Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Today is my mother in law's 75th birthday and it's time to make a cake (or two)

For those of you who don't know. My mother in law lives with us. In December of this last year, we joined forces when we moved for my husband's job. I suppose it's going about as well as can be expected, but it's difficult, really difficult. As my mother in law is a very difficult personality and has been alone most of her life.

Another thing is that my husband (and therefore my mother in law) are not from the United States. They are from Croatia. My husband came here to study a year before the Yugoslav war broke out. My mother in law, Sonja came here to live permanently when Adrian (my oldest son) was a bit over a year old because she wanted to be near her only child and grandchild.  Just try to imagine moving to a new country when you're 62 years old. (So, I do have empathy.)

What does this all have to do with cake? Well, it means that I really have to do something for her as I live with her. Second, it means she doesn't really care for (actually she really dislikes) American style of cake. So the cake I need to make is a European style cake which taste fantastic, but aren't the showy pieces most Americans are used to seeing and eating for birthdays.

The first cake I plan to make is the Sachertorta. When Sonja was back home a couple years ago, her best friend made it and when she came back, all my mother in law could talk about was how wonderful this cake was - the best she had ever eaten. Her best friend had given her the recipe, so last year for her birthday, Sonja tried to make it. Problem is, my mother in law really doesn't know how to cook. Growing up, her mother cooked or her grandmother cooked. Sonja didn't ever cook, until she was over 40 years old and even then, she only knows a handful of recipes and that's it. What's worse, is that because her mother and grandmother never used cookbooks, she feels that she doesn't need to either. She doesn't quite grasp that if you don't know a recipe, you need a guide. Her mother and grandmother (and I don't for many things either) need a cookbook. Many things come from the head because you know how things combine, or it's memorized. For special things, typically, a recipe card of simple instructions is enough, because you know how it's constructed, so you don't need details that say, "separate the eggs", or "cream the butter".  This last part is important.

It's one of those things we laugh about now, but my mother in law was quite heartbroken last year on her birthday when she tried to make her best friend's recipe of Sachertorta. The recipe, like many recipes I've seen from Croatia, are not like recipes we are used to in the states. We are used to details - what temperature to bake, how long, and most important, details of how to prepare it. The recipe Sonja got was like this: list of ingredients. Then: melt chocolate, mix egg yolks with butter and then with sugar, mix egg whites, mix chocolate into sugar and eggs, add flour, add in egg whites. Bake until done, cut in half, spread apricot jam in middle and around sides, cover with chocolate glaze, serve with whipped cream. Ok everyone - now JUMP and go make this cake right now! What??? You don't know what to do? Well, neither did my mother in law. That recipe was given to her with the thought that she knew how to make a typical Croatian cake - that she would know from years of doing or watching what to do. The recipe was a guide, but the rest, was assumed, she already knew. But, she didn't know as she didn't bake or watch her family bake.

My mother in law, not knowing better and not thinking to maybe look up other sachertorta recipes for a better guide, jumped in. She melted the chocolate, melted the butter and then mixed all of it together with the sugar and eggs (while the chocolate was still hot), added the flour, and then whipped the eggs whites, and then mixed that with the rest. She put it in the oven at 350 degrees, and then just watched it to be done. When it was deemed done, she had a dense, lumpy brownie (it's supposed to be a cake). Not being detered, she sliced it, spread jam all over it, made a really lumpy glaze of her own recipe, and then served it later with whipped cream. What she had was a very, very dense brownie (some almost so overcooked it was crunchy firm) and it looked like a mess on the plate. She took one bite and that was that... she was never going to try again. We all had a good laugh, and then, I asked to look at the recipe. I went home and looked up sachertorta in my European cookbook. Oh my goodness... how many ways can a recipe go wrong?

So, it's a year later and I would like to make her friend's recipe for her birthday. However, I'll use my cookbook as a better guide. Little things, like you need to let the chocolate cool, the butter and sugar need to be creamed until light, and then the yolks added one by one, gently stir in the flour, and then gently (just combining) the stiff beaten egg whites (all fluff comes from eggs in most european cake recipes - they don't use baking powder, baking soda, or yeast). I've made about 30 or so European cakes, so I know now how to do it - but my first attempts were a sweet egg baked omelette disk instead of cake too!

If I can get that cake correctly, I'll be a hero!

Then yesterday, while we were looking up recipes, Sonja noticed the cookbook I was refering to is called:  Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. She gets curious and says, "I wonder if they the recipe for shclomigrashka" (or at least that's how it sounded to me.) "I had this when I went to Budapest when Sven was 10 years old." (My husband is now 43, btw, so she's remembering this from 33 years ago.) She continues, "I once asked for it at a Hungarian restaurant, but they didn't know what I was trying to say."

Ok I have to segway away from the story for a second here for a side note about my mother in law again. My mother in law insists she doesn't care about food. That food is food. She just eats it because she needs to and then she's done. This is partially true. For the food she prepares for herself, it's mostly just to feed her body. But part of that was she was cooking for one and eating alone. But...she remembers every special cake, or special ice cream or special meal she has eaten in her lifetime (up until probably age 60). I'll make something and she'll say, "This is good, but Oh, the way Maka made it was unbelievable." Or, "When I was in Sicily, we stopped in this little, little place and it was the best Pasta Frijole I've ever had. Oh, it was delicious." (while she's eating mine). She loves good food, she just won't admit it.

Anyway, the cookbook has this recipe for Somlói Galuska I looked up the recipe and it has everything she loves - rum, cream, apricot jam, walnuts, chocolate and a light fluffy cake. It looks easy enough to make, so I'll make that too. Pictures will follow later today or tomorrow. And maybe a story or two if they don't turn out as well as I expect. We aren't eating them until Thursday when Sven comes back from his trip (Sonja's idea). Plus, with most European cakes (unlike American cakes) it's better the next day.

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