If there was a family recipe in my family, this is it right here — Medvezhiy tort, or Bear’s Cake. My mom prepares it every 31st of December, without a fail. Usually early in the morning, before it is time to cut a few kilos of vegetables, debone a salted herring, and layer half a dozen salads for the New Year table.
Baking it in the morning means the cake will have full 24 hours to soak in the cream and turn soft. We’ve long abandoned the idea of having the cake at night, during the celebration: after a a few rounds of zakuski and several servings of salads, it is quite unimaginable to eat a main, let alone a dessert.
Which is even better, you know. Because on the morning of the 1st of January — possibly the best morning of the year, unless you are hungover, of course — one wakes up to the breakfast of salad leftovers and cake.
What I am going to tell you next might stir mixed emotions, but give me a chance, ok? So you wake up on the first day of the year and walk to the kitchen. It’s best if you are the first to wake up because there are only that many leftovers. And you want the best leftovers — like Olivier (a hearty salad of meat and vegetables) or kraboviy (crab salad that has no crab) and not, say, vinegret, which I usually love, but beets and carrots dressed in oil fade in comparison to the mayo-rich, heavy Olivier or herring under fur coat.
You put a few different salads on your plate, maybe accompanied by sprats on toast, salami, and pickles, and eat all that while watching a pre-recorded New Year show on one of the main channels. Then comes the cake!
Six or seven thin cake layers soaked in a dulce de leche cream, with a distinct crunch of walnuts. This cake is sweeeeeeet, an over-the-top extravaganza only conceivable on the first day of the year. Slicing through seven layers of cake that, even covered in cream, retain a slight crunch, is pure joy. You have the cake with a cup of freshly brewed black tea.
To some, last night’s cold salads dressed with mayonnaise followed by a sweet cake might sound like a horror of a breakfast. To me, it’s the breakfast I look forward to the whole year.
As traveling to Russia to celebrate New Year with my family was out of question in 2020, I made the cake myself for the first time. My mom didn’t develop the recipe for this cake herself. In fact, this recipe has the cutest story behind it.
When I was six or seven, I made my mom a “cookbook” as a present. And by “cookbook” I mean a few sheets of paper that I folded to look like a copybook. Inside, I glued cut outs with recipes from women’s magazines. To make it look like I did some actual work there, I wrote the titles of the recipes in my crooked handwriting on top of each cut-out. One of the recipes was for Bear’s cake. My mom has been making it every New Year ever since.
This year I asked her to send me a photo of that recipe — she still uses my “cookbook”. And on the morning of the 31st of December I made Bear’s cake myself for the first time.
One might say that this is not at all Bear’s cake, but Medovik, Russian honey cake. Like my husband did, once we dug into it the next morning. One has his reasons, I get it.
Like Medovik, this cake has many thin layers, the batter is made with honey, and crumbs are used for decoration. Besides, the cooking process is very similar. But!
I don’t think the two tablespoons of honey in the batter justify calling this cake a honey cake. No variation of Medovik that I ever encountered had walnuts in it. And, most importantly, once left to rest for 24 hours, Medovik turns into the softest, lightest concoction, while Bear’s cake retains a slight crunch.
In other words, same same, but different. After all, my hand-made cookbook says it’s Bear’s cake, my mom calls it Bear’s cake, so I am going to call it Bear’s cake, too.
The original recipe is quite short. For some reason, the author didn’t think baking temperature, for example, is of any importance. And when I asked my mom where the ingredient list is, she replied with: “you didn’t care to provide one”. So I added a more detailed description while translating it.
For the cream:
- 200 g butter, softened
- 1 tin (360g) dulce de leche*
- 100 g walnuts, chopped
For the batter:
- 100 g butter, melted
- 200 g (1 cup) sugar
- 2 tbsp honey
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 450 g (3 cups) flour
- 50 g walnuts, chopped
1. Start by making the cream. In a bowl, mix together softened butter with dulce de leche, until smooth and fully combined. Add chopped walnuts and mix with a spatula to incorporate the nuts. Leave the cream in refrigerator.
2. For the batter, in a pan mix together melted butter, sugar, honey, and eggs. Place the pan over medium heat and bring to boil, while mixing it with a wooden spoon. I know, I also expected the eggs to turn into omelette, but they didn’t!
3. Add two teaspoons of baking soda, wait for about 1 minute until the mixture starts foaming and remove from the heat.
4. Add flour and mix with a spatula until the dough comes together. Then place the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead just a few times to get a uniform texture. Wrap the dough in plastic, then cover it with a towel and leave to rest on the counter for 1 hour.
5. Heat the oven to 180C/350F. Line a tray with baking paper.
6. Once the dough is rested, divide it into 7 parts. It’s easy to do by weighing each piece, if you have a scale. Otherwise, make a roll and cut it into 7 parts. The original recipe says to make 5-6 parts, but I like my cake smaller in diameter, but taller. Roll the first piece of dough thinly, until it’s only about 2 mm thick. I find it easier to roll it out between two pieces of plastic.
7. Using a dessert plate (mine is 19 cm/7.5 inches), cut out a round. Carefully transfer the round onto the prepared baking tray. Bake for about 4-5 minutes, until the dough is golden brown. It’s best to stay nearby and check on the process. The original recipe calls for 10 minutes of baking time, my mom bakes it for only 3 minutes, my oven took 4 minutes. Once done, cool the round on a rack. Repeat to the other 6 pieces of dough.
8. Lastly, bake all the cut-offs of the dough, however weirdly-shaped. We’ll need them for decoration.
9. Assemble the cake. I like to do it on a cooling rack, then transfer the assembled cake onto a clean plate. You can do it on a plate too, but the sides will get messy. Place the first round on a cooling rack. Spread the cream on top. Cover with the next round. Continue until you stacked all the rounds on top of each other. Cover the top round and the sides of the cake with cream. Go easy on the cream, as it is just enough to cover the cake, there won’t be any leftovers.
10. With your hands, crumble the cut-offs of the cake into small pieces. Mix the crumbs with chopped walnuts and use this mixture to cover the top and the sides of the cake. You can also use a food processor to turn cut-offs into fine crumbs, like I did for the pictures in this post. I do, however, usually prefer larger pieces.
11. Transfer the cake to a clean plate, if you were assembling it on a rack. Place the cake in the fridge for at least 24 hours. Take it out of the fridge at least an hour before you plan to serve it.
* You can make your own dulce de leche by boiling a tin of sweetened condenced milk for about 3 hours. Important: make sure the tin is covered by water at all times!