Saturday, January 10, 2015

On the Trilece Trail: Three Milks Cake, Balkan-Style

Trilece or Three Milks Cake, from my California kitchen

Three milks cake is a seductive sweet with a mysterious past.

North and South Americans know it as tres leches ("trace lay-chess"), a festive celebration cake with Hispanic roots. But I first discovered it this summer in the Balkans, where it is called trilece or trileqe (the Albanian spelling) and pronounced "tree-leh-che."

My first taste of trilece came during the lavish breakfast buffet ("the Swedish table") at the Hotel Sirius in Prishtina, Kosovo's capital, where my husband and I were staying. When I spotted a platter of pale, caramel-topped squares among the dessert offerings, I expected crème brulée. Instead, I discovered an intriguing, hard-to-place sweet with an unusual texture, like a firm bread pudding, or perhaps a semolina custard. It tasted good, whatever it was.

The following day, our son's charming fiancée took us all to a lovely old Ottoman town in Albania called Shkodra. The itinerary included a stop at a local café, her favorite source for a special dessert whose name I didn't quite catch. When the café turned out to be closed, she kept walking until she found an unlikely alternative, a Frank Sinatra-themed venue called Bar Caffé My Way.

Bar Caffé My Way in Shkodra, Albania

The waiter presented us with a moist, caramel-drenched square, resting in a pool of milky sauce. I recognized it immediately. This had to be an upscale version of the hotel mystery cake.

I took a bite. This elegant version was even better. "What do you call this ?" I asked my future daughter-in-law, who was born in Kosovo.

"Trilece," she said. "Three milks cake. Tres Leches?" She was surprised I'd never heard of the Latin American version.

So that was my official introduction.

Trileqe (Trilece) in Shkodra, Albania

Back home, I was determined to reproduce this unusual Balkan sweet.

My research turned up a staggering number of recipes for tres leches cake, a dish that has spread far beyond the Latin American communities where it first became popular, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Celebrity chefs (Emeril, Alton Brown, Martha Stewart, The Pioneer Woman) all have versions, which follow a similar formula. A layer of plain yellow cake (usually a sponge cake) is soaked in sweet milk sauce, sometimes layered with a filling, and topped with whipped cream. 

The milk sauce is, of course, the key, and so simple it hardly qualifies as a recipe. Open up a couple of cans (sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk) and a container of fresh cream or half-and-half.  Add a little vanilla and and maybe some rum or brandy. Mix well. That's it.

Preparing to assemble the trilece

I found far fewer recipes for Balkan-style trilece, especially in English. The basic formula remains the same, although the sauce is usually alcohol-free. Powdered milk sometimes replaces canned evaporated milk.

So what difference, if any, is there between the American/Hispanic tres leches cake and the Balkan-style trilece? I would suggest that it comes down to two critical elements: topping and texture.

I finally tasted my first tres leches cake last month, at the birthday party of a friend (whose roots, coincidentally, are Croatian.) She had ordered it from a Mexican bakery in Oakland. It was a handsome, slightly moist cake, covered in a cloud of sweetened whipped cream.  As I had suspected, it was closer to a conventional American layer cake than the dessert I tasted in the Balkans.

Balkan cooks skip the whipped cream in favor a thin, rich caramel topping that contrasts nicely with the bland, milky sweetness of the cake. They also use a heavier hand with the milk sauce. Trilece ends up as a pudding/cake hybrid, with sauce pooling on the plate.

These two dishes are clearly connected. So where did three milks cake originate?

Well, it's complicated. Even though people are quick to identify the best local source, or claim to know the baker or restaurant that first introduced the popular sweet to their particular community, the ultimate origins always seem to be in the mysterious elsewhere. Sometimes an ocean away.

Several Balkan sources concede that the origins of trilece are probably Latin American, or at least Spanish. Many Latin American food historians point to European roots. In Florida, someone suggested that a restauranteur got his locally famous tres leches recipe from a European friend with a German surname. A café owner in Istanbul believes Albanian bakers get the credit. A Mexican food writer thinks the cake came from Nicaragua or Guatamala. A Latina friend from New Mexico believes the ultimate source must be medieval Spain, or possibly Sephardic Jews. 

(For more history, check out this well-done article from Culinary Backstreets, which looks at the roots of the trilece craze in Istanbul!)

Here is my favorite origin story, at least for the American version of the dish. Many food historians argue that it all goes back to a recipe that was printed on canned milk labels, starting in the 1940s, by one of the biggest South American distributors, Nestlé foods.

There is a certain whimsy to that story, true or not. But many recipes for three milks cake do seem to use that Nestlé milk can recipe as a starting point.  So that is where I began, when I made my first attempt at Balkan-style trilece, early in the fall, for a small dinner party. It was a success.

Sponge cake for trilece, first attempt, pre-sauce

Trilece, my first attempt

Trilece,  my first attempt

I have made four versions so far and have stuck closely to my original recipe, adapted from Nestlé, which you can find at the bottom of the page.

Once, I experimented with the sponge cake layer, by adapting a recipe from an Albanian source (more flour and sugar, plus a touch of baking powder.)  I have made the sauce with and without rum, and I have varied the amount I poured over the cake. I have used a few different caramel sauces for the topping. Along with my tasters (my husband, our son and his fiancée), I prefer the simple, egg-rich sponge cake in the Nestlé recipe, with as much sauce as the cake will absorb. The sauce tastes good with rum, although a Balkan purist would omit it. Half-and-half is a good substitute for whipping cream. Eggnog is not.

Below you will see photos of my most recent trilece, baked for a very special occasion: the engagement party of our son and new daughter-in-law. She was my chief taster as well as my cooking partner. Our joint venture in my California kitchen turned out to be the first time she had ever tried to make three milks cake.

It was the sweetest trilece of all. 

Cooking partners with engagement party trilece

Trilece, Made in California

Finally, the recipe!

Trilece, A Balkan-Style Three Milks Cake  (adapted from a Nestle Tres Leches recipe)

For the sponge cake:

6 eggs, separated
1 cup flour, sifted
1/2 cup sugar, divided

For the milk sauce:

1 can (14 oz. by weight) sweetened condensed milk
1 can (5 fl. oz. or 2/3 cup) evaporated milk
1 cup heavy cream or half-and-half 
1 t. vanilla
2 T. rum or brandy (optional; less common in the Balkans)

For the topping:

a medium jar of high quality caramel sauce (best choice: made with sea salt or burnt sugar)

First, make the milk sauce: Combine all the ingredients with a blender, a large shaker, or a mixer. Chill.

Next, make the sponge cake: Whip egg whites with half the sugar until stiff. Beat yolks with the other half of sugar for about five minutes, or until thick and lemon colored. Fold whites and sifted flour alternately into yolk-sugar mixture, being careful to avoid deflating.

Pour batter into one or two pans that have been greased and floured. Options include: one large rectangular pan, about 9 x 12 inches; a large spring form pan; or two smaller rounds or rectangular dishes. Bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes or until firm and slightly brown. Let cool on a rack for about ten minutes.

To assemble: After cake has cooled slightly, poke holes in top with toothpick or skewer. Pour sauce over the cake slowly, in several installments, until most of sauce is absorbed. Refrigerate extra sauce to add to cake later, if desired. Cover cake and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. (Check cake periodically. If it has absorbed all the sauce, consider adding more!)

About an hour before serving, remove cake from refrigerator and spread with a thin layer of caramel sauce. This is easiest if sauce is at room temperature. Drizzle sauce or drop in small spoonfuls over surface of cake, then carefully spread with a spatula to avoid tearing the cake.

To serve, cut cake in small squares. Extra sauce can be served on the side. To be extra-decadent, add a swirl of caramel sauce.

Cake can be enjoyed for several days if kept under refrigeration.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

New Potica Horizons, A Retrospective for 2014

Christmas Walnut Potica, December 2014

As another year of Slovenian cooking comes to a close, I have been thinking about potica. 

As usual, I will be making our traditional family recipe for the holidays. My expanded, step-by-step guide seems to be getting a particularly large number of visits this year. It remains the cornerstone of my own approach to this challenging Slovenian delicacy. 

But my potica horizons have been expanding this year, for a few reasons:  My growing collection of cookbooks, both American and Slovenian. My trip to Slovenia in the summer. And the spirited food-related discussions on a wonderful Facebook Slovenian genealogy group I joined last year.

I have finally realized something important: My beloved family potica style is not an approach that everyone favors. It is certainly not the the standard in Slovenia, where potica is often closer to bread than pastry. Paper-thin spirals of dough, sometimes pulled like strudel rather than rolled, seem to be a peculiarly American evolution, fueled by a certain competitive baking spirit among the women. My family's version of potica also appears to be favored in the ethnic communities of Northern Minnesota's Iron Range, where my own great-grandparents first settled, and where my grandmother was born.  

(An aside: In the early days of this blog, I used to write mostly about genealogy. See the "Family History" heading at the top of the page, if you would like to read some non-food posts:-) And if you are on Facebook, do consider joining our Slovenian Genealogy group!)

I have included some photos below, where you can follow my evolving potica style. I have been striving to have thinner, more even layers, in order to come closer to the standard set by my mother and my grandma. But the photos from the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco and the Ljubljana Farmer's Market show a potica with thicker layers and fewer spirals.

The moral: There is no gold standard. Most of us favor the potica we grew up with. That is probably as it should be.

I have also been reminded of a few important baking tips, regardless of the style of potica you hope to make. Most important:  The yeast dough (at least in most recipes) is rich, soft, and sticky. Don't knead in too much flour!  And if you make a nut filling (which remains most popular, in Slovenia and America) the nuts need to be finely ground. A food processor is a poor substitute, I have learned, for the old-fashioned hand grinder I bought last year.

I have learned a few new tricks, thanks mostly to the discussions in that Facebook genealogy group. To clean out the nut grinder, you can follow up with a few graham crackers, which can then be added to the filling. (As you'll see from the photo below, I used leftover Halloween Bunny Grahams!) Another idea I tried this year: after rolling up the potica, I cut off the doughy ends and shaped them into individual rolls. Finally, if you want to imitate the more elaborate pattern of some of the commercial bakeries (as in the photo below) simply coil a thin potica roll once or twice around itself in the baking pan. 

Commercially prepared American potica 

I continue my cautious experiments with filling. The foundation is still my family's uncooked honey-nut filling. I most often stick with tradition and use walnuts, although I sometimes substitute pecans or almonds. I have often wondered why most nut fillings are pre-cooked and recently read a possible explanation from one of my online genealogy friends: Some cooks believe that the slightly bitter taste of walnuts (which evidently bothers some folks) can be reduced pre-cooking, or at least an initial soak in hot milk.

My family has never used raisins, but they seem to enjoy the sprinkle of dried cranberries I started to add a couple of years ago.  Everyone but my mother likes my experiments with poppy seed and chocolate fillings. In the coming year, I will continue to explore some of the more intriguing variations I have been learning about. I might even try a peanut butter crumb filling, a uniquely American twist that some people swear by.

I have also learned that potica can survive an oven malfunction and a charred bottom crust. Just slice it off before serving! (I don't recommend this, however. Watch your oven and don't overcrowd it!)

From my kitchen to yours: Happy Holidays! Vesel Božič!

Christmas Potica ca. 2010 (walnut filling)

Christmas Potica 2011 (walnut filling with cranberries)

Christmas Poticas 2012 (chocolate, tahini-honey, and poppy seed fillings)

Christmas Potica 2013 (walnut filling)

Christmas Potica 2014 (poppy seed filling with cranberries)

Christmas Potica 2014 (walnut filling)

Potica Varieties,  Ljubljana Farmers' Market, Summer 2014

Vegan Walnut Potica, Ljubljana, Summer 2014

Potica served at Slovenian Hall in San Francisco, 2014

Christmas Potica 2014 (poppy seed filling)

Christmas Potica (with extra "buns") and  Scottish Shortbread, 2014

Making walnut filling for Christmas Potica 2014, with a few graham crackers added

Christmas Potica, 2014

Oh-oh! Burned Bottom, Christmas Potica, 2014

Monday, December 8, 2014

Slovenian Christmas Biscotti (Domači Prijatelj)

This is my latest experiment with domači prijatelj ("domestic friends"), otherwise known as Slovenian biscotti or mandelbrot. It is an adaptation of a traditional recipe that is perfectly suited for the winter holidays.  

After I returned from a wonderful trip to Slovenia in July, I was determined to perfect my recipe for domači prijatelj. I no longer had any doubts that this was a traditional sweet and not some recent import. The giant, modern Maxi Market near our studio apartment in Ljubljana had a dazzling array of food, both traditional and modern, including a couple of shelves of what had become my favorite Slovenian cookie. 

Back home, I returned to a couple of traditional recipes I had found online. This time, I resolved to follow the metric measures exactly, rather than use the imprecise formulas for converting weights to American volumetric measures. I also had a better idea, now that I had tasted the real thing, about the proper texture for the softer, single-baked version of biscotti that is most common in Slovenia.

From Ljubljana: Domači Prijatelj on the bottom and Medenjaki (Honey Cakes) on top

I was particularly intrigued by a fat-free, egg-rich recipe I found online, thanks to a Slovenian blogger named Dr. Filomena. She had posted an image of a hand-copied recipe from an 1877 cookbook called Novih kuharskih bukev ("New Cookery Beech.") 

This 1877 formula was easy to remember. Equal weights of flour, sugar, and chopped almonds (140 grams  of each)  and "a plate of chocolate" are mixed with "2 or 3" beaten eggs, lemon rind, cloves, and a few other spices that are hard to translate.

For my first attempt, I followed this old recipe closely, although I supplemented the chocolate with some dried apricots and cranberries (40 grams of each). It was good, and very close to the taste and texture of the domači prijatelj I had purchased in Ljubljana.  A simple cookie. Firm, but not hard or crisp. 

The second time, I used brown sugar instead of white and walnuts instead of almonds. I skipped the chocolate in favor of dried cranberries.  I also sliced the cookies very thinly and did a second baking to make them crisp.

This one was a winner, even if the flavors might not be traditional. The brown sugar-cinnamon-walnut combination reminded me of Christmas. And the very thin slices, baked until crisp, gave this simple, low fat cookie a kind of elegance that makes it especially suited to the holidays. 

The recipe below is for the variation I am calling Slovenian Christmas Biscotti.  But do feel free to experiment with different add-ins and flavorings, and to compare single and double baking. My previous post, which used a slightly different recipe, includes many variations to consider, along with somewhat more detailed instructions.

Dober Tek!

Slovenian Christmas Biscotti (Domači Prijatelj)

3 eggs
140 g (3/4 cup) brown sugar
140 g (1 generous cup) flour
140 g (1-1/3 cup) walnuts, chopped
a handful of dried cranberries (about 80 g)
1 t. vanilla
1 t. cinnamon

Note: feel free to substitute other nuts, dried fruits, or even chocolate, and to vary the flavorings.

Beat eggs and sugar until thick. Add extracts and cinnamon and beat. Fold in flour.  Stir in nuts and cranberries. Pour the batter into an oiled rectangular pan (about 7 x 9 inches) that has been lined with parchment. Bake at  350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, or until firm. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. 

Turn the cooled cake out of the pan. It will resemble a firm sponge cake or genoise. Cut it lengthwise into two pieces, then slice. For the more traditional Slovenian style, cut into slices that are about 1/2 inch thick and let cool on a rack. Or try this elegant twice-baked holiday adaptation: cut into very thin slices (under 1/4 inch) and bake for about ten more minutes or until firm. Let cool. Enjoy!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Savory Buckwheat Cheesecake, Plain and Fancy

This unusual savory cheesecake was adapted from a dessert recipe called ajdova zlevanka, from Janez Bogataj's The Food and Cooking of Slovenia. 

I had made the original sweet version of buckwheat cheesecake last year, for our neighborhood Fourth of July pie-baking contest. (For the details, go here.) The sweet cheesecake was not the winner I had hoped for. The filling, with my favorite tangy Russian farmer cheese as the foundation, was tasty enough, once it firmed up the next day. But that crust was tough and a little dry, probably because I had used too much flour. I resolved to make it again, paying more attention to the metric conversions for the crust. Perhaps I would try the intriguing savory variation mentioned in the cookbook, with an unsweetened filling that was seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper.

This year, I finally tackled the savory cheesecake. Twice. I couldn't resist adding a few vegetables to the bare-bones filling. The first time, I made a simpler and slightly healthier at-home dish, with an oil-based press-in crust and yogurt instead of sour cream in the filling.  This fall, I wanted to make a fancier dish to take to a party. So I stuck closely to the original rolled butter pastry, went back to sour cream in the filling, and added a few decorative cut-out shapes on top.

For the recipe and results, read on.

Savory Buckwheat Cheesecake (adapted from Janez Bogataj)


100 g white flour (3/4 cup, scant)
100 g buckwheat flour (2/3 cup)
1/2 cup butter
1 egg yolk, beaten
1-2 T. cold water


1-1/4 lb. farmer cheese or curd cheese (I used Russian-style farmer cheese)
3 eggs
1/2 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt, thinned with a little milk if necessary
1/2 onion, minced
1/2 red pepper, diced
2 small cloves garlic, minced
pepper to taste
salt or a salt-free substitute (I used a salt-free "herbes de provence"mixture)
2 T. flour
extra sour cream for top, if desired

For the crust:  Sift flours into a bowl. Cut in butter. Stir in egg yolk and enough water to bind the mixture. Blend lightly and form into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Roll out dough and line an 8-inch tart or quiche pan. Line pastry with parchment or foil and fill with rice, beans (or whole buckwheat!) to blind-bake. To make it extra-fancy, use the leftover pastry to cut into little leaf shapes. Bake the crust for 10 minutes at 375 degrees and let cool.  (Bake the little leaves separately, on a baking sheet, for 5-10 minutes.)

(For a quick crust: Use 1/3 cup of oil instead of butter, mix very lightly with a fork, and press into the pan. Skip the blind baking.)

For filling: Brown onions, red pepper, and garlic in a little olive oil. Set aside and let cool slightly. Mix farmer cheese and seasonings. Beat in eggs and sour cream or yogurt. Stir in browned vegetables. Sprinkle flour on top and fold in. Spread filling in pastry-lined pan. If desired, spread a thin layer of sour cream on top. If using the decorative pastry leaves, arrange on top. Bake at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes, until lightly set. Let cool to room temperature before slicing.

The result:  Both versions were delicious.  Savory buckwheat cheesecake works well as a vegetarian entree, a side dish or even as an appetizer. We found that it tasted even better the next day, served chilled. Ajvar, the popular Balkan red pepper relish, makes the perfect garnish.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mlinci Brei, Slovenian-Jewish Fusion

There wasn't much left in the package of  Ljubljana Farmers' Market mlinci we brought back from our July trip to Slovenia. Just a few sheets and crumbles. I had the perfect solution. Matzo brei for our weekend breakfast, with the Slovenian dried flatbread substituted for Jewish matzo.

Matzo brei is Jewish comfort food. It is traditional at Passover, but in many families it is a year-round favorite. The dish is simple: pieces of matzo are soaked in beaten egg and browned in oil or butter. It is often referred to as fried or scrambled matzo, which sounds more elegant than "mash" or "pulp," the literal translation of the German word "brei."

My husband pointed out that my timing was perfect, since that package of mlinci had just passed the expiration date!

In most matzo brei recipes, the matzo is softened in warm water before it is mixed with beaten eggs. But I skipped that step, because these Ljubljana mlinci were so thin. I just broke up the crispy sheets and added them to the beaten eggs. I skipped the salt but added a little cinnamon, a suggestion I found in one of my Jewish cookbooks, and scrambled the mixture up in melted butter.

Mlinci Brei (Matzo Brei with Mlinci)

4 eggs, beaten
2-4 sheets of mlinci, crumbled
cinnamon (or salt and pepper)
butter or oil for frying

Beat eggs with seasonings. Add crumbled mlinci. (If necessary, mlinci can be softened briefly in warm water and drained before adding.) Let mlinci soak in egg mixture for a few minutes. Heat butter or oil in skillet and add mixture.  Can be scrambled or cooked in larger chunks and turned. 

The result? Slovenian-Jewish fusion at its best. Matzo brei can be either savory or sweet. I took the sweet route and served the mlinci brei with Greek yogurt, fresh apples, and orange marmalade on the side.  Delicious!

Now I have a new challenge: To tweak my recipe for homemade mlinci, so it comes closer to the real thing!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Buckwheat Cake with Syrup (and a dash of Yugo-nostalgia)

This unusual buckwheat cake was the first new Slovenian recipe I tried after we returned from our July trip to Europe.

Months earlier, I had spotted the recipe in my cookbook collection. At the time, I dismissed it as a curiosity, but  now it looked more appealing. I felt nostalgic for the foods we had enjoyed during our recent travels and this recipe brought together two recurring and distinctive culinary threads: Buckwheat, a particular favorite in Slovenia, and syrup-soaked pastries and desserts, found throughout southeast Europe, but particularly in the Ottoman-influenced cuisines of Kosovo and Albania.

The source of the recipe is a fitting one: The Yugoslav Cookbook, a dated volume I discovered in the library of San Francisco's Slovenian Hall. It was published in 1986 by a Slovenian publishing house in Ljubljana, during the waning days of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Five years later, Slovenia would declare its independence, and the bloody unraveling of Yugoslavia began.

The book's author, Olga Novak-Markovič, explained her plan in the introduction: to feature typical dishes from all the republics and regions of Yugoslavia. But she wanted to present a portrait of a national cuisine, so she classified the dishes by type, rather than by ethnic origin. Her cookbook may have been a final homage to a multicultural vision of Yugoslavia that worked better in the kitchen than anywhere else.

For my adaptation of the recipe, read on.

Buckwheat Cake with Wine Syrup (adapted from The Yugoslav Cookbook)


1 cup + 2 T. buckwheat flour
2/3 cup sugar
5 eggs, separated
grated rind of 1 lemon


1 pint dry white wine
1-1/3 cup sugar (I used turbinado sugar)
cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
1 t. vanilla extract (original recipe calls for a vanilla pod)

Separate eggs. Beat whites and set aside. Beat yolks with sugar. Add lemon peel. Alternately fold in beaten egg whites and flour. Pour batter into oiled and floured springform pan. Bake at 325 for 35-40 minutes.  Let cool.

Mix syrup ingredients together and boil for several minutes. Although the original recipe doesn't call for it, I pierced the top of the cooled cake with the tines of a fork before slowly pouring the warm syrup over the top. Let cake cool to room temperature. Cut into thin slices and serve with fresh fruit if desired.

The result?  A rich, dense cake with a definite buckwheat flavor, balanced by the sweetness of the spiced wine syrup. (For a milder taste, just substitute white flour for part of the buckwheat.) This unusual dessert will appeal to serious buckwheat lovers. It also happens to be low-fat, low-sodium, and gluten-free.

Did this cake originate in Slovenia? Ms. Novak-Markovič doesn't say. But I believe it did. I have found a similar syrup-soaked cake, made with wholemeal flour, polenta, and walnuts, in a cookbook by the contemporary Slovenian cooking expert Janez Bogataj. There is also a recipe for a frosted buckwheat torte in one of my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks.  One thing is certain: this is an intriguing sweet from somewhere in the former Yugoslavia, and that is good enough for me!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Two Favorites for the Jewish New Year: Best-Ever Honey Cake and Murray's Kreplach, Revisited

This holiday season has brought new twists to two traditional Jewish favorites.  Murray's Chicken-Beef Kreplach has found an even wider audience. And I made my first low-sodium honey cake.

Murray's Chicken-Beef Kreplach

Big thanks to Barbara Rolek, the resident Eastern European food expert over at, for featuring Murray's Kreplach on her comprehensive and fascinating cooking site. You can find her story about my father-in-law's kreplach recipe here, along with many other excellent resources. I am happy to report that Barbara (unlike me) made it the ultra-traditional way, complete with schmaltz and salt!

This all came about when I discovered that Barbara, who is of Polish descent, is a distant DNA cousin of my Slovenian American mom--at least according to 23andMe, the genetic genealogy testing service we both used. It was a wonderful coincidence, since we already had connected around our overlapping culinary interests. Barbara includes "Slovenian Roots Quest" in her list of Eastern European food blogs. I have often consulted her site for help with Balkan food that is outside the Slovenian tradition, like her Serbian flatbread recipe.

You can find my original post about Murray's Kreplach here, and the low-sodium version I eventually prepared here. The next time, I may follow Barbara's example and try it--just once--with chicken fat and a touch of salt!

Honey Cake

Some people joke that honey cake, a traditional new year sweet served at Rosh Hashanah, is just like Christmas fruitcake: it lasts forever because no one really likes to eat it!  But I love a good honey cake and often experiment with new recipes. This year, I took on a new challenge: to come up with a low-sodium version. I decided to adapt a recipe I found in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Book of Jewish Food, by famed British food writer Claudia Roden, who grew up in Cairo's once-flourishing Jewish community.

Roden's book, winner of the 1996 James Beard award, is a standout for a few reasons. Her intelligent writing draws on considerable research, rich history and personal reflection. She was probably the first food writer to focus on the lesser known parts of the Jewish diaspora: the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, whose original homes were in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Roden's original recipe can be be found here. This style of honey cake or lekach is actually from the more familiar Ashkenazi tradition, which draws heavily on Central and Eastern European cooking styles.

To turn this dish into a low-sodium version, my first step (the easy one) was to simply omit the "pinch of salt" Roden suggests. The real challenge, as always, was in the leavening. She calls for baking soda and baking powder, both high in sodium. So I would have to substitute a low-sodium baking soda and then figure out what sort of acidic agent to add, in order to duplicate the effect of baking powder.

From past experience, I knew that figuring out exact quantities for the low-sodium substitute can be tricky. (The usual suggestion, to double it, isn't always sufficient.) It is also important to bake quickly once the ingredients are mixed, since low-sodium baking soda is single-acting.

Here are the changes I made to Roden's recipe:  I was generous with the baking soda. To give it an extra boost, I added two acidic ingredients, brown sugar instead of white and orange juice to replace half the coffee. To enhance the flavor, I increased the spices: more cinnamon and cloves plus some ginger added to the mix. I skipped the nuts, raisins, and orange rind to save time, but perhaps this also helped by eliminating extra weight.

Even honey cake devotees will concede that getting the right texture can be a challenge. The cake can be too heavy, too underdone, or too dry. Sometimes it inflates and deflates during baking and ends up with a big sinkhole in the middle. So I had plenty of worries about my low-sodium adaptation--especially when I discovered that I had forgotten to turn on the oven! I lost precious minutes waiting for the oven to heat up, while I watched the unbaked batter starting to bubble away on the counter.  Finally, I gave up and popped it in before the oven was fully heated.

For the recipe and the results, read on.

Honey Cake

Jewish Honey Cake or Lekach  (low sodium, adapted from Claudia Roden)

2 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oil
1 cup dark honey
2 T. rum
1/4 cup warm coffee
1/4 cup orange juice
2 cups white flour
1-1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. cloves
1 t. ginger
4 t. low sodium baking soda

(Higher sodium option:  2 t. regular baking soda and 1/2 t. baking powder, plus pinch of salt)

First, prepare pan. Line a 9-inch spring form pan with foil.  Oil and dust with flour.  Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, spices and baking soda. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Add oil, honey, rum, coffee, and orange juice. Beat until smooth. Add dry ingredients slowly to liquid ingredients, beating until smooth.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until top is firm and springs back when touched.  Let cool on a rack. When cool, wrap in foil. If you can, wait at least a day or two (or three) before slicing and eating.

Honey Cake

The result? This was the most successful honey cake I have ever made. It was moist and flavorful, with an intriguing flavor of burnt sugar.  I have never found a single "best" recipe for honey cake.  But this may be it.

I have no idea why this particular recipe worked out so well. Perhaps the foundation, Claudia Roden's recipe, uses slightly different proportions of the basic ingredients that are common to the many other recipes I have tried. Was it the imported wildflower honey from Germany?  Using a round cake pan instead of my usual loaf?  Whatever the mysterious alchemy at work, I hope it can be duplicated the next time I have an urge for honey cake.