Russian Honey Cake

The ultimate recipe for Russia’s famous Honey Cake, that you’re likely to encounter.  Ten layers of soft, caramelized honey cakes that taste like the fine marriage of Lotus biscuits, honey graham crackers and gingerbread cookies, sandwiched between a cloud-like burnt honey and dulce de leche whipped cream.  Unbelievably delicious!

Let’s just start off by saying that I don’t normally throw around words like “The Best,” “Best Ever” or “The Most Amazing” at any of my recipe titles that easily.  Not because I don’t think they are…because I certainly do, otherwise you wouldn’t see them here…but because the definition of what makes something “the best” is very subjective.

With that said, I couldn’t hold it back with this one.  Because I truly, positively, deeply, sincerely believe that this is THE MOST AMAZING Russian Honey Cake to ever exist.  And yes I haven’t tried all the Honey Cakes in the world; in fact I’ve only had 4 in my life, 3 of them were made by me…lol!

It’s just that it’s so incredibly good, that it’s hard to imagine how anything could ever top it.

This masterpiece of a recipe comes from Michelle Polzine, owner and pastry chef of San Francisco’s 20th Century Cafe, where this towering delicacy is the main attraction and the pièce de résistance.  Her highly acclaimed Russian Honey Cake has captivated flocks of food writers, pastry chefs and tourists from around the world, who were infatuated by its amazingness.

So I guess I’m not alone on this one. But hey…you be the judge!

I first heard about the charm of Russian Honey Cake (Medovik Torte), which is also popular in other parts of Eastern Europe, a little over a year ago, and the idea had me instantly struck with obsession.  The thought of a soft, multilayer cake that tastes like a cross between honey graham crackers, stroopwafels, and speculoos with a filling of ethereal, creamy frosting, tickled my inner foodie and painted my daydreams.

So as any cake enthusiast would do, I scoured the internet, looking for recipes that would replicate the taste I had envisioned.  Most of them seemed to revolve around the concept of making the cake layers from a roll-out, honey flavored, soft cookie dough, and filled with a lightly sweetened sour cream frosting.  Some variations called for pourable cake batters to make the layers, and a few had a dulce de leche based frosting.

I tried 3 different recipe variations, and while all pretty tasty, they fell short of my expectations.  I’m mostly to blame, as I’m annoyingly picky.  I later tried a slice at a restaurant in Cairo, and everyone who had tasted it was very underwhelmed by it.  That’s when I came to the conclusion, that perhaps Russian Honey Cake wasn’t for me.

That is until a few months later, when I received my subscribed newsletter from Treat SF’s blog in my email, with a post that happened to be titled ‘Russian Honey Cake.’ It felt like telepathy. Not wanting to toss the idea of the raved-about cake altogether, because let’s be real…it does sound very promising, I read through the post.  She mentioned how the cake is the “signature dessert” of 20th Century Cafe and waxed poetic about how dreamy it tasted.  Further research also revealed that it took Polzine years of obsessive testing before nailing it, and that’s when I knew, that this could be the one I’m searching for.

And so I’m here today, to happily report back that it truly is.  THE ONE!  An absolute perfection.

Ten thin layers of soft, airy cakes that taste like the fine marriage of Lotus biscuits, honey graham crackers and gingerbread cookies, sandwiched between a cloud-like burnt honey and dulce de leche whipped cream.

Though seemingly rich, it’s surprisingly light, with pleasant notes of slight saltiness,  bitterness, and tanginess that perfectly balances out the caramel-y sweetness.

After finishing the cake, it’s left to chill in the fridge overnight, which allows the flavors to intertwine and the layers  to soak in some of the frosting, which softens them up into melt-in-the-mouth bites.  It’s a thing of dreams I tell you.

The secret that sets this cake apart from its counterparts lies in 2 brilliant twists rather than a special ingredient:

1)  “Adding more butter to the batter, transforming the cookie-crisp layers into thin, spongy cakes.” -NY Times.  That makes for a softer, lighter cake that slices like butter.

2) Burning the honey used in both the cake and frosting, to the point of caramelization!

This trick not only adds a more concentrated and pronounced honey flavor, but introduces toffee notes, bitterness and acidity, that was otherwise brought through the use of sour cream.   This burnt sugar revelation, combined with glorious dulce de leche (thick caramel made from sweetened condensed milk), made for an incredible sweet and tangy whipped frosting, that eliminated that need for sour cream.

Now I’m not gonna lie…this cake is a project.  It’s not hard and the process is pretty straightforward, but it is time-consuming and requires a lot of hands on work.  The first time I made it, it took me 3 hours straight, with only 30 minutes of down time.  That is of course excluding the mandatory overnight chill in the fridge, before you can dig in.

But trust me…the fruit of your labor, will be well worth the effort.  It truly is a stunning, showstopping dessert, that is sure to create a buzzzzzzzz in any special occasion.

The second time I made this, which was for the pictures you see here, I divided the work over the course of 3 days and the results were every bit as delicious.  I knew I wasn’t going to be able to both make and photograph every step, as well as , the beauty shots, all in one day, especially that I only shoot in natural daylight.  So I took a stress-free approach, and made the cake layers in 1 day, and froze them.  Then made the frosting and finished the cake on a second day, left it to marinate in the fridge for 2 days, then took the final shots on a 3rd day.  I’m telling you this, just to assure you, that you can relax the process by making some of the components ahead of time, without sacrificing the outcome.

So!  Are you ready to do this?!  I most certainly am!

You first begin by “burning” the honey.  And by burning, we mean more like “caramelizing,” so don’t worry, the honey won’t taste like ashes, and yet a beautifully caramelized honey.  Speaking of honey, Polzine uses wildflower honey, which is supposed to taste more floral, but I wasn’t able to find it, so I used regular ol’ mainstream honey instead.  So if you can find wildflower honey…go nuts!  But if you can’t, don’t fret, honey from that commercial squeeze-bottle will still work!

You’ll want to cook the honey until it transforms from pale yellow, to deep amber.  As soon as it reaches this point, remove the pan from the heat and whisk in 1/4 cup of water.  So that’s your Burnt Honey all done.

Now you’re going to take 1/4 cup of that glorious burnt honey and combine it with regular “unburnt” honey, sugar and butter and set over a pan of simmering water.  Stir until the butter has completely melted.

The mixture should feel pleasantly warm at this stage, in which you’re going to whisk in the eggs.  Continue whisking until the mixture becomes warm to the touch again.  At that point, stir in a mixture of cinnamon, baking soda and salt.  You’ll notice that the mixture will smell weird.  That’s ok…you’re on the right track.

Now you can sift the flour over the batter in 3 parts, whisking well to combine after each addition.  Batter should be very smooth.

That wasn’t hard…wasn’t it?

Now if you have several silicon mats, I’d recommend using those over parchment paper, for 2 reasons.  First, less waste of paper, and second, they release from the cake layers so much easier than parchment.  But if all you have is parchment, then you’ll go ahead and trace 9-inch circles on 11 sheets of parchment and spread the cake batter on each sheet (tracing side down).

If you have silicon mats, you’ll just need to trace the 9-inch circle over only 1 sheet of paper.  You’ll then place this paper underneath your silicon mat and get to work.

In both cases, you’ll spoon a heaping 1/3 cup of batter in the center of the circle, the spread it to the edges of the traced circle. Make sure to slide the piece of paper from under the silicon mat, if using one, before baking.

These guys bake very quickly, so stick around.  They’ll bake in only 6 to 7 minutes, or until they turn deep caramel colored.

Continue with the rest of the batter until you have 11 layers of cake.  If any of the layer’s edges look wonky, give it a trim using a pair of scissors.  Then put these trimmings, along with your least attractive cake layer on a pan and toast them in the oven.  Once cooled, grind them into fine crumbs in a food processor.  Reserve those crumbs for decorating the cake.  It’s ok…you could steal a taste; we’re human.

Now that the layers are all done, time to move to the frosting.  Now grab a can of dulce de leche, and if you don’t readily have it where you live (I don’t!), you can make your own with sweetened condensed milk, as per this post.  Just know that if you do make your own, they take 4 hours to cook, so plan ahead and make it as far as a month in advance.

Back to the frosting.  Combine that yummy dulce de leche with salt, the reserved burnt honey and then stir in heavy whipping cream.  Chill for 30 minutes (that’s the down time I was talking about earlier…so now’s the time to catch your breath).

Phew!  Now that 30 minutes have passed, you can whip the remaining heavy whipping cream until soft peaks.  Then slowly drizzle in the cooled honey/dulce mixture.

And whip until medium stiff peaks form.  Now’s a good opportunity to steal a lick.  So good right?!

Assembly time coming atchya!

Spread a heaping cup of that amazing whipped frosting between each layer.  It’s going to look like a lot, but trust me and go for it!  Go for more than you think you need, because remember the cake will soak in some of it….so be generous.

Now will you marvel at the beaut?!  I know you’ll be tempted to leave the sides naked, but covering it up is essential in softening up all the layers.

Remember those crumbs we had saved for a rainy day?  Now’s the time to use them.  So press them all over the sides, and if you want, over the top too.

Can we get a YAY! here because ladies a gentlemen…mission accomplished.

Not quite, but the rest of the work is the fridge’s duty, so you’re off the hook!  Let the cake sleep in there for a day or two.

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