When You Are Engulfed in… Cake

April 2009

I will forever be grateful to This American Life.  As I podcasted and knit my way through the extra weeks of winter, Ira Glass introduced me to David Sedaris.  I had met my superior in sarcastic people watching, and I humbly surrendered.  My neighbors probably thought I was losing my mind as the laughter passed through the thin walls.

When David Sedaris came to Pittsburgh, my friend Thiago treated me to a ticket.  From our seats in the sold out theater, we watched the tiny David Sedaris, on the stage far below, awkwardly read previously published works and some new pieces.  Watching someone read on a stage can be and was a strange dynamic, but I was desperate for new material from him after having requested everything possible from the library and combing the internet.  As a thank you note to Thiago, I made us a special dessert to eat after the show.

As David Sedaris is Greek and has several stories stemming from his family’s Greekness, I sought Greek inspiration for our dessert.  As always, I adapted the recipe to my baking/eating habits, and I also took some liberties on the frosting to achieve my “book” cover, but I’ll leave some of the original guidance for more authentic renditions.

In Greek: ραβανί, pronounced rah-vah-NEE

Ravani (also spelled “revani”) has its roots in Asia Minor and is made with a combination of flour and semolina (or farina). In some areas of Greece, Ravani is made with walnuts or rice, and a Lenten version is made with oil instead of butter. This version of Ravani is plain with the option of adding almonds, using a food processor.

Ingredients:

2 cups of fine-ground semolina
1 1/2 cups of whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 cup of pure cane sugar
1 cup of butter, softened
6 eggs, separated
1 cup of whole milk
1 teaspoon of grated orange peel
2 tablespoons of water

[For the Syrup]

3 1/2 cups of sugar
3 cups of water
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Optional

Decrease flour by 1/2 cup
Add 1/2 cups of crushed blanched almonds

[Topping]

1/2 cup chopped almonds or almond halves

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C).

Sift the flour and whisk with semolina, almonds if using, baking powder, and baking soda. In the processor mixing bowl, cream the butter. Add egg yolks, sugar, and grated orange peel and continue to mix until light and creamy.

Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, alternating with the milk, until completely blended.

Remove from processing bowl and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Whip the egg whites with 2 tablespoons of cold water to the stiff peak stage, and with a wooden spoon, stir carefully into the batter until thoroughly distributed.

Transfer the cake batter to a lightly greased and floured large baking pan (11 X 17 X 2-inch or equivalent) and spread evenly with a spatula. (Optional: sprinkle chopped almonds on top, or place almond halves on top before baking.)

Bake at 350°F (175°C) for approximately 30-35 minutes. Cake will pull away slightly from the sides of the baking pan when done.

Remove from the oven and allow cake to cool in the pan for 15-20 minutes before starting the syrup.

Prepare the syrup: Combine sugar and water in a saucepan and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Boil for 7-8 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and pour the hot syrup over the lukewarm cake, evenly and very carefully to avoid collapsing the cake, starting at the outside edges. Allow to cool completely before cutting into small square or diamond-shaped pieces.

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