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.

Gingerbread Cake with Mascarpone, Lemon Curd and Cranberries

The turkey is gone, visitors left,  and with just couple more inches around the waist to remind us we once again overdid it on Thanksgiving, we swayed over to the Christmas season. I love this time of year. The preparations, the anticipation, all of it. It can be stressful, that’s for sure – trying not to forget anything or anybody, manage to do all that’s needed in time, and not to (or at least want to) kill somebody in the process!

In trying times like this I strongly believe in baking aromatherapy. I adore the scents of the season: vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg always shroud the entire house and are able to miraculously make one happy and content. For me, baking is the ultimate stress reliever – all that mixing and stirring can be really therapeutic, and I truly think licking chocolate off the beaters and eating raw cookie dough can ward off any kind of sadness. I also believe in the power of baked goods, made with fresh ingredients, real butter, and a whole lot of love. All that being said, I’m really not too fond of making Christmas cookies. There, I said it – really a sacrilegious thing to say for a food blogger, I guess… but it’s the truth. I’m not the most patient soul in the world, and while I have nothing against eating cookies mind you, making them is whole another story. Yes, they’re cute, and they’re wonderfully portable and shareable, but I find all that rolling and cutting out shapes… annoying? Too much trouble? I’m not sure. I just like to be efficient, I think. In the time it takes me to arrange fifty cookies on the sheets and get them in and out of the oven, I can make a soup, a loaf of bread to go with it, and maybe even some simple cake to sweeten up the dinner. So whenever possible, I try to wriggle out of making cookies, and choose to bake something – anything! – else.

But for Christmas, cookies are somewhat of a requirement, and being the responsible mother that I am, I stand at the counter cutting out cookie after cookie year after year, secretly grinding my teeth. Traditions are important, and so even though I’d really like to just run, run, as fast as I can so that gingerbread man making wouldn’t catch me, in the end my responsible motherly side always prevails and my kitchen production line spews out plethora of festive holiday sweets. This year though, I dug up a recipe for a gingerbread cake that sounded like a dream come true – sweet and moist, interlaced with lemon curd, homemade cranberry preserves, and covered in light and airy mascarpone crème. I immediately resolved to make it, secretly hoping it would turn out to be my winning ticket for not having to bake cookies this holiday season… or at the very least the gingerbread ones. This cake is chock full of cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg, thus provides all the olfactory pleasures we’ve come to associate with Christmas, but without all that rolling and cutting. And the two kinds of fruit filling and mascarpone frosting take it to another level entirely – the fusion of tart and sweet, and crumbly and creamy offers an unexpected and most delicious harmony of contrasts. This aromatic rum soaked baby is really worth a try!

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Gingerbread Cake with Mascarpone, Lemon Curd, and Cranberries

Cake:
  • 390 g (13.75 oz.) all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
  • pinch black pepper
  • pinch coriander
  • 170 g (6 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 125 g (4.5 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 150 g (a little over 5 oz.) molasses
  • 180 g (6.3 oz.) buttermilk
Cranberry preserves:
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 180 g (6.3 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • 125 ml (½ cup) apple cider
Lemon curd:
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 50 g (1.75 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 50 ml (1.7 oz.) fresh lemon juice (approximately 1.5 lemons)
  • 38 g (1.4 oz.) unsalted butter
  • fresh lemon zest from 2 organic lemons

 

Mascarpone frosting:
  • 400 g (14 oz.) mascarpone cheese
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 100 ml (3.4 oz.) heavy whipping cream
Sugared cranberries:
  • 250 ml (1 cup) cider
  • 190 g (6.7 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 125 g (4.5 oz.) fresh cranberries
  • granulated sugar to roll macerated fruit in

+ 12 tablespoons spiced rum (or mixture of rum extract and water) to moisten the cake layers

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Method:
  1. Start by making sugared cranberries the night before: In a small saucepan, combine cider and sugar. Cook until sugar dissolves. Let the mixture cool completely. Add in the cranberries, cover, and let them macerate in the syrup overnight. The next day, finish making sugared cranberries and proceed with making the cake.
  2. Sugared cranberries: Line a big baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Remove cranberries from the syrup into a colander. Dry off the excess liquid with paper towels; you want the cranberries to be moist, but not dripping wet. Pour some granulated sugar into a small bowl. Place 4 – 5 cranberries into the bowl and shake the bowl gently to cover them in sugar. Place the sugared cranberries onto the lined baking sheet so that they don’t touch each other and continue making the rest of the cranberries the same way. Don’t rush the process and resist the temptation of dumping too many/all the cranberries into the sugar at once – the sugar will clump up and you’ll need to start over. Let the cranberries dry out on the baking sheet while you make the cake and fillings.
  3. To make the cake, line a 20 cm (8 inch) round springform pan with parchment paper. Lightly butter and flour the sides. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (176 °C).
  4. In a bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt, and spices; set aside. In a separate bowl, whip butter with sugar until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl. One by one, add in eggs, mixing well after each addition. Pour in molasses and mix. Lastly, add in the buttermilk alternating with flour mixture. Mix just until combined; do not overmix. Pour the batter into prepared springform pan and smooth out the top. Bake the cake in the preheated oven for about 45 min. – 1 hour, until the cake springs back when lightly touched and the cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the springform pan for about 30 minutes and then release the springform mechanism, remove the cake onto a cooling rack and let it cool completely.
  5. While the cake is cooling, make lemon curd and cranberry preserve filling. (Both can be made in advance and kept in the refrigerator). For the lemon curd, combine egg yolks, lemon zest, lemon juice, and sugar in a small saucepan. Place the saucepan into a bigger pan filled with water, creating a water bath, and set the saucepans over a medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of the spoon, about 5 – 7 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in butter. Let cool completely before proceeding. Cover and refrigerate if not using right away.
  6. For the cranberry preserves, combine cranberries, cider, sugar, zest, and vanilla in a saucepan, and cook, stirring, for about 20 – 30 minutes, until the compote thickens to a jam consistency. Set aside and let cool; cover and refrigerate if not using right away.
  7. Mascarpone frosting: Whip mascarpone cheese with sugar until well combined. In a separate bowl, whip heavy cream until firm peaks form. Carefully fold the whipped cream into mascarpone. Set aside.
  8. Assembling the cake: With a serrated knife, level the cake top and cut the cake into four layers. Place the first cake layer onto a plate and sprinkle it generously with 3 tablespoons of rum or rum extract combined with water. Spread the first layer with half of the cranberry preserves.
  9. Place second cake layer on top of the cranberries, douse it again with 3 tablespoons of rum/rum extract and water, and spread it with cooled lemon curd.
  10. Cover the lemon curd with third cake layer, sprinkle it with rum or rum extract mixture and spread it with remaining cranberry preserves. Cover with last cake layer and douse it with rum/rum extract mixture again.
  11. Frost the top and sides of the cake with mascarpone frosting, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before cutting and serving. Right before serving, decorate the cake with sugared cranberries.

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Braided Christmas Bread (VianoÄŤka)

I just glanced at my calendar and realized that Christmas will be here in less than a week: five days to be exact. Yikes. Normally at this time I’d be running around like a mad woman, taking care of last minute shopping, wrapping gifts with one hand while stirring something on the stove with the other. Oh, and continuously removing dry needles from all around the house. I love to have live tree at Christmas, but I swear the amount of needles it always brings with itself is somehow far greater than the sum of needles on its branches. And they must have feet, too, because they are all over, from the living room through the bathtub to my bed even – like tiny green pointy soldiers trying to take over the world.

This year has been strangely different. I have almost no gifts to wrap, and I haven’t caught the bug that usually sends me into the pre-holiday cleaning frenzy. We don’t have the tree up yet, either – my men decided a small pre-lit tree will do just fine, but none of them is in a hurry to actually take it out and set it up. The way I see it – we might even have one of the big photo light stands that we use when photographing my food take place of the tree this year. It’s been towering in the middle of the living room for months, and if it’s still there on the 24th, I might just hang some ornaments on it and call it good.

But the surprising thing is that none of this bugs me too much – nor the dust bunnies, nor the dirty sinks, not even the lack of a tree. Yes, I’ve been baking for weeks now, but not because of the holidays approaching, or at least not because I need to have fifteen kinds of cookies by Christmas as it used to be the case not too long ago. I’ve been baking – procrastibaking you could say – because it allows me to connect with the traditions I grew up with or people that shared their cherished recipe with me, and that need to connect always grows stronger around the holidays in me. Baking is my Zen, and while I’m rolling out that dough and pressing the cookie cutter into it, I tune out the world around, all is well, and nothing can make me to lose my cool. Well, almost nothing 🙂

This braided egg-enriched bread is traditionally baked back home around Christmas time. It’s similar to brioche or Jewish Challah, and can be braided in many different ways. Unfortunately, I haven’t been gifted with any spatial skills whatsoever and the thought of having to braid nine or ten strands of dough makes my head hurt… so I leave the elaborate preparations for professionals and stick to simple three-braid bread. VianoÄŤka is slightly sweet and mighty tasty with its buttery taste and poppy seed or almond crunch. If you’re lucky and still have some left after a day or two, it’s also said to make a great French toast and wonderful bread pudding. It never lasts more than a couple hours around here, though! This recipe makes two loaves, so I’m hoping to hide one away in the freezer for Christmas morning.

At the height of holiday stress I’d like to wish us all may our Christmas and the days leading to it be peaceful. After all those years of pre-holiday craziness I used to for the most part bring upon me myself, I’m finally starting to really *get* that Christmas isn’t about the spotless house nor the scrumptious goodies… and it’s not about what’s under the tree, either. It’s who’s around it that matters, and if you think about it that way, you probably already have all you need. Enjoy.

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Braided Christmas Bread (VianoÄŤka)

(adapted from Nick Maglieri’s Bread)

 

Sponge:
  • 112g water, lekewarm
  • 14g (0.5 oz.) active dry yeast
  • 100g (3.5 oz.) unbleached bread flour
Dough:
  • 800 g (28 oz.) unbleached bread flour
  • pinch salt
  • 100g (3.5 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 65g (2.5 oz.) light brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs + 1 egg yolk, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • all of the sponge
  • 225g milk, lukewarm or room temperature

+ 1/2 cup raisins, soaked in 1/2 cup water & 1/2 cup rum
– 2 egg yolks, mixed with 2 tablespoons water – for egg wash
– poppy seed, slivered almonds, and pearl sugar – for sprinkling the top of the loaves

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Method:
  1. To make the sponge, combine water, yeast and flour in a bowl, and stir with a whisk until no dry flour remains. Cover and set aside in a warm spot for 20 minutes until the sponge has doubled in size.
  2. Place flour, salt, butter, sugar, eggs, egg yolk, lemon zest, and vanilla in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a hook. Add in all of the activated sponge, turn the machine on a low speed, and gradually pour in the milk. Knead the dough on a low-medium speed for about 8 minutes until the dough is fairly firm, smooth and elastic (If the dough seems to be too wet, add in a couple of tablespoons flour, one tablespoon at a time; if it is too dry, add in some more milk, one  tablespoon at a time). At the end mix in the rum-soaked raisins, making sure they are evenly distributed in the dough. Transfer the dough into a well-oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm spot until it doubles in volume, about 45 min. – 1 hour.
  3. Once the dough has doubled, turn it onto a lightly floured board. Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, cut off 1/3 of the dough, then cut that third into thirds again. Take the larger piece of dough (the remaining two-thirds) and cut that into thirds as well. Let the dough rounds rest under a dish towel for about 10 minutes.
  4. Assembling the breads: Start working with the three larger thirds – roll each portion into a rope about 14 – 15” (35 – 38 cm) long. Place the three strands together, pinch them at the top and braid them fairly loosely together, pinching the strands at the bottom end. Set the braid on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  5. Take the three smaller dough balls and roll each into a strand that’s about 2″ (5 cm) longer than your braided loaf. Braid these three strands together, pinching the ends to seal. With rolling pin or your hand, make a small indentation in the center of the loaf on the baking sheet, and brush the indentation with a little water. Place the smaller braid on top, and tuck its ends underneath. Set aside.
  6. Make the second loaf in the same way, placing it on a second baking sheet with parchment paper.
  7. Cover both loaves and let them rise in a warm spot until they become puffy, about 30 – 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 °F ( 175 °C).
  8. Just before baking, brush the loaves with egg wash (I used two coats to achieve dark golden color), and sprinkle them liberally with poppy seeds/almonds/pearl sugar, if desired.
  9. Bake the breads for about 45 minutes, until they’re golden brown, and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. (Check the loaves after 20 minutes, and if they seem to be browning too quickly, cover them with aluminum foil.)
  10. Cool the loaves on the baking sheets for couple of minutes, and then transfer them onto a wire rack to cool completely.

 

Christmas Honey Cake with Caramel Buttercream Frosting (KaramelovĂ© medovĂ© 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!

Generous Christmas Cake (Ĺ tedrĂ˝ koláč, SkladanĂ­k)

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
  • ÂĽ cup milk
  • handful of raisins
  • ÂĽ cup spiced rum
  • ÂĽ 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
  • ÂĽ 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.