One of my favourite things about being fairly adept at cooking is the fact that I am able to recreate dishes I've tasted. While some people's memories of an amazing cake or meal they've eaten abroad remain exactly that - memories - I am quite thrilled by the fact that my obsession with culinary experimentation means that I am often able to at least come close to recreating something delicious I've eaten in a far-flung country, or at a nice restaurant. Of course, holiday eating I find often relies mainly on the context; obviously mussels will taste better if eaten in the glorious sunshine beside the sea in the south of France, but sometimes evoking those memories through taste can be a satisfying experience in itself. This was definitely the case when I set out to replicate bublanina, a Czech confection that - I think - translates as 'bubble cake' because of the way the batter bubbles up around the fruit.
My recent trip to Prague involved all sorts of excellent - and expensive - eating, but, as is so often the case with food abroad, most of my favourite things were obtained from stalls in the Easter market. From the stomach-stretching carbohydrate-overload of the gnocchi with bacon and sauerkraut, to the sheer divine goodness of TRDLO, Prague's market had more than enough to keep me gastronomically satisfied for the duration of the trip. One of the highlights was the bubble cake, which initially I thought was a mini blueberry crumble in a paper case:
I have vivid memories of eating this cake, standing up at a small wooden table perched outside the stall that sold it, plastic fork in hand, boyfriend taking photos of me eating (which normally would irk me, but I was far too absorbed in consuming baked sustenance to notice). I've mentioned it several times now, but the main revelation of this cake was that it had strawberries in. That's right. Cooked strawberries. Until that day, the notion of cooking strawberries was to my food-literature-influenced mind as heinous as serving a fillet steak well-done, or buying battery eggs. I was assured, vehemently, by all sorts of influential culinary personae that it is just not done. I remember the tragic moment on the Great British Bake-Off where one of my favourite contestants made the grave and fatal error of attempting to put a layer of strawberries in his steamed pudding. They collapsed into a sad puddle of despair, as did his dreams of winning the contest. Mary Berry's watchful eye took in every last disintegrated berry with scorn and repugnance.
They are wrong. A revelation, I know. I am breaking all the boundaries of food writing and cookery here, but I am proud to do so, because these cooked strawberries were just so good. They had somewhat disintegrated into the cake batter to leave a moist, jammy sensation, which provided a glorious burst of sweetness. The cake contained other fruits - blueberries and plums were its main components - which had held their shape better, so the strawberries just provided a delicious contrast, particularly because they were sweeter than the other fruits.
It's sad, perhaps, and a sign of how obsessed with food I am, but that cake really did make its mark on my mind, and it was as if a whole world of culinary possibilities opened up, all revolving around the humble strawberry. A week or so later, I tried sliced strawberries in pancake batter. The same thing happened: they turned jammy, sweet and delicious. For the last few weeks, I've been itching to try and recreate the bubble cake, complete with controversial strawberries.
Finally, I got round to it. I looked up a few Czech recipes online, and in the end decided to follow none of them, mainly because they all seemed to suggest making a normal sponge cake and just putting berries on the top. The one I ate in Prague didn't have that sponginess to it; I'm pretty sure the cake mixture was more of a batter, with less butter and more of something like milk. In the end, I decided just to try making a similar batter, using yoghurt instead of milk to thicken it. I did use a bit of butter, made light and fluffy by whisking it with brown sugar and eggs, then added flour and enough yoghurt to form almost a dough. I also added a bit of almond extract, which was a stroke of genius (even if I say so myself). I was torn between almond and vanilla, but I think almond with berries is just wonderful, and it reminds me of bakewell tart.
For the fruit on top, obviously the strawberries were first in there. I also used blueberries, which were definitely in the cake in Prague, as were plums - I used four, thinly sliced - and then I added some cherries too, mainly because I can't resist their gorgeous shiny skins in the market and keep buying loads. I've also just bought a cherry pitter, and I can say completely truthfully that the highlight of that day was using it for the first time. Note to self: wear an apron next time.
Fruit hulled/pitted/sliced, I just scattered it over the top of the batter in the cake tin. The name 'bubble cake', I think, comes from the fact that the batter sort of bubbles up around the fruit as it cooks. I could have put some fruit into the batter itself, but decided to just leave it on top, so I'd get a lovely layer of juicy berries balanced by a light pillow of sponge.
A little while in the oven later - longer than I thought, because the fruit released a lot of juice which kept the top of the cake moist and prevented it cooking through easily - my bubble cake emerged. It looked perfect; the fruit had cooked but still held its shape, and the batter had risen up and cooked. In fact, it looked just like a larger version of the little cake I had eaten in Prague at that wooden table. I let it cool for a bit, dusted it with icing sugar, and dived in - this time with a metal spoon, not a plastic fork.
As I think I've said before, the problem with blogging about things I've cooked is that they're always nice (otherwise I wouldn't share them with you - believe me, there have been a few failures). Therefore it's hard to get across quite how good something is without using obvious words like delicious, divine, sublime, excellent, etc. However, I can truly say that this is perhaps the best cake I have ever made. I'm so proud of it, especially because I just came up with the recipe and really doubted it would match Prague's version. I think it might even be better - but this is probably because I ate mine fresh from the oven and served with a big scoop of chocolate ice cream.
How to convey its brilliance? Difficult, really. The cake is incredibly light and moist; it almost melts in the mouth, and leaves a very slight hint of almond that somehow makes it sweeter. The berries are tart, a perfect contrast, and the layer where sponge meets berry is the absolute pinnacle of deliciousness; sweet, sticky, juicy. It's not too heavy a dessert to eat after a big meal, either. In fact, it's everything I want from a dessert: the satisfying stodginess of sponge, the sweet tartness of fruit, and the option of serving it with ice cream. I made chocolate ice cream to go with it, but vanilla would be perfect. Vanilla custard, clotted cream, creme fraiche or chocolate sauce would all go brilliantly too. The beauty of this cake is its versatility. You could make it with pretty much any fruit - apricots would be divine, as would figs or raspberries. I can't wait to make it again.
Czech bubble cake (serves 8):
- 150g light muscovado sugar
- 50g softened butter
- 2 eggs
- 200g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Yoghurt - about 200ml
- 1/2 tsp almond essence (or vanilla extract)
- A pinch of salt
- Fruit for the topping - I used a large handful each of plums, cherries, strawberries and blueberries
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Mix the butter and sugar together with an electric whisk until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well in between. Sift in the flour and baking powder, almond essence, and the pinch of salt, then mix well. Finally, add enough yoghurt to create quite a thick dough, almost as thick as bread dough. You want it to support the fruit when you scatter it on top.
Pour the batter into a greased and lined 22cm springform cake tin.
Prepare the fruit - slice the plums, stone the cherries, halve the strawberries, etc. Press about two thirds of the fruit into the top of the batter. Scatter the rest over the top.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until the batter has cooked through and is firm to the touch. Allow to cool a little before serving with your choice of accompaniment - or just as it is.