Thursday, January 5, 2012

Saint Phanourios's Cake

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on a friend's blog about Saint Phanourios's Cake. As a Greek girl with lots of long standing family traditions, I was surprised that I had never heard of such a cake. I was intrigued by the story - Saint Phanourios is the patron saint of lost things, and while making this cake, the baker is supposed to conjure up a lost thing and pray to Saint Phanourios for clarity and assistance to find what has been lost. Not a religious person, I was still struck by the meaning behind a baked good and imagined that for Greek Orthodox women, this may be a very important cake. I was looking for something to make as a Christmas gift to Jeff's parents and figured that a recipe that pertained to my heritage and love of food would be perfect.

Saint Phanourios's Cake

Recipe, adapted from Leite's Culinaria:

1 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup red wine (it calls for brandy - I didn't have any and saw that other bakers had tried wine)
1 cup sugar
1 cup chopped walnuts
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Powdered sugar for dusting (optional)

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan. Dust the pan with flour, tap out any excess, and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the oil, orange juice, wine, and sugar until thoroughly combined. Mix in the chopped walnuts.

Sift together into a medium bowl the 4 cups of flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and cloves. In small batches, add the flour mixture to the brandy mixture, whisking vigorously as you go. Continue whisking until completely combined. The batter will be very thick and slightly gummy..

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Before putting the cake into the oven, pause to say whatever kind of prayer you feel comfortable with as you focus on the thing you hope to find.

Bake the cake until the top looks hard and golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then remove the cake from the pan and let it cool completely on a wire rack.

Sift powdered sugar on top. Traditionally, the cake is now given away whole or cut into nine pieces and shared with others. Wrap leftovers well as the cake dries out easily.

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Baking this cake was a rather moving experience. I rarely think about anything while baking aside from reminding myself to wait for things to cool before I try them, so to actually have a genuine thought in my head was refreshing. My lost thing was not literal or tangible - in light of recent events, I was asking to find my courage and bravery, maturity and understanding, which sometimes get lost in the shuffle. While I don't know if I've found it completely, I do feel more in tune with my thoughts. Baking this cake helped me find a little piece of myself.

When we sliced into it a few days before Christmas, I had no idea what to expect. It was extremely aromatic, dense but light, and full of interesting flavors. I had used a 9-inch baking pan and the outside was dry while the middle was slightly undercooked. All in all, I found it to be a strange cake, but not one that I wouldn't try again.

While home for the holidays, my mom and I were planning the menu for a large family dinner. I wanted to contribute dessert, and hadn't stopped thinking about this cake. What better group of diners to share it with than my own Greek family? I gave it another shot. This time I baked it in a Bundt pan to cook more evenly, used brandy, olive oil instead of vegetable oil, and added currants in addition to walnuts. We also served it with ice cream - vanilla, coffee, and caramel.

St. Phanourios's Cake, round two

This cake came out much better, probably because I followed the recipe! To be creative is not always to be right. The Bundt pan also made a huge difference, as the cake was evenly cooked and not quite as thick. The ice cream also added a special something - similar to what I would assume icing could do for the cake. I would also categorize this cake as more of a bread, something one could enjoy with coffee or for breakfast. I'm glad I tried it again, and that I shared it with my family, introducing us to a new Greek recipe with a great story behind it.

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