Generous Christmas Cake (Štedrý koláč, Skladaník)

This weekend folks in many parts of Europe celebrate St. Nicholas’ day. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop from Myra in today’s Turkey, and a great Christian saint. Because of many miracles attributed to his intercession he was also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker. Growing up we used to shine our boots on St. Nicholas eve and place them by the window in hopes that St. Nicholas would leave small presents in them for us to awake to. It was without a doubt the only day out of the year when we willingly polished our shoes, which was without a doubt a miracle in itself! St. Nicholas checked his good and naughty list and rewarded each of us accordingly. As it was, the gift distribution in each boot was pretty much equal among me and my sisters and I bet all the other kids in the neighborhood: a couple of mandarin oranges, peanuts, some chocolate, and a wilted potato plus a scrap of coal to remind us to do better and try to stay out of trouble next year. I’m not sure why a tater was used as a “reward” for naughty kids (you can go ahead and punish me with potatoes every day!), but the coal was a symbol of hell in which we were to burn one day if we wouldn’t mend our ways. Just one example of the kind of positive reinforcement we grew up with! 🙂

St. Nicholas day marked the beginning of the Christmas season for us. In the coming days moms and grandmas broke out their rolling pins and cookie cutters and in kitchens and pantries started piling up all kinds of traditional cookies and sweets, often made according to generations’ old recipes. This cake is one of such Christmas desserts. There are a couple of things Slovak Christmas baking can’t be done without, namely honey, walnuts, and poppy seed, and in this cake you’ll find them all. It’s a sweet yeast cake, in which thin layers of dough alternate with layers of moist nut, poppy seed and prune filling. It is the kind of cake our grandmas used to make – simple yet scrumptious, full of perfectly balanced flavors. Making this cake takes some time, but the method is pretty straightforward: While the dough is rising, you make three kinds of sweet filling (some recipes call for a fourth additional layer of sweet farmers’ cheese), and then just roll out the dough thinly and layer it with the fillings. Finish with a coat of egg wash and bake the cake until baked through and the top is nice golden brown. Immediately after you take it out of the oven, brush it with some melted butter to keep it soft, cover it with clean towel and let it cool. I added some rum-soaked raisins to the poppy seed filling, and just the smell of vanilla, lemon peel, cloves, and cinnamon coming from the oven was enough to get me into Christmas mood!

Sometimes, cakes are not mere treats: Just like the shiny boots lined up for St. Nicholas, they can be mementos of childhood and markers of heritage, and as such, their tradition should be kept alive as long as possible! I hope you’ll give this cake a try when you’ll be in a mood for something a little different this Christmas season!

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Generous Christmas Cake (Vianočný štedrý koláč)

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

 Dough:
  • 600 g (21 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 90 g (3 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 egg yolks
  • pinch salt
  • 300 ml (10 oz.) whole milk, lukewarm
  • 2 ½ teaspoon dry active yeast
  • pinch sugar
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
 Poppy Seed Filling:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) ground poppy seeds
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ cup milk
  • handful of raisins
  • ¼ cup spiced rum
  • ¼ cup water
Prune Filling:
  • 2 cups dried prunes
  • enough water to process the prunes to thick consistency
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
Walnut Filling:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) ground walnuts
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ cup milk

+ 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water – for egg wash
3 tablespoons melted butter – for brushing the top of the hot cake

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Method:
  1. Mix the dough: Combine 4 oz. lukewarm milk with pinch of sugar and yeast; let stand for 10 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. Meanwhile, place all the remaining ingredients for the dough except milk in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a hook. When the yeast mixture looks bubbly, add it to the bowl and start mixing the dough on medium speed, gradually adding the remaining milk. Knead the dough until soft, smooth, and elastic, about 10 minutes. If the dough seems too dry, add couple tablespoons milk as needed.
  3. Transfer the dough into a well oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm spot until doubled in volume, about 45 min. – 1 hour.
  4. Prepare the fillings: To make the poppy seed filling, combine water and spiced rum in a small bowl. Add raisins, set aside, and soak until the raisins are plump. In a small saucepan, combine poppy seeds, sugar, honey, lemon zest, vanilla, and cinnamon. Warm up the mixture over a low heat, adding as much milk as to make a smooth, easily spreadable filling. Add in the rum-soaked raisins. Transfer the poppy seed filling into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside.
  5. Prepare the walnut filling the same way as the poppy seed filling; set aside until needed.
  6.  Make the prune filling: Process all the ingredients in a high-speed blender until smooth; set aside.
  7. Assembling the cake: Line the bottom of a big and deep rectangular baking pan with parchment paper and butter the sides. (My pan is approx. 40 x 30 cm, a little less than the half-sheet pan). Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). When the dough is risen, punch it down and divide it into four equal parts. Keeping the rest of the dough covered, roll out one fourth of the dough into a thin 3 mm rectangle that fits your baking pan. Sprinkle a little flour on the surface and the rolling pin to prevent the dough from sticking if needed; I found it wasn’t necessary. Transfer the rolled out rectangle into the pan lined with parchment. Dock the dough with a fork and spread it with the poppy seed filling.
  8. Roll out the second portion of the dough and place it carefully on top of the poppy seed filling. Dock the dough with a fork and cover it with the prune filling.
  9. Roll out the third quarter of the dough, place it on top of the prune filling, dock it again with a fork and cover it with walnut filling.
  10. Roll out the last portion of the dough and place it on top. Dock it with the fork and brush it liberally with the egg wash.
  11. Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 40 – 50 min. until it’s baked through and the top is nice golden brown. Immediately after taking it out of the oven, brush the top with melted butter to keep the cake soft. Cover it with a clean dishtowel and let cool. Cut the cake into squares and serve.

 

 

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