Thursday, December 25, 2014

Traditional Hungarian Dobos Torte

This dessert only happens once a year in our house, not necessarily because it is difficult. Making it is only a moderately lengthy process, not particularly tricky, and honestly it's hard to ruin it. The real reason is, having it only once per annum keeps it special.  We all look forward to this dessert as the grand finale of our Mikulas Day Hungarian dinner, a family tradition you can read about here on my other blog (The Only Thing Constant). I have, like my mother, made a few exceptions to this rule and made it for special occasions like cultural heritage days at school or church Christmas parties. But on a normal year, it only makes one very anticipated appearance. I actually gave up chocolate for a full 11 months one year, but December was out because of this cake. I had to have it. And my year is still not complete without a slice. In fact, while we were on tour and living in extended-stay hotels with sadly under-equipped kitchens, I was so determined to have this cake for Mikulas dinner that I bought a whimpy little hand-crank beater (because I was too cheap to buy an electric one) and attempted to beat the egg whites and whip the frosting with it. It took forever, nearly gave me blisters, and I'm pretty sure I broke the confounded contraption before it was over. The frosting had lumps of unmelted chocolate, and the cake may not have been so fluffy, but it made that tiny sour-smelling apartment thousands of miles from home feel like heaven.

There are several versions of this recipe floating around out there. This one was handed down from my Hungarian great-grandmother, who lived in Budapest as a little girl when the cake was first popular. She and her family immigrated to America in 1905, a year before the inventor retired and finally released his original recipe to the public. So whether this version was her mother's improvisational attempt at recreating it, or they picked up the recipe when they returned to Hungary for grandma to attend finishing school as a teenager remains a bit of a family mystery. Either way, the cake is delicious, and to me has the rich taste of both family tradition and my Magyar roots.

One of the things that makes a dobos unique is its multiple layers, traditionally 9. Mom usually made 8, baking 4 at a time, but 3 rounds of 3 would work as well. When I was a kid, mom had 4 old metal swivel pans she used to make the delicate sponge layers. I don't think they served any other purpose, so every year we had to find them (sometimes we forgot where they were stored), buff them clean if they were dusty and turn the arms to make sure they weren't stuck. The swivel arms were nice and tight, and buttering and flouring them heavily so the cakes fell easily out without too much fuss was just part of the routine. Sadly, they don't make 'em like they used to, and when I began my own household and was gifted a set of my own, the swivel arms were pathetically loose and would wobble and mutilate my poor cakes as I tried to wrench them from the pan. Even worse, since you have to use the pans twice in a row, cleaning the gap under the arms became a frustrating race between baking rounds to clean up the mess, dry the pans, rebutter, flour and fill them before the remaining batter fell too flat.

Then my mom found an awesome solution. She bought me four regular-old 8 inch cake pans as well as teflon inserts that fit perfectly in the bottom. It's hard to find the teflon inserts anymore (did someone decide they weren't safe?) but I see similar silicone ones on Amazon which would work just as well, or you can use parchment paper rounds, which you can either buy pre-cut or make your own. With my teflon inserts, all I do is lightly spray with cooking spray, no flour needed. When I turn out the cake, they fall right out, and the teflon peels cleanly off. I don't even bother washing them before baking the next round, just apply a second coat of cooking spray and go.

My sister Rebecca's dobos sans edge frosting
The cake layers cool very quickly, so they are ready to frost pretty much right away. The frosting is by far my favorite part! It is silky smooth thanks to more than a cup of butter and two egg yolks, giving it a very similar taste and texture to a French Silk Pie. In fact, the only difference is the use of powdered sugar instead of granulated and the addition of heavy cream (what food is there that heavy cream can't make even better?). The amount of frosting you make varies depending on your choice of how to frost the cake. According to my sister, the traditional way to frost the cake was only between the layers, leaving the impressive stacks of sponge cake visible. Otherwise, the cake can be frosted between layers and up the sides, leaving the top for a hard candy covering of boiled sugar water. This was the way Mom usually made it. Getting the candy to just the right state was the biggest challenge of all. It had to turn this perfect golden color, and then you had to pour it immediately onto the cake top. Too long on the heat and the candy would be hard to pour and lay on too thick, too short and it would stay semi-soft and ruin the effect of the first cut.

Cutting the cake is the big spectacle of the night,
but these guys are admittedly hamming it up a bit!
This photo is from 2011, when Mom spent Mikulas
with my youngest 2 brothers and their families
and was the honorary cake cutter.
You see, the big moment of serving the dobos is cutting the cake. The hard candy top had to be smacked hard with a knife, cracking the top right along the knife's edge. You had to aim just right to get the slices even. For years, we thought this was the way the cake got it's name. Dobos means drum, and we were told it was called a drum cake because you beat it like a drum when you cut into it. Some of us did a little research, though, and learned that the cake was invented by Mr. J√≥zsef C. Dobos, a confectioner from Budapest in the late 1800's. Finding that out was a little disappointing, but we still call it a drum cake, and we still get excited about that first smack as we cut into it. Last year when I cut the cake I actually broke my chef's knife! The blade snapped clean off. It was less the fault of the candy top as it was the hidden rust on the tang, so don't be afraid to use your good knife. Personally, I never much liked the taste of the candy top anyway. It was always more about the spectacle for me. So this year, I frosted the whole cake, including the top, and made some pretty hard candy lace to decorate the top. It wasn't as exciting to cut into, but the effect was quite beautiful and gave everyone the option of still eating the candy, or easily avoiding it. The best part of all: more frosting!

In the past, I have loved this cake best on the second day, when it was well chilled and the frosting was cold and firm. It tasted like a cold truffle center to me. This year, however, there wasn't room in the fridge or time to bake it the day before, so I made it in the morning and left it in a place on my counter that stays rather cool from the air that pours in through the kitchen vent. Without being refrigerated, the sponge cake seemed a lot more moist to me, and I think I preferred the taste in general. The cake is okay in a cool place for a couple days, but any longer (which is unlikely around here) and it ought to be refrigerated because of the raw eggs in the frosting.

But enough talk, let's bake! Here is the recipe:

Sponge Cake:
10 eggs, separated, (2 yolks reserved for frosting, below)
9 tablespoons sugar
9 tablespoons flour

Frosting (use bold amount for frosting the full cake):
1 1/2 or 1 1/4 cup salted butter, softened
2 reserved egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 or 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted and cooled slightly
3 or 2 1/2 cup powdered sugar
About 1 cup heavy whipping cream

Candy Top (optional):
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water

Preheat oven to 400°. Line four round cake pans with silicon or teflon inserts, or parchment paper rounds and spray lightly with cooking spray.

Beat egg whites, adding sugar 1 tablespoon at a time until stiff. Add 8 of the yolks, one at a time, blending very well. Carefully sift in one tablespoon of flour at a time and gently fold in until well blended. Spread about 1 cup of batter in each cake pan, gently smoothing top with spatula. Bake 6 min, until just golden. While cakes bake, spread wax paper on counter top and sprinkle generously with granulated sugar. When cakes are done, flip them out onto the sugared paper and gently peel away the inserts. Return the inserts to the pan, spray again lightly, fill with remaining batter, and bake as before.

For the frosting, beat the butter until fluffy, add yolks, vanilla, and chocolate, beat well, scraping the sides of the bowl often. Add the powdered sugar and start to add the cream until you reach the right consistency. Continue to beat at moderately high speed. The frosting will turn a very light color and look very fluffy and heavenly! Try not to eat it...yet. If you're doing the candy top, choose your prettiest cake layer and save it for the top. Layer the cakes with frosting on a cake plate, frost the sides and if you want, frost the top.

For the hard candy top, boil sugar and water in a small sauce pan without stirring. After boiling for what seems like a long time, it will suddenly turn golden. It should be a good amber gold, and that's your sign that it's done. Pour it immediately on top of the cake, and spread quickly to the edge by gently tipping and rolling the cake, or use the back of a greased spoon. Or, if you want to make candy lace, prepare a sheet of baking parchment with cooking spray. Allow the candy to cool in the pot about 2 minutes, then use a spoon to drizzle it in swirly circular patterns on the greased parchment paper, making 6 or more separate "disks." Cool completely, remove from the paper and stick them upright in the cake top, or arrange them however you like.

To cut into a cake with a hard candy top, use a very sharp sturdy knife, take good aim, and smack the top hard, then slice. Repeat for each slice.

Happy Mikulas!

Sponge cakes laid out to cool on well sugared wax paper.
The sugar prevents the delicate cakes from sticking too the paper.

Teflon inserts fit perfectly into the cake pan and allow a clean release of the baked sponge cake.
Silicon or parchment circles work just as well. Spray lightly with cooking spray. 

The frosting turns a try pale color when whipped properly.
Just wait until AFTER frosting the cake to lick the beaters!
Boil the sugar water until it turns amber gold. Then pour onto the cake immediately, or... 
…cool slightly and drizzle with a spoon onto greased parchment.
Cool and arrange on frosted cake top.

Special thanks to my brother, James Hoffman, and my sister, Rebecca Carlson, for sharing some of their photos for use in this blog post!