It’s a cake to impress the czars and Russian nobility
One of the most stunning cakes one can ever behold is the Russian Honey Cake. Tall and regal looking, it is laced with burnt honey, and consists of multiple layers of cake interspersed with fluffy whipped cream frosting, surrounded by toasty cake crumbs. It is truly a cake to impress the czars and Russian nobility—or in this contemporary times, anyone with the good fortune of coming upon it.
My idea of Russian honey cake, however, comes from a novel based on Russian folklore. Written by Katherine Arden, “The Bear and the Nightingale” weaves a tale of magical creatures that haunt the forests in the darkness of winter. At the center of the novel is Vasilisa Petrovna, a feisty young girl with secret powers of her own.
Spirited and adventurous, she often disappears in the woods beyond the house where she was born—sometimes bringing with her a stash of honey cakes swiped from the family kitchen.
Given that this was 14th-century Russia, winters were extremely harsh and food was scarce. Honey cakes, therefore, were especially prized, especially by children like Vasilisa.
I can only imagine what this cake tastes like. Certainly they wouldn’t look like the modern version of honey cake, with its elaborate layers and silky whipped cream frosting. Since Vasilisa carried them around, I imagine it must be a simple cake, portable enough to sneak into the forests.
The opportunity to experiment with making a honey cake presented itself recently when my friends from the Maya Kitchen, Lourdes and Ernie Fajardo, sent me a few boxes of Maya Yellow Decadence Cake Mix.
I substituted burnt honey for some of the water in the recipe, and baked the cake in a 10”x 14” cake pan. To my surprise I got it on first try. The burnt honey imbued the cake with an appetizing amber color, while the honey poured on top of the finished cake gave it a shiny glaze.
One bonus of making this cake: the burnt honey will surround your kitchen with the sweet aroma of caramel candy. I wish I could bake some honey cake for Vasilisa, the story’s courageous heroine, right now.
Russian Honey Cake
For the honey sauce:
1 c honey
¼ c water
For the cake:
1 box Maya Decadence Yellow Cake Mix
1/3 c vegetable oil
½ c + 1 Tbsp water
½ c burnt honey sauce (see above)
To serve (optional)
Whipped cream frosting (recipe below)
Make the honey sauce:
Pour the honey into a wide cooking pan and heat over medium heat. When the honey starts to bubble, stir continuously with a wire whisk. Let simmer until the liquid turns a shade darker, stirring continuously. Remove from heat and whisk in the water. This makes one cup. Set aside.
Bake the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Brush the bottom of a 10” x 14” baking pan with cooking oil or spray with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom with waxed paper or with parchment paper (or baking paper), leaving a two-inch overhang on the left and right sides (for easier removal of the cake later on). Press the paper to the pan so it will stick.
Combine the Maya cake mix, oil, water, the one-half-cup honey sauce, and eggs in a large mixing bowl. Beat with a wire whisk until well blended. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and use an offset spatula to spread the mixture evenly.
Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. Let cool for about 10 minutes, then use a fork to poke holes at regular intervals on the cake. Pour the remaining honey sauce on the cake. Let cool for two hours, so the cake absorbs the honey, then cut into squares. Makes about 24 honey cake squares.
Whipped cream frosting:
2 c whipping cream, well chilled
¼ c powdered sugar, or to taste
1 tsp vanilla extract
Chill the mixing bowl of an electric mixer and the wire whisk beaters in the refrigerator for at least one hour (the utensils must be very cold). Pour the whipping cream into the chilled bowl of an electric mixer and whisk the cream, starting with low speed. Add the powdered sugar and gradually increase the speed to medium. Add the vanilla extract. Continue beating until stiff peaks form. Do not overbeat.
Serve with the honey cake.