Let’s start 2021 and the second half of this trip around the world with an easy, cheerful bake from the Czech Republic. Like every country in the former Austro-Hungarian empire, Czech has a strong coffee-and-cake culture, and the bake that you see everywhere is a light cake made with fresh fruit called Bublanina – a close relative of the French clafoutis.
The idea of a Bublanina is that the cake batter bubbles up around the fresh fruit. The trick is to use enough fruit that’s fresh enough that the cake is moist and fruity, but not so much that it’s damp and soggy. There’s no prescription about what fruit to use: it’s really a case of whatever’s in season. In the middle of a London winter, I went for blueberries (which are presumably in season somewhere across the globe), but strawberries, cherries, peaches and plums are all possible.
You have various options on the batter. At one of the end, you can just shove everything into a bowl and mix it; at the other, you can separate the eggs and pack air into the whites as a raising agent, soufflé-style. You can make the batter more traditional by using some semolina flour, can emulate the clafoutis by adding ground almonds, you can use various flavourings (vanilla, orange or lemon zest, Grand Marnier, etc). I’ve kept it simple and gone with a recipe from czechcookbook.com by Kristýna Koutná, a native of Brno, one of my favourite places in Czech; I’ve added lemon zest and changed the amount of flour slightly (my batter was definitely coming out runnier than Kristýna’s video).
A couple of notes on the photos: (1) I used 250g of blueberries, which was all I had. 400-500g would have been better. (2) The ingredients shot is missing the vanilla and lemon.
Butter for greasing cake tin
320g plain flour (plus 20g or so for sprinkling)
200g sugar (plus 30g or so for sprinkling)
8g baking powder
Grated zest of 1 lemon
240 ml milk
40 ml oil
Vanilla extract to taste
400g fresh fruit in season
Icing sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 180℃ fan
Grease a cake tin or baking dish (I used a rectangular Pyrex dish or around 30cm x 20cm, but you can use any shape you like). Dust it with flour and shake out the excess.
If you’re using fruit like peaches or large strawberries that need to be cut up, do so now: make sure the fruit isn’t too wet.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix flour, sugar and baking powder and blend.
Add lemon zest, eggs, milk and oil
With the standard beater, mix until smooth – do not overbeat.
Pour the batter into your cake tin or dish
Lay out the fruit on the batter. If it sinks, it doesn’t matter.
Sprinkle a bit of sugar over the top.
Bake for around 40 minutes until golden brown on top
Leave to cool
Dust with icing sugar before serving
You can eat bublanina warm or cool it to room temperature. If you find it a bit dry on its own (particularly if, like me, you were a bit short of fruit), add a fruit coulis.
It’s been a strange Fourth of July this year: the poison of the Trump era has made it harder than ever to summon positive feelings for the United States. Still, I’ll use the occasion to celebrate happy days in the past and hope for happier ones in the future, with some close family members and numerous friends in the USA firmly in mind.
I lived in California for a couple of years in the early 1980s and one of my fondest memories is of whiling away hours at Printers Inc., a bookshop-plus-café that was a kind of prototype Borders. Long before Starbucks had started to expand outside Seattle, Printers Inc. served really good coffee and superb brownies and carrot cake. Cake lovers would invariably spot some book they liked, while those in search of a book, with equal inevitability, would be entrapped by the aroma of fresh coffee and cake.
Sadly, I never did get the recipe for the best carrot cake I ever had, baked by Gigi Ellis, the wife of my boss at Fairchild, and I lost touch with Frank and Gigi decades ago. So this recipe, which is close to the Printers Inc. version, comes from the cookbook I bought at the time, a model of Californian eclecticism entitled San Francisco à la Carte. I’ve turned everything metric, because I just don’t see how you can bake accurately using measuring cups, or indeed why you would want to when digital scales are cheap, accurate and generate less washing up.
The quantities here will work for a single cake in a 23cm x 23cm square tin. That will do for 16 small portions (or 8 very generous portions, or whatever you pick in between). If you prefer, you can use more than one tin, which avoids the tricky process of slicing the cake in half, at the price of leaving you with an internal crust that you don’t really want.
Make the cake:
250g carrots (weight after peeling)
250g plain flour
10g baking soda
150g corn oil
Preheat oven to 175℃.
Grease the bottom of your cake tin, line it with baking paper, then grease the bottom and sides.
Mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. There’s no need to sift the flour.
Peel and grate the carrots.
Beat the eggs (I use a stand mixer). Add the oil and beat until the eggs and oil have combined into a smooth mixture.
Add the flour mixture to the egg and oil mixture and beat until smoothly combined.
Add the carrots and stir until they’re evenly distributed.
Pour the whole mixture into your baking tin, ensuring that you spread it evenly including the corners.
Bake for 30 minutes – use the usual skewer test to ensure that it’s done. I’m always surprised by the way the cake can be really raw at 25 minutes and just fine at 30. By the way, some people like their carrot cake sticky: if you’re one of them, make sure the skewer *does* come out with some mixture sticking to it.
Cool in the baking tin for 5-10 minutes and then on a wire rack.
Make the frosting:
200g cream cheese
150g icing sugar
Vanilla essence to taste (optional)
Beat these together thoroughly until very smooth.
Cover and leave in the refrigerator: especially if it’s summer, the frosting will be very runny and you want it to hold its shape when you spread it.
Assemble the cake:
90g pecan halves
Reserve 16 of the best pecan halves for decoration (this will use around 40g). Chop the remainder into small pieces.
Transfer the cake from the wire rack to whatever you’re going to serve the cake on: cake plate, board, tray or whatever.
With a long knife, slice the cake horizontally into two approximately equal parts. Take the top half off and set aside – I do this by sliding a plastic chopping mat between the two halves, sandwiching the top half between the mat and a wire rack and lifting it off.
Spread half the frosting over the bottom half. Scatter the chopped walnut pieces evenly across the cake.
Put the top half of the cake back into place.
Spread the remaining half of the frosting over the cake and decorate with remaining pecan halves, in whatever pattern takes your fancy.
It’s probably a good idea to chill the cake at this point, because the frosting really is quite liquid. Take it out of the refrigerator half an hour or so before serving.