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.

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Pear Upside Down Cake with Pomegranate Caramel and Walnuts

Last weekend marked our 21st wedding anniversary. Technically, we reached adulthood, and should conduct ourselves in line with our adult status… but honestly, especially when things don’t go the way we want them to and disagreements ensue, we can clearly see just how much that’s not the case. Those heated (and hated) squabbles are a perfect mirror to show us how immature we can still be and how much there still remains to learn. We certainly don’t possess the secret to a happy marriage… but that doesn’t mean we haven’t grasped anything in our years together or that we wouldn’t be growing. We are. Every day.

Marriage is hard work. It’s a relationship like no other, and will teach you more about yourself than you’ve ever wanted to know. It will show you just how much power you have over the heart of the other person and what can happen if you’re not careful. Seeing the pain in the eyes of your closest companion hurts… but knowing you’re the one who’s inflicted it, and that you’ll more than likely do it again hurts that much more.

If I know something after all these years, it’s that being happily married is not the same as living happily ever after. Rather, it’s knowing that someone has your back… realizing that you’ve been seen at your worst and you’re still loved. It’s having that safe place next to someone, and even more importantly, trying to be that safe space for someone else. Still learning that one… and feeling like the slowest student at times.

Sometimes it feels like a never ending one step forward and two steps back dance. It can feel tiring and even pointless trying your hardest to build something day after day, only to see it come crashing down a little later. But here is the thing – if you’re lucky enough to have someone who’s willing to pick up the pieces with you and start over, step by step, brick after brick – then after time, the walls will be back up again. And when the sun breaks through the windows, it lets you see just how tall they are and how far you’ve come. Sure, they’re not perfect… who knows, they may even be a tad crooked and there are cracks in them here and there… but it’s your home, home that you’ve built together, and it’s warm and cozy nonetheless.

To David: Thank you for staying in the ring with me.

*****

And since marriage has the power to turn your life upside down… :-),  we celebrated with this fall-ish upside down cake! Pears go phenomenally with walnuts, and the sweet caramel syrup soaked into the cake and together with the poached fruit and buttermilk made the cake super moist. I think next time I might try apples or plums in place of pears; the cake is versatile and I’m sure it’ll be super yummy either way!

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Pear Upside Down Cake with Pomegranate Caramel and Walnuts

Cake:
  • 230 g (8 oz.) all-purpose gluten-free flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon cardamom
  • ¾ cup finely chopped/coarsely ground walnuts
  • 113 g (4 oz., 8 tablespoons) softened unsalted butter
  • 2 large eggs, 1 separated, 1 left whole
  • 150 g (5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon fresh orange zest
  • ½ cup buttermilk
Pomegranate Molasses:
  • 2 cups (500 ml) pomegranate juice
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Pomegranate Caramel Syrup:
  • ¼ cup premade pomegranate molasses
  • 3 tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

+ 4 small Bosc pears, peeled, cored, and halved

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Method:
  1. First, make pomegranate molasses: In a small saucepan, combine all the ingredients, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens and becomes syrupy, about 3o minutes. Don’t let all the liquid evaporate; watch it closely at the end, so it doesn’t turn into caramel and burn. Let the mixture cool slightly, and transfer it into a glass jar. (The molasses can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator. Alternatively, you can use store bought pomegranate molasses).
  2. Prepare molasses caramel syrup: In a big shallow pan, combine all the ingredients listed. Cook to melt the butter and dissolve the sugar, about 2 minutes. Add the pears, cut side up, and cook undisturbed until they start to release their juices, about 3 minutes. Turn them over, and cook just until slightly softened, about 3 minutes more. Remove the pears from the syrup and let them cool slightly.
  3. Return the pan to medium heat and cook the liquid until thickened and syrupy, about 3 minutes, depending on the juiciness of the pears. Set the syrup aside.
  4.  Line a 9-inch (22 cm) round springform pan with parchment paper, butter and flour the sides. Preheat the oven to 35o °F (176 °C). Arrange the pears, cut side down onto the parchment in the pan. Pour the caramel syrup over the fruit and chill the springform pan while you prepare the cake batter to set up the syrup.
  5. Prepare the cake batter: Using an electric mixer, whip butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add in vanilla, orange zest, 1 whole egg, and 1 egg yolk. Lastly, slowly pour in the buttermilk and combine.
  6. In a small bowl, combine dry ingredients except nuts. Whip the egg white until firm peaks form. Fold the dry ingredients into the egg mixture alternating with the whipped egg white. At the end fold in the walnuts. The batter should be fairly thick.
  7. Pour the cake batter carefully over the pears in the pan and smooth out the top. Bake the cake in the preheated oven until the cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in the pan for 15 minutes.
  8. Run knife around edges and open the springform mechanism. Invert the cake onto a plate and carefully remove the parchment paper. Serve with cinnamon whipped cream if desired.

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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.

 

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.

 

Generous Christmas Cake (Štedrý koláč, Skladaník)

This weekend folks in many parts of Europe celebrate St. Nicholas’ day. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop from Myra in today’s Turkey, and a great Christian saint. Because of many miracles attributed to his intercession he was also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker. Growing up we used to shine our boots on St. Nicholas eve and place them by the window in hopes that St. Nicholas would leave small presents in them for us to awake to. It was without a doubt the only day out of the year when we willingly polished our shoes, which was without a doubt a miracle in itself! St. Nicholas checked his good and naughty list and rewarded each of us accordingly. As it was, the gift distribution in each boot was pretty much equal among me and my sisters and I bet all the other kids in the neighborhood: a couple of mandarin oranges, peanuts, some chocolate, and a wilted potato plus a scrap of coal to remind us to do better and try to stay out of trouble next year. I’m not sure why a tater was used as a “reward” for naughty kids (you can go ahead and punish me with potatoes every day!), but the coal was a symbol of hell in which we were to burn one day if we wouldn’t mend our ways. Just one example of the kind of positive reinforcement we grew up with! 🙂

St. Nicholas day marked the beginning of the Christmas season for us. In the coming days moms and grandmas broke out their rolling pins and cookie cutters and in kitchens and pantries started piling up all kinds of traditional cookies and sweets, often made according to generations’ old recipes. This cake is one of such Christmas desserts. There are a couple of things Slovak Christmas baking can’t be done without, namely honey, walnuts, and poppy seed, and in this cake you’ll find them all. It’s a sweet yeast cake, in which thin layers of dough alternate with layers of moist nut, poppy seed and prune filling. It is the kind of cake our grandmas used to make – simple yet scrumptious, full of perfectly balanced flavors. Making this cake takes some time, but the method is pretty straightforward: While the dough is rising, you make three kinds of sweet filling (some recipes call for a fourth additional layer of sweet farmers’ cheese), and then just roll out the dough thinly and layer it with the fillings. Finish with a coat of egg wash and bake the cake until baked through and the top is nice golden brown. Immediately after you take it out of the oven, brush it with some melted butter to keep it soft, cover it with clean towel and let it cool. I added some rum-soaked raisins to the poppy seed filling, and just the smell of vanilla, lemon peel, cloves, and cinnamon coming from the oven was enough to get me into Christmas mood!

Sometimes, cakes are not mere treats: Just like the shiny boots lined up for St. Nicholas, they can be mementos of childhood and markers of heritage, and as such, their tradition should be kept alive as long as possible! I hope you’ll give this cake a try when you’ll be in a mood for something a little different this Christmas season!

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Generous Christmas Cake (Vianočný štedrý koláč)

(adapted from http://www.mealujemto.sk)

 Dough:
  • 600 g (21 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 90 g (3 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 egg yolks
  • pinch salt
  • 300 ml (10 oz.) whole milk, lukewarm
  • 2 ½ teaspoon dry active yeast
  • pinch sugar
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
 Poppy Seed Filling:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) ground poppy seeds
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ cup milk
  • handful of raisins
  • ¼ cup spiced rum
  • ¼ cup water
Prune Filling:
  • 2 cups dried prunes
  • enough water to process the prunes to thick consistency
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
Walnut Filling:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) ground walnuts
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ cup milk

+ 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water – for egg wash
3 tablespoons melted butter – for brushing the top of the hot cake

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Method:
  1. Mix the dough: Combine 4 oz. lukewarm milk with pinch of sugar and yeast; let stand for 10 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. Meanwhile, place all the remaining ingredients for the dough except milk in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a hook. When the yeast mixture looks bubbly, add it to the bowl and start mixing the dough on medium speed, gradually adding the remaining milk. Knead the dough until soft, smooth, and elastic, about 10 minutes. If the dough seems too dry, add couple tablespoons milk as needed.
  3. Transfer the dough into a well oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm spot until doubled in volume, about 45 min. – 1 hour.
  4. Prepare the fillings: To make the poppy seed filling, combine water and spiced rum in a small bowl. Add raisins, set aside, and soak until the raisins are plump. In a small saucepan, combine poppy seeds, sugar, honey, lemon zest, vanilla, and cinnamon. Warm up the mixture over a low heat, adding as much milk as to make a smooth, easily spreadable filling. Add in the rum-soaked raisins. Transfer the poppy seed filling into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside.
  5. Prepare the walnut filling the same way as the poppy seed filling; set aside until needed.
  6.  Make the prune filling: Process all the ingredients in a high-speed blender until smooth; set aside.
  7. Assembling the cake: Line the bottom of a big and deep rectangular baking pan with parchment paper and butter the sides. (My pan is approx. 40 x 30 cm, a little less than the half-sheet pan). Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). When the dough is risen, punch it down and divide it into four equal parts. Keeping the rest of the dough covered, roll out one fourth of the dough into a thin 3 mm rectangle that fits your baking pan. Sprinkle a little flour on the surface and the rolling pin to prevent the dough from sticking if needed; I found it wasn’t necessary. Transfer the rolled out rectangle into the pan lined with parchment. Dock the dough with a fork and spread it with the poppy seed filling.
  8. Roll out the second portion of the dough and place it carefully on top of the poppy seed filling. Dock the dough with a fork and cover it with the prune filling.
  9. Roll out the third quarter of the dough, place it on top of the prune filling, dock it again with a fork and cover it with walnut filling.
  10. Roll out the last portion of the dough and place it on top. Dock it with the fork and brush it liberally with the egg wash.
  11. Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 40 – 50 min. until it’s baked through and the top is nice golden brown. Immediately after taking it out of the oven, brush the top with melted butter to keep the cake soft. Cover it with a clean dishtowel and let cool. Cut the cake into squares and serve.

 

 

Slovak Potato Dumplings with Plums and Marzipan

Life is full of rules: Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Don’t mix stripes and polka dots. Exercise regularly. Don’t wear socks in sandals. Never lick a steak knife. Most of the rules are there for a very good reason (the sock and sandal one especially!); but sometimes you just want to forget they exist and do things a little differently. I think that’s how the concept of breakfast for dinner came to be  – to give the responsible folk an opportunity to shake things up and bend the rules a little. Depart from the usual boring chicken and pasta and have a pancake or two instead.  Indulge. Just a bit.

Well, Slovak people took it one step further: Why  have  breakfast for dinner, when you can go straight for dessert?! Yep, you heard me. In Slovakia, you can legitimately eat dessert for dinner, and no one is going to bat an eye, much less to scold you for not eating your veggies. It’s freaking sugar addict paradise over there, I’m telling you.

To be honest, these dumplings definitely aren’t the recipe to make when you’re in a pinch. Boiling the potatoes, pitting the fruit, and rolling the dumplings does take some time.  But the good news is they freeze really well, and since your counters are already covered in flour and there is sticky potato dough stuck behind your fingernails, you might just as well make double batch. Or if you’re crazy kitchen maniac with slightly masochistic  tendencies like me, you can open an entire production line and make sixty dumplings at once when plums are in season. And when you’re done and the dumplings are neatly stacked in Ziploc baggies in the freezer, you can pat yourself on the back and enjoy a little Martha Stewart moment: Well done, Mother, keeper of the hearth and home, well done! And then… I don’t know… about a month later, on a day when you really-truly don’t have time to squeeze cooking in,  you open the freezer and find out, astonished, that the sixty dumplings are gone. Such is the life with teenagers. (Note to self: Next time, aim for a hundred.)

Now, when I said dessert, I didn’t mean some elaborate high end kind. These dumplings are quite simple and rustic. I think of them as cousins of Italian gnocchi, just bigger and sweet. The plums enclosed in a soft potato dough are wonderfully juicy,  and the marzipan that hides in each of them cuts down the tartness and makes the humble dumpling just a little more sophisticated. And the melted butter and generous dusting of ground poppy seeds/walnuts and powdered sugar on top? What can I say – go big or go home, right?! We Slovaks sure know how to indulge. Today we go big… and tomorrow we’ll hit the gym.

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Slovak Potato Dumplings with Plums and Marzipan

(makes about 15 dumplings, depending on the size of the plums)

Potato Dough:
  • 600 g (1 lb. 5 oz.) starchy potatoes
  • Pinch salt
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) cream of wheat/wheat farina
  • 150 g (5.5 oz.) all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons potato starch (optional)
  • 1 large egg
Filling:
  • 700 g (1 lb. 8 oz.) small fresh plums
  • 50 g (1 – 2 oz.) marzipan, diced

+ 4 tablespoons each ground poppy seeds/walnuts, powdered sugar, and melted butter

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Method:
  1. In a big pot, cook whole, unpeeled potatoes until soft. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and chill them for at least 2 hours before proceeding. (I usually cook the potatoes the night before).
  2. While the potatoes are cooling, carefully slit each plum so that you can remove the pit. Don’t cut all the way through, so that the two halves still remain together. Replace the pit with a piece of marzipan. Set the plums aside.
  3. Make the potato dough: Run the cold potatoes through a potato ricer or grate them on the smallest opening of the box grater. Transfer the potatoes to a big bowl, add all the remaining ingredients and mix, until everything comes together and forms a soft dough. (Alternatively, you can mix the dough in your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.)
  4. Making the dumplings: Tear off uniform portions of the dough, just big enough to cover each plum. Make sure to enclose the entire plum in the dough. Roll the dumpling between your palms to make a nice smooth ball. It’s important to work somewhat fast while making the dumplings, because the potato dough gets stickier as the time goes on. To combat the stickiness, use a little more flour/farina as needed.
  5. In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer. With a large spoon, one by one carefully lower about six dumplings into the water. Stir once to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot, and cook until the dumplings rise to the surface, 5 – 7 minutes, depending on the size of the dumplings.
  6. With a slotted spoon, remove the dumplings from the pot and transfer them to a big shallow pan. Brush them with a little butter so that they won’t stick together and continue cooking the remaining dumplings in the same way.
  7. Serve hot with more melted butter and a generous dusting of poppy seeds or walnuts and powdered sugar.
Note:

If you wish to freeze the dumplings for later use, flash-freeze uncooked dumplings on a tray lined with parchment paper, and when they’re frozen, transfer them to heavy-duty freezer bags. When ready to use, cook the dumplings from frozen same way you would cook fresh. They will just take a little more time to cook compared to the fresh ones. You can also freeze already cooked dumplings, just make sure to let them cool completely before flash-freezing on a tray. If I do that, I flash-freeze them on a paper tray, and when they’re frozen, I stick the entire tray into a Ziploc. Then you can either gently steam them, or just nuke them in the microwave.

To make the dumplings gluten-free, replace the all-purpose flour with your favorite gluten-free flour mix and instead of the wheat farina, use hot rice cereal or finer cornmeal. (I haven’t been able to find fine rice cereal and usually just run the coarse-ground cereal through my Vitamix to make it finer.) The gluten-free dumplings are just a bit more sticky than the regular ones – nothing that couldn’t be helped by a little more melted butter! (I haven’t tried to freeze the gluten-free version, though.)