Spiced Honey Plum Cake

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

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

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

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Spiced Honey Plum Cake

Yeast Dough:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) all-purpose flour (or bread flour)
  • 50 g (1.78 oz., ¼ cup) granulated sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 50 g (1.78 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 150 ml (5 oz.) whole milk, mixed with 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1.25 teaspoons active dry yeast
Filling:
  • ¼ cup each  ground almonds and cookie crumbs
  • 4 cups Italian plums, pitted and quartered
  • scant ¼ cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon garam masala
Streusel  Topping (optional):
  • 15 g (2 tablespoons, 1/8 cup) all-purpose flour
  • 15 g (2 tablespoons, 1/8 cup) powdered sugar
  • 15 g (0.5 oz.) cold butter, cubed

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

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.