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.

(Raw) Blueberry and Fig Torte

We’re apparently getting slammed by a heat wave. The temperatures are climbing into the 90’s during the day and we’re being warned about excessive heat and the need to take precautions everywhere we turn. It amuses me the same way as when we’re blessed with a random sprinkling of snow in December and the moment it happens they close schools and life in general comes to a halting stop until the last trace of the white intruder disappears from the roads. The high temperature of 92/34 is hardly a looming catastrophe and I don’t think we should treat is as something that it isn’t. C’mon, folks, slather on some sunscreen and be grateful for an extra dose of vitamin D – we have to gulp down pills for it the rest of the year around here!

Personally, I’m soaking up every bit of sunshine I can get these last couple of days. My middle name must be Lizard… I feel like I’m finally not shivering and my hands and feet are not deathly cold as they usually are. Plus I get to air out all my sundresses and play with sunhats which have become my latest obsession. (I know not everybody must be a hat person, but if you simply haven’t had a chance to play with hats yet, you should absolutely give them a try: I’m convinced a hat can take just about any outfit from ordinary to something special and fun!)

But let’s put our chef’s hat on for now, shall we? It is hot out there, yes, but that doesn’t mean we have to forego desert, nor that we should! Many people seek refuge in ice cream on summer days, but I have to confess I’m one of those weirdos that dislike ice cream (too cold!). Maybe I’m the only one in the whole wide world, but on the slim chance you’re with me, I have a desert for you – and one you won’t have turn your oven on for, no less!

I love berries – strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries – anything ending with an -erry pretty much. This weekend’s treat showcases blueberries – plump, juicy, and sweet little gems that prove that the best things come in small packages (as someone who’s barely 5’3” on a good day, I’m absolutely positive about that). Blueberries are nutritional powerhouses – they aid digestion, lower heart disease risk, improve vision, act as natural anti-depressants, they even have the ability to reduce belly fat. The last bit won’t apply if you mix them with a cup of coconut cream as we’ll do here I guess, but when you’ll taste the wonderfully rich and creamy filling, you won’t care about that – at least until you devour every last bite on your plate 😉 But blueberries are just the beginning; for this desert they joined their forces with another awesome member of the purple fruit family: figs. Although I haven’t met fruit I wouldn’t like yet, figs are definitely up there on my list of great summery treats. I think they’re one of God’s best creations – fig leaves can even double up as underwear as referenced by the Bible, which might come in handy on days when we’re drowning in dirty laundry…, and the fruit is simply to die for. If figs aren’t plump, juicy, and sweet, I don’t know what is!

As I said, don’t bother turning on your oven, and don’t plan on spending hours in the kitchen, either: If you remember to soak your dates and cashews a couple hours in advance, this torte comes together in a snap. It’s best to make it a day before you want to serve it, but after it’s assembled, you can just stick it into the freezer and forget about it. Take it out ten minutes before serving, top it with handful of blueberries, some fresh figs and dry coconut shavings – and voilà! Rich and creamy purple haze for a hot summer day!

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(Raw) Blueberry and Fig Torte

(recipe adapted from www.coconutmagic.com)

 Crust:
  • ½ cup shelled raw pistachios
  • ¼ cup raw hazelnuts
  • 5 – 6 dates, soaked in hot water for at least 15 minutes
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • pinch salt
Filling:
  • ¾ cup raw cashews, soaked for 2 hours in water or coconut milk
  • ¾ cup canned coconut cream (not milk)
  • 3 tablespoons coconut nectar (I subbed maple syrup)
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • pinch salt
  • 1/3 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
  • 2 fresh purple figs
  • pinch of purple coloring, such as TruColor Natural Food Color Powder (optional)

+ fresh berries, figs, and dried coconut shavings for decoration

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Method:
  1. For the base, line a 7-inch (18 cm) springform pan with parchment; lightly grease the sides if you wish.
  2. Process all the crust ingredients listed in the food processor until they form a sticky paste. Press the dough into the bottom of the pan. Refrigerate or freeze while you make the filling.
  3. For the filling, blend all of the ingredients except food coloring in a high power blender until smooth. Transfer the filling into a bowl and gradually add the food coloring if you wish (The color of the filling will depend on the blueberries used; the smaller/darker ones will usually give you darker and more pronounced shade of purple. My filling looked kind of grayish, so I ended up using a bit of coloring, even though I usually try to avoid it in my baking.) Pour the filling onto the prepared crust, smooth out the top, and place the torte in the freezer for at least 5 hours (overnight is better).
  4. To serve, remove the torte from the springform pan onto a serving plate about 10 minutes before serving, and decorate with fresh berries and figs and dried coconut flakes.
  5. Dig in 🙂 Store the leftover slices in the freezer.

Yeast Crescents with Walnut Filling

I just came back from a month long trip to Europe to see the family. I must say there wasn’t much baking going on while I was there – the kitchen in the apartment I was renting was so tiny I wouldn’t’ve even been able to place two baking sheets side by side on the counter – but the less time I spent in the kitchen, the more I enjoyed visiting with friends and family. I’ve missed them all more than the words can say, and I treasured every moment: The hugs, chats, and laughs we’ve shared together will now have to carry me over for a whole year, at least.

Living an expat life is not easy. Sure, it is exciting to be able to travel new places and get to know new people, and it’s exhilarating to rise to the challenge to build a completely new life from scratch somewhere else. It binds you to the person you’re in this adventure with – after all, at least in the beginning there won’t be anyone else you could depend on for a while. But this life also comes with an inevitable sense of loneliness: there are birthdays you are going to miss, weddings you won’t be able to attend. Not to mention Christmas holidays when you try your hardest to replicate the magical atmosphere you used to know from home, but despite the traditions you try to keep alive and cookies you bake with your kids exactly the same way your mom used to, somehow it still doesn’t work: the cookies taste different, the Christmas tree doesn’t smell quite so fragrant, and deep down, you know it’s not the same. It can’t be – it’s about the people, and they’re not there with you.

But you keep keeping on, and after a while you learn to adapt. Little by little you put down roots. You start making the new place your home and just when you think you might’ve finally gotten it down, something happens: a conversation in the grocery store or chit-chat with your hairdresser perhaps, which will remind you again that even after all these years you’re still very much a foreigner. You think differently, and no matter how much you try, in many ways you are still unlike the people around you. At that moment you can’t wait to go back “home”, even if for a short while. You get up, fly across the globe and eagerly step off that plane… and within hours you realize the strangest thing: The life you’ve been building somewhere else has changed you, and now even here, in a place you grew up in and used to know so well, you’re different. There are things you don’t understand anymore, some that annoy you, or downright drive you crazy. You might be home, but you’ve become a stranger in your own land.

You’re now officially an expat: a person whose home is neither here nor there, or who has home in both places at the same time. I still haven’t quite figured out how to have two homes. It feels weird to fly out to go “home” and then to be returning “home” when the trip is over. But that’s exactly how it is and I don’t expect it to change anytime soon. Home is where people you love are, and as long they will be here and over there, thousands miles apart, so will be my two homes.

I have to say I’ve missed my big kitchen while away. I’ve never appreciated it more than when I was bumping into Mr. Photographer when we randomly met in the teeny rental kitchen getting a glass of water in the middle of the night. As usual, I brought new cookbooks and tons of cooking magazines from the trip, and couldn’t wait to put them to good use. These little yeast croissants are a special dessert from the region I grew up in. The yeast dough they’re made from is very rich – traditionally, the weight of the butter should be about 30 % of the amount of flour used. The high amount of butter and no egg whites in the dough also make the pastries very soft. The croissants can be filled either with walnut or poppy seed filling. After they’re formed, they are given a coat of egg wash and quite unusually they’re left to rise not in a warm place, but in a draughty spot to make the egg dry up. When that happens, they’re brushed with egg yolk again – the double egg wash will give them their typical cracked glaze appearance. They should’ve had more of a horse-shoe shape; they were just right going into the oven, but still puffed up a little too much while baking. Oh well – they still disappeared in no time, and making them helped me to deal with the very fresh acute homesickness I’m feeling at the moment… so I guess they’ve accomplished what they were supposed to 🙂

(Note to self: When you’re scheduling to publish a post, it would be helpful not to forget to insert the pics! I’ll blame it on the jetlag… sorry about that.)

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Yeast Croissants with Walnut Filling

(recipe makes about 30 pastries)

Dough:
  • 390 g (about 13.5 oz.) all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup + 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 scant teaspoon dry yeast
  • pinch sugar
  • 1/3 – 1/2 cup lukewarm milk, divided
Walnut Filling:
  • 2 cups walnuts, ground
  • ½ cup powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1/8 cup hot milk
  • handful of raisins (optional; not in the traditional recipe, but I always add raisins to nut- and poppy seed filling to keep it moist)

+ 3 egg yolks, beaten – for egg wash; 1 egg white – for brushing the edges of the dough

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Method:
  1. To make the yeast dough, first combine 1/3 cup of lukewarm milk, pinch sugar, and yeast in a small bowl. Let stand for couple of minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. In the meantime, place all the remaining ingredients for the dough except milk into a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. When the yeast mixture looks nice and bubbly, pour it in, and with the mixer on a low speed, begin kneading the dough. Knead for about 10 minutes, carefully adding the rest of milk if necessary to make a smooth and soft dough. Let the dough rise, covered in a warm spot, for 30 – 40 minutes.
  3. While the dough is rising, prepare the filling by combining all the ingredients listed. The filling should be somewhat sticky and hold together enough so that you can make a small cylindrical “snake” out of it. If it’s too dry, add a splash more milk, if it’s too wet, add in some plain breadcrumbs/cookie crumbs. Cover the filling and set it aside.
  4. Turn the risen dough onto a floured surface and divide it into small balls (each portion should weigh about 25 g/0.8 oz.) Cover the dough balls with a dish towel and always take just the one you’re working with to keep them from drying out. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  5. To form the crescents, take a ball of dough and roll it gently into an oval. Roll about 10 g/0.3 oz. of filling into a small cylinder and place it in the middle. Brush the edges of the dough with a little egg white and enclose the filling into the dough. With a palm of your hand, gently roll the filled dough into a thin cylinder about 10 cm/ 4 inches long and place it seam side down on the baking sheet, giving it a horse-shoe shape. Continue making the pastries, giving them enough space on the sheet to rise.
  6. Brush the croissants with egg yolk and let them rest, uncovered, in a cold drafty place until the glaze dries up (I chilled mine for about 20 minutes in the fridge).
  7. When the egg wash dries up, take the pastries out of the refrigerator and give them a second layer of egg wash. Let them rise for about 20 minutes on the counter while you preheat the oven to 375 °F (190 °C).
  8. When the oven is ready, prick each croissant twice with a fork to prevent it from bursting open while baking, place the baking sheets in the oven, and bake the pastries for about 12 – 14 minutes until they’re darker golden brown.

 

Gluten-free Brie en Croûte

They say that secret to a happy marriage is a deaf husband and a blind wife. Mr. Photographer has suffered from selective deafness for years, just like any other man on this planet… and come to think of it, suffer is probably a bit strong of a word to use in this context – he’s perfectly content living with this condition; it’s me and millions of other wives around the world that suffer! So the male deafness part has been taken care of, now we just needed to deal with the sight in his wife to achieve that promised marital bliss. You see, I see everything. Everywhere. And what’s more, feel the need to comment on everything I see, which results in a near constant stream of words coming out of my mouth. Did you…? Have you had a chance to…? Can you do it now? I mean, I’d gladly see less; when I’m home, I actually quite often take off my glasses for just this purpose – as long as I don’t see the dust bunnies, cluttered desk, or unkempt yard, I’m fine. If I see, I talk. And delegate. I mean, I’d gladly talk less if it didn’t feel like our household and life in general would fall apart without all my monitoring questions and reminders! Men call it N-agging. We call it N-ecessity.

I’m not sure if God intended to make me blind to match my selectively deaf husband to let us experience a spousal happiness together, and simply made a mistake and confused the body parts he planned to work on. (Hey, even experts make mistakes sometimes!) It’s also possible he knew exactly what he was doing and wanted to help me not to feel like a broken record for once, or help Mr. Photographer and his sons to catch a break from the (necessary) nagging. Whatever the reason… instead of poking my eye out, he just took my voice away. He was thoroughly thorough however – it wasn’t like I just suddenly couldn’t sing in the shower or raise my voice to get the attention of a headphones wearing teen. No. I woke up, opened my mouth, and instead of good morning out came nothing. Not even a peep.

And it stayed that way for three whole days.

It was funny. My men were hollering their questions at me from upstairs, repeating them two or three times before they remembered “Oh, she lost her voice!” and realized they would have to find me if the answer was really so important. It brought us closer – quite literally, because to hear me at all they needed to be glued to me, reading from my lips. (How’s that for the undivided attention and visual contact we ladies crave so much? Score!) I think we all enjoyed our little break, each for a different reason, but felt relieved when the voice ever so slowly started coming back. I’m still nowhere close to my usual yelling ability level, but I’m getting there! 🙂

Luckily, the non-talking stint didn’t interfere with my baking, unlike the loss of vision would, and for that I’m super grateful! And since I couldn’t tell Mr. Photographer I loved him, I decided to step into the kitchen to let him know that 🙂 He’s been talking nostalgically about the baked brie appetizer he used to love in his long gone gluten-full days. One of these days I plan to attempt gluten-free puff pastry… but for now I went with something simpler – a buttery pastry dough enriched with sour cream. Adding sour cream to any pastry (gluten – free or gluten – full) is always a great idea, as it makes the pastry wonderfully tender. The process is relatively easy and quick; the only thing to remember when making the dough is to keep the butter very cold. When the dough is ready, the whole thing comes together in a snap, and after 20 minutes out of the oven emerges a gooey goodness enclosed in golden pastry crust. As we’re scooping up the melty cheese with crackers and sipping wine, I’m here to tell you that achieving marital bliss is obviously easier than one would think – no tinkering with sight or hearing of the involved parties necessary!

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Gluten-free Brie en Croûte

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

Sour Cream Pastry Dough:
  • 1 ½ cups (210 g) good quality gluten-free flour mix
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if your mix contains it already)
  • 6 tablespoons (84 g) very cold, unsalted butter; diced
  • ½ cup (120 g) full-fat sour cream
  • icy cold water, only if needed

+ 8 oz. (225 g) Brie wheel, about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter
optional: preserves, chopped nuts, honey, dried apricots, etc.
1 egg yolk mixed with little water – for egg wash

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Method:
  1. Place the flour, salt, xanthan gum, and baking powder in a bowl of your food processor. Add in the cold diced butter and pulse to coat the butter with flour. Add the sour cream and pulse again, just until the dough comes together somewhat (it will look shaggy). If it’s too crumbly, add in some icy water by the teaspoon – only if necessary. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 30 minutes before proceeding.
  2. On a work surface covered with parchment, roll out the dough into a rectangle roughly 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick. Fold the dough over itself into thirds as if folding a letter. Chill for 10 minutes.
  3. Turn the dough and roll it out again (sprinkle the parchment paper with some flour, if the dough begins to stick, but it’s chilled, so it shouldn’t stick much). Fold it into thirds again, and return it to the fridge for 10 minutes.
  4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Roll/fold the dough one last time, and divide it into two equal parts.
  5. Roll out one half into a circle about 3/8 inch thick and 8-inch  (20 cm) in diameter. Place the circle onto the lined baking sheet and chill while rolling out the second half of the dough into circle. (The circles don’t have to be perfect; you’ll be trimming them later.) Chill the second circle as well.
  6. With a sharp knife, cut off the top rind of the cheese wheel. Place the cheese onto the circle on the baking sheet. Brush the edges of the dough around the cheese with the egg wash.
  7. Cover the cheese with the second rolled out circle of dough, pressing around the cheese to enclose it. Trim the dough if necessary. Brush the entire pastry with egg wash again. Re-roll the scraps of dough and cut out decorations to place on top of the pastry or make a couple of crackers to bake later.
  8. Chill the pastry for about 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375 °F (190 °C).
  9. Give the pastry another coat of egg wash if desired. Bake for about 30 minutes until nice golden brown. Let cool for about 30 minutes before serving with crackers, sliced apples, and wine.
  10. (You can make the pastry in advance up to point 7; omit the egg wash and freeze, tightly wrapped. Let the pastry come to room temp before baking, give it a coat of egg wash, and bake.)
Note:

Variation: Spread the cheese with preserves and sprinkle some nuts on top before enclosing it in the pastry. Alternatively, you can drizzle the cheese with honey and sprinkle it with dried fruit.

If making crackers from the dough scraps, brush them with egg wash, sprinkle with coarse salt and/or seeds, and bake at 375 °F (190 °C) for about 10 – 12 minutes.

 

Homemade KIND Cereal Bars

The game of life can be tough. From the moment we open our eyes in the morning till we drop to bed at night we’re constantly on the go. We run out of the door already late, because dear offspring couldn’t find his algebra notebook. Half asleep, we turn to Starbucks to get some shot in the arm, make appointment for a chipped tooth while waiting in the drive-through line, and then burn our tongue with hot pick me up while parking at the office. Breakfast is hasty spoonfuls of yogurt gulped down at a red light. Lunch? Cereal bar and a banana around three pm while answering emails. And pretty soon a dreaded stop-and-go commute from work back home, pondering how to get dinner on the table, take care of homework, laundry, and dishes, and still manage to go to bed at a reasonable hour. Only to do it all over again the next morning.

I don’t work well when I’m hungry. My men could tell you stories about this trait of mine – about the unnecessary arguments, yell fests, and even guilty tears related to those darn sugar drops. It usually happens when I’m too busy, and it starts innocently enough: I just might start to feel a little cranky at first, my answers become tiny bit snappier… but when I don’t recognize I’m overdue for a feed and don’t remedy the situation quickly enough, it all goes downhill pretty fast. I know I’m not the only one suffering from this; after all, there is even this new term “hangry”, labeling that miserable state when hunger and anger intersect… but I could definitely be a model for it.

That was at least partially why I tried my hand at these bars. I try to keep some snack food and water with me at all times to prevent hunger induced relational disasters, but cereal bars carried around in your purse dry out pretty quickly I found, not to mention they’re not exactly easy on the budget! It was my first experiment with homemade cereal bars ever, but it certainly won’t be the last. I like that I can control the amount of sugar, and vary the ingredients according to what I have on hand. They’re extremely easy and fast to make and don’t even require turning your oven on!

Please be kind to yourself and eat when you need to. No matter how busy you are, it’s still much easier to find time to eat, than have to apologize over and over for you’ve said and done when you were hungry 🙂

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Homemade KIND Cereal Bars

(adapted from http://www.eat-yourself-skinny.com)

Ingredients:
  • ½ cup unsalted roasted almonds, whole
  • ½ cup  unsalted roasted peanuts, whole
  • ½ cup roasted walnuts/pecans, chopped
  • 1/3 cup puffed rice cereal
  • 1 tablespoon flaxseed meal
  • ¼ cup brown rice syrup (I used maple syrup instead)
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ cup dark chocolate, roughly chopped

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Method:
  1. Line an 8-inch square springform pan with parchment paper; set aside.
  2. To make the bars, mix nuts, flaxseed, an puffed rice in a greased bowl; set aside.
  3. In a small saucepan, mix together brown rice syrup (maple syrup), honey, vanilla, and salt. Bring to a boil, and cook for about 2 minutes, whisking constantly.
  4. Pour the hot mixture over the ingredients in your bowl and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture into the pan and press evenly, making sure there are no gaps. (The recipe says there is enough for a 8-inch pan, but I didn’t find this to be true – I was able to only fill about 2/3 of the pan if I wanted the bars to be high enough).
  5. Place a sheet of parchment on top, and press the mixture firmly. Set the pan aside and let the mixture cool for about 20 minutes.
  6. Remove the rim of the pan, transfer the cereal block onto a cutting board, and cut it into uniform pieces with a sharp knife. (Serrated knife worked best for me.) Let the bars cool completely.
  7. For the chocolate drizzle, melt the chocolate over a water bath and drizzle over the bars. Keep the remaining bars in the refrigerator or freezer to keep them fresh.

 

Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse Cake

“Oh, did you know moose are some of the animals most likely to escape from cages or zoos? Their snouts are incredibly flexible and capable – almost as good instruments as an elephant’s trunk, perfectly capable of manipulating doorknobs!” informed me my son, lured into the kitchen by the smell of toasted hazelnuts, when I told him what I was making. I have no clue how he jumped so quickly from the idea of airy sweet pudding to the largest member of the deer family, but now that I know, I’m sure I’ll be peeking over my shoulder fully expecting some runaway moose skewer me onto its antlers whenever I’ll find myself in a zoo. Because I can’t seem to remember that I need to buy toilet paper at the store, nor that I shouldn’t still be stuffing my face after 6 p.m., but a piece of useless information such as this will undoubtedly stick with me forever.

And do you know what else is as good an escapist as moose? Mousse! I can’t keep it in the house. It just seems to disappear, usually in conjunction with two slightly guilty (but satisfied) teenagers. It catches a lift on spoons, cowers in bowls, or sneaks into cakes in lieu of a filling, gradually leaving nothing but a contented silence behind. This, of course is at least partially my fault – while the light whipped crème is a delight all in itself, I cannot resist taking it one step further and merging it with layers of moist rum-scented chocolate cake into something entirely new and delicious. Throw in some toasted hazelnuts, and mousse finds a new contender for kitchen escape artistry!

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Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse Cake

(adapted from Nick Malgieri’s: Chocolate)

Cake:
  • 4 eggs, room temperature, separated
  • ¾ cup sugar, divided
  • pinch salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 cup ground hazelnuts
  • ½ cup cake flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill 1 for 1 all-purpose gluten-free flour mix)
  • 3 tablespoons dark cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
Rum syrup:
  • 1/3 cup each sugar, water, and rum
Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse:
  • 16 oz. (454 g) good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 ¼ cup (310 ml) heavy cream
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons, 4 oz., 114 g) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 tablespoons rum
  • 4 egg whites, room temperature
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned, and roughly chopped (see Note)

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Method:
  1. To make the cake, butter a 10 inch (25 cm) springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C).
  2. Beat the egg yolks with half of the sugar until thick and light yellow in color. In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until opaque, then gradually add in the remaining sugar and continue whipping until stiff peaks form. Fold yolks into whites, and then add in the ground nuts. Combine flour, cocoa, and baking powder, sift the mixture over the batter, and fold it in. Pour batter into the springform pan, and bake for about 30 minutes, until the cake springs back, and the cake tester comes out clean. Unmold and let cool.
  3. For the rum syrup, boil water with sugar. Cool and pour in the rum. Set aside.
  4. For the mousse filling, place the chocolate into a glass bowl. Bring the cream to a boil, and pour it over the chocolate. Whisk until smooth. Let the chocolate mixture cool to room temp. Beat the softened butter until fluffy, then add in the cooled chocolate and rum. Heat egg whites and sugar, whisking constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot, and then whip the egg whites using an electric mixer until cooled. Fold the egg whites into the chocolate, and add in the chopped hazelnuts.
  5. To assemble, slice cake into three layers. Place one layer back into the washed springform pan and moisten it with the syrup. Spread with 1/3 of the mousse. Continue layering moistened cake layers and filling, ending with the mousse. Place the cake into the fridge to set the mousse.
  6. Unmold the cake onto a serving plate, decorate with hazelnuts and/or shaved chocolate, and serve.
Note:

Best way to skin the hazelnuts is to cook them in some water with baking soda for couple of minutes, until the water turns black from the skins. The skins should then slip off easily (much easier method than rubbing the toasted hazelnuts in a dish towel!)

I made the cake in an 8-inch (20 cm) springform pan, and sliced it just in two layers. I had quite a lot of filling leftover, but I wanted the cake to be higher, and it worked quite well this way.

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(Raw) Chocolate Orange Torte

Chances are you’ve heard about the Buy nothing project, by now a worldwide movement based on a gift economy. Local groups are sprouting up all over, connecting people living in the same area. The project was born out of the idea that one man’s clutter can be another man’s treasure, but it evolved into much more than that. Yes, you receive free stuff in the process (and declutter your home of the things you no longer want or need), but more importantly, it builds a sense of community, and closer relationships between neighbors who otherwise might not get to know each other past the occasional wave hello when they’re pulling out of their driveway rushing to the morning meeting. I love the philosophy behind the Buy nothing – reduce, reuse, rethink – and am grateful it put me in touch with like-minded folks I wouldn’t even know are out there. One of my most treasured buy nothing gems were sourdough bread starter and grains to make kefir from, both of which I have been trying to hunt down forever. As it turned out, a nice lady living just a couple of blocks from me had both, and was nice enough to share not just the products, but also her time in explaining how it all works and what to do and not do to keep the delicate cultures alive and thriving, which I appreciated even more!

And last week I was generously gifted another thing that made me happy – a Blender girl gluten-free vegan cookbook. I am a longtime green smoothie addict and have some kind of green drink for breakfast pretty much every day, but despite its name the cookbook isn’t limited to blended drinkable concoctions. There are soups, spreads, drinks, and even desserts in there. The pictures look amazing – I’d eat anything and everything from that book, and plan to try quite a few recipes from there.

And we started with this chocolate orange torte. Raw desserts seem to be all the rave lately, and for a very good reason: They’re mighty tasty, free from artificial sugars, flour, and butter, and they’re also pretty easy and fast to make. This wonderful torte was no exception: All I had to do was pretty much just to blend, grind, mix, and pour, and after giving the cake the appropriate time to firm up in the freezer I was rewarded with a rich, chocolatey finger-licking awesome goodness. It’s not a treat for the calorie-conscious, that’s for sure, but hey, coconut oil is good for you, and all those nuts supply omega fats… and protein… all the things your body needs. Shall we say dessert with benefits? 🙂 How rawsome is that?!

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Raw Chocolate Orange Torte

(adapted from the Tess Masters’ Blender Girl Cookbook)

 Crust:
  • 1 cup (160 g) whole raw almonds
  • ½ cup (80 g) firmly packed chopped pitted dates
  • ¼ cup (18 g) cacao powder, see Note
Filling:
  • 1 cup (240 ml) liquid coconut oil
  • 1 cup (240 ml) freshly squeezed orange juice
  • ¾ cup (180 ml) raw agave nectar, see Note
  • ½ cup (35 g) raw cacao powder
  • 3 cups (420 g) raw unsalted cashews, soaked for 2 hours and drained
  • ¼ teaspoon orange extract
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
  • pinch sea salt

+ shaved chocolate and orange – for decoration (optional)

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Method:
  1. To make the crust, grease a 7-inch (18 cm) springform pan with coconut oil. Process almonds, dates, and cacao powder in a food processor. If the dough doesn’t hold together, add some more dates. Press the dough into the bottom of the pan and refrigerate.
  2. To make the filling, put all the ingredients into your blender in the order listed and blend until smooth. You’ll have to stop the blender from time to time and scrape down the sides. Pour the filling into the crust, cover the pan, and freeze the torte for 8 hours.
  3. To serve, transfer the tote from the freezer to the fridge at least 1 1/2 hours before serving. Let the torte defrost in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, remove the sides of the pan and cut the torte into slices with a sharp knife. Keeping the slices together, return the cake into the refrigerator and continue defrosting for at least an hour before serving. (The remaining cake needs to be stored in the refrigerator due to the high amount of coconut oil. Take out of the fridge when ready to serve.)
Note:

Even though the cake won’t be technically raw anymore, you can sub raw cacao powder for unsweetened cocoa powder, and agave nectar for maple syrup. I also didn’t have orange extract, and used Grand Marnier in its place. As far as I can tell, it didn’t hurt anything 🙂

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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Traditional poppy-seed roll

’Tis tough to grind poppy seeds to a paste,
By mixie or by any means in haste;
Such is the grittiness of seeds tho’ small,
Invincible a foe, need not be tall. (J. Celes: Poppy seeds)

The poem proves two things: First, you can clearly make up a poem about just about anything, and second, to bake this traditional Central and Eastern European pastry you’ll need some elbow grease. Tiny black poppy seeds, harvested from dry seed pods of the poppy plant, are widely used in various cuisines around the world, mostly for decoration on top of baked goods. The pastry I want to show you today is different, in that the poppy seeds won’t be just modestly sprinkled here and there to add visual appeal and texture. In this traditional yeast roll they really take center stage, and we’ll need a lot of them, which is where the elbow grease comes in. (Did you know it takes between one and two million of seeds to make up a pound? I love to collect these utterly useless bits of culinary information.)

To make the filling for the roll, the seeds first need to be ground to a paste. Most Slovak bakers still use a hand-cranked grinder for this task, which gives the seeds a perfect consistency. I’ve got such grinder too, and use it often, given that I also have two teenagers and their manly strength at my disposal. The resultant poppy-seed paste is then sweetened and flavored with many wonderful things – sugar, cream, honey, lemon, and vanilla, to name a few. It seems that every region has its own recipe for the filling, and even every baker adds his or her own special touch to it. (I like to add a dollop of a tart jam and a handful of raisins, because everything is better with raisins, especially if they’re soaked in rum first). When you’ve played with the filling and made it so lip-smackingly delicious you can’t stop nibbling at it, it’s time to roll it up in the sweet dough and hide it away in the hot oven. Many good things come to those who wait, and in this case, if you can hold off for just half an hour, out of the oven emerges this shiny, sweet pastry that you can eat for breakfast, snack, or a dessert. The filling is usually just rolled up in a dough jelly roll style, and the pastry is then given a coat of egg wash and baked until golden. I changed it up a bit, and decided to cut the dough into strips and wrap them around the roll.  Not only it makes the pastry more interesting, but because the strips provide an additional layer of dough around the roll, there is less risk the roll will split open during its rise in the hot oven. I’m quite happy with the results, and from now on it will be my go-to method of making the roll.

Even though many Slovaks (and Czechs, Poles, Croatians, Ukrainians, and Russians for that matter) are very fond of poppy-seed desserts and  can’t imagine holiday table without them, poppy seeds have a very distinctive taste that people tend to either love or hate. For those who can do without them, I’m offering an alternative walnut/pecan filling, which is made exactly the same way. There is really no reason anyone should miss trying a slice of this homemade buttery goodness.

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Traditional poppy-seed roll

(makes 2 small or 1 big sweet roll)

Dough:
  • ½ cup milk, lukewarm
  • 40 g (5 tablespoons) icing sugar
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 250 g (2 cups) all-purpose flour, plus a little more if needed
  • pinch of salt
  • 60 g (¼ cup, 4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Poppy-seed/Nut filling:
  • 250 g (9 oz.) ground poppy seeds (or ground walnuts/pecans)
  • 250 g (9 oz.) icing sugar
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) honey
  • 1 tablespoon of tart jam (raspberry, currant)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ – ½ cup milk (or cream)
  • ½ cup raisins, soaked for 30 minutes in ½ cup water with ½ cup rum, then drained

+ 1 egg yolk with 2 tablespoons of milk, for egg wash

Method:
  1. To make the dough: In a small bowl, mix the lukewarm milk, yeast, and pinch of sugar. Let stand for 15 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. In a bowl of your stand mixer, mix all the remaining ingredients for dough. Add the yeast mixture, and knead for 10 – 15 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. If it’s too sticky, add a little more flour, 2 tablespoons at a time; if too dry, add a little milk/water to achieve the right consistency.
  3. Transfer the dough into an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm spot until it doubles in volume, 45 minutes – 1 hour.
  4. While the dough is rising, prepare the filling:  In a small saucepan, combine all the ingredients except milk (cream). Over a low heat, gradually add milk or cream to achieve soft paste-like consistency. Let cool at a room temperature, don’t chill (room temperature filling will be easier to spread).
  5. When the dough has risen, punch it down and divide it into two equal parts. On a floured surface, roll one part of the dough into a 7 x 9 inch rectangle, keeping the other half covered.  Position the rectangle crosswise to the work surface, short side close to you, and spread half of the filling on two thirds of the rectangle, leaving the last third empty. Pick up the shorter side of the dough rectangle, and roll the two thirds into a jelly roll, enclosing the filling, but don’t roll all the way.
  6. Cut the last third of the dough into strips about ½ inch wide, and wrap them around the roll. Pinch the ends of the roll together or tuck them under to prevent the filling from leaking.
  7. Transfer the roll seam side down onto a parchment lined baking pan, cover with a towel, and make the second roll in the same fashion.
  8. Allow the rolls to rise again, covered, while you preheat the oven.
  9. Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350 °F (170 °C). Prick the top of the rolls with a fork to prevent splitting, brush the pastries with egg yolk mixed with milk, and bake for about 30 minutes until dark golden brown.
  10. Cover the rolls with a clean towel while cooling to keep them soft. Let cool completely before slicing.