cakes in ukraine fascinate me. and my taste-buds. every time i taste another one i rationalize my slow creep towards diabetes with the fact that it’s all for research. tasty tasty research. after one year in ukraine, and too many cakes tested to tell, it’s time to share my findings.
as we all know, cakes in america are often sheets, circles, 2-layered light, moist, sweet and fluffy bits of heaven. and while there’s variation in filling, frosting, form, they’re all pretty much the same. and you can be reassured in the fact that everyone else in america defines cake as the same too.
so when i left america and my boxes of pilsbury funfetti behind, i welcomed a world of wondrous new textures and tastes. the first cake i had was one my host mom and i shared for our birthday. a round chocolate cake purchased from roschen in what looked like a hat box. it was covered in a fluffy (what can be compared to twinky filling texture) chocolate frosting and was 5 layers of an airy waffly ‘cake’ (but to be more precise the texture of that green foam florist use — not that i’ve eaten that). ya, i realize my comparisons sound the least appetizing, but i’ve never experienced such crispy, yet soft, solid, yet fluffy, textures all at once in a cake. i was mesmerized.
i mean, i wasn’t in love with it the way i am a slice of funfetti with funfetti icing (how can you not love that), but it didn’t stop me from diving into a piece when ever it was served to me. if one thing can be said about ukrainian cakes, it’s layers. they love layers. nearly every cake that’s walked across my path has stoutly sported 6-8 thin layers. some crispy, others more dense and pancake like.
two of the most popular cakes in ukraine are medovik and napoleon. ‘торт медовик’ aka medovik torte (which translates as ‘honey cake’) is a layered cake i made over the summer with my neighbor and can often be found in the store to be sold by the gram. it’s batter is infused with honey and layered with a vanilla or an indulgent dulce de leche creme, topped with extra cake crumbs and drizzled chocolate. and, as if you needed more reason to like it, it tastes like honey gram crackers dipped in chocolate frosting. for obvious reasons, this is by far my favorite cake in ukraine.
and then there’s ‘торт Наполеон’ napoleon cake that was adopted by the russians from france. on a rare good day this little boneaparte can be found for sale in my village store and doesn’t last but a few hours. it’s not chocolate (sorry chocolate lovers), but it’s soft southern biscuit texture with eclair-like filling gracing each layer makes this white on white cake a pretty close runner up.
the process of making these cakes is like none other that i’ve ever encountered either. and certainly a little more work than pouring it all into a pan or mixing it from a box. the first time i made cake with my neighbor i was a little concerned when she poured an indiscernibly large amount of flour into the egg mixture. i foolishly thought for sure it was too much, but quickly realized the batter would be turned into more of a pie crust consistency, divided into sections, and then rolled out to silver dollar pancake thin sheets and baked. the thin cakey layers barely rise (only an 1/8 inch or so), are scored with a fork and smothered with a sweet but not too sweet cream.
while i have yet to try and make the crisp waffly cakes you find at the store, most of the cakes in ukraine are like this. well, with the exception of a non-layered one i learned how to make this summer (but i won’t mention that one right now because that’ll ruin my theory). so 99.9% of cakes in ukraine are like this.
my neighbor, and just about everyone in my village, knows how much i love to bake. so one day while visiting she gifted me a russian cake book she had, and said ‘happy baking’. while there are only about 4 photos, which aren’t labeled as to which recipes they even are, and it does take translating from cursive into non-cursive, then russian into english, and metric into non-metric — i love it.
baking ukrainian desserts is the tastiest form of language practice, cultural integration, and buying friendship out there. over the past few days i’ve been diligently translating them and deciding on which one is possible to make. and by possible i mean because i have no money, there are no photos to show the outcome, and i still don’t know what the hell ‘plomberies’ are. so while i’ve yet to make a cake that’s actually from that book (dont’ worry, it’ll happen), i did make a cake my neighbor gave me the recipe for.
it’s a shaped cake, that tastes rather similar to medovik, but with cardboard piece cutouts that form a body, head, and arm of a side-profile walking bear. when i made it with my neighbor and her kids last, the filling was runny, the cake was too dense, and the bear some how ended up with only one arm. it was still delicious but i thought i’d change it a little and give it a second try…this time leaving the poor handicapped bear out of it.
second time around, it turned out beautifully, if i might say so myself. the baked dough smells and tastes like honey doused southern biscuits and the cake as a whole is one giant eight layered chocolate covered buttermilk honey pancake stack. can’t go wrong there.
little ira’s eight layer cake
1.5 cup sugar
50 grams margarine/butter
1 big spoon honey (don’t be shy)
1 tsp. soda with equal part vinegar
flour (about 6 cups? and then some. add till pie crust workability)
1 200 g. packet cmetana (sour cream)
1 packet vanilla sugar
1 cup sugar
2 tbs cocoa powder
1.) melt the sugar, honey, margarine/butter in a saucepan till all the sugar is melted. take off heat and set aside for a minute or two.
2.) in a separate bowl for the creme, empty smetana packet and add vanilla, cocoa, and sugar. mix well and set aside.
3.) empty the sugar margarine mixture into a large bowl, add eggs, soda and vinegar. mix together well. preheat oven to 200*C.
4.) slowly start to add the flour one cup at a time. continue adding until dough is super thick and no longer sticks to your hands. (think either pie dough or sugar cookie dough).
5.) take dough out of bowl and place on floured workspace. kneed in more flour if needed. roll into a log and cut into 8 equal pieces.
6.) roll these into 8 balls (it makes rolling them out easier i think) and roll into very very thin circles. (hard book cover thick). use a smallish plate (or whatever shape you feel like making), and trace with a knife.
keep extra cut away dough for the end. while one is baking roll out another.
7.) place one layer on an un-greased baking sheet and bake for 6-7 minutes. until the cake is just golden brown.
8.) quickly remove from pan (you may have to use a knife to coerce it off) place on the decorating plate and poke with a fork.
9.) spread a decent amount of creme on layer while still hot.
10.) place next layer in oven and repeat until cake is stacked and smothered.
11.) bake the last bit of dough (the extra pieces cut from the shape you made).
once finished and slightly cooled, crumble up into tiny pieces.
add to the sides of the cake.
12.) grate half a bar of chocolate (treat yourself to a piece or two) and sprinkle on top.
13.) place in fridge to cool (for at least 30 minutes…if you can wait that long), invite your nearest and dearest babushka over and serve! : )