Benson’s Saturday Evening Spot

Cats like routine.  Lavash and Benson are our secondary alarm clocks–they know breakfast is at 0600, so start to get worried and make noise at about 0530 if we aren’t up and moving by then.  Lavash gets annoyed when we come in the back door when we get home from mass, since that messes with her plan to flop down on the carpet by the front door for belly rubs.  Curiously, this only happens on Sunday, so I suspect belly rubs are part of her after post-post breakfast nap routine.

Benson likes Saturdays since I almost always make pizza.  Not only does he try to steal a slice, or select toppings (like kale), he gets to hang out on top of the cabinet above the refrigerator.


I assume the view must be pretty good from up there, especially as a look-out spot for dropped pizza toppings of interest.


Checkerboard Birthday Cake

Ikinji recently turned nine, and we had a board games-themed party for him and a few of his friends.  Fortunately for us, only a couple of his friends were able to come– I think the noise level gets exponentially louder with each additional guest, especially after they’ve had a nerf gun battle at the park nearby.

In any case, keeping with the theme, I made a checkerboard cake.  There are surprisingly few tutorials online for how to do a rectangle checkerboard.  There are plenty for circular cakes, since it won’t matter which side you cut into–each wedge of cake will have the pattern, which is usually made by cutting concentric circles out of your cakes and fitting them back together in an alternating pattern.  For the rectangular cake, I cut strips of cake, approximately 1″x1″x9″ (the width of the cake) and stacked them alternating yellow-chocolate-yellow.  I used seven minute icing to stick the pieces together (and stick they did!) and german buttercream to frost the outside.


Checkerboard around the outside hints at what’s inside.  The top, by the way, had a chess piece piped on in chocolate.

As an added wrinkle, my wife suggested that each slice have a 9×9 grid, so that you could play tic-tac-toe with white and dark chocolate Reeses Peanutbutter Cups.  This required marking the outside with where the pattern repeat occurred.  I used a thicker line of icing for the outside checkerboard to indicate where to cut.  While it isn’t an exact match to the inside, this actually worked out pretty well.


Checks on the outside, checks on the inside. This is after most of the cake has been cut and eaten, hence the messy cake board.


What surprised me most was how quickly this came together once I had figured out how it would come together.  I had to bake two 9×13 vanilla cakes to get enough of the white, and one 9×13 chocolate.  If I had it to do over again, I would have cut .75″ rectangles to allow for loss during cutting, and to have a slight margin of error.  As it was, I had to use a leftover frozen chocolate cake for the last strip.  Still, the cutting and assembly went very quickly.  Also, since the frosting on the outside wasn’t too elaborate, that came together rapidly as well (which was a good thing, since I was frosting it the morning of the party.

The final product elicited the desired effect:  the boys were impressed, especially Ikinji, who didn’t know what we had planned.  The kids’ parents were pretty impressed, too, but the “Wow, neat!” I got from the kids was well worth the effort.


Medoviy Torte Birthday (Honey) Cake

Unlike last year’s very rushed birthday cake, I left myself plenty of time this year to make my cake.  I took the entire week off work, mainly because we were coming back from Colorado, but also to ensure I would have some time to work on this year’s recipe:  Russian Honey Cake, or Medoviy Torte.

When I was in Dushanbe, the Korean-Tajik ladies who ran the (tiny) cafeteria would serve this daily.  We would also get it in Turkmenistan, but it was less common there.  After I saw the recipe on Smitten Kitchen, I knew I wanted to try and recreate it.

As I said, I gave myself plenty of time to work through this one.  I was prepared for an honest-to-goodness full day marathon of working in a hot kitchen.  I even recruited Ikinji to help.  I mean, the recipe includes a stovetop portion before you even roll out the layers and bake them.  As it turns out, the actual flow of the recipe is not that difficult, and it goes pretty easily.  Even though I had Ikinji help with trimming the layers into perfect rounds (by tracing around a plate) one person can easily do everything.

The main change I made (other than using whole wheat flour, which I do in everything (except angel food cake)), is to use greek yogurt instead of the sour cream.  At least one of the comments on the recipe aludes to the fact that Russian (and post-Soviet territory) sour cream is much, much thicker than what we get.  It really is much closer to greek yogurt (that is, yogurt that has had most of the whey drained out) than the sour cream you buy here.  Also, rather than using sweetened condensed milk, I wanted more of a honey flavor, so I wanted to sub all honey for the condensed milk in the recipe.  Well…I only had about half the honey I needed, but I went with it anyway.  This made the icing not nearly as runny, and not nearly as sweet.

I would call it a success.  I do want to try it again with the correct amount of honey.  Even though it was ready for my birthday itself, due to outside circumstances, we didn’t get around to eating it until two days later.  By that time it was almost too dry, since the layers had absorbed all the available moisture.  Taste-wise it was great, but the texture was a little off.  Still, since it isn’t as difficult to make as it would seem just by reading the recipe, I think it might be making a reappearance.

Milk Manipulation

Or, how to make yogurt and buttermilk at home.

We’ve made our own yogurt for several years now now.  It’s cheap and easy, especially when you don’t rely on commercial starter culture, but rather yogurt from the store as a starter.  My current batch has been going for over a year now, almost two.  In Liberia, we had a culture going for a solid two years without any problems.

I’ve used a couple of different methods, but the key is to control the temperature of both the milk and the environment for the culture to work.

In Liberia, we used whole cream powdered milk (which is nearly impossible to find at a reasonable price here).  I would reconstitute it at about one and a half strength, using water at about 115 degrees.  The goal is to have the milk between 110 and 115 degrees when the yogurt culture goes in.  I then put this container in a cooler with a damp dishtowel that I had warmed in the microwave, and leave it over night.  After a couple of hours in the fridge, the yogurt had set quite nicely.

Lavash helping check the temperature. The cats love when I make yogurt.

Currently, I use whole milk from the store.  Even though I don’t need to pasteurize it (in Ashgabat, since we bought milk in the market in 1-liter bottles pasteurization was a necessary first step), I find I get the best set by taking the milk up to 180 degrees.  I suspect that this does two things: 1) takes care of any stray bacteria that might interfere with the yogurt culture and 2) denatures and concentrates the milk proteins so that it’s easier for the yogurt bacteria to do its thing.  After the milk hits 180, I cool it to 115, and pour it into a container for a water bath yogurt warmer.  The heating element keeps the water at just the right temperature to gently warm the cultured milk.  In about four hours, the yogurt is done, and just needs to cool in the fridge for a couple of hours to be fully set.

I recently started culturing buttermilk  It started because I wanted to do buttermilk biscuits with breakfast on Sunday during Lent (rather than coffee cake).  I’ve kept some around for pancakes and other baking use, and, since it’s so easy to do, well worth it.  Again, starting from store-bought, it’s a ratio of about 1:3, that is, fill your container one quarter of the way with buttermilk, then the rest of the way with whole milk [it might work with 2% or skim, but I haven’t tried it] and leave it at room temperature, loosely covered, for at least eight, or up to 12 hours.  What you’re looking for is the milk to get thick and start to smell slightly tangy like buttermilk.  I’ve heard some people leave it for a full day, but I start to get separation after much more than 8 hours, especially when it’s warm.

Nice, thick buttermilk after an 8-hour culture time and a couple of hours in the fridge.

I also tested whether the warming the milk to 90 degrees before culturing made a difference (which I had read on a couple of sites), but I found that the straight-from-the fridge milk cultured just as fast as the 90 degree milk.

Cheesemaking is also enjoyable, but for now, the return on investment for the time and effort is much better for just the yogurt and buttermilk.  If we’re ever in a place again where all we can get is raw, unpasteurized milk from questionable sources, we’ll probably take up cheesemaking again, and add it to our regular repertoire of milk manipulation.

Experimental Oven Pancakes

Since Yakum had an early basketball game this weekend, I changed up our Saturday pancake tradition and went with oven pancakes.  I was first introduced to these by my in-laws (before they were in-laws), where the German Oven Pancake breakfast is a very big deal.  They put on a phenomenal spread at my wife’s grandparents’ house, which includes the oven pancakes, cinnamon apples, and lots of other breakfast foods.

So, I certainly didn’t put on that level of a spread, but did play with the baking vessel.  Most recipes specify a cast iron skillet, and with good reason:  the cast iron guarantees a well-crisped crust develops, which contrasts with the buttery-custardy body of the pancake.  The challenge is in mass producing, which is difficult when you only have one cast iron skillet (and a relatively small one at that).  So, I doubled the recipe and put it in a well buttered 9×13 glass dish.  It worked beautifully, puffing way up and getting nicely crisp.










My next attempt was a single recipe, but baked in muffin tins to try for mini oven pancakes.  The challenge here is getting the right amount of butter in the bottom–you don’t want too much, otherwise it runs everywhere.  Not enough and the puff isn’t as good (and they stick like the dickens).  Not as successful, but I think this would work well with a tablespoon of cinnamon apples in the middle.  The hope is that the pancake would puff up around the filling, making serving easy.



Even though they deflate once you take them out of the oven, the real secret to getting them out of the tins is to let them rest at least 10 minutes.

Here’s the recipe I used, modified from Alton Brown, cross-referenced with a bunch of recipes and tips from multiple sources on the internet:

2.25 oz flour

.25 oz sugar (or less, and I tried putting in some molasses)

pinch of salt

4 oz milk (by weight–use a scale!  By volume, this is 1/2 cup)

3 eggs

2 oz butter

400 degree oven

Put butter in pan and put in oven to melt the butter–watch carefully so it doesn’t burn.  It should take just a couple of minutes. Take out of oven once melted.

Combine dry ingredients in mixing bowl (or a measuring cup if you have one large enough).  Beat eggs and add milk.  Pour wet on dry ingredients, and mix until smooth.  Pour in pan, and put back in oven.  In a 9 or 10 inch cast iron skillet, this will take about 20 minutes to bake up into a well-puffed oven pancake.  Doubled, and put in a 9×13, it also took 20 minutes.  The recipe made 18 muffin-tin pancakes, and only took 15 minutes.

Happy eating!

Stegosaurus Cake

The twins just turned five, and got a stegosaurus cake:

While a pentaceratops could have been fun (just like the triceratops for their three-year birthday), I went with the stegosaurus and made the plates on the back out of pentagons.

Dino-texturingSo, the icing is a little sloppy mainly because the cake was frozen when I put it on, and it immediately hardened beyond what I could smooth out.  We’ll call it dino-texture.  I didn’t want to push my luck with letting it thaw out too much before everything was in place since it took me three tries (and two wooden picks) to get the neck on without it falling.

The cake itself is my basic coffee cake recipe, but made with more liquid than usual to tighten up the crumb.  Also, I used apple cider rather than milk, and a heavy dose of cinnamon to give it an autumnal spiced cider feel.

Who you starin’ at?

The cake went over very well with the twins and with Quarta’s godfamily (Tertia’s came for lunch, but we did the cake with dinner).  Again, a success, even if a little lacking in execution.  Next time I’ll have to work quicker with the icing, and a thinner layer at first, to get it smooth.

Pizza Pointers

For the past several years (at least three), I’ve been using a pizza dough modeled after the lazy pizza dough from Smitten Kitchen.  I say modeled because I use whole wheat flour, adjusted it some , and think of it as a ratio in bakers’ math, rather than a recipe.  The genius of her recipe is in the varying levels of yeast.  I haven’t quite gotten that pinned down to something 100 percent reliable, but do have it close enough for my purposes.

The basic formula is:

100% whole wheat flour

66% water

3% yeast (for a 5-6 hour rise; for a longer rise, this drops to about 2%; for a shorter rise, this goes up to about 4%)

3% salt (for a 5-6 hour rise; for a longer rise, this can stay the same; for a shorter rise, this drops to about 2%)

So, to translate the bakers’ math into the real world, I usually use:

750g whole wheat flour

500g water

20g yeast

20g salt.

Mix together until it forms a ball (should take no more than five minutes), then cover and let rise until you need it.  Time does all the work of developing the gluten for you.  The good news is this is really flexible–if you let this basic amount go for more than six hours, you’re fine (I’ve never let it go more than 12, though–I usually don’t plan that far in advance).  This gets me four good sized pizzas (about 10 inch, depending on how thick I make the crust).

Forming the crust is a bit of an adventure, or can be.  If you’re in a rush, you can divide up the dough (I use about 330g for each crust, based on the 750g flour weight), roll the crust with a rolling pin, and toss it in the oven (at least 500 degrees; hotter is better if you can get it) for about 10-12 minutes, and have dinner.  If you want to be a little more artsy about it, you can form disks, let the gluten relax some, then start hand-tossing.  I find I get the best results when I use a rolling pin to make sure the disks are an even thickness.  If I try to eyeball it, I usually wind up with holes somewhere.  The adventure comes when you let the gluten relax too much–then the dough starts drooping like a Dali clock when you try to toss it, and you wind up with holes.  Just patch the holes and go for it–it’s still really, really tasty.

Around here, broccoli and olive (individually and together) are very popular.  Yellow cherry tomatoes cut in half are also a hit, as are sun-dried tomatoes.  A recent big favorite is a “Salad pizza”, which the crust, no sauce, and a layer of cheese covered with mixed salad greens (a light dusting of cheese on the greens gets really, really crispy and good).  Bake for about 11 minutes, again at 500 (or more), and, after it comes out, hit it with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.  I tried it out a few weeks ago to see if the kids would like it, and now they look forward to it every time.  Go figure.


September Birthday: Dump Truck Cake

Ikinji wanted a dump truck for his birthday this year.  It’s sort of a repeat, since I did one for his third birthday.  This was much smaller (fewer anticipated guests), and came together very quickly.

I doubled Smitten Kitchen’s Everyday Chocolate Cake recipe, and made one full-sized loaf, 12 cupcakes, and about one quarter of another loaf.  Turned out I only needed one loaf pan worth of cake to make the truck.  Some of the cupcakes got eaten at the celebration, but weren’t actually needed.

The wheels were cut out from one of the thin scraps left from squaring up the loaf.  Supports under the truck body, also cut from scraps, do double duty as a place for the wheels to lean as well as getting the body of the truck off the round. 

The icing is a slight variation on the Fast and Easy Cream Cheese Icing from Serious Eats.  I doubled the recipe, and used half cream cheese and half mascarpone to make it more like the icing on a Whole Foods chantilly cake (which I tried for the first time while we were on vacation in Colorado and celebrated a few birthdays there).  This turned out somewhat softer than the target recipe, probably because I used granulated, rather than powdered sugar.  I likely could have thickened it up with some corn starch, but it came together pretty well, and held its shape even when room temperature, so no complaints there. 

The icing job is a little imprecise since it was so soft, but I’m pretty OK with how it came out.  Ikinji was happy, too, so I think this was a success in both looks and taste.

A Non-Rushed Birthday Cake

The rains a couple of weekends ago gave me the perfect opportunity to bake Yakum’s birthday cake without rushing.  

Yep, she just turned 10.  Wow, I feel old.

Initially, she thought she would want an angel food cake, but after my birthday, she decided she wanted a repeat of that flavor combination.  OK, we’ll call it mint-limeade, no problem.

Again, the cakes baked up beautifully:  two nine inch layers, and two six inch.  I used tapioca starch for the icing this time (instead of corn starch) which was…interesting.  Tapioca makes for a base that is more extensible and mucilaginous than the corn starch.  Yep, it was basically lime-flavored slime that tried to climb the beaters until enough butter had gotten worked in to counteract some of its stickier tendencies.  Also, since I was able to go slowly and put things in the refrigerator from time to time to keep them cool, it came together far more smoothly than I was expecting.

I could have done a slightly more even base coat, but I didn’t want to overdo the icing.  I tried to do a yellow line around the top edge of the larger layers (to go with the thick yellow rope at the bottom), but by that point the icing had almost completely melted and separated, but I had so little left I couldn’t re-beat it into shape, so the line had to come off…well, most of it (remember about the sticky tapioca starch base?  Yep, still sticky after the butter melts out).  The lettering is also off kilter a little (her name around the side of the six inch layers turned out great, though), but everyone was quite happy with the outcome.  Especially Yakum, which is what really matters.

Birthday Cakes Ought Not to be Rushed


Not too pretty, but tasty!

But if you do need to rush one, make sure it’s your own.

I baked my birthday cake last week.  The day before my birthday.  Sure, my wife would have happily done so, but she has been equally as busy as I have, and this way I get to blame any errors on myself.

I will say up front that the presentation on this one was sub-par, but flavor wise I think I nailed it.  It’s a three-layer six-inch mojito cake.  Mojitos have become somewhat of a running joke with my team at work because I’ve given mint (yes, the mint that is trying to take over the world, or at least the garden) to half of them.  Not just a couple of sprigs, either.  In one case, several plants (she asked for it…no, really) and the other several large bundles, tied up and left hanging on a computer monitor.  So, mojitos are sort of a joke because what else do you do with all that mint?  My brilliant idea was to make a mojito cake.  I went around and around about if it should be a mint cake with lime frosting, or lime cake with mint frosting, or some fusion of both in either the cake or the frosting.  I settled on using the Classic Vanilla Butter Cake from Serious Eats and using 5 grams of mint extract with 10 grams vanilla.  If I had planned farther in advance, I could have tucked some mint leaves in the sugar and infuse the flavor that way, but I didn’t plan for it, so that didn’t happen.  Maybe next time.  Still, the cake…wow.  Definitely will be my go-to cake recipe.  Even after being left uncovered at room temperature for almost a day (in a cat-proof location, of course), it was still very moist and flavorful.  Now, the recipe makes a three-layer eight inch cake, and I went for a six inch.  The remaining batter turned into cupcakes for work.  They got baked for about 20 minutes, and came out perfect.

For the frosting, I did a lime version of ermine frosting, very similar to this Seriously Citrus Buttercream from Jenni Field’s Pastry Chef Online.  Springboarding from this recipe, I used a 6:6:6:1 ratio of lime juce:sugar:butter:corn starch.  In essence, the cornstarch, juice, and sugar get cooked together to make a pudding, then, once cooled to room temperature, beaten in to some whipped butter to make a buttercream frosting. I wound up using 12 oz of juice, sugar, and butter and two of corn starch.  Again, wow.  A very citrus flavor that mellowed a bit over night.  The cupcakes got frosted at work the day of my birthday (frosting packed in a disposable pastry bag over night; by the time I made it to work, it had warmed to piping temperature), and they were a hit.

The cupcake format seemed to have just the right balance of lime and mint.  The cake…well, remember how I said it was rushed?  I frosted it the evening of my birthday, after we had finished dinner.  I neglected to level the layers, and hadn’t


This is what happens when you don’t level your cake layers.

given the frosting enough time to come fully to room temperature.  By the time it did, though, it was pretty melty, but I didn’t have the time to pop it in and out of the freezer to keep everything chilled and solid.  So, an uneven coat of frosting, and the cake slices were lacking structural stability (since they weren’t leveled to begin with).  Nothing fancy on the top, just a swirl and some mint leaves.  Also, even though the slices were pretty thin, they were a little overwhelming.  Maybe too much icing, and the mint in the cake was a little too retiring to take on the lime.

Next time I try this (and there will be a next time), I’ll probably go 7 grams of mint and 8 grams of vanilla to bring the mint flavor forward more, especially against the very assertive lime.  I might also cut back the icing, or dilute the citrus with just a little bit of water (maybe sub out one ounce?) to make it a little less in-your-face.  Like I said, though, presentation was lacking but the taste was pretty close to spot on.