Monday, June 20, 2011

serve with strawberries and cream

The summer I worked in the pastry kitchen, I began each morning by preparing the day's strawberries.

 The pastry kitchen went through a lot of strawberries. Our routine requirements - tarts for the hotel's cake shop, garnishes on all the single-serving Earl Grey chocolate cakes and tiramisu for the set lunch menus, and a small mountain of fruit to accompany the chocolate fountain at the afternoon tea buffet - added up to a case each day. Additional requirements - strawberry desserts for catered functions, special requests from room service, unexpected ingredient borrowing by one of the restaurant kitchens - could easily mean a second round of strawberry prep in the afternoon, and day's tally somewhere in the range of forty pounds of strawberries, cleaned and hulled and cut.

 (Not my photo. This is Alex's work.)

Every morning, I'd collect a case of two-pound boxes from the walk-in. I'd fill the sink full of very cold water, and tip in the berries, swishing the water to rinse off the dried strawberry flower petals and their fine, fuzzy stamens. I'd scoop the berries out into a big prep bowl, and then I'd set out our big, boxy plastic storage containers. I'd hull the strawberries with a paring knife, and when the last berry had been trimmed, I'd clear away the heap of green calyxes and the stack of plastic clamshells, and stack the storage containers in the walk-in.

We'd cut the hulled strawberries into halves and quarters and slices for tarts and garnishes as we needed them, and in the afternoon, after we'd piled warm cream scones into napkin-lined baskets and arranged tea cakes and tiny tarts on tiered salvers, I'd take two big white china serving bowls and heap them high. At the afternoon tea buffet, the strawberries would be the prime attraction of the chocolate fountain, speared on cocktail skewers and placed underneath the rippling flow of chocolate.

The chocolate fountain didn't inspire any fond memories (the "chocolate" was a ready-to-pour commercial mix, stabilized with vegetable oil and soy lecthin so that would stay smooth and unctuous without gumming up the fountain's moving parts), but hulling all those strawberries left its mark. When it comes to pleasing a crowd, my thoughts easily turn to desserts that can be served alongside small mountains of berries and whipped cream.

Chocolate may be the most popular pairing when it comes to a match for strawberries, but it's a relatively recent arrival. Desserts with fruit and honey date back to the Roman era, and summer is both bee and berry season. Whip cream with a touch of orange blossom honey, and it's a lovely accompaniment for strawberries. For something a little more unusual, however, there's medovnik.  

Medovnik is a honey cake, often referred to as Russian, but found throughout the former Soviet Union. Like borscht or golubtsi, there is no single fixed recipe for medovnik, but it all comes down to one basic concept: the cake is flavored with honey, made up of many thin layers, and sandwiched with a creamy filling. It works on the same principle as a chocolate icebox cake: the layers are fashioned from dough rather than batter, and baked until crisp. After being spread with filling and left to sit overnight, the layers soften and take on a moist, delicate texture. When cut into slices, the golden color and individual layers are reminiscent of puff pastry, which accounts for the cake's other name, napoleon cake. 

There is no set number of layers (five or eight are popular), but the more layers, the more impressive the finished results. I've gone for fifteen, which is a lot of rolling and baking, but the extra effort produces a tall, dramatic cake. Serve with a mountain of strawberries and a big bowl of cream, and listen to the oohs and aahs. It'll be gone before you can say "chocolate fountain."

Medovnik (Napoleon Cake)

Traditionally, this cake calls for buckwheat honey (a very strong monofloral honey), but if you can't obtain any, use the darkest honey you can find. While I'm fond of pairing it with strawberries and honey cream, I suspect you could also serve it with poached apples for a nice Rosh Hashanah dessert.

The quantities given in this recipe will make a lot of cake, but the recipe is easily halved. You can also use biscuit cutters to produce rounds for individually-sized cakes - just keep a close eye on the layers when they're in the oven.
(Adapted from this recipe and this recipe. Makes one tall nine-inch cake, which will serve at least sixteen people. Cake will keep for up to a week, wrapped tightly and refrigerated.)

This cake needs to sit for at least twelve hours (preferably fifteen) after assembly, so you'll need to start the recipe the day before serving.

First, the cake layers. In a mixing bowl, beat together four eggs, one cup of sugar, four tablespoons buckwheat honey and two teaspoons baking soda. Set aside.

Place two sticks of butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, and place over low heat. Once the butter has melted, pour in the egg mixture; beat well to combine. Stir in four cups of flour, one cup at a time, to form a sticky dough.

Remove the dough from heat. Coat the inside of a mixing bowl well with flour, and scrape the dough into the bowl.

Preheat oven to 350F. Ready two baking sheets and several pieces of parchment paper.

Lay a sheet of parchment paper on a flat surface. Place a small handful of dough on the parchment paper, about one-third of a cup.

Top with another sheet of parchment paper. Roll the dough out as thinly as possible, then peel away the top sheet of parchment. Using a nine-inch dinner plate or springform tin base as a guide, cut a circle into the dough.

Gather up the trimmings and place them back in the bowl.

Transfer the dough and parchment to a baking sheet. Bake for four to five minutes, or until the round has risen and is golden brown in color. Use a small, sharp knife to trim any ragged edges, and save the crumbs in a bowl. Transfer the round to a wire rack to cool. (When cooled, the rounds will be hard.)

Lay out another sheet of parchment, set another lump of dough on it, and repeat the process as above until you have fifteen rounds. If you still have dough left over, roll it out thinly, and bake it like the rest. Once it cools, break it up into small pieces, and add it to the bowl with the crumbs.

Next, prepare the cream filling. Using a stand mixer or electric hand mixer, beat together two sticks of softened butter, one can (fourteen ounces) sweetened condensed milk, and eight ounces sour cream until smooth. The mixture might be a little on the runny side, which is fine.

Now prepare the topping: Take the crumbs and other broken bits (you can run them through a food processor to get them very fine, if you like) and combine with a half-cup of finely chopped walnuts.

(Note: If nut allergies are a problem, turn one of the fifteen rounds into extra crumbs instead.)

To assemble the cake, ready a cake platter or serving dish. Place a smear of cream on the platter and set the first layer down. Spread the layer with cream, making sure to go to the very edges. Top with another layer. Alternate layers and cream until all the layers are stacked.

Coat the cake with the remaining cream, then grab handfuls of the topping and sprinkle all over the top and sides.

Cover the cake with foil, and leave in the fridge to chill for at least twelve hours.

Remove the cake from the fridge an hour before serving. Immediately before serving, whip heavy cream with honey to sweeten.

Cut the cake into slices, and accompany with honey cream and fresh strawberries, and an extra drizzle of honey, if you like. A glass of mead might not go amiss, either.


Alex said...

Holy smoke, Adele. This looks like a show-stopper. Can we try this gluten-free sometime?

adele said...

Alex - Definitely! It should adapt pretty well. :)

Cakelaw said...

Wow, what a fabulous cake!! I am very wary of chocolate fountains now - that mixture sounds evil.

adele said...

Cakelaw - Thank you! I don't know if all chocolate fountains use a commercial mix, but I do give them a wide berth at buffets now.

Maryna said...

OMG I am totally making this cake for HG's birthday. Score!

adele said...

Maryna - Yay! Let me know how it turns out! :)

Bobbie Sue said...

You are to be admired for taking on the lengthy process this cake requires. I've never had the patience. There are so many other fabulous desserts that are much less tediousness. Congratulations! It looks fabulous.

~~louise~~ said...

I can certainly understand how you developed the patience to bake such an elegant cake. That's a whole lotta strawberries to prep!

Your cake is simply magnificent, Adele! I'm not going to say I would love to attempt it because, as you already know, I probably won't. However, I am saving it, just in case:)

Thank you so much for sharing...It looks fabulous!!!