Monday, September 21, 2015

The new best-ever Jewish Honey Cake, sinkholes and all

Last fall, I made a wonderful honey cake for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I was attempting a low-sodium adaptation of a recipe by the great food writer Claudia Roden. To my surprise, it turned out to be the best honey cake I had ever made.

This year, I have a new candidate: Last year's recipe, made the right way!

A few weeks ago, I decided to make that wonderful honey cake again, with a few changes. The biggest one: regular leavening instead of the low-sodium adaptation. Instead of last year's plain cake, I took Roden's suggestion and added some walnuts and dried fruit. (I used cranberries instead of raisins.) As before, I used brown sugar instead of white, increased the spices, and used orange juice along with coffee. One unplanned change: half olive oil, because I ran out of vegetable oil. Finally, to save time, I baked the cake in three small loaf pans instead of a single large springform pan.

At first, the loaves rose nicely. But somewhere along the line, that dark liquid mass heaved, rolled, and fell. When I removed the honey cake from the oven, each loaf had a deep crack in the middle.  Actually, it looked more like a crater. Or like those sinkholes ("ponikve") that are common to the karst landscape in the region of Slovenia where my ancestors once lived.

I was baffled. Why had my honey cake risen so well last year, despite the always-risky substitution of those less-potent low sodium leaveners?  I didn't have time to fret about it, because I had to rush off to a Cajun music gig up north, at a winery in the hills of Napa county.

That night, we decided to try the honey cake, even though it had aged less then ten hours.

To my surprise, those misshapen slices were delicious! They were moist. Fully cooked in the center, too. The flavor was deep, dark, and tangy. The nuts and dried fruit were a fine addition. The olive oil seemed to add depth.

My husband thought it was the best honey cake he had ever tasted.

I did a little research and soon learned that sunken honey cakes are a problem for many people--even the popular food blogger Smitten Kitten.  She had also followed the honey cake recipe of a well-established Jewish baker. Her loaves were as cratered as mine.

Although it seems counterintuitive, the most frequent cause of sunken cakes is over-rising, often because of too much leavening. Smitten Kitten discovered her honey cake did better when she reduced the baking powder.

Curious, I went back to the original Claudia Roden recipe. Oh-oh. I had made an error, when I included her "regular leavening" instructions in last year's post. Roden called for 2 teaspoons of regular baking powder and 1/2  teaspoon of baking soda, but I had reversed it in my blog post.

Mystery solved!  I had followed my own misdirections and used 2 teaspoons of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder. No wonder my honey cakes were over-leavened.

I have corrected the error in last year's blog post and in the recipe below. But it is hard to go wrong with this forgiving recipe.

Dober tek!

And, if you are celebrating, Happy New Year.

Best-ever Jewish Honey Cake  (adapted from Claudia Roden)

2 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oil (I used half olive 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
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
pinch of salt
1/2 cup walnuts, broken and 1/3 cup dried cranberries (optional)

(Low sodium option: use 4 t. low sodium baking soda and omit the salt.)

First, prepare pan. Line a 9-inch spring form pan with foil, then oil and dust with flour. Or use three small loaf pans, 3 x 7 inches. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

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

In a small bowl, toss walnuts and cranberries (or raisins, the more traditional choice) in a little flour to coat. 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. Finally, fold in the optional nuts and cranberries.

Pour batter into prepared pan(s). Bake at 350 degrees until top is firm and springs back when touched, about 45 minutes for small loaf pans for 1 hour and 15 minutes for a large spring form pan. Let cool on a rack. When cool, wrap in foil. If you can, wait at least a day or two before slicing and eating.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Belokranjska Pogača, Slovenia's answer to focaccia

Belokranjska pogača is one of Slovenia's official EU-protected specialty foods. Although the name means "pogača from Bela Krajina," it is often translated as "caraway flatbread" or "salted cake."

When I first spotted this delicacy on the official Slovenian tourist website, here, I wasn't sure what all the fuss was about.Yeast-raised flatbread is hardly unique to Slovenia. Many Balkan countries have their own versions of pogača (poe-gotch'-a). So do Italians, who call it by a more familiar name: Focaccia.

But then it came up again, in my Slovenian language class. In the spring, we were studying the food traditions of the Dolenjska region, a rural area south of the capital that was the original home of my own ancestors, along with many other Slovenian immigrants in the early 1900s. And there it was again, on a list of regional food specialties. (Bela Krajina, the "official" source of the bread, is a smaller region that borders Dolenjska.)

Now I was intrigued. I decided to give this Slovenian-style focaccia a try.

What makes Belokranjska pogača unique? The yeast dough itself is straightforward: flour, salt, yeast and water, with a touch of oil and sugar. But there are very precise specifications for the formation of the loaf.

Here's the official word from the Slovenian government:

Belokranjska pogača
Bela krajina flat bread

Belokranjska pogača is a type of flat bread and is produced according to a unique recipe. It is round with a diameter of approximately 30 cm. In the centre it is 3 to 4 cm thick, thinning to 1–2 cm at the edges. With oblique lines, it is incised into squares with an approximate distance of 4 cm, coated with a whisked egg and topped with cumin seeds and coarse salt crystals. When baked it is broken along the incised angled lines rather than being cut and is best served warm.

from Slovenian Protected Agricultural Products and Foodstuffs, a government publication


There are a number of recipes available on the Internet, with just a few small differences among them. Should the yeast be proofed before the dough is mixed? Should the topping be limited to coarse salt, or is it better to add caraway seeds? Or cumin seeds?

For my first attempt, I opted for proofing the yeast before making the dough. I sprinkled the entire loaf with coarse salt, and then I added some cumin seed on one side. Unfortunately, because of a small miscalculation, I made the circle of dough too small--just half the specified diameter!

The result was a round, high loaf that looked beautiful. Inside, the bread was moist and tasty, with a coarse grain. But it certainly wasn't a flatbread. It was too thick to break, so I had to slice it.

It was a lovely country-style loaf of white bread.  But not up to European Union standards for Belokranjska pogača.

For my second attempt,  I made the dough with the much faster "all in one bowl" method. I was careful to follow precise measurements, so I ended up with a thin, large circle of dough that was exactly 30 centimeters across. For the topping, I used a mixture of coarse salt and caraway seed over the entire loaf.

This second pogača came out just right. Pretty enough, I thought, to appear on one of those official government websites. It broke into squares easily and made a tasty accompaniment to a nice bowl of mineštra.

The verdict? I enjoyed the lightness of the first loaf, even it wasn't quite the flatbread I was expecting. Partly it was the rounder shape, but I think proofing the yeast made a difference. I liked all three toppings, although cumin was certainly the most unusual.

I will certainly make this again. I will stick to proofing the yeast, even though it adds an extra step.

I might also aim for an in-between thickness. A compromise between my first two loaves.

I realize this might be breaking with tradition. But I doubt the  EU pogača police will bother me in California.


Belokranjska Pogača

500 g flour (about 4-1/4 c)
1 T salt
1-1/2 t. sugar
1 package dry yeast
1 T oil
350 ml lukewarm water  (just under 1-1/2 c)

For topping: 1 egg, coarse salt, cumin or caraway seed

First, prepare the dough.

The easy way: Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Make a well in the center, add the oil and water. Mix until you have a soft dough that is not too sticky to be kneaded.

The better way: Warm a little of the water (about 50 ml) in a small bowl and stir in part of the sugar.  Add the yeast and allow it to proof. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture and the oil. Mix into a soft dough as above.

After mixing the dough, knead until it is smooth and not sticky. Place in an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for thirty minutes.

After rising, punch down dough and place on an oiled baking sheet or other flat surface. Pat and stretch it into a circle that is about 30 cm (12 inches) across. It should be 1-2 cm thick in the middle and a little thinner at the edges. Slice the dough into squares, using diagonal lines that are about 4 cm apart. Brush with beaten egg. Sprinkle with coarse salt and cumin seed or caraway seed. If desired, let rise briefly again before baking.

Bake in an oven that has been preheated to 400 degrees F (200/220 degrees C) for 25 to 40 minutes. Let cool. To serve, break into squares.  Best served warm.