Monday, December 9, 2013

Old Recipes and New

My paternal grandmother was a fantastic baker. Most of her food was exceptional. Her chicken or beef (or a mix) soup was the best, ever. It seems, in my memory, to be rare that we ever went to grandma's house and not smell her soup, simmering away on the stove. She always added saffron to her soup, which was one of the smells and tastes I grew up knowing. To this day, the smell of saffron takes me back to my childhood.

Grandma was from what is now Serbia, near Novi Sad. She came to the US in the early 1900's, very young, with at least one of her three children. I remember her most for her strudel, made with the dough stretched so thin you could read a paper through it. She would coax the dough using the tablecloth underneath it, to roll over the filling, usually apple or poppy seed, though I believe at times she made a cabbage or cheese strudel as well. This site has photos of someone making a strudel with Filo dough, but the method and look of it are the most like what I recall. I recall one time at age 8 watching the process. I wish with all my being I had ever been there when I was old enough to really learn from her. She made many other little pastries of different kinds too.

Grandma's Nut Torta and Icing

And then sometimes she would make a pie or a cake. I really cannot even recall what kind of pies she made, though I was with her when she made some one day. What I recall most of cakes was what she called Nut Torta. Most often this cake was made with black walnuts, which I never liked, and thus, I did not like this cake. (Walnuts or pecans can be substituted, and I am told she did use those on occasion, but I only recall the black walnuts). The torta was not a traditional cake, as it used no flour. It consisted mainly of ground nuts and eggs. Ten eggs, to be exact. The icing she made was also not a traditional icing as I know them today, but made in a two step process. First she made a milk and cornstarch pudding and cooled it. Next she would cream together shortening and sugar. Once the shortening and sugar were thoroughly combined, she added in the cornstarch pudding mixture. To me, this always made a most greasy feel in my mouth, and again, I just didn't care for it at all.

In the spirit of keeping recipes alive, and since my sister had this recipe in her files, I finally made this cake a few days back. Everything about it was just as I recalled, except I found I no longer really dislike black walnuts!

Grandma's Nut Torta and Icing

A bite of the torta
10 eggs, separated
10 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup chopped nuts; walnuts, pecans, black walnuts
3 tablespoons cracker meal
dash of salt

1½ cups milk
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1½ cups granulated sugar
1½ cups white shortening (or substitute butter, room temperature)

MAKE TORTA: Beat the egg yolks until thick and creamy, adding 7 tablespoons of the sugar gradually. Add cracker meal, nuts, baking powder and salt, stirring by hand.

Beat egg whites until stiff, gradually adding the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar. Gently fold meringue into egg yolk mixture until combined. Pour batter into 4 lightly greased and floured 8-inch cake pans. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 for 20-30 minutes. The cakes will puff up, then deflate to about a third of the pan when cooling. The final cake is spongy and dense.

ICING DIRECTIONS: In a medium saucepan, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch. Add in the milk and whisk to combine. Begin cooking the pudding on medium heat and cook, stirring until thickened. Let cool. Alternatively, pour into bowl of a stand mixer and allow the paddle attachment run on lowest setting while mixture cools. This also prevents a skin from forming on the pudding as it cools.

Once the pudding is cooled to room temperature and would no longer melt the shortening (butter), begin adding it in, about 2 tablespoons at a time, beating to completely incorporate before adding more. If at any time the icing looks curdles, chill the bowl briefly, then continue beating until all the shortening or butter is incorporated and the icing is glossy. Vanilla or other flavoring may be added, if desired.

A couple of things I thought about once I had made and eaten this cake after so very many years:
  • I believe this would be easily made gluten-free using 2 tablespoons psyllium husks instead of cracker meal
  • the icing is curious, but butter in place of the shortening makes this recipe far more palatable
I am planning to give my ideas a try. I may use walnuts instead of black walnuts, partly just to try something different and partly to avoid making too much of the same thing. In the meantime, while this is a short blog, I will end here for now. Cheers to memories of grandmas everywhere!

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.