Russian Honey CakePosted: November 20, 2011
Or maybe I should say “Привет!” Because following on from last week, I am continuing the Slavic theme with something a bit special for you all: Russian Honey Cake. I actually discovered this cake on a Croatian cookery site. Or maybe it was Hungarian. Although I did read one contributor saying she’s learned how to make it at home in Azerbaijan. But perhaps that was on the Polish site.
Yeah, I tend to get a bit sidetracked when browsing the web. Usually I’ll see a picture that piques my interest, so I’ll search for other pictures, which lead me to blogs and websites – and before I know where I am, I’ve taken a left turn at the traffic lights, got twenty-seven tabs open and have ended up somewhere completely different to where I’d originally planned.
Anyhoo, good old Google Translate lets me get at least close to understanding what’s going on and so what I discovered with this cake was a) it’s extremely popular, b) it’s got a flavour quite unlike anything else and c) there’s general disagreement on which filling is the best.
Disagreements aside for now, the recipes all agreed on how this eyecatching cake is assembled: a very soft dough is spread very thin and baked for just a few minutes. On seeing what emerges from the oven, you’d have every right to exclaim “Gee thanks, Mary-Anne – I’ve baked stale sponge.” – but don’t be disheartened! The resulting ‘biscuits’ are trimmed to the size and shape required, then layered and topped with the filling. The trimmings are blitzed to crumbs and then patted onto the sides of the cake, and then the whole thing is left overnight somewhere cool, but not in the fridge.
And this is when the magic happens and why you should bake this cake. Over time, the biscuits absorb the moisture from the filling and become melt in the mouth soft. The delicate honey flavour of the cake comes through beautifully, with a gorgeous hint of caramel. Now you might be rolling your eyes a bit at all this gushing, but I really need to try and get across how amazing this cake is, and how you really ought to make it, because I’m the first to put my hand up and admit that it LOOKS pretty uninteresting. Cake. Filling. Cake crumbs. Not a combination generally guaranteed to set your tastebuds alight – and yet it does, and perhaps it’s the contrast between ordinary appearance and extraordinary flavour that adds to its appeal.
Now as to the fillings, I decided the only way to determine which tasted best was to try them all. Luckily we had visitors over the weekend
on which to experiment to help with the taste testing. The three different fillings were: a variation on Banoffi Pie (condensed milk caramel + butter), a variation of Depression-Era buttercream, and finally slightly sweetened sour cream (which I didn’t have, so I used reduced fat creme fraiche instead). While the first two fillings were delicious in themselves, they didn’t have the softening effect on the biscuit layers that the creme fraiche did. Additonally, the slight tang sets off the sweetness of the honey in the biscuits beautifully and somehow manages to also make it taste of caramel.
Apart from tasting delicious, the other things in this cake’s favour are:
- It’s a make ahead cake- you CAN cram the preparation and decoration into one day if you start really early in the morning and have the self control not to cut into it until the evening, and indeed it’s not so bad the first time you make it. However, once you have tasted this, and you know what the flavours will be, seeing it on the side working its magic is torture! (mostly because there’s nothing you can do to hurry things up). No – far better to make it in the evening and let it work its magic overnight. Then you can enjoy a slice or three with your morning coffee.
- Shape doesn’t matter. A quick search on Google reveals pictures of this cake in all shapes and sizes: some round, some long and rectangular, some made up into sheet cakes and then cut and served in almost cube portions. Whatever kind of tin you have available – go with it. For the ultimate speed, you could put the whole batch of dough into a half-sheet pan (30cm x 45cm) and bake it all in one go.
- Size doesn’t matter. I chose to bake 4 layers in what I call a flapjack tin (20cm x 30cm), because I wanted to make a long box-shaped cake and also because I find rectangles are easier to trim than circles. You could also bake one large sheet then use pastry cutters to cut out circles for individual portion-sized mini-cakes.
- Simplicity. It’s a one bowl mix, and, after a quick rinse, the filling can be mixed in the same bowl as well. The filling is mixed in less than a minute, the cakes cook in 4 minutes each, the whole cake can be mixed, baked, assembed and decorated in under an hour. Even the trimmings are not wasted, as they are blitzed to crumbs and used to decorate the sides of the cake.
Considering the relatively short list of ingredients and the speed at which this cake is put together, it really is ridiculously delicious. A real case of a champagne taste on a beer budget!
Russian Honey Cake
3 large eggs
225g caster sugar
100 g unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
450g plain flour
1 litre reduced-fat creme fraiche
- Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
- Set a heat-proof bowl over a pan of simmering water.
- Warm the honey jar slightly either in the microwave or in a saucepan of hot water and measure 3 tbs into the bowl.
- Add the eggs, butter and the caster sugar and beat with a metal whisk until the mixture is smooth and the sugar dissolved.
- Add the bicarbonate of soda and continue whisking for another minute – the mixture will lighten in colour and also thicken slightly.
- Remove the bowl from the heat and gradually beat in the flour. Depending on the moisture level of the flour, the consistency can vary between ‘putty’ and a soft-but-rollable dough. I’ve made this cake with both types and it’s been fine each time. So don’t fret that it ‘looks wrong’ – just go with what you have!
- Grease and line a 20cm x 30cm tin with parchment paper. Grease the surface of the parchment paper. 
- Divide the dough into 4.
- Spread one portion onto the paper in the tin in an even layer either by patting it with the fingers, or spreading with a spatula (or rolling it with a rolling pin!).
- Bake for 3-4 minutes – the top will be golden brown and the sides slightly shrunken. It won’t have risen much.
- Tip onto a cooling rack and peel off the parchment.
- Repeat for the other three portions of dough.
- While the biscuits are cooling, mix just enough icing sugar into the creme fraiche to slightly sweeten – probably not much more than 3 or 4 heaped spoonsful. You still want to be able to taste that that slight yogurt-y tang.
- To assemble the cake:
- Stack all the cakes/biscuits on top of each other and trim them to the same size. Set the trimmings aside in a bowl.
- Put one biscuit onto the middle of a cooling rack and spread with the sweetened creme fraiche. Be generous. As the moisture is drawn into the biscuits, the volume of the cream will shrink. The cake in the photo began with cream layers at least 1.5cm thick.
- Repeat with the other three layers.
- Spread the sides and ends with creme fraiche also.
- Blitz the biscuit trimmings in a food processor until reduced to crumbs.
- Put the wire rack with the cake on over a baking tray, preferably one with sides.
- Take handfuls of the cake crumbs and press them into the sides of the cake. The excess crumbs will drop down into the baking tray and can be scooped up and used again.
- Continue until all sides are covered. You can cover the top of the cake also, but personally, I like the contrast created by the crumbed sides against the creamy-white top.
- Set aside, covered if possible, to allow the biscuits to absorb the moisture of the cream, overnight for preference.
 With a bit of planning and an alarm clock, I can be up and having my ‘morning coffee’ at around 7.20am
 If you have a half-sheet pan (30cm x 45cm), you can bake all the dough at once. Line with parchment paper and spead the dough evenly. Bake for 10 minutes until lightly browned. The biscuit is thicker this way, so to make the cake, I cut the biscuit sheet in half widthways, then split each half horizontally to make a total of 4 layers. Stack the layers on top of one another and trim to the same size. Fill as above.