big pic

Easter whips and water have deep roots in Slovak culture. In the past, young men from Slovak villages used to throw the girls into a nearby creek, or pour water pulled from a well on them. The whipping, pretty eggs, and ribbons were a constant, as was the alcohol. The modern Easter traditions are somewhat different, maybe because majority of folks live in cities nowadays, and they don’t have a water stream running through their living room (and if they do, they have a bigger problem than thinking about bathing young girls in it!). The men still come, but instead of buckets maybe carry only a big glass of water, and their whipping is more moderate as well – at least in the early morning, when they haven’t had too many shots to drink. As the morning progresses, they become a lot less sober and a lot more insistent in their whipping.  They want their favorite girls to be gorgeous and healthy, after all!

I have to say I don’t remember this Easter tradition with great fondness, and am now the only female in our family of four. So even though keeping traditions from back home is very important to me, I’ve decided I’m pretty and healthy enough and don’t need any Easter help from my men in this regard. Given the male – female ratio in our household I think that was a smart decision on my part. I stick to what I enjoy the best – I cook, decorate some blown-out eggs, and most of all, I bake. Everybody’s happy, nobody gets beaten, and in the evening I take a nice hot bath on my own.

Happy Easter, everybody. May we all be healthy and happy for the entire next year!

Easter whip

Easter Egg Cookies with Boozy Vanilla Buttercream

Linzer cookies:
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temeperature
  • 500 g (17.5 oz.) all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 120 g ( 4 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
Vanilla Buttercream:
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 150 g (5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 200 g (7 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ tablespoons rum
Easter sheep
Method:
  1. To make the cookies: Cream the butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, egg yolks, and lemon zest. Lastly, mix in the flour and combine until the dough forms a ball. Chill the dough, wrapped, for at least an hour, so it is easier to handle.
  2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to less than ¼ inch (6mm) thickness. With a rectangular cookie cutter with scalloped edge, cut out the cookies, and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Chill the cookies on the baking sheets for about 20 minutes, and then cut out the smaller egg shape from half of them.
  3. Bake the cookies at 350 °F (175 °C) for about 10 minutes, until light brown around the edges. Let them cool on the baking sheet for a while, and then transfer them to a cooling rack to cool completely.
  4. To make the vanilla buttercream: In a water bath, whisk the egg yolks with powdered sugar until the mixture begins to thicken. Add vanilla and cornstarch, and continue to whisk until the crème is thick. Set aside and let cool.
  5. Cream the butter, gradually add vanilla and rum. Add the cooled egg yolk crème, one tablespoon at a time, and combine.
  6. To assemble the cookies: Spread 1 tablespoon of frosting on the flat side of each solid cookie. Dust the cut-out cookies with powdered sugar and press them onto the filling.
  7. Chill for about 30 minutes to firm up the filling, and then decorate the cookies with melted chocolate and/or sprinkles if desired.

(makes about 20 – 25 sandwich cookies)

Easter cookie detail