Sweet Easter Bread (Mazanec)

Spring is in the air now, I suppose; the flowers are in bloom, the sun is shining (occasionally – this is still the Pacific Northwest, after all), and everyone becomes marginally more cheerful as the dreariness of winter wears away. The weather is actually cooperating this Easter – the kids won’t have to put on rain boots and wade through the downpour looking for eggs, which already feels like a major Easter miracle to me! I don’t know if it’s because I don’t have small kids anymore, so the egg hunts and such are not on the agenda, but I can’t seem to get into the Easter mood this year. I think it was easier in a way while they were little munchkins, and Easter used to unfold in a very predictable fashion: Dress them in their very best outfits. Somehow, get to church on time and try to wrangle them through the service when all they think about is candy that will follow. Take them to an egg hunt; settle inevitable brotherly quarrels about who saw which chocolate egg first and help them to fairly divide the loot. Suffer in silence as you see their brand new white dress shirt (or your couch!) getting chocolate smears all over, and then try to keep them from climbing the walls and tearing the house down, when they get all crazy from the candy overdose. True Easter bliss 🙂 It wasn’t easy and I remember the relief I felt when it was all over and I was secretly munching on one of their Cadbury Eggs in the evening, but now I have to confess I kind of miss it.

I tried to make myself feel more Easter-y by making the house look somewhat more presentable and coloring some eggs, but that was kind of a debacle in itself – I wanted to ditch the chemical colorings and go with Mother Nature this year, but no matter if I colored with spinach juice, beet juice, cabbage juice or turmeric, the eggs all emerged the same murky hue, as if I bathed them in the muddy pond behind our house. (The only natural coloring that never disappoints are onion peels!) Next year, I’m back to acid green and Barbie pink from a box, I think.

At least the baking part was a success 😉 This sweet Easter bread is a classic Easter dessert baked back home on Easter Saturday. It is a buttery yeast bread, enriched with eggs and raisins. Traditionally it is slashed in the form of cross on top in remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross, and sprinkled with sliced almonds. I wanted to play with it a bit more, so I added decorations made from simple dough made by mixing flour with some egg white and water. I also soaked the raisins in rum to plump them up, and added a spoonful of honey to the dough for better browning. With some butter and a touch of jam it’ll be a splendid breakfast tomorrow.

Happy Easter, everybody! Bake your heart out, soak up the sun if you’re lucky enough to have it, and eat all the chocolate you can!

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Sweet Easter bread (Mazanec)

 Dough:
  • 450 g (1 lb.) bread flour (or all-purpose flour)
  • pinch salt
  • ½ cup (100 g, 3.5 oz.) white sugar; + 1 teaspoon to sweeten the milk
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 100 g (scant 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1 cup (250 ml, 8 oz.) lukewarm milk
  • 2 ¼ teaspoons dry yeast
  • ½ cup raisins, soaked in 1/2 cup rum + 1/2 cup water, and drained
  • sliced almonds (optional)
 Decorative white dough:
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) plain all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg white
  • milk as needed to make a pliable dough

+ 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water – for egg wash

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Method:
  1. To make the dough, combine milk, dry yeast, and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Set aside for 10 – 15 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. Place the rest of the ingredients except raisins in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a hook. When the yeast is nice and foamy, add it to the bowl. Start kneading the dough, adding a bit of milk or flour if the dough seems to be too dry or too wet. You should aim for smooth and elastic dough, that’s somewhat firm, but not stiff. Add in the raisins and mix them in well.
  3. Transfer the dough into an oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm spot until doubled, about 45 min. – 1 hour. Line a big baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside for now.
  4. Make the decorations, if desired: In the food processor with an S-blade, mix the flour and the egg white. Add in as much milk until the dough forms a firm ball.
  5. On a floured surface, roll the decorative dough to about 1 – 2 mm thickness. With Easter cutters, cut out decorations as desired. Cover them and set aside.
  6. When the dough has risen, punch it down and form a nice round ball. Transfer the ball onto the lined baking sheet, cover, and let it rise the second time for about 20 – 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C).
  7. When ready to bake, coat the entire bread generously with egg wash. Gently place the decorations where you want them; but don’t press down too much. The egg wash should help to keep the decorations in place. You can coat the decorations with egg wash, or leave them dry for better contrast. If you’re not using the decorations, slash the dough in the form of cross and sprinkle sliced almonds on top.
  8. Bake the bread for about 35 – 40 minutes, until nicely risen and golden brown. Let cool completely before slicing. Serve with butter, jam, and honey.
Note:

I doubled the recipe and also made sweet yeast nests with colored eggs inside. To make those, form the dough into ropes about 1-inch (2.5 cm) thick and 14 inches (about 30 cm) long, and then braid two ropes together and join the ends to make a round “nest”. Let the nests rise a second time, and place a colored egg in the middle of each one, pressing down lightly. Brush the  nests with some egg and sprinkle with coarse sugar, and bake at 350 °F (175 °C) for about 20 – 25 min. (You don’t have to boil the eggs beforehand; they cook while the nests are baking in the oven.)

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Cheesecake Bars with Strawberry Glaze

I’m sorry if I won’t be my usual talkative self today. I’m tired. I just endured a teenage boy sleepover, which meant a sleepless night the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since my boys were infants, and boy, can I feel it! I don’t even know when we moved from “Can you have your mom to call my mom to see if you could come over?” to “Dude, do you want to hang out today?” but here we are. Parenting teens is awesome and terrible and everything in between. You don’t have to haul them places anymore; they can stay home by themselves. They can feed themselves, they sleep through the night, and are able to get into the car without help. On the other hand, their vocabulary shrinks to pitiful five phrases: “yes”, “no”, “fine”, “I guess”, and “I’m starving”, their sense of smell gets seriously impaired (why else would they be completely happy in a room that stinks like gym socks and wet dog combined?), and, oh yes, they can get into the car without help. And drive off. Anywhere they want. And you can’t do anything but bite your nails waiting till they finally decide to come back. Because they’re starving, of course.

When you get to this stage, you’ll hear your parents coming out of your mouth a lot. The phrasing, intonation, the whole deal. The first couple times it might surprise you, but you’ll get used to it pretty quickly, and there will be moments when you’ll just be glad to have something memorized that you can use in a time of need. Because you know that otherwise you’d yell out utter something much-much worse. (And just in case you’re wondering, when presented with the “Everybody’s doing it!” challenge, you will counter with that hated jumping-off-the-cliff phrase you’ve promised yourself to never use with your kids.)

Anyway. On Saturday three big-footed, voice-cracking and pizza-loving almost men stormed into my house, and after about an hour I was ready for a vacation somewhere far-far away 🙂 But since that wasn’t feasible, I did the next best thing, and barricaded myself in the kitchen. And this is the result: Sweet and creamy cheesecake bars with bright strawberry glaze. I love this recipe for cheesecake bars – they are extremely easy to make (no need to bake them in water bath, so you don’t need to worry about wrapping the pan in tin foil and obsess about water ruining your cheesecake), they’ve never-ever cracked up on me, are easy to cut into perfect portions (just the right amount of cheesecake without the guilt!), and you can totally make them gluten free if you buy gluten-free cookies for the crust. You can also vary them by the seasons, and pour either chocolate or caramel over the top – do whatever you feel like, and they will be delicious every time. I picked fresh strawberries from the market, added some lemon juice and lemon zest in the batter, and made lip-smackingly good strawberry glaze to pour over the top. A couple teaspoons of gelatin helped the glaze to firm up so I was able to get a nice clean cut for the pictures, but if you don’t care about that, you could just use a store-bought strawberry jam. Either way, to me strawberries say spring, and the combination of a chocolate crust, lemon and vanilla scented white cheesecake and the red strawberry glaze is a definite winner. A perfect little spring dessert!

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 Cheesecake Bars with Strawberry Glaze

(cheesecake bars recipe adapted from http://www.bakerella.com)

Crust:
  • 1½ cups ground up cookies (vanilla wafers, chocolate cookies, or graham crackers; I used Mary’s gone crackers GF chocolate cookies)
  • 4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 6 tablespoons (85 g, 3 oz.) unsalted butter, melted
Cheese Filling:
  • 3 packages (226 g, 8 oz.each) full-fat cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup (200 g, 7 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juce
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill Cup-for-cup gluten-free baking mix)
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 225 g (8 oz.) sour cream
Strawberry Glaze:
  • 2 cups fresh strawberries, sliced
  • ¼ cup (50 g, 1.7 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 1/8 cup lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon raspberry liqueur
  •  1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons Knox powdered gelatin
  • ¼ cup water
  • red food coloring (I used freshly pressed beet juice; it’ll give you a nice rich color, and you won’t be able to taste the beets at all)

+ ½ cup powdered sugar mixed with 3 teaspoons milk – for the swirl decoration (optional)

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Method:
  1. To make the crust, combine ground up cookies, melted butter, and brown sugar. Line a 13 x 9 inch (33 x 23 cm) baking pan (or oblong springform pan) with parchment paper, and press the mixture evenly into the pan. Set aside.
  2. To make the cheese filling, mix the cream cheese with sugar, flour, vanilla, lemon juice, and lemon zest until fluffy. One by one, add in the eggs, mixing well after each addition. Lastly add in the sour cream and mix just until combined. Pour the filling onto the crust and bake at 325 °F (162 °C) for about 30 – 40 minutes until the center jiggles just a bit. (I put another pan with water on the lower rack to have moisture in the oven).
  3. Remove the cheesecake from the oven and let it cool completely. (It may puff up a bit during baking, but it should settle back down as it cools.)
  4. To make the glaze, combine gelatin with water; set aside for about 10 minutes to let the gelatin absorb the water.
  5. Process strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice until smooth. Transfer the berry mixture into a saucepan and bring it to the boil. Cook the mixture until slightly reduced (to about 2 cups). Remove from heat, add in the liqueur and the bloomed gelatin (do not cook, or the gelatin won’t set.) Stir until the gelatin dissolves and then let the glaze cool to lukewarm/room temp, stirring occasionally.
  6. Just before setting, pour the glaze over the cooled cheesecake in the pan. (The cheesecake should have risen edges; do not pour the glaze over them.) Distribute the glaze evenly over the cheesecake and put the cheesecake into the fridge for about 2 hours to let the glaze set. Just before serving cut the cheesecake into bars.
  7. To make the sugar glaze, combine powdered sugar with milk to make a thick mixture. Transfer the sugar glaze into a sandwich bag, snip off the corner and decorate the bars.
  8. Refrigerate the bars, covered, for up to 3 days. I haven’t tried it, but I don’t think freezing them would work well – the gelatin desserts tend to get “wet” when defrosted.

Chocolate Cake with Strawberries and Cream

I’ve been on a strawberry kick lately. It just seems that I’ve been waiting forever for the rain to stop and the sun to break through the clouds, and now that the time has finally come, I resolved to enjoy it to the max. Among other things, it means I pretty much live on berries these days. I could easily go through a carton of strawberries in a day all by myself. I won’t, because there are always four of us fighting over them, but I absolutely could. I’m putting them in everything: from morning smoothies, oatmeal, and pancakes, through various muffins and cakes for the afternoon coffee break, to evening margaritas. (As they say, it’s important to know when to give up and have a margarita. For this mama, it’s been around seven p.m. lately. I’m just done for the day. “Put my feet up and have a margarita” done.)

What’s not to love about strawberries? They’re sweet and juicy, taste terrific, are powerhouses full of vitamin C, really healthy and good for you. Unless you mash them up and mix them with quart of heavy cream, as we do for this cake I suppose… but hey, what’s life without a little cream, right?! And I’m sure some of that vitamin C is still lurking under that creamy goodness somewhere!

I knew this cake would be a winner right from the start. The strawberry – chocolate combo is a classic that never disappoints. The cake base is light and airy, and the filling is rich and smooth, with distinctive pink color. The addition of gelatin firms it up a bit, and gives you a nice clean cut. All in all, a great dessert choice for any springtime celebration.

Go ahead and give it a try. Celebrate berry season! And please, don’t worry about the cream too much – after all, nobody ever eats “a cake”. Usually, you have a *slice* of cake – as a treat, but even more, as an experience, as a sweet moment in time with those you love. And as such, this cake is worth every its creamilicious bite.

Strawberry chocolate cake title pic

Chocolate Cake with Strawberries and Cream

Cake:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, grated
  • 40 g (1.5 oz.) butter
  • 8 eggs, room temperature, separated
  • pinch of salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 250 g (8 oz.) white sugar
  • 8 tablespoons water
  • 200 g (7 oz.) all-purpose flour
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 6 tablespoons raspberry liqueur for sprinkling the cake layers
Filling:
  • 1 kg (2 lb.) fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 200 g (7 oz.) white sugar
  • 2 envelopes (7 g, 2 ¼ teaspoon each) Knox powdered gelatin
  • 1 l (1 qt.) heavy whipping cream

+ powdered sugar, dark cocoa powder, fresh strawberries, pistachios

sliced strawberries

Method:
  1. To make the cake: Melt chocolate and butter; set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Line two 9×13 inch cake pans with parchment paper, and butter/flour the sides.
  2. Combine egg whites with salt and cream of tartar; beat until stiff. Combine egg yolks with sugar. Start beating, and gradually keep adding water. Beat until light and fluffy, about 10 minutes. Add the butter – chocolate mixture and the beaten egg whites.
  3. Sift together the dry ingredients, and add them to the chocolate – egg mixture. Mix just until combined. Divide the cake batter evenly between two pans. Bake until the cake springs back to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
  4. Transfer the cakes to a cooling rack, remove the parchment paper, and let cool completely.
  5. To make the strawberry – cream filling: Combine the gelatin with ¼ cup of water and set aside for about 10 minutes to “bloom”. Puree the strawberries with sugar in a blender. Liquefy the gelatin over a pot of boiling water, stirring constantly. Be careful not to cook it, or it won’t set.
  6. Let the melted gelatin cool until lukewarm but still liquid. While the gelatin is cooling, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Combine the gelatin with the strawberry puree, and carefully mix in the whipped cream. Chill the strawberry cream for about 10 minutes so it’s easier to spread.
  7. Sprinkle one of the cakes with 3 tablespoons of liqueur. Spoon the filling on the cake and smooth it out. Moisten the remaining cake with 3 tablespoons of liqueur, and place it carefully on the filling. Chill until the filling is set, at least 4 hours.
  8. To finish the cake: Dust the cake with powdered sugar. Place 1.5” wide paper strips in regular intervals on the cake. Dust the cake evenly with the cocoa powder, and carefully remove the paper strips. Chill the cake until ready to serve. Right before serving, decorate the cake with strawberries and pistachios.

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Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

I grew up on fairytales and still love reading them to this day. There is something very soothing in the predictable dynamic of the struggle between good and evil and in knowing that everything will work out in the end – the evil will be conquered and the brave heroes will live happily ever after.

There is this old Slavic tale about a wicked stepmother and her ugly daughter, who wanted to get rid of their beautiful and kind stepdaughter and stepsister, and so they sent her out in the middle of hard winter to bring them violets and fresh strawberries. They were sure she would perish under the snow somewhere, but being the good soul that she was, wandering in the woods she bumped into twelve strange men, who turned out to be twelve months of the year personified, and who helped her to accomplish her task. They thawed the snow on that little clearing, and she was able to pick the berries and flowers the old hag and her daughter back home sent her for.

I often think of this tale when I’m walking through the produce section of a supermarket in January. No, I don’t have to wade through deep snow, that’s true. We don’t do snow around here, just five solid months of rain and gloomy skies. But all I want at that moment is some fresh fruit to brighten my day (I can even do vithout the violets!), and the only thing I see around are heaps of boring potatoes, wilted carrots and rutabagas, with maybe some sad bruised apple here and there. What I wouldn’t do to meet some handsome fella, who’d turn out to be Mr. May, and hand me a pint of juicy strawberries right then!

But the time is coming, folks. Spring is in the air, as my stuffed-up sinuses are telling me! The watery, pale and sickly-looking berries from the supermarket will soon be a thing of the past, and we’ll be back at the farmers’ markets, picking up only the plumpest and most fragrant fruit for our cakes and pies. I just couldn’t hold off any longer, so today I’m offering you a little teaser. This is what your spring desserts will look like. Sweet, tender, moist and delicious. (Maybe you’ll be able to resist and won’t put as much filling in as I did, in which case your pie will be beautiful, too, and won’t crack as mine did. But honestly, I’m not one bit sorry. More cinnamon scented berry goodness!) Close your eyes and have a bite. I guarantee you’ll think you’re in a fairytale. And since we’re dreaming… who knows, maybe even Mr. May will show up 🙂

 Strawbery Rhubarb Pie

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Pie dough (makes two 9-inch pie crusts):
  •  3 cups (390 g) all-purpose flour, sifted
  • pinch of salt
  • ½ tablespoon sugar
  • 12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced
  • 1/3 cup cold shortening
  • ½ cup ice cold water
 Filling:
  • 1 ½ cups fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 1 ½ cups fresh rhubarb, thinly sliced
  • 1 ¾ cups granulated sugar, divided
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon framboise liqueur (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 3 tablespoons tapioca flour
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons butter, diced

+ 1 egg white for egg wash
coarse sugar for sprinkling the top crust

Empty pie dish

Method:
  1. To make the pie dough: Place the flour, salt, and sugar into a bowl of your food processor, fitted with an S-blade. Add the (cold!) butter and shortening and pulse couple of times until the mixture resembles peas. With the processor still running, add as much cold water until the dough forms a ball. Divide the dough ball in half, wrap it and refrigerate for at least 1 hour (dough can be made ahead and refrigerated, or even frozen).
  2. On a floured surface, roll out the first half of the dough to no more than ¼ inch (6mm) thickness to make the bottom crust. Ease the crust into the pan. Dock the dough with a fork. Brush the crust with a beaten egg white. Put the pie pan with the bottom crust into a refrigerator to chill while you preheat the oven to 425 °F (215 °C).
  3. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: Place the sliced berries into a bowl and sprinkle them with ¼ cup sugar. Let stand for about 10 minutes, and drain the accumulated natural juices. Add all the other ingredients for the filling except the butter to the strawberries and mix well.
  4. Roll out the other half of the dough into a circle a bit bigger than your pan. Pour the filling into the chilled crust, dot it with butter, cover with the top crust, and crimp to seal the edges. Brush the top crust with egg white and sprinkle with coarse sugar.
  5. Collar with foil and bake at 425°F (215 °C) for 15 minutes. Lower the temp to 375°F (190 °C) and bake additional 45 – 50 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbly. Let cool before serving.

Pie dish filled w/dough