Slovak Honey Cake with Caramel Buttercream and Roasted Nut Streusel Topping

Christmas is almost here! Tis the season to be overwhelmed – there is still so much to do and never enough time (and energy) to do it. I love Christmas – the traditions, the smells, the lights, and the family time… just getting there can be a bit too taxing. The calendar is filling up, and I feel like I’m terribly behind this year. Haven’t really started baking yet – I know from experience that if I get into Christmas baking too early, my men who eat like locusts will push right behind me and consume everything in sight, and I’ll have to break out the rolling pin three days before Christmas anyway. Same with cleaning – it’s just a never ending losing battle. No point in needlessly spending precious energy too soon 🙂

This cake is a forerunner of the serious Christmas cookie baking marathon that will take place at our house next week. There are desserts that simply cannot be absent from a holiday table in a Slovak household, and this is definitely one of them. However, its preparation is time consuming, and involves lots of fighting with a fragile honey dough: first with a rolling pin, when you need to roll out 4 – 6 thin layers of a soft sticky dough, and when that’s done, you need to convince said layers to agree to be transferred on and off baking sheets without tearing. All that rolling as well as need for careful handling can be daunting, and when you’d heaven forbid like to de-glutenize the cake on top of that, it holds true hundred times as much. But since this cake is a Christmas must-have for Mr. Photographer, last year I went on a mission to find a way to make it gluten-free for him, even if it should kill me. (In case you’re wondering, food is my love language, and I’m willing to go great lengths to make good food for people I care about. I’ve wished many times upon seeing the sad state of my bathrooms I could switch to cleaning love language for a while, but alas, I don’t see that happening any time soon).

Anyway, in my search I learned that many Slovak ladies must dislike the fighting the honey dough with a rolling pin just as much as I do, because some wonderfully clever soul apparently succeeded in modifying the recipe from a dough that needs to be rolled out to a honey sponge cake with seemingly no adverse effects to the appearance and taste. I made the cake in both gluten and gluten-free versions last year and it was a big success; I was quite happy with it and haven’t anticipated to ever need another recipe. Well, since before the beginning of November my inbox has been overflowing with must try Christmas recipes, and among them I bumped into yet another best recipe for the Slovak honey cake. This time, cake layers were rolled, but the author claimed the rolling to go swimmingly easy, and to top it off, there supposedly wasn’t any wait time till the cake layers soften under the filling, so the cake was to be consumable right away. Of course I was intrigued and had to try it! I found all the claims to be absolutely true, and last year’s favorite had to concede to a new winner. As far as I’m concerned, this honey cake recipe truly is the best: Gluten-full or gluten-free, the rolling was a breeze, and as promised, the cake layers didn’t get hard when cooled, and were soft as a pillow from the get go. I suspect the rum syrup I very generously soaked them with might have had something to do with it 🙂

So this version is another take on a traditional Slovak Christmas delicacy. And since men are inherently simple, I don’t think I’ll need to do much more for Mr. Photographer’s Christmas 🙂 If you like honey, and caramel, and nuts (and who doesn’t?!), and have time to spare in the upcoming pre-Christmas week, give it a try; it’s heaven in your mouth delicious!

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Slovak Honey Cake with Caramel Buttercream and Roasted Nut Streusel Topping

Honey dough for 5 cake layers:
  • 45o g (1 lb.) all-purpose flour (for gluten-free cake, see Note)
  • pinch salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon dark cocoa powder
  • 180 g (6.3 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 180 g (6.3 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 large egg
  • 6 tablespoons liquid honey
  • 4 tablespoons whipping cream
Caramel Buttercream:
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk (397 g, 14 oz.)
  • 70 g (2.5 oz.) dry roasted ground walnuts/pecans
  • 250 g (8.5 oz.) unsalted butter, room temperature
Rum Syrup:
  • 2 ½ tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1.5 dl (5 oz.) boiling water
  • 50 ml (1.7 oz.) dark rum
Roasted Nut Streusel:
  • 30 g (1 oz.) dry roasted ground walnuts/pecans
  • 50 g (1.7 oz.) honey cake crumbs (scraps of the remaining dough, re-rolled, baked, then finely ground)

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Method:
  1. The day before, caramelize the sweetened condensed milk: Place an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk in a pot of water, so that the can is fully submerged. Cover the pot, bring the water to a boil, and simmer for 2 hours. Remove the can from water, let it cool, and refrigerate, still unopened, till the next day. Next day, let the can come to room temp and continue with the recipe.
  2. Make the honey cake layers: Place butter, sugar, egg, honey, and cream into a deeper saucepan. Place the saucepan into a bigger pot filled with water, creating a water bath. Over a medium heat, warm up the mixture, whisking constantly. Do not boil.
  3. Combine flour, cocoa, salt, and baking soda in a bowl of your stand mixer. Pour the warm honey butter mixture into the dry ingredients, and mix up a soft dough. Gather the dough into a ball and wrap it up in saran wrap. Set it aside to cool slightly.
  4. Get ready 2 or 3 bigger baking sheets and preheat the oven to 350 °F (180 °C). Cut 5 sheets of parchment paper. With a pencil, trace 22 cm (8.5 inches) circle on each of the sheets and turn the paper over, so that the dough won’t touch the pencil marks. Divide the dough into 5 equa portions, each about 190 g (6.7 oz.)
  5. Take one sheet of parchment, place one portion of dough into the center of the pre-traced circle and roll it out. You can flour the dough or your rolling pin if you need to, but I found it wasn’t necessary. Reserve the scraps of dough for later.
  6. Bake the cake in a preheated oven for about 4 – 6 minutes, till the edges turn light golden brown. The dough will still be very soft, it will firm up when cooled. Don’t overbake the layers, or they will be hard. Let the circle slightly cool on the baking sheet, and then remove it from the sheet, but let it rest on the parchment. Prepare all the remaining layers in the same way and let them cool. Re-roll the scraps into an oval/circle and bake it as well. Don’t try to handle the dough while it’s still hot/warm, or it will break. The dough is very easy to handle when cooled. (The cake layers can be made in advance and frozen with sheets of parchment between them. Defrost them completely before filling them with buttercream.)
  7. While the cake layers are cooling, prepare the rum syrup and caramel buttercream. For the syrup, dissolve sugar in hot water. Let the sugar syrup cool and then pour in the rum and combine. For the buttercream, whip the butter until light and fluffy. By spoonfuls, add in the caramelized condensed milk, whisking constantly. Add in the ground nuts and combine.
  8. Assembling the cake: Place the first cake layer onto a flat surface, covered with parchment. Smear the cake with approx. 20 ml (0.6 oz.) rum syrup, and coat it with 1/5 of the buttercream. Take second cake layer, brush it with 20 ml (0.6 oz.) rum syrup, and then use another 20 ml (0.6 oz.) syrup to soak the other side. Place the cake on top of the buttercream. Continue assembling the cake, using 2 x 20 ml (0.6 oz.) rum syrup for each layer, and covering it with 1/5 of the caramel buttercream. Frost the top and the sides of the cake and set it aside.
  9. For the streusel, process the baked scrap of honey dough into crumbs, and combine them with ground nuts. Scatter the streusel evenly all over the cake, covering top and the sides, pressing the streusel lightly into the buttercream. Let the cake stand in a cool place for about 2 hours to let the buttercream soak into the layers a little (I usually cover it with a big bowl and put it in the garage), and then refrigerate for 12 – 24 hours before cutting and serving. The remaining cake can be frozen.
Note:

For gluten-free cake, I used Bob’s Red Mill 1 to 1 gluten-free flour. It already contains gums, so no other adjustments were necessary. When I don’t have time to mix my own flour mix, it is my absolute favorite flour mix for baking.

Double Chocolate Caramel Chestnut Cake

I’m a queen of lists. I’ve been scribbling lists ever since I can remember; nicely organized, in bulleted points, on colored post-it notes that I used to slap on every surface around: on the computer monitor, on the fridge, on the front door. Yellow notes were for the things I planned to get from the store, green ones for the things I needed to do. I was proud of my multi-tasking abilities (Doing five things at once and thinking about five more? Yep, I can! High five!) and I was convinced I was being proactive and effective.

I’m sure I’m not the only one: We live in a chaotic world, overstimulated in an era of an informational overload. Lists are our anchors of sorts – they give us an illusion of being in control and make us feel productive. They help us remember things, and no matter how long they are, they’re usually finite, which means that line by line we are moving forward and when we’re done, we can pat ourselves on the back and put our feet up. They’re helpful helpers, helpfully helping us move through life more smoothly.

Or so I thought.

But oddly over time I actually developed love – hate relationship with my lists. I was still compelled to write them, so every morning I’d sit down and jolt on paper what needed to be done: Mop the floors. Call the dentist. Wash the bedding. Get groceries and stop at the library. And when I looked around, things just kept flowing, from my mind to the pen and onto the paper: this and that – oh wait, I’ve forgotten about this – just one more thing! In the end I’d always put down way too much, piling on myself more than what was possible to accomplish in a day or what I was able to handle. As a result, I was stressed right from the get-go, even before I started with anything. The long list made me feel like a failure: How come there is so much to do? How could I let things slide so much that now I don’t even know where to start? Plus, just because I wrote things down it didn’t necessarily mean they got done. We all know life has a way of getting in the way, and when the evening rolled around and I realized I’ve spent the entire day doing things that had nothing to do with my list, I wasn’t a happy camper. Seeing all those lines I haven’t managed to cross made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough, too. But maybe most importantly, even when I succeeded in checking off the mountain of tasks, the stuff that got done were largely things I was doing in response to other people’s wants and needs, and at the end of the day I was left with no time nor energy pursuing what I myself wanted to do.

Somehow, somewhere the helpful list stopped being a helper and became more of a curse. And something needed to be done. And so, albeit reluctantly, I’ve ditched the notes that used to look at me reproachfully like colorful exclamation marks from every corner and I never looked back. I’ve also realized I don’t want to be a slave to a constant beeping flow of incoming e-mails, messages, and Facebook notifications anymore, and decided to outsmart my phone and unplug when the onrush gets to be too much. Instead of making those blasted lists I now go for a walk first thing in the morning before tackling everything that needs to be done. These days I do only what my mind reminds me to do, and if I forget something, I tell myself it probably wasn’t all that important in the first place. And even though I’m still tempted to dust while talking on the phone, I’m learning to focus just on the one thing in front of me. I think it’s called something like living in the moment 🙂 It’s not easy for me, that’s for sure, but I’m slowly getting better. The only list I’m allowing myself to write is a list of ingredients for my weekly baking session, and I think all the people in my household are happier for it.

Coincidentally, the list for this week’s cake is rather extensive. In the spotlight of this elaborate festive cake are chestnuts – the wintery treat of my childhood. We used to buy roasted chestnuts from a street stand, and then walk through the squeaky snow picking out hot, sweet, and tender fragrant chestnuts from a paper cone. Chestnut season is almost over, but thankfully you should be able to find peeled roasted chestnuts in a specialty grocery stores year round. Better yet, get the ready-made sweetened chestnut puree – that way despite the long list of ingredients the cake is quite easy to make. The original recipe calls for a 9-inch square pan, but I didn’t want to bother with cutting the square cake into three layers so I made the cake in a half-sheet pan and then cut it lengthwise into three long strips. The cake layers are generously soaked in Crème de Cocoa and covered in milk-chocolate ganache, and because you can never have too much chocolate in your life, the cake is finished with bittersweet chocolate glaze. I had fun dusting the chestnuts in golden pearl dust; that simple extra touch made the cake look very festive and worthy of any wintertime celebration. I hope you won’t let the long list keep you from giving it a try!

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Double Chocolate Caramel Chestnut Cake

(adapted from Bon Appétit 1/2005)

Chestnut Cake:
  • 2 cups (260 g, 9 oz.) cake flour
    (please see Note on how to make cake flour at home)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup (226 g, 8 oz.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 ¼ cup golden brown sugar, divided
  • 4 eggs, room temperature, separated
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 cup sweetened chestnut puree
    (use store-bought puree or see Note on how to make homemade chestnut puree from fresh roasted chestnuts)
  • ¼ cup half-and-half (or whole milk)
Milk Chocolate Ganache:
  • 6 tablespoons white granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 370 g (13 oz.) high-quality milk chocolate, broken up
  • 1 cup + 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 230 g (8 oz., 2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
Dark Chocolate Glaze:
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup white granulated sugar
  • 225 g (8 oz.) bittersweet dark chocolate, broken up

+ ¼ cup Crème de Cocoa liqueur for brushing the cake layers
– 24 whole roasted chestnuts (or jarred); 12 chopped up and 12 left whole for decoration
– Wilton Pearl Dust in golden color (optional)

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Method:
  1. To make the cake, butter and flour the sides of a half baking sheet (46 x 33 cm, 18 x 13 inches). Line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C).
  2. Sift cake flour and baking powder. Beat butter with 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla extract, and one by one mix in the egg yolks.
  3. Add in 1 cup of sweetened chestnut spread and milk and combine.
  4. Whip egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Gradually add in the remaining ¼ cup brown sugar and whip the mixture until firm peaks form. With a spatula, carefully fold the egg whites into the cake batter in three additions.
  5. Spread the batter into the lined pan and bake until the cake is golden in color, springs back to the touch, and the toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then invert the cake onto a cooling rack, peel off the parchment paper and let the cake cool completely.
  6. To make the Milk Chocolate Ganache Frosting:  Place the milk chocolate into a glass bowl. Combine sugar and water in a deeper non-stick pan. Add in the cinnamon stick. Heat the mixture over medium heat until the water evaporates and the sugar caramelizes. Don’t stir, just gently swirl the pan from time to time, but watch the sugar closely so that it doesn’t burn. When the sugar turns nice golden color, add in the cream and salt. (The mixture will bubble vigorously and the caramel will crystallize.) Stir the caramel in the hot cream over low heat until it dissolves again. Remove the cinnamon stick.
  7. Pour the hot caramel cream over the chocolate and whisk until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Let the ganache cool to room temperature stirring occasionally – about 1 hour.
  8. Using electric mixer, whip butter until fluffy. By tablespoons, add in the cooled chocolate ganache and combine.
  9. Assembling the cake: Cut the cooled cake lengthwise into three equal strips. Place the first strip onto a flat surface and sprinkle it generously with Crème de Cocoa. Spread it with 1/3 of the ganache frosting and sprinkle with half of the chopped chestnuts. Cover with the second cake layer, brush with the liqueur, and spread with 1/3 of the chocolate ganache and the rest of the chestnuts. Place the third cake strip on the chestnuts, brush it with the liqueur and spread it with the rest of the ganache. Press lightly, and place the cake into the refrigerator to firm up, at least 2 hours.
  10. Make the glaze: Place the bittersweet dark chocolate in a bowl. Bring cream, sugar, and water to boil. Pour the mixture over the chocolate and whisk until smooth. Let the gaze cool until it thickens but is still pourable, about 1 hour. Pour glaze atop cake, covering the sides as well.  Return the cake into the refrigerator to firm up.
  11. Decorate the cake with golden chestnuts if desired: Brush the chestnuts with a little Crème de Cocoa and sprinkle them with Wilton Pearl Dust. (I used a paintbrush.) Let the chestnuts dry before putting them on the cake.
  12. The cake can be made up to 24 hours in advance; store in the refrigerator, covered. Bring the cake to room temperature before serving.
Note:

To make the cake flour, measure 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour, and then remove 2 tablespoons and substitute them with cornstarch. (For this recipe, you’ll need 2 cups all-purpose flour with 4 tablespoons removed and subbed with cornstarch.)

To make homemade chestnut puree, combine 170 g (6 oz.) of fresh roasted chestnuts, 1 cup water, ½ cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until most of the water evaporates. Strain the chestnuts, reserving the sugar syrup. Process the chestnuts in a food processor, adding the sugar syrup as needed to achieve desired consistency. These quantities should make about 1 cup; let the puree cool before proceeding with the recipe.

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Meringue Sandwich Cookies with Caramel Coffee Buttercream Filling (Laskonky)

It’s that time of year again. We flipped our calendars, wrapped up the year 2015 and lifted our glasses in a toast to happy new year. Folks have been reminiscing and talking about their resolutions. I have to say I’m not usually one to set new-year’s resolutions – to me they’re just empty lofty proclamations that don’t have a big chance to stick for long. That doesn’t mean I don’t reflect on things that happened and think about changes I’d like to make, though.

We made a trip to the ocean on a New Year’s day. I’m a Pisces and love the sea, and as I was strolling along the beach listening to waves crashing against the shore I was thinking about the year that passed – pondering the things I wish I’d done, those I wish I’d not done, and what I’d like to take from it for the future. Over the past year, I have all too often found myself pushing myself – to do more, to work harder, to try make everything just right until I could no longer continue. We women and mothers especially are quick learners when it comes to taking care of others, and can get very good in anticipating and fulfilling their needs. Seemingly we also take very good care of ourselves – at least on the outside: I start off every day with a green smoothie and drink sixty-four ounces of water. I eat healthy and use sunscreen religiously. I schedule yearly check-ups and keep up with the doctor’s recommendations. But way too often I forget the other, far more important part – how to take care of myself on the inside. I push myself to the side, play resilient, slap band-aids on feelings I’d rather not know about or tell myself I can deal with them later. I convince myself and everybody else I’m fine when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth.

And so my resolution and “to-do list” for the 2016 consists of only one item, really: Learn to take better care of myself. I want to be gentler with myself and listen to my body and soul more, instead of paying too much attention to the world and people around. I vow to become a better friend to myself – after all, we just wished each other a happy new year, and it’s rather hard to be happy when someone is mean to you, even if/especially if that someone is you! I plan to make a conscious effort to do me – to do whatever brings me joy as opposed to what I for whatever reason feel compelled to do. Be more present, and live a fuller and more authentic life.

As for me, spending time in the kitchen playing with tastes, textures, and aromas is definitely a step in right direction! So without further ado I present to you my first baking effort of the year. I had way too many egg whites left after the Christmas baking that needed to be used up, and these meringue sandwich cookies fit the bill perfectly. They are commonly sold in Slovak bakeries, just as the popular French macarons are made with only egg whites, ground nuts, and sugar, and can be filled with different buttercream based fillings. The typical oval shape is achieved thanks to a special plastic form with openings through which you press the batter onto the baking sheet, but if you can live with less uniform and less perfect cookies, you can just take an icing bag/tablespoon and make small mounds of batter on the parchment paper and flatten them slightly. I went a little overboard in my quantity estimations – the batch made with six egg whites gave me 50 individual cookies, which I filled with buttercream and ended up with final count of 25. It was way too many, so next time I’ll probably halve the recipe. Good news is that you can store the unfilled meringue cookies in an airtight container in a cool and dry place for couple of days and fill them later as needed. The buttercream is caramel based with hints of coffee, but you can use any buttercream that suits your fancy!

Whether you bake, make pottery, sing, or jog, may we be able to make this year truly happy for ourselves. Here’s to 2016!

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Meringue Sandwich Cookies with Caramel Coffee Buttercream Filling (Laskonky)

 Cookies:
  • 6 egg whites, room temperature
  • pinch salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 330 g (11.5 oz.) white sugar
  • 160 g (5.5 oz.) finely ground walnuts (pecans)
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour (if you want to make the cookies gluten-free, use gluten-free flour mix in the same quantity)
  • pinch baking powder
Caramel Coffee Buttercream Filling:
  • 6 tablespoons white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 250 ml (8 oz., 1 cup) half-and-half or whole milk; divided
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 10 g (0.4 oz.) cornstarch
  • 230 g (8 oz., 2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

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Method:
  1. To make the cookies: Line two big baking sheets with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 265 °F (130 °C).
  2. Put egg whites with the salt and cream of tartar in a bowl, and then place the bowl over a pot with small amount of boiling water. Whisk the egg whites over the water bath gradually adding granulated white sugar until very firm peaks form, about 15 minutes. (I transferred the egg white mixture after 15 minutes into a bowl of my stand mixer and whisked it on a high speed for a couple more minutes to achieve a very stiff consistency.) You want the egg white mixture to be very firm, so it won’t thin out after adding the ground nuts. This way, the cookies will be easier to form as well.
  3. Combine  finely ground nuts, powdered sugar, flour, and baking powder, and carefully fold them into the egg white mixture. Use a spatula and take care not to deflate the egg whites.
  4. When using the special cookie making tool for laskonky, spray the bottom side with a cooking spray and place it onto the parchment lined baking sheet. Place about 1.5 tablespoons of meringue batter into each opening, pressing it down lightly. Level off excess batter with a knife and then carefully lift the form off, so that the cookies can fall off onto the parchment paper. Wash the form, spray it with the cooking spray again and continue making the cookies until you use up all the meringue batter. Alternatively, make the cookies with an icing bag or a tablespoon forming a small mounds and flattening them slightly.
  5. Place the cookies into the preheated oven and bake them for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes lower the temp to 176 °F (80 °C) and let them dry out slowly in a warm oven until very firm to the touch, about 30 minutes. When they are done, you should be able to easily peel them off the parchment paper. If they don’t seem to be dry enough, give them a couple more minutes in the warm oven. Let the cookies cool completely before filling.
  6. While the cookies are baking/cooling, prepare the Caramel Coffee Buttercream: Place 6 tablespoons of granulated sugar into a deeper pan. Add 2 tablespoons water and let the sugar mixture cook, not stirring, until the water evaporates and the sugar turns nice golden color. Watch the sugar closely so it doesn’t burn.
  7. Take the caramel off the heat and carefully pour in 200 ml (6.5 oz.) half-and-half (milk). The mixture will sizzle and the caramel will crystallize. Place the milk-caramel mixture over a low heat and cook, stirring constantly, to melt the caramel again. Add in the vanilla extract and the coffee.
  8. Combine cornstarch, 2 egg yolks, and remaining 50 ml (1.5 oz.) half-and-half (milk) until smooth. Combine the egg yolk-cornstarch-milk mixture with couple of tablespoons of hot caramel milk to temper it, and then add the warmed up egg yolk-cornstarch-milk mixture to the caramel coffee milk. Cook the mixture over a low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 3 minutes. Let the caramel coffee pudding cool to room temperature before proceeding.
  9. Whip the soft butter until light and fluffy. By tablespoons add in the cooled caramel coffee pudding, whipping constantly, to make a light smooth crème.
  10. To assemble the cookies, sandwich two meringue cookies with about 2 tablespoons of caramel coffee crème and serve.

Christmas Honey Cake with Caramel Buttercream Frosting (Karamelové medové rezy)

This cake is a “must have Christmas cake” for Mr. Photographer. At least that’s what I was told by his Mother shortly before our first Christmas as newlyweds. As a consequence, not even three months after the wedding I found myself standing in the kitchen with Mom, who took it upon herself to teach me how to make it. I was terrified. I was way too young, haven’t had too much baking experience under my belt yet, and I was convinced she was going to watch me like a hawk and would ultimately deem me totally incompetent and unfit to properly care for her only son. What can I say? Insecure and paranoid young daughters-in-law don’t make it for their mothers-in-law any easier 🙂

I had trouble with everything that night: First I couldn’t roll out the dough, then I couldn’t get it onto the baking sheet. When it finished baking, I handled it too hot and it broke in two, and I had more than a few lumps in the frosting. But at the end both me and my new Mom-in-law made it through, she told me I did great, and Mr. Photographer was happy to have his Christmas cake.

Let me make something clear: Mom is great, and I’m not just saying that because there is a slight chance she might read it. There are tons of in-laws jokes built around the idea that the farther they live and the less you have to see them the better, and I suppose such jokes exist because they mirror the experience of many. I don’t have your typical harsh and less than helpful mother-in-law though. From the get-go she took me as her own, which also means that if she thinks I didn’t do something right or plan on doing something less than smart she has no qualms about telling me that. As a young wife I remember wishing she wouldn’t be quite so open in voicing her opinions and wanting her to keep a little more distance in our relationship. But you know how the saying goes – be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it. These days the distance between us is many times more than what I’d prefer, and I often find myself wishing she’d be just a little bit closer than twelve hour flight away. Over the years I came to appreciate her openness as well – she doesn’t leave me guessing and I know that what she says to me is (mostly) true 🙂

A lot has changed since that first baking session with Mom. I’ve had two babies on my own, and I’m convinced God must definitely have a sense of humor, because he gave me two sons – so that I could one day experience first-hand that being a mother-in-law to the woman your son chose to marry is not exactly an easy task. We still have our differences, Mom and me, but we’ve learned to live with them for the most part. And after surviving teenage years with my older son and being in the middle of said hell with the younger one I only feel grateful to her today. I’m glad she gave birth to Mr. Photographer and that she didn’t kill him when he was fifteen. And I’m also immensely thankful she taught him how to clean the kitchen 🙂

—–

The honey cake I’m presenting to you today is not the exact recipe Mom makes. After Mr. Photographer found out he needs to avoid gluten, we thought he might never taste his favorite cake again. Mom’s recipe calls for four layers of rolled out honey dough, and since gluten-free dough lacks gluten, the very thing that holds the dough together, it is inherently non-stretchy and very hard to roll out. After much thinking, digging and comparing recipes I came up with honey cake that uses batter instead of sheets of dough. The batter is thinner and doesn’t need to be rolled out, and I’m happy to report this recipe works in both gluten-full and gluten-free version. I’d even dare to say it’s better than the original (sorry, Mom!), because this cake is soft right away and there is no need to wait for the cake layers to soften under the frosting. The gluten-free cake turned out to be just a little softer and more porous than its standard gluten counterpart, but since gluten-free dough can often be somewhat dry and crumbly, I’ll take softer and more porous any day! The Caramel Buttercream requires a little planning, because you need to caramelize sweetened condensed milk the night before, but it is worth it, the frosting is finger-licking good!

Beware: This cake is dangerous. It literally melts in your mouth and I guarantee you won’t be able to eat just one slice. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we do around here!

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Christmas Honey Cake with Caramel Buttercream Frosting

Cake:
  • 600 g (21 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour (for gluten-free version see Note)
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) unsalted butter
  • 200 g (7 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 4 eggs
  • 100 – 150 ml (3.5 – 5 oz.) milk as needed to reach nice spreadable consistency of the batter
Caramel Buttercream Frosting:
  • 1 can (14 oz., 396 g) sweetened condensed milk
  • 6 tablespoons white sugar
  • 350 ml (11.5 oz.) milk, divided
  • 1 package KRAFT Jell-O Vanilla cook and serve pudding
  • 230 g (8 oz., 2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
Chocolate Glaze:
  • 4 oz. (113 g) Baker’s semi-sweet chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 4 oz. (113 g) unsalted butter
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Method:
  1. For the frosting, caramelize the sweetened condensed milk the night before by simply simmering the can in water for two hours in a covered pot. After two hours remove the can from water, let it cool and unopened place it in the fridge till the next day. Do not open the can while it’s hot! The next day proceed with making the recipe.
  2. To make the cake layers, place butter, powdered sugar, and honey in a small saucepan. Put the filled saucepan in a large pot and add enough boiling-hot water to reach halfway up the side of the smaller saucepan. Melt the butter/honey/sugar mixture over the water bath and set aside to cool slightly.
  3. Take four sheets of parchment paper, big enough to fit into a big baking sheet, and with pencil, trace 9 x 13 inch (22 x 33 cm) rectangle on each of them. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C).
  4. Place flour and 1 tablespoon baking soda in a bowl of your stand mixe fitted with beater blade. With the mixer on, one by one add the eggs, mixing constantly. Lastly, add the lukewarm butter/honey/sugar mixture. Whisk the batter on a high speed, adding as much milk as to achieve a pancake consistency. Divide the batter into four equal portions.
  5. Turn one sheet of prepared parchment paper over so you’re not putting batter on the pencil markings, and with a spatula, spread one portion of the batter on the paper, covering the entire traced rectangle. Make the remaining cake layers the same way. (I usually bake one while preparing the next one.)
  6. Place the batter on the parchment onto the baking sheet and bake for about 6 minutes only – the layers are thin, so it goes quickly. Watch the cake closely, it’s ready when the edges begin to brown and the top is pale golden. Do not overbake. Let the cake cool on the parchment paper. Bake the rest of the cake layers the same way.
  7. While the cakes are cooling, prepare the Caramel frosting:  Combine 6 tablespoons sugar with 2 tablespoons water in a deep saucepan. Let the sugar mixture cook until the water evaporates and the sugar turns golden brown in color and caramelizes. Do not stir, just gently shake the pan from time to time. Take the saucepan off the flame and add 250 ml milk to the liquid caramel. The caramel will sizzle and will crystallize. Melt it again in the milk over a low heat, stirring.
  8. Mix the Jell-O Vanilla Pudding with remaining 100 ml milk until smooth. Add the mixture to the hot caramel milk and cook, stirring constantly, until very thick. Let cool to room temperature. Take the can of caramelized condensed milk out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temp as well.
  9. When the pudding is cool, whip the butter until fluffy. With the mixer still going, by tablespoons add the pudding and the caramelized sweetened condensed milk, mixing well after each addition as to not curdle the frosting. Divide the frosting into four equal parts.
  10. Assembling the cake: Place one honey cake layer on a big cutting board, and spread it with one part of the frosting. Continue layering cake and frosting, ending with the buttercream on top. Transfer the cake into the fridge to firm up the frosting before putting the chocolate glaze on top. (I chilled for about 1 hour, but you can chill the cake for several hours, up to overnight.)
  11. For the Chocolate Glaze, combine the chocolate with butter over a water bath until smooth and pourable. Let the glaze cool slightly, and then pour the glaze over the cake, spreading it nicely with a spatula. Return the cake to the refrigerator to firm up the chocolate layer.
  12. Cut off the edges of the cake, cut the cake into small squares, and serve. The cake will keep for 1-2 days in the refrigerator and it is also possible to freeze it.
Note:

To make the cake gluten-free, I subbed the all-purpose flour with gluten-free flour mix. I used Namaste Perfect Flour Blend, but I imagine any good quality flour mix would work. Please check if your blend contains either xanthan or guar gum, and if not, add roughly 1 teaspoon of xanthan/guar gum per cup (130 g, 4.5 oz.) of flour. The gluten-free batter was different than the standard gluten cake – surprisingly it was thicker and not as spreadable, but since I knew that gluten-free flour is lighter thanks to the starches I was hesitant to add more milk than the recipe calls for. As a result, spreading the batter onto the paper was a little harder; I ended up dipping the spatula in water to help spreading the batter onto the paper, just like I do when baking pizza dough. The gluten-free cakes also baked a little slower and it took them about a minute – minute and a half longer to reach the nice golden color – I suppose that would depend on the grains/starches used in your mix. And lastly, the gluten-free cake layers were rising  unevenly in the oven, forming big bubbles in the cake :-). I was convinced the cake was doomed, but I pricked the bubbles with a fork when taking the cakes from the oven, and after they cooled they looked pretty good, so all was well in the end :-). The gluten-free baking is always an adventure!

Spiced Pear Chocolate Caramel Cake

This week marked our wedding anniversary – unbelievable twenty years. Mountains and valleys, leavings and comebacks, withdrawals and togetherness. Loving another person is not easy. The man I stand next to today is certainly not the guy I married… the guy I promised to love but in fact had no clue how. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to.

And I still do.

We’re so different from where we started – young and eager to do life together. The journey brought us immense joy… and also challenges I’d never have anticipated on my wedding day; where the only thing one could do was to take the next step. Through clenched teeth, in the dark.  But as for me, all those growing pains have been worth it… because knowing there is this one person you can  come home to every day to is the best.

Thanks to all those years living with a photographer I learned one thing. Everything is always about the light. You might have wrinkles deep as canyons and countless blemishes inside and out, but when a photographer loves you, he makes sure to show you in just the right light. Suddenly, you’re flawless. And beautiful.

And that’s what he does for me.

***

And the cakes are something I do for him. He doesn’t like cakes that are too airy and fluffy, and prefers something more substantial to sink his teeth into. When I came across this recipe, it had Mr. Photographer’s name written all over. First, THE CHOCOLATE – dark and bitter. Then, autumn pears poached in WINE which made them fragrant and delicious. And lastly, WHISKEY! The recipe called for 1 tablespoon, but I am not exactly known for following recipes, and prefer to play in the kitchen… so  I added a good splash 🙂 If that’s not a “manly” cake, I don’t know what is!

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Spiced Pear Chocolate Caramel Cake

(adapted from http://84thand3rd.com)

Cakes:
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • ¼ cup golden brown sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 100 ml red wine
  • 150 g (5 oz.) butter
  • pinch salt
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, broken up
  • 1 tablespoon whiskey
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • 35 g (½ cup) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 130 g (4.5 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour (for gluten-free option see Note)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
Wine poached pears:
  • 4 firm pears, peeled, halved, and cored
  • 1 ½ cups each water and red wine
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves

+ 1 cup heavy whipping cream whipped with 2 teaspoons powdered sugar (for serving, optional)

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Method:
  1. To poach the pears, combine wine, water, sugar, and spices in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer. Carefully add pear halves to the poaching liquid, and cook over low heat until the pears are just tender. Don’t overcook. Remove the pears from the wine syrup (reserve the liquid), let them cool, and then cut each half in half again, so that you will have 16 quarters. Reduce the poaching liquid by half, and serve as a syrup with the cake, if desired.
  2. For the cake, butter and flour two 9-inch (23 cm) tart pans with removable bottom. (If you’re making the cake for a person that’s gluten – intolerant, make sure to use a gluten-free flour for this.) Line the pans with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 350 °F (180 °C).
  3. Make the caramel: Combine sugar and water in a deep non-stick pan and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn the heat down and let simmer until the water evaporates and the sugar turns nice golden color. Don’t stir, because stirring encourages crystallization – just gently swirl the sugar syrup in the pan from time to time. When the water evaporates, watch the sugar closely, and take it off the heat the moment it starts to caramelize – it will continue to darken even off the heat, and you don’t want it to burn.
  4. When the sugar turns to caramel, immediately pour the wine over it (it will sizzle and the caramel will crystallize). Return the pan to the heat, bring to a boil, remove from the heat again and stir, until the caramel melts.(This took a while.) Add the butter and salt. Lastly, add the chocolate, and stir until the mixture is smooth and glossy. Stir in the whiskey and let the mixture cool slightly.
  5. To make the cakes, combine the flour, cocoa, soda, and salt. Set aside.
  6. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs. Slowly and carefully add about a third of the caramel – chocolate mixture, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs, and then combine the tempered eggs with the rest of the caramel – chocolate mixture.
  7. Add in the dry ingredients, alternating with the buttermilk, and ending with the flour mixture. Stir just until combined.
  8. Pour the batter into prepared pans and smooth out the tops. Carefully arrange 8 pear quarters on top of each cake.
  9. Bake for about 25 minutes until just firm in the center. Let the cakes cool in pans before removing. Serve with whipped cream and sweet wine syrup if desired.
Note:

If making the cake gluten-free, swap the all-purpose flour for your favorite gluten-free mix. (Be sure to add 1 teaspoon xanthan gum, if your mix doesn’t contain it already.)

Caramel Cream Puffs

Cream puffs were sold at every cake shop in my hometown growing up. Sitting in a confectioner’s case, they were big and sweet, overflowing with  creamy caramel filling, and  glazed with chocolate. I absolutely adored them, so much so that I used to secretly sneak into my parents’ closet and fumble in the pockets of their clothes looking for change, just so I could buy myself a cream puff. Little thief with a sweet tooth.

These days I try to limit my exposure to sweets 🙂 but I still have a soft spot for these puffs.  And I’m happy to say that even though they may seem complicated, making them is actually pretty simple. The caramel whipping cream needs to be made the night before, and if you make the puffs at the same time, the only thing you’ll need to do the next day is to fill them and let them sit in the fridge. Easy – peasy, and a lot of bang for the buck. They do need to be filled couple of hours before serving, so that the crispy pate a choux pastry has time to soften a bit under the cream. You can either glaze them with melted chocolate, or use the recipe for caramel glaze I’m offering here. Either way, they’re delicious, and when I take a bite, they take me straight back to my childhood. Once again I’m the little girl with pigtails looking through the window of the pastry shop, trying to decide what to get. And even though many times I wanted to branch out and try other deliciously looking cakes behind the glass, at the end I’d always go for a good old cream puff, and not even once was I sorry I did.

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Caramel Cream Puffs

Puffs:
  • 1 cup (250 ml, 8 oz.) water
  • 100 ml (3.5 oz.) unsalted butter, melted
  • pinch salt
  • 140 g (5 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 4 eggs
Caramel filling:
  • 4 tablespoons white sugar
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 cups (500 ml, 16 oz.) whole milk, divided
  • 90 g vanilla “cook and serve” pudding (a little over 2/3 package)
  • 1 cup (200 ml, 8 oz.) heavy whipping cream
Caramel whipped cream:
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 5 tablespoons water
  • 2 cups (500 ml, 16 oz.) heavy whipping cream
Glaze:
  • 5 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 100 ml (3.5 oz.) milk
  • powdered sugar to make a semi-thick glaze

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Method:
  1. The night before, make the caramel whipping cream: In a deep saucepan, combine sugar and water. Cook over medium heat until the water evaporates and the sugar turns nice caramel color. Watch the caramel closely, it burns easily. Do not stir, just gently swirl the sugar syrup from time to time as it cooks.
  2. When the sugar caramelizes, carefully pour in the cream (The mixture will sizzle; watch it so it doesn’t boil over). Stirring constantly, cook the caramel cream mixture until the crystalized caramel dissolves again. Pour the caramel cream into a jar and refrigerate it overnight.
  3. For the puffs, place a pan with boiling water on the lower rack in the oven, and preheat the temp to 390 °F (200 °C). Line a big rimless baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  4. In a saucepan, combine water, butter, and salt. Heat the mixture until it starts to simmer. Take off the heat and immediately add the flour and mix together. Over a low heat, cook the butter – flour mixture for about 5 minutes, stirring vigorously, until the mixture coats the bottom of the pan and your spoon, pulls away from the sides of the pan and forms a ball. Set the pan aside and let the mixture cool till lukewarm.
  5.  Transfer the lukewarm mixture into a bowl of your food processor. With the motor running, one by one add the eggs, mixing well after each addition.
  6. Drop by tablespoons onto the parchment lined sheet, or transfer the dough into a pastry bag with decorative tip and pipe out a 2.5 inch (5 cm) mounds.
  7. Place the baking sheet on the top rack with the pan of water underneath, and bake the puffs for about 20 minutes until they’re risen and nice golden brown, depending on the size of your puffs. Do not open the oven during baking, or the puffs won’t rise. Immediately after taking them from the oven prick each one with a toothpick, and let them cool completely. (The puffs can be made the night before, or even sooner if you decide to freeze them.)
  8. To make the Caramel Filling, combine water and sugar in a saucepan. Cook until the water evaporates and the sugar caramelizes. When the sugar turns into caramel, carefully pour in 1 1/3 cups milk. The mixture will sizzle; watch it so it doesn’t boil over. Cook the caramel in milk until it dissolves.
  9. Meanwhile combine the remaining 2/3 cup milk with the powdered pudding until smooth. Pour the mixture into the caramel milk and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and creates a nice caramel crème (about 3 – 5 minutes). Take the caramel crème off the heat, immediately place a piece of saran wrap on the top so it doesn’t form a skin, and let it cool completely.
  10. When the caramel crème is cool, whip the cream until soft peaks form, and using a spatula, combine it gently with the caramel crème into a light filling. Set aside.
  11. Make the Caramel Whipped Cream: Take the caramel cream you made the night before out of the refrigerator and whip it until firm peaks form. Set aside.
  12. Assembling the Caramel Cream Puffs: Cut each puff into halves, not cutting all the way through, so the puff stays together. Spoon about 1 – 2 tablespoons of caramel crème filling into each puff and place some caramel whipped cream on top of the filling. Cover with the top half.
  13. Make the Glaze: Combine sugar and water and cook until the sugar turns into caramel. Pour in the milk and cook until the crystalized caramel dissolves again. Combine the caramel milk with powdered sugar to make a thick glaze.
  14. Glaze the tops of the puffs. Chill for about 2 hours before serving.

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Dobos Torte

When I married, Mr. Photographer gave me a Hungarian last name. I don’t speak a word in Hungarian, and I suspect I never will, because from what I know, Hungarian is one of the hardest languages to master. Hungarians are dynamic, cheerful folks, they make great wine, and bake spectacular cakes. Even though Dobosh Torte is Hungarian in origin (it was invented in the 1800s by a confectioner Joszef Dobos after whom it is named) it is well known in the neighboring countries and you can find it in cake shops in Prague, Vienna, and my hometown, Bratislava.

Dobos Torte is basically a multi-layered vanilla sponge cake, filled with chocolate buttercream. Top layer is traditionally coated with a shiny caramel glaze. Although baking it it’s not hard, the process has a lot of steps and it’s time – consuming. The cake layers need to be baked individually so they are as uniform in thickness as possible, and are then layered with buttercream and finished with a thin caramel layer on top.

All in all, baking the cake ate away a substantial part of my Saturday. Mr. Photographer left to take pictures of something else than my creations, the boys each had their program as well, and I had an afternoon for myself. I briefly considered going shopping, and spent even less time pondering the possibility of cleaning the house. As you can see, at the end the vacuum stayed in the closet,  I took out whisks and spatulas, and had a wild one person party in the kitchen. When Mr. Photographer came home, everything in sight was covered in sticky caramel: the counters and stove, my shirt, I even had some in my hair. But the cake was almost done and the buttercream was divine, the best chocolate buttercream I’ve ever made.

As I suspected, the biggest challenge proved to be the caramel layer. I adore caramel in any shape and form, but it can be a little temperamental, and this case was no exception. To make the caramel layer on the top cake round, you need to work quickly, because caramel hardens extremely fast: First you have to spread the hot caramel onto the cake layer, then, while it’s still gummy, cut only the caramel layer into slices, and when it’s cooled a bit, cut the entire caramel cake layer into triangles. If you wait too long, the caramel will be hard to cut through and will shatter.

I decorated the sides with chocolate covered almonds, because I had them on hand and they look pretty in the pictures, but they’re not part of the traditional Dobos Torte recipe. If you’re unsure about the caramel, please don’t let that stop you from making the cake: simple chocolate glaze in its place would work just as well; in fact, many confectioners don’t bother with caramel glaze these days and use chocolate instead.

I am very excited about this recipe; so much so that I’ll definitely look around for more recipes for Hungarian sweets. Who knows, I might even take up Hungarian after all; being able to go through old cookbooks and look for recipes for delicacies such as this one is pretty powerful motivation!

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Dobos Torte

Each of the six sponge cake layers:
  • 1 egg, divided
  • 20 g (¾ oz.) white sugar
  • 30 g (1 oz.) all-purpose flour, sifted
  • pinch salt
Chocolate Buttercream:
  • 220 g (7 ¾ oz.) eggs, beaten (about 4 eggs)
  • 220 g (7 ¾ oz.) white sugar
  • 35 g (1 ¼ oz.) cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 70 g (2.5 oz.) dark cocoa powder
  • 280 g (10 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
Top Caramel Layer:
  • 150 g (5 oz.) white sugar
  •  ¼ cup water

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Method:
  1. Make the Vanilla Sponge Cake layers: Preheat the oven to 200 °C (390 °F). On each of the six sheets of parchment paper, draw a circle around a 26 cm (10 inch) round cake pan.
  2. Start beating the egg white with pinch of salt, gradually add sugar. Whisk until stiff peaks form. Carefully mix in the egg yolk, and lastly add the flour and combine.
  3. Spread the batter in a thin layer on one of the circles drawn on the parchment. Bake for about 10 minutes; invert on a cooling rack and carefully remove the parchment paper. Let cool.
  4. Prepare the other five cake layers in a same way.
  5. For the Chocolate Buttercream, place the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and cornstarch into a small deeper pan. Carefully heat the mixture over a water bath, whisking constantly, until it thickens. (Do not boil, or you’ll end up with sweet scrambled eggs.)
  6. Transfer the thickened egg mixture into a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a whisk, and whisk the crème until it cools.
  7. In the meantime, beat together butter and cocoa until light and fluffy. Gradually add the cooled vanilla egg crème, one tablespoon at a time, and combine into light chocolate buttercream. Set the buttercream aside.
  8. To assemble the Torte: Take one of the cake layers, and with a tip of the knife, gently draw lines on, as if dividing the circle into 16 triangles. This will be your top layer. Set the cake aside.
  9. Place one cake layer on a plate and spread it with 1/6 of the buttercream. Layer the five sponge cake circles and the buttercream on top of each other, and spread the rest of the buttercream on the top and the sides of the torte. Refrigerate the Torte while you make the top caramel layer.
  10. Make the Caramel: In a non-stick pan, combine sugar and water. Let the mixture cook, until the water evaporates and the sugar turns light golden brown. Do not stir; if you feel you need to, just gently swirl the sugar syrup in the pan. Watch the caramel closely so it doesn’t burn.
  11. While the sugar syrup is cooking, lightly butter three long knives you’ll be using to cut the caramel. Set aside.
  12. When the caramel is ready, quickly pour it over the reserved top cake layer and spread it thinly. Through the caramel, you should see the lines drawn on the cake. Wait a minute till the caramel becomes gummy, and cut it quickly with the buttered knife into 16 triangles, cutting only through the caramel, but not the cake. The caramel will stick to the knife, so you will need to change the knives often. Let the caramel harden (it only takes a moment), and cut the triangles all the way through.
  13. Place the caramel triangles on the torte and refrigerate until serving.

Chocolate Crêpe Torte with Hazelnut Buttercream Filling and Candied Nuts

This weekend we celebrate America’s birthday: There will be fireworks, parades, barbeques, and blue, red, and white desserts. Unfortunately I only remembered this fact when I was halfway done with the crêpes for this torte, and there was no way I was going to come up with something new just to comply with the white, blue, and red requirement of the 4th of July celebrations. First of all, the combination of chocolate, nuts, and caramel sounded too good to abandon it, not to mention IT. IS. HOT out there – so hot that even I am thinking twice before turning on the oven.

We are having a gorgeous summer with the temperatures in the 90’s here and I am thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. Ten months out of the year the weather in the Pacific Northwest is nothing to write home about, but the summers are freaking amazing. I’ve wanted to try a crêpe torte for quite some time, and it seemed this hot day would be a good time for it – no need for the oven and at the first glance the process looked pretty quick and straightforward. It turned out it wasn’t the smartest idea after all – it turns out making 30 crêpes does in fact take some time and standing over a hot griddle was probably worse than baking, when at least I can shut the oven door and walk away. But I’m determined: even though I felt like I was stuck in a hot yoga class,  sweat was pouring down my back the whole time, and I burned my fingertips more than once turning the crêpes, I’m happy to report I made it through, and it was worth it!

Even though crêpes are French in origin, they’re a staple in Slovak cuisine as well, and are my go to meal in those “lazy Mother days”. It never occurred to me to add chocolate to them until now, and it was a brilliant idea (thank you, Martha Stewart!). The frosting the crêpes are layered with reminds me of hazelnut gelato I used to love when I was in Italy as an exchange student many moons ago – it is a simple vanilla buttercream with lots and lots roasted chopped nuts swirled in. Although, calling it “hazelnut buttercream with hint of vanilla” would probably be much more appropriate, because I really went overboard with the nuts. Half of the quantity would be more than enough, but oh well, I’m sure the cake it’s going to be eaten 🙂

I had the most fun playing with the candied nuts though – swirling them in golden caramel and making those pretty spikes on them.  I borrowed the idea from Martha again, and had a sweet one on one time with my teenager, who was more than happy to help when he realized there was caramel involved. (Hey, if you want to see your kid, you do whatever it takes, right?!)

Happy 4th, everybody; enjoy the long weekend and stay safe!

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Chocolate Crêpe Torte with Hazelnut Buttercream Frosting and Candied Nuts

Chocolate Crêpes:

(adapted from http://www.marthastewart.com; recipe makes about 30 8-inch crêpes)

  • ¾ cup (1½ sticks, 170 g) unsalted butter; plus more for the pan
  • 8 oz. (225 g) semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 ½ cups (6.5 oz., 195 g) all – purpose flour (I subbed gluten – free flour mix with good results)
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 2 ½ cup (20 oz., 590 ml) whole milk
  • 6 whole eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Vanilla Hazelnut Buttercream:
  • 2 ½ cup (20 oz., 600 ml) whole milk
  • 3.5 oz. (100 g)  white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1.5 oz. (45 g) vanilla pudding (I used European brand called dr. Oetker, but you can use any cook-and-serve vanilla pudding powder)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 lb. (450 g, 4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3.5 – 7 oz. (100 – 200 g) dry roasted and chopped hazelnuts
Dark Chocolate Glaze:
  • ½ cup (4 oz.,  125 ml) heavy cream
  • 1 oz. (30 g) unsalted butter
  • 4 oz. (115 g) good quality bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1/6 cup (0.7 oz., 20 g) powdered sugar
Candied Nuts:
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • whole hazelnuts or other nuts of your choice
    + wooden skewers; a wooden cutting board to secure the skewers; and a big cake pan to catch dripping caramel

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Method:
  1. To make the crêpes, melt chocolate and butter over a pot of boiling water and set aside to cool slightly. Pour milk into your blender, add eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Lastly add the flour, and blend until well combined. The batter should be fairly thin, so it’ll distribute evenly on the hot pan. Refrigerate the batter for 30 minutes before making the crêpes.
  2. Lightly coat the non-stick crêpe pan with melted butter. Heat up the pan until really hot, and then pour about 2 – 3 tablespoons of batter into the pan, and swirl the pan quickly to coat the bottom. (If it’s hard to distribute the batter, thin it out with a little milk until it’s easily pourable. Crêpes are pretty forgiving with regards to measurements.)
  3. Cook the cr̻pe over a medium Рhigh heat until the edges are dry and the middle of the cr̻pe looks cooked, about 30 seconds to a minute. Flip it carefully and continue to cook for 30 seconds more. Remove cr̻pe to a plate, coat the pan with a little butter again and continue baking the cr̻pes in the same fashion, stacking them on a plate. Let the finished cr̻pes cool at room temperature.
  4. To make the Vanilla – Hazelnut Buttercream,  heat the milk, sugar, and vanilla  in a saucepan. Combine the egg yolks with the powdered pudding. Temper the egg yolk – pudding mixture with a little warm milk, and then pour all of it into your milk in the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 2 – 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and immediately press a saran wrap on top of the vanilla crème. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
  5. Cream butter in a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a paddle. With the mixer on, start adding the vanilla crème, one tablespoon at a time (it is important that both the butter and the cooked vanilla crème are the same temp, so the mixture wouldn’t curdle). Mix at a low speed to make a smooth creamy filling.
  6. By hand mix in the chopped hazelnuts. Chill the frosting for about 30 minutes until it is easy to spread.
  7. To assemble the torte: Place one crêpe on a plate. Spread about 3 tablespoons of filling on, covering the entire crêpe all the way to the edges. Place another crêpe on top of the filling. Continue layering the crêpes with the filling, ending with a crêpe. Press the last crêpe down lightly, and put the torte into the refrigerator to firm up, 30 minutes to 2 hours.
  8. Make the chocolate glaze: Heat the heavy cream with butter until almost boiling. Remove from heat and add the chocolate. Let stand for a minute so the chocolate melts, and then add the powdered sugar and stir vigorously to make a smooth glaze.
  9. You can either pour the slightly cooled glaze over the cake, or let it cool in the fridge until it thickens and frost the cake with an icing spatula. Chill the frosted torte while you prepare candied nuts.
  10. To make the candied nuts, stick the tip of a skewer into a whole nut (prepare about ten of skewered nuts in advance). Place a wooden cutting board on the edge of your counter, and put a big cake pan on the floor under the counter to catch the caramel that’ll be dripping from the nuts.
  11. Combine sugar and water in a non – stick saucepan. Cook the sugar syrup until the water evaporates and the sugar turns into caramel. (Do not stir the sugar while it cooks; if you feel you need to, just gently swirl the pan from time to time. Stirring encourages crystallization. Also, keep an eye on the sugar while it cooks, as sugar goes to caramel and then to burned caramel pretty fast. When it starts changing color to amber, immediately remove it from the heat and swirl the pan while it darkens.)
  12. Let the caramel cool slightly, about 3 – 5 minutes. When it starts to thicken, quickly take one skewered hazelnut and swirl it in the caramel, coating it completely. Put the skewer under the cutting board and let the excess caramel drip into the pan on the floor. The caramel cools pretty quickly at this point and the dripping caramel should leave you with a nice spike on the hazelnut. (Judging the proper thickness of the caramel takes some practice, but making these decorations is so much fun. If the caramel in the pan hardens too much, just gently heat it up until you’re able to coat the hazelnuts again.) Let the candied nuts cool under the cutting board for about 5 minutes and then break off the caramel spike to a desired length and carefully remove the skewer.
  13. Decorate the torte with candied nuts and serve.

Salted Peanut Chocolate Caramel Cups

Becoming a Father is quite easy. Being one can be much more complicated. I’m quite sure Mr. Photographer didn’t expect to become a Father quite so soon, but he took to his new role with pride and determination. Bottles, diapers, nighttime waking, you name it, he did it. Many times the only thing I had to do at 3 a.m. was to attach the already changed baby to the boob and could continue to snooze, only to find out in the morning that *someone* had to detach him from the milk source  at some point and take him back to his crib, because he was not next to me and I didn’t remember doing so.

And babies were just the beginning.  Then there were slides, roller blades, and countless school projects I had absolutely no idea what to do about. You see, I have a confession to make. I am not artsy. At. All. I mean, I bake, and am able to do so reasonably well, but hand me scissors, and you risk I’m going to have a panic attack. So from the first day of school Mr. Photographer took all these things on his shoulders. I don’t know if he lovingly wanted to make my life easier, or was simply afraid the kid would fail the class if he didn’t, but honestly, I don’t really care. I hate scissors. And needles. And glue.

But that’s still not all. You know how they say that home is an oasis of peace? Well, not quite. At least not all the time. I don’t care to count how many times Mr. Photographer walked in the door in the evening and stepped right into a heated Mother – son squabble. I’m sure it wasn’t what he’d prefer, but he took my hand, walked me into an empty room, sat me down, and closed the door behind him. And then he found his son and dealt with whatever problem we were passionately discussing. I’m telling you, in such moments it’s very handy to have someone who can actually, you know, think 🙂 Not just feel.

He taught them to ride their bikes. He explained how to calculate the vertex of a parabola and the probability that two brown-eyed parents will have a blue-eyed kid. But more importantly, he taught them to get off their butts and do the work, even if they didn’t feel like it. He taught them that things don’t have to be perfect, but it’s important to try. He taught them it’s OK to rest, which is something their Mother the locomotive still doesn’t know all that well. I either go full speed ahead or crash big time because I forgot where the brakes are. He taught them that women are not men; that when a woman talks, a man needs to look at her; and sometimes the best thing for him to do is to hand her a bar of chocolate and leave her alone.

Fathers just have a way of putting everything together. They are our rocks and our lightning rods. If we don’t understand, they come and figure it out, time and time again.  So here it is to Mr. Photographer – the best Father my sons ever had 🙂 Thanks, Dad. We love you to pieces 🙂

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Salted Peanut Chocolate Caramel Cups

(adapted from http://www.davidlebovitz.com)

  • 340 g (12 oz.) best quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped (if making the cups for someone who’s gluten – intolerant, make sure the chocolate is gluten – free)
  • ½ cup (125 g; 4 oz.) salted peanut caramel
  • flaky sea salt
Salted peanut caramel:
  • 1 cup (250 ml; 8 oz.) heavy cream
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 cup (200 g; 7 oz.) white sugar
  • pinch salt
  • ¾ cup (100 g; 3.5 oz.) roasted salted peanuts, chopped

+ about 20 small paper or foil baking cups

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Method:
  1. First, make the salted peanut caramel: Combine the sugar with water and salt in a deep pan, and heat it up. Cook on a medium heat, swirling gently only if necessary, until the water evaporates and the sugar turns nice golden brown. Do not stir; stirring encourages crystallization.
  2. While the sugar syrup cooks, heat the heavy cream until hot. Set aside.
  3. When the sugar turned to caramel, remove it from heat and carefully add hot cream. The mixture will sizzle (you need a deep pan, so that the caramel – cream mixture won’t boil over at this point). Stir gently until combined and smooth.
  4. Let cool slightly and stir in the chopped peanuts. Chill until ready to use. (The salted peanut caramel can be made in advance and kept in the refrigerator until needed.)
  5. Make the chocolate cups: Over a water bath, melt the chocolate, stirring constantly.
  6. Spoon the chocolate into the cups, covering the bottom and sides (I used a paintbrush for this). When the chocolate is set, add a dab of salted peanut butter caramel into each cup, and cover it with more melted chocolate.
  7. Sprinkle some flaky salt on top and chill until set.
Note:

The salted peanut caramel recipe makes more caramel than is needed for the cups. I never bother to halve the recipe and simply make more, adding peanuts to portion of it; and keep the rest in the fridge. It is wonderful in coffee or drizzled over ice cream! When needed, just heat it up a little until pourable and enjoy.

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Chocolate-espresso cream pie with Kahlúa caramel sauce

Nothing is perfect. Life is messy, and sometimes it pins us against the wall so bad we can hardly breathe. Buried under all those have to’s, need to’s, and shoulds we lose sense of where we’re going and how we want to be in the world. Exhausted, we’d give our right arm for just a little more sleep, and don’t have the energy to think what should change or what to do to actually make it happen. We switch to survival mode, just trying to make it today: Morning coffee – I need to be here – you need to be there – here, sign this – can you pick up the dry cleaning? – the fridge broke – the kid doesn’t understand equations – I’ll be working late tonight. And days turn into weeks.

Life is about relationships, and relationships are tricky. They take time and effort – a lot of it. Despite what Facebook wisdom would like  you to believe, you can’t have a relationship conducted via likes, e-mail, and text messages. It is built on communication, and if that’s missing, it all goes sideways. And it doesn’t matter if you wanted it to or if it was the last thing you wanted to happen. The important thing is that it did. And then one morning, hastily sipping your lukewarm coffee you realize that maybe you don’t even really know this person you’re supposed to do life with anymore. What does he want? And what, if anything, does he want from you? And what is it that you want?

And so not knowing what to do exactly, you decide to set out for a journey. Leaving all those shoulds and need to’s behind, you drive away, just the two of you. Down the interstate, down the memory line. Talking, listening. Searching for what was, what is, what could have been and what could be. And at the end you’re in this tiny town just steps from the ocean, listening to sea lions, and sharing the most delicious chocolate pie together. Leaning against each other, elbows touching, you savor every bite of this dreamy coffee-caramel-chocolate delicacy, and cherish every second of the newfound connection. And deep down, you feel relieved. You’re still there, underneath it all. All is well with the world.

*****

Still sitting at that cozy bistro I started pondering how to recreate that cream pie at home. It had a very moist crust and I wanted to keep that moistness – many  tart shells can be dry and mealy, which I wanted to avoid. Some time ago I started experimenting with raw desserts that often rely on combination of nuts and dates for the crust. It seemed like an obvious choice for this pie – medjool dates are soft and juicy even when dried, and have a sweet caramel taste which goes well with the sauce drizzled on top of the pie. I combined the dates with pecans this time, because they’re my favorite, but any type of nut would work beautifully, and I threw in a handful of oats, to soak up some of the greasiness of the nuts. Three ingredients, pulsed together in a food processor, and voilà! In just seconds I had a “dough” that was easy to roll out between two sheets of parchment, and made a very versatile crust with no need to prebake, no added sugar, and no flour, so that even folks with allergies can enjoy it. A definite winner in my book!  Into the crust then goes a smooth filling of dark chocolate ganache with subtle coffee undertones. We could just stop here – the combination of roasted pecans, velvety chocolate, and coffee is deeply satisfying as it is. With the drizzle of boozy Kahlúa caramel sauce this dessert will send you right into a food coma. Be sure to cut it into tiny slices – it is very rich, so a small piece goes a long way.

Grab a fork, sit back and enjoy the moment. It is sweet moments like this that make life delicious.

Chocolate espresso cream pie

 Chocolate-espresso cream pie with Kahlúa caramel sauce

Crust:
  • 2 cups pecans (dry-roasted or raw)
  • 2 cups medjool dates
  • ¼ cup oats (if you’re making the pie for gluten-intolerant, make sure the oats are gluten-free)
Chocolate-espresso ganache:
  • 9 oz. (250 g) bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 9 oz. (250 g) semisweet chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 1 ¾ cup heavy whipping cream
  • 2 oz. (56 g) unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee powder
  • ¼ cup powdered sugar
Kahlúa caramel sauce:
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
  • ½ cup Kahlúa
  • pinch of salt
Method:
  1. Lightly grease a 9 – 10 inch pie or tart pan with removable bottom.
  2. Process the dates in a food processor to a paste; remove and set aside. Pulse nuts and oats together until coarse meal forms. Gradually add date paste and pulse until the mixture forms a ball (be careful not to overprocess the nuts).
  3. Roll the dough between two sheets of parchment paper to a circle that is a little bit bigger than your pan. Chill the rolled-out dough for about 20 minutes so that the crust is easier to handle, and then ease the crust into a pan. (Alternatively, you can just press the dough into a pan – it is very sticky and holds together well.) Chill the crust while you prepare the filling.
  4. To make chocolate-espresso ganache: Put the chocolate into a bowl. In a small saucepan, heat the heavy cream with butter until hot (do not boil). Take it off the heat and stir in the coffee. Pour the hot cream-coffee mixture over the chocolate in a bowl, and let stand for 2 – 3 minutes until the chocolate melts. Stir until well combined, and then add the powdered sugar and whisk with a wire whisk until smooth. Let cool slightly.
  5. Pour the ganache into a crust, smooth out the top and chill for at least 2 hours.
  6. To make the Kahlúa caramel sauce: In a non-stick pan, heat the sugar with couple tablespoons of water. Don’t stir, just let it bubble until most of the water evaporates. When the sugar starts to turn golden around the edges, stir it gently with a spatula until it caramelizes and turns nice golden brown. (Watch it closely, caramel burns quickly!)
  7. Turn down the heat and gradually add the diced butter, stirring constantly. The mixture will sizzle. Keep stirring until all the butter pieces melt and the mixture is homogeneous.
  8. Lastly, add the Kahlúa. The mixture will bubble up again. Just keep stirring until all the ingredients are well combined.
  9. Take off the heat and stir in the salt. Let the caramel sauce cool slightly before drizzling it over the cake. Store it in the refrigerator and warm it up again before use.

Chocolate espresso cream pie slice