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It’s a birthday, so I start with cake.
More than anything else, I am Croatian. This much has been earned by a lifetime of correcting my mispronounced last name. Gusick. Gus, ick. Guh-sick. Not Goose Ick, not Goose Itch, and definitely not, as I once heard over an airport loudspeaker, “Goose Egg”. Even as a Sala, I am a Gusick. So this is where I begin.
I find a recipe for the Croatian “Splitska Torta”, a layered cake from the city of Split. Made with figs, raisins, and walnuts, its earthiness brings me across the sea and back in time, two places that honor the natural sweetness of things grown on trees. These ingredients are homey even to me, and it comforts me to imagine a great-great-great-someone-or-other making this. Also, I love a layered dessert.
I’m challenged right away by finding a recipe I understand. It takes a few internet searches to define “dg”, a metric I learn is the decagram. I try to patchwork a recipe out of measurements in grams and cups, but mostly I’m winging it. This bit of problem-solving is a good reminder that I’m leaving home now, in my own kitchen but on someone else’s terms.
The recipe is simple. When I’ve chopped the fruit and nuts and beat the egg whites and sugar into peaks, I fold it all together lightly. It smoothes out over the parchment paper in a pearly layer, and I hold it up to look at the sheen a few times before putting it in the oven.
Because of the egg whites, the cake layer feels like cotton candy when it’s baked. For a moment it holds a curl when I peel it off the parchment paper, then lowers itself back down to the pan. It’s lumpy, thin, and pocked with brown—“rustic” may not be strong enough here—but it smells the way all baked goods smell, and that’s how I know I did it right. Or right enough.
Without any spices, the cake has a universality. It relies on the warmth of vanilla and the sugars of dried fruit for its flavor, refusing any one cardinal direction; it could be from almost anywhere. It’s approachable, non-fussy. For someone who favors chocolate desserts, I might even mistake it for breakfast. It already feels like a family dish, and its unsexiness is just right.
My plating is equally homely. Although I cut the cake carefully and with a sharp knife, the edges look hand-torn. The perimeter is decided by the placement of the fruits and nuts, and my four layers don’t seem to realize each other exist. I continue anyway. The yellow icing is thick and satisfying to slather on, like a melting bar of farmer’s market soap. It might be what saves this cake. When I’m finished, I look at it from all angles. It’s not beautiful. But here it is.
The following is the recipe I used, as found here
You’ll need for CAKE LAYER
15 dg walnuts
15 dg raisins
15 dg dried figs
9 egg whites
4 tablespoon of flour
9 tablespoon of sugar 1.Cut walnuts, raisins, dried figs in small pieces, then mix them together with flour.
Cut walnuts, raisins, dried figs in small pieces, then mix them together with flour.
In a large mixer bowl whip egg whites and with the mixer still running sprinkle granulated sugar into it. Continue whipping until firm peaks form .
Then carefully add all ingredients into the mixture and lightly stir it all together.
Spread it into rectangular baking pan, lined with parchment paper. Bake it in preheated oven cca 30 minutes on 180C until yellowish.
9 egg yolks
4 tablespoon of powder sugar
1 Vanilla sugar
20 dg butter
Cook it all together on BAGNIA MARIA (heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water) until cream becomes thick.
When the cream is almost cool add butter and stir it until completely melted in vanilla cream.
Then cut the cake layer in rectangular strips along the long side of pan.
Top each slice with cream, finish with cream on top of the cake and around all sides of the cake.
You can decorate it with halves of walnuts.
Serve with cold whipped cream.