Friday, October 11, 2019

Little Honey Cakes for the Harried (Microwaved in a Mug!)

I have never been tempted to make one of those microwaved mug cakes that have become so popular.

But this year the Jewish holidays crept up on me, and I found myself searching for a last-minute version of the traditional honey cake I make every year and continue to tinker with. The Internet offered up one suggestion that surprised me: an applesauce-honey cake in a mug, for those who would be celebrating the Jewish New Year alone.

Well, I wasn't alone--and I am something of a purist when it comes to traditional Jewish honey cake. So at first I dismissed it. But I was feeling pretty harried. Our washer had just been fixed after a two week ordeal and now we were facing power outages in the SF Bay Area. On top of that, my husband and I were getting set to leave for our third trip to Slovenia in just a few days, so I didn't want to create leftovers. A fast mug cake for two started to look more appealing.

So I made the reluctant decision to jump on the bandwagon. There were plenty of honey mug cake recipes available. Most of them were just like this one, which includes some nice photos. Oddly, not even the applesauce-honey version that was explicitly aimed at the Jewish holidays included any of the spices that I consider a hallmark of a traditional honey cake.

So I made a few changes to what seemed to be the standard recipe. I added some traditional honey cake spices: cinnamon, cloves and ginger, along with some vanilla. I also ended up adding an extra tablespoon or two of flour. The batter seemed too runny without it, perhaps because I had used an extra-large egg. And I wanted to be sure the finished product would have the texture of  a cake rather than the soft/sticky/gooey pudding some of the bloggers described.

I also took the suggestion of one online baker and divided the batter into two custard cups instead of the larger mug:

I was very skeptical--and apologetic when my husband discovered what I was doing. But this was really good. Even he liked it!

In both taste and texture, this little cake came much closer to the traditional version than I could have imagined. It was very rich--and light. I served the honey cake in little slices, as you can see from the photos. Unlike the traditional loaf, it tasted good after a short period of cooling--and just fine after a night in the fridge.

A microwaved honey cake will not brown and it will never have the deep, slightly caramelized flavor of one that is conventionally baked. So I figured that the next time I tried this, I might deepen the flavor by using darker honey and perhaps a little molasses to replace part of the brown sugar. I might also cut the sugar, since the cake was quite sweet.

(Update: two days later, I decided to try that first recipe I had found. Along with the applesauce, it involved a few other key differences: no added fat, less sugar--and baked in a single mug. It came out like a dense and rubbery hockey puck! So I recommend sticking to the standard recipe, including the small changes I made here.)

To those who are celebrating: Happy New Year!  L'Shana Tova!

Honey Cake in a Mug

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons honey
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
5 tablespoons flour, more if needed.
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of ginger and cloves
pinch of salt

In a small dish, melt butter in microwave. Add honey and beat with a fork. Add egg, brown sugar, and vanilla and mix well. Scoop flour into a measuring cup and mix in baking powder and spices.
Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until smooth, adding another tablespoon of flour if mixture seems too liquid.

(Alternative approach to mixing favored by many: Just dump it all in a mug and mix! I haven't tried it this way.)

Pour batter into two lightly greased ramekins--or a single mug if you insist--and place parchment paper on top.  Microwave for 90 seconds and check cake Microwave for an additional 50 or so seconds until cake is firm.  Let cool on a rack and unmold.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Šarkelj (Slovenian Gugelhupf) for the Fourth of July!

A Fourth of July celebration might seem like an unlikely occasion to introduce a new Slovenian dish. But our annual neighborhood gathering is a perfect opportunity to do just that. For one thing, a potluck is always low-risk. And what are the chances that someone else of Slovenian heritage will show up and weigh in on the merits of my latest ethnic cooking experiment?

I have done this twice before, with mixed results.The first time, I made a successful debut with the multilayered phyllo delight known as Prekmurska gibanica. The next year's offering, an unusual Slovenian cheesecake, sounded good on paper, but it emerged as a soft pudding encased in a tough buckwheat crust.

This year, I didn't decide until the morning of the Fourth of July that I wanted to come up with a Slovenian dessert to bring to the gathering. So my choices were limited. This dessert had to be ready by afternoon. And, since the stores were closed, I had to make do with ingredients already at hand.

I also wanted to use my Kitchen Aid stand mixer, the Christmas gift I was still figuring out how to use.

I found the perfect choice: Šarkelj ("Shark-el"), the Slovenian version of gugelhupf. I had been curious about it ever since I discovered this strange outlier in the "potica" section of the vintage cookbook that launched my ethnic cooking project: Woman's Glory, The Kitchen. It was the first in a series of cookbooks published by the Slovenian Woman's Union of America (know today as the Slovenian Union of America.)

Gugelhupf (sometimes called "kugelhopf" or "bundt cake") is the familiar brioche-like sweet yeast bread with the cylindrical round shape. It is popular throughout Central Europe, as well as in France. The ingredients are simple but the preparation is not, because the rich yeast dough is too soft for be hand kneaded. Some of the recipes in my vintage cookbooks call for beating the batter-like dough with a wooden spoon for twenty to thirty minutes! So this is one of those dishes I might never have tried before I had a heavy duty stand mixer.

The recipe below closely follows two similar recipes: "Holiday Bread--Šarkelj" from the cookbook of the Progressive Slovene Women of America, and "Sharkel or Formcake" from Woman's Glory. Most of my changes were dictated by necessity. Low fat milk, since that is all we had in the fridge. A little oil to stretch the butter. Anisette and dried apricots, which provided an interesting taste alternative to the raisins and rum in the original recipe.

Thanks to my new stand mixer,  the entire process was fairly easy--especially compared to making potica! And my no-stick bundt cake pan worked like a charm! (I'd had bad luck in the past, when I tried to use it for baking potica.)
The result was a delicious, mildly sweet yeast cake, ideally suited for a special breakfast or brunch, or perhaps afternoon coffee or tea. It looks impressive, too, especially with a sprinkle of confectioners' sugar and some fresh berries on the side.

The šarkelj seemed to be well received at the July Fourth potluck.

And guess who showed up at the end? Some new neighbors, a nice young couple and their baby. The mother turned out to be a Northern Minnesota native with Slovenian-Finnish roots!

Šarkelj ("sharkel") or Slovenian Formcake or Gugelhupf

1 package dry yeast (original recipes call for cake yeast)
4 tablespoons lukewarm milk
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
grated rind of 1 lemon
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cream or milk
1 tablespoon rum, brandy or other spirits
optional: 1 cup raisins or other dried fruit

(I used used anisette and chopped dried apricots)

First, make a sponge: In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in milk. Mix in flour and sugar.. Set aside to rise while preparing the rest of the dough.

In a large bowl (or the bowl of your stand mixer) cream butter and sugar. Mix in the beaten egg yolks and lemon rind. Then add the yeast mixture and mix well. Combine flour and salt and add to bowl, alternating flour mixture with cream or milk and rum. Mix well. Beat dough, following one of the two methods below. Add dried fruit at the end.

The traditional mixing method: Beat the dough with a wooden spoon for 20-30 minutes until dough is smooth and mixture leave spoon.

The modern method:  Use a stand mixer, and follow the directions for speed and timing that come with your model. It will take less time, probably 5-10 minutes.

Pour dough into a well-oiled Bundt cake pan. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double. Bake at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes. Let cool before removing from pan. If desired, sprinkle with confectioners sugar.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Poppy Seed Apple Cakes

I first tasted this unusual sweet last May, at a party at San Francisco's Slovenian Hall. It was the end-of-the-year celebration for our Slovenian language class. And also, as it would turn out, the last year of study with our much-loved teacher Mia Rode.

For the class potluck, I prepared a tasty "grade A potato salad" with a recipe for krompirjeva solata from our textbook. But the most intriguing contribution came from a young Slovenian man who was engaged to one of my classmates. She proudly passed around a pan of dark moist squares that looked just like American brownies. My classmate shared her fiancé's secret: The only chocolate was in the frosting. The cake itself was made of apples and poppy seeds. "You'll hardly notice," she assured us.

Since I happen to love poppy seeds, I was relieved that I did notice that familiar musky flavor as soon as I bit into one of the squares. The rich chocolate frosting wasn't even necessary. If anything, it was a distraction from this delicious and unusual cake.

A few days later, I went searching for a recipe. I hadn't even thought to ask my classmate what this unusual dish was called. For that matter, I wasn't even positive it was Slovenian in origin.

I found two examples online that seemed similar to what I had tasted at the Slovenian Hall. The first turned up on a YouTube cooking channel belonging to a Hungarian woman named Magdi. She cheerfully demonstrated a dish she called "easy poppy seed apple cake." By searching Kulinarika, the Slovenian language cooking website, I discovered a similar sweet, with a long name that translated roughly as "juicy little moons with poppy seeds (or walnuts)."

The two recipes called for similar ingredients: flour, sugar, apples, poppy seeds, eggs, and oil. The only real difference was that the Slovenian version used more eggs and apples, while the Hungarian recipe added sour cream, along with a little rum and lemon rind. The Slovenian recipe was also a more elaborate in the preparation and presentation: Separated eggs, a chocolate frosting, and little cut-out crescent shapes instead of squares.

Both recipes used a cooking gimmick that seems to have caught on lately: Using identical measures (or multiples) of most of the key ingredients. For the Hungarian woman, the magic number was one. One cup of each dry ingredient, 1 cup of sour cream, 1 egg, 1 apple, and so on.

The Slovenian recipe also used 1's. But there was a catch. The measuring unit of choice was a  jogurtov kozarec (j.k.). A yogurt glass.

It appears that simple cake recipes based on yogurt containers are something of a fad, in Europe and beyond. Does anyone worry about the size of these containers? Eight ounces used to be standard in the US, but imported yogurt cups are usually smaller. And the proportion idea breaks down when it comes to counting up the apples and eggs.

The first time around, I decided to sidestep that tricky yogurt cup measure in favor of Magdi's more straightforward video recipe, presented in English, with familiar American measures and a casual "one bowl" mixing technique. It was good. And easy. I did like the Slovenian idea of little individual cakes, so I baked part of the batch in mini muffin tins.

But I still wanted to try that Slovenian recipe. I was happy to do the translation and the measurement conversions, but I needed some guidance with the yogurt cup problem. So I posed the question to the Slovenian Genealogy Group on Facebook, who are pretty tolerant of cooking questions. How much is a yogurt cup or glass, to a European cook? Their answer: 180-200 ml, which translates into a generous 3/4 cup.

I have made that Slovenian "yogurt cup" recipe three times now. It is a forgiving formula that always turns out well. It also keeps well.

Most recently, I served these intriguing little cakes to the small alumni group from the Slovenian Hall language classes that is now gathering regularly at my house in Berkeley. Mia Rode, our teacher for many years, is now an instructor at Stanford, where she is offering their first-ever Slovenian language classes. We are fortunate to have a new guide, a lovely woman named Miriam, also born in Slovenia, who is trying to help steer us in the direction of relaxed and confident conversation.

The recipe below follows the Slovenian recipe, with a few flavoring options from the Hungarian version that I have sometimes used. I have never tried the walnut version. And I really do prefer to leave the cakes unfrosted. Why gild the lily?

Dober tek!

Poppy Seed and Apple Cakes 

Adapted from a Kulinarica "yogurt glass" recipe for Lunice, or little moon cakes.

3/4 cup poppy seeds, ground 3/4 cup flour 3/4 cup sugar 3/8 cup oil 3 eggs, separated 3 large tart apples, grated 1/2 teaspoon baking powder.

Optional flavor additions: grated lemon rind, a little rum

Frosting: chocolate, margarine, milk. (No further directions given in the original. Consider it optional!)

Although the original Slovenian recipe does not specify ground poppy seeds, many other recipes--including the Hungarian one--do. Most cooks believe this improves the flavor and texture. You may be able to purchase ground poppy seeds, but it is easy--and fresher--to do it yourself with a coffee mill. If you need instructions, go here.

Beat the egg whites and add sugar, beating until glossy. Add the egg yolks and oil and mix. Combine flour and baking powder and fold in, along with the poppy seeds. Gently fold in apples. Pour batter into 1 or 2 oiled rectangular pans or, if desired, a mini muffin pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes for muffins, 25-30 minutes for a larger cake.  

When the cake cools, cut into squares. Or, to make pretty little moons, use a drinking glass to cut into crescent shapes, as in the photo above.

The original recipe calls for a chocolate frosting but I think it tastes better without.

You can substitute ground walnuts for poppy seeds--but why bother?

Friday, February 1, 2019

The New Improved Slovenian Potato Bread: Krompirjev Kruh

I first made potato bread more than six years ago, toward the end of 2012, my inaugural year of Slovenian cooking. It was part of my quest to recreate the homemade white bread of my grandmother, who never used recipes.

My first attempt, early in that year, had been based on a recipe for white bread ("beli kruh") in one of my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks. The ingredients were standard, although the process was somewhat lengthy: an initial sponge, followed by three more risings. The result was pleasant but ordinary. Nothing like what I remembered.

Toward the end of that year, I decided to try again. I remembered an offhand remark my mother had made: her mother sometimes used potato water in her bread. Maybe that was the secret! I decided to look for Slovenian potato bread recipes and found a promising one, in a recipe collection by a well-known Slovenian American radio personality in Cleveland named Alice Kuhar. She called it "old-fashioned potato bread" or krompirjev kruh. It was pretty good but--as my mother pointed out--it couldn't compare to her mother's. She was right. It was a little dry and almost too airy, with some very large air holes. But at least I was on the right track.

My mother (on the left) with her mother and brothers, ca. 1930 in Cleveland

Just after Christmas, I decided to try that old-fashioned potato bread one more time. Ironically, the trigger was the addition of a very high-end appliance to my kitchen: a sleek new KitchenAid. It was my very first stand mixer, a gift from our older son and his girlfriend. I had been secretly wanting one for a few years, although I hadn't told a soul.

But I have to admit it: I was intimidated by that imposing lime green machine. And a little ambivalent, as you can see in the photo below. I worried that it might be cheating to use a big fancy machine for what I thought should be a hands-on experience. But then I reminded myself: Stand mixers have been around for a long time. My mother always had one, even if it wasn't a fancy model. Stand mixers were introduced for home use in 1919, not long after they were adopted by commercial bakeries, so it is possible that even my grandmother had one at some point. The lightweight portable electric mixers actually came later.

For my maiden voyage with the KitchenAid, I decided to start out with something relatively easy, a quick bread. I ended up with a delectable loaf made with over-ripened holiday gift pears and fresh ginger. Now I was ready to tackle a yeast bread. It seemed like the perfect time to try that potato bread again.

This time, I decide to look at some resources in Slovene. I found many online recipes for krompirjev kruh (potato bread.) Some were virtually identical to the Alice Kuhar recipe I had found five years earlier. Several had interesting twists, like molasses instead of sugar, as one food blogger suggested. I noticed that most of these Slovenian recipes specified a round or oval free form loaf. A few included a sprinkle of sesame seeds on top.

So I used my earlier recipe, cut down by half, as the foundation, with a few changes: A generous addition of molasses. Greek yogurt thinned with a little milk, rather than sour milk. Instead of bread flour, I used my standard all-purpose flour, which is organic and unbleached. (I doubt that my grandmother used special bread flour.) And even though I had warm memories of her crusty rectangular loaves emerging from well-used bread pans, I decided to forego that in favor of a hand-formed round with sesame seeds on top.

Once I got past the intimidation factor, I discovered the magic of the stand mixer, especially when it includes a dough hook. With the KitchenAid, the whole process was faster, neater, and easier to manage, especially with a slightly sticky dough like this one. And even with a fancy mixer, bread making still requires a certain amount of satisfying hand-kneading and shaping.

On to the real question: How did this new potato bread turn out?

Slovenian Potato Bread (krompirjev kruh), version #2

Maybe it was the changes to the recipe. Or maybe it was that new stand mixer. But the third time was definitely the charm. The potato bread was delicious! This time, it had a more even crumb, with a texture that was both velvety and substantial. If I closed my eyes, I could even imagine I was eating my grandmother's white bread, instead of the light tan loaf I had crafted.

I was sorry that I could no longer offer my mother a taste and ask her to weigh in. She died almost a year ago. It seems fitting that I am posting this recipe today, on February 1st. Her birthday.

I think she would have liked this latest attempt, although I am sure she would remind me that my grandmother's famous white bread was never darkened with even the faintest tinge of molasses, no matter how tasty it might be.

Now it occurs to me what the final step in this bread journey will be: Making this recipe with honey. That would retain the satisfying moist texture and slight sweetness, while restoring the familiar white color of my grandma's famous homemade bread.

Krompirjev Kruh (Slovenian potato bread)

Krompirjev Kruh or Slovenian Potato Bread

3/4 cup water
1 small or 1/2 medium potato, peeled and cubed
1/2 cup thinned yogurt (or buttermilk or sour milk)
2 tablespoons molasses
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon salt
3 to 3-1/4 cups unbleached white flour
1 packages dry yeast.

Peel and cube the potato and cook in boiling water in covered pot until tender. Without draining, mash the potato pieces in the cooking water.  Measure the mixture, adding more water if necessary so that the total amount comes to about 7/8 cup.

Put the mashed potato-water mixture back in the pot, along with the thinned yogurt, molasses, butter, and salt. Combine ingredients until butter is melted.  Heat or cool to allow mixture to reach 120-130 degrees--or warm but not hot.

Combine yeast with 1 cup of the flour in large mixing bowl. When the potato mixture is the proper temperature, add it to the bowl. Beat with electric mixer at low speed for 30 seconds.  Scrape bowl to make sure mixture is well combined.  Beat at high speed for 3 minutes.  Stir in as much of the remaining flour as you can with a large spoon. Then turn the mixture onto floured surface and begin kneading in the rest of the flour.

According to the recipe, you should knead in enough flour to "make a moderately stiff dough that is smooth and elastic," a process that should take 6 to 8 minutes.  Form the dough into a ball.  Place it in a large oiled bowl, turning over to oil the top. Cover and let sit in a warm place for  45-60 minutes, or until doubled.

Punch dough down. Turn out onto floured surface and knead briefly. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

Form the dough into a round, brush with egg white and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Let rise again in a warm place until almost doubled.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until done.  If loaf begin to get too brown, cover with foil for the last 15 minutes.


Note: Although these directions are based on old-fashioned hand-kneading, I did use my new stand mixer to make this version of potato bread. It worked beautifully! If you do use a stand mixer, follow the manufacturer's instructions for the proper attachment use, mixer speed, and timing. Low speed and shorter kneading times are usually the rule. Good luck!