Sharing Easter with my wife's family is like taking a trip back to old-world Poland.
After leaving the motherland more than 25 years ago, her parents immersed themselves in the American lifestyle except for food. And it's most evident on Easter.
After denying themselves their beloved kielbasas and other meats for Lent, they indulge in a luxuriously long Easter lunch of a smorgasbord of meat dishes.
For dessert the goal was to make a selection of treats that didn't require a lot of kitchen time. Under Russian rule, chocolate was all but out, so it's still missing from the meal. Instead, it's simple cakes with fruit, sugar or nut toppings.
My favorite cake made by my mother-in-law for the holiday is an almond Easter babka, an unyeasted almond-laced sponge cake made from potato starch.
If sponge cake doesn't excite you, consider its versatility. It can be soaked in a sauce or topped with icing, glazes or compotes. It can be cut in half and layered with jam or whipped cream.
I prefer the simplicity of an elegant dusting with powdered sugar.
Good sponge cake is light and springy. And you need a light touch to make it a touch I acquired through wasting many eggs.
The most crucial step in making this cake is gently folding the whipped egg whites into the creamy yolk batter. Overmixing will deflate the egg whites, resulting in a dense cake that won't rise well.
Because of its flexibility, the best tool for folding is a rubber spatula. The technique is simple, but it can take some practice to master.
Starting in the center of the bowl, slice to the bottom of the batter with the spatula, then gently pull toward you and lift the spatula up, turning the spatula over and folding the yolk mixture over the whites. Turn the bowl about a quarter-turn and repeat. Continue just until the whites are just blended.Another thing I learned that will make things much easier is to line your pan with bread crumbs after buttering it. The cake will easily slide out of even the most elaborate Bundt pan.
POLISH EASTER ALMOND BABKA
Start to finish: 75 minutes (45 minutes active)
Makes one 12-cup Bundt cake
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup plain bread crumbs
10 egg yolks, room temperature
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted, plus more for garnish
Juice and zest of 1 lemon (about 1/4 cup juice and 1 tablespoon zest)
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup potato starch
5 egg whites, room temperature
2/3 cup ground almonds
Preheat oven to 350 F. Use the butter the coat the inside of a 12-cup Bundt or fluted cake pan. Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the butter and swirl to coat evenly.
Use a stand mixer with the paddle attachment to mix the yolks and powdered sugar on medium for about 2 minutes, or until it looks a deep creamy yellow.
Mix in the lemon juice and zest and the almond extract. Lower the speed and add the potato starch. Mix until fully incorporated, about 2 to 3 minutes. Pour batter into a large bowl and set aside.
Wash and dry the mixer bowl. Using the mixer's whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on high until the form firm peaks, about 3 minutes.
Use a spatula or large spoon to gently fold about a quarter of the egg whites into the batter. Mix in the ground almonds. Fold in the remaining egg whites, being careful not to overmix.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan. Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Cool in the cake in the pan for 5 minutes, or until the sides start to pull away. Invert the cake onto a cooling rack and cool completely.
To serve, dust with powdered sugar and decorate with sliced almonds. Should be made a day ahead and stored at room temperate, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. Recipe adapted from Zofia Czerny's "Polish Cookbook," 1961