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.

Spiced Honey Plum Cake

The Fall has fallen upon us. I tried to put it off and keep the summer with me for just a bit longer by driving south to the ocean. It was sunny and sticky hot over there, and it felt great walking along the beach listening to the crashing waves and seagulls circling above the water. But even though the temperature still sometimes shoots up pretty high during the day, the mornings are already cold as if the sun wasn’t sure if it wants to roll out of the bed, and even if it decides to honor us with its presence, it goes down way too early. The leaves are turning and summer is slowly but surely passing away. Pretty soon, the sandy beaches, cold drinks, and flowing sundresses will be just a distant memory.

But breezy autumn bursting with colors is still a wonderful season on its own. Mellower than the summer, it is a time of harvest and time of abundance when it comes to fresh produce. I think I love the farmers markets in the fall even more so than during summer. The tables are overflowing with fresh and fragrant fruits and veggies, from squash and sweet potatoes to apples and pears. A true cook and baker’s paradise.

This week’s dessert features plums – sweet autumn delicacies that come in many types and colors. I adore plums with their juicy sweet flesh, contrasted by the tart skin. They’re awesome in every single way: eaten raw, cooked into jams, or baked into tarts and cakes. For baking it’s best to find a less juicy variety, such as Italian plum. When making a plum tart, it’s better to prebake the empty shell and give it a coat of egg white before filling it with fruit. I made a yeast cake, which is sturdier than a tart and thus better equipped to withstand the juiciness of plums, but I still sprinkled the dough spread in the pan with a mixture of cookie crumbs and ground almonds to ensure the cake wouldn’t get soggy. This simple plum cake is baked in every household back home when plums are in season, scented with cinnamon and sprinkled with streusel made from butter, flour, and powdered sugar. I took the basic recipe of my childhood and played with it a bit more: I coated the plums in a mixture of honey, lemon juice and brown sugar before arranging them on the cake, and used a touch of garam masala together with cinnamon to give the cake a wonderful aroma. I think it would be wonderful served with a dollop of brandy whipped cream, but I didn’t get to it – the boys wolfed it down just as it is. Give it a try if you get your hands on some Italian plums – it’s a perfect dessert to usher in Fall 🙂

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Spiced Honey Plum Cake

Yeast Dough:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) all-purpose flour (or bread flour)
  • 50 g (1.78 oz., ÂĽ cup) granulated sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 50 g (1.78 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 150 ml (5 oz.) whole milk, mixed with 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1.25 teaspoons active dry yeast
Filling:
  • ÂĽ cup each  ground almonds and cookie crumbs
  • 4 cups Italian plums, pitted and quartered
  • scant ÂĽ cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ÂĽ teaspoon garam masala
Streusel  Topping (optional):
  • 15 g (2 tablespoons, 1/8 cup) all-purpose flour
  • 15 g (2 tablespoons, 1/8 cup) powdered sugar
  • 15 g (0.5 oz.) cold butter, cubed

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Method:
  1. To make the yeast dough, combine lukewarm milk with 1 teaspoon sugar and yeast. Set aside for 10 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. Place all the remaining ingredients for the dough into the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. When the yeast mixture looks nice and bubbly, add it to the bowl. Knead the dough on a low speed until it comes together and forms a ball. The dough should be soft, smooth, and elastic – if it’s too dry, add in some more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, if it’s too wet, sprinkle in some flour, 1 tablespoon at a time. Knead the dough for at least 10 minutes. Transfer it into an oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm spot until it doubles in volume – 50 – 60 minutes.
  3. While the dough is rising, prepare the filling: Pit and quarter the plums. Whisk together honey, lemon juice, brown sugar, and the spices; pour over plums, set aside. Combine ground almonds with cookie crumbs in a small bowl; set aside. Butter and flour a 11 inch (27 cm) springform pan or tart pan.
  4. When the dough has risen, roll it out into a circle and fit it into the prepared pan. You can vary the thickness of the dough according to your preference – the thinner dough will produce a crisper cake. Discard the leftover dough. Sprinkle the dough with almond/cookie crumb mixture.
  5. Strain the extra juice from the plums and arrange them on the cake, pressing them slightly into the dough. Cover the cake and let it rise at a room temp again while you preheat the oven to 375 °F (190 °C).
  6. Make the streusel topping, if using: Combine flour, sugar, and butter, and mix them with your fingers into coarse crumbs. Sprinkle topping over the fruit.
  7. Bake the cake until the bottom is golden brown and the plums are soft, about 35 minutes. Let cool before serving. Serve with brandy whipped cream if desired.

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!