I’ve never understood why the phrase is “easy as pie” as opposed to “easy as cake.” Pie, in my mind, equals not so easy. Getting a crust right is a tricky thing; at least, it can be for me, though at this point I sort of get how to do it. Mind you, I worked in a pastry shop for a summer and took a Zingerman’s pie making class; a magazine I was working for paid for it, which helped. Then there’s the filling, involving cutting fruit up, no big deal with bananas, a 2nd circle of hell thing with cherries.
Cake, on the other hand, is easy peasy lemon squeezy—in this case, literally, because of, well, the lemon. True, a sponge cake can be a little gnarly, given the whole separated egg thing, but we’ll save that for another day. This Spiced Lemon Walnut Rosemary Cake, on the other hand, couldn’t be simpler. It’s really lovely for springtime. I split this recent one between two good friends, Steve, and my son, and they all made kind of a big deal about it. The kid had to pick out the walnuts, but liked the rest so much he didn’t mind.
Note that exact ingredients are below, as is required for baking. Baking is not an improv thing unless you’re some sort of baking genius. Which I am certainly not.
You can make this in a Bundt pan, which I like because 1) they’re pretty in a frumpy way, and 2) I also like the way they portion out. But you can also use a flat glass pan, like a casserole dish. Should you use the Bundt pan, you MUST apply first a generous layer of fat—coconut oil, butter, or non-stick spray—followed by a good dusting of flour, which you then tamp out so there’s no excess. I skipped the flour and you can see the result below. The top of the cake decided to stay in the pan. As long as the cake is still hot, this isn’t a complete disaster; you can just scoop it out and press it back in place. Still, if you’re trying to impress someone, and just to circumvent a case of severe kitchen frustration, do the flour.
Use a whisk to combine dry ingredients. A great trick I learned during that summer in the pastry shop.
If you have leftover buttermilk, freeze it in little muffin cups. It’s super handy, I always have to buy more than I can use, and voila, no waste. You can always sub it for milk in any baking recipe; it has more body and flavor.
This is an oil-based cake rather than a buttery one. Use what’s known as “tasteless” oil. This doesn’t mean oil used by fans of Baywatch. Snort! This means oil without a taste, so olive is out. But sunflower, grapeseed, canola, even avocado work fine.
For this type of cake, add the dry ingredients and buttermilk in layers. Start by putting a third of the dry ingredients into the oil/sugar mix, then add half the buttermilk. Etc, until both are used up. You want to start and end with dry ingredients, so that’s why they’re in thirds and the buttermilk in halves. Why? I don’t know!
Fold in the walnuts at the very end. The walnuts are finely chopped, so distribute fine. If you have a walnut hater, wait til the cake is in the pan. Gently add the walnuts to the pan, leaving them out of however much of it the walnut hater will eat.
Make the syrup ahead—even a day or three if you’re serving the cake as part of big do and you want to advance prep. You want to pour/brush cold syrup on the hot cake, the better to infuse the cake with the flavor. Do this with the cake on a rack over a plate after you’ve poked a bunch of wholes in the cake with a skewer; I reuse my cake tester to dandy effect. You’ll end up with syrup on the plate, which you then add to the cake, getting as much of the syrup in there as you can.
Serve with lemon sorbet for a little lemon madness or really good vanilla ice cream to counter the lemon. Or raspberry or strawberry sorbet for crazy color contrasts. And of course, since it’s a coffee cake, coffee.
Look, even if you’re intimidated by bread, Greek Easter Bread is crazy easy and crazy delish.
I do get that bread can intimidate. There’s the rising, and the fact that yeast is a little temperamental. There’s the kneading, which needs to be done enough, and yet not too much. In this case, there’s the braiding, but that’s kinda fun.
In fact, it’s all pretty fun. This particular recipe hails from the April 2004 issue of Bon Appetit, and was part of a big Greek Easter feast. Without the red eggs, you just have a spectacularly yummy bread braid. You could also do any color eggs you want. Whatever way you bake it, you will end up with a fragrant, barely sweet, buttery puffy loaf. You don’t need more butter, but you can add some if you’re feeling especially decadent.
My son, who likes few things better than ripping a piece of bread off a freshly-baked loaf, couldn’t quite get over this one. “What’s in this, Mom?”
The grated citrus peel, both lemon and orange, adds a lot of flavor. But the true secret of a wonderfully enigmatic Greek Easter Bread is mahlepi, or mahleb, aka ground dried cherry pits. You will have to venture to a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean market to find it, but you can substitute a teaspoon for 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract in any baked good. While you’re there—if you’re there in the spring—look for the special red Easter egg dye. It’s stronger than the mix of beet juice, turmeric, and red food coloring that I used.
Greek Easter Bread: A Few Tips
2-3 days ahead, dye hard-boiled eggs in deep red dye. Let them sit in the dye until you’re ready to bake the bread. I use 3 eggs in the bread, but to have some extra deep red eggs on hand is cool. They are really beautiful and unusual.
Whisk a package of yeast into 1/4 cup of warm (about 100-110º) water. Let it rest undisturbed until it gets thick and a little bubbly. If this doesn’t happen, your yeast done bit the dust. Do not proceed until you find some working yeast.
Exact proportions are listed in the recipe. Get out your hand held electric mixer to cream soft butter and sugar together. You’ll then beat in an egg, the citrus peel and mahleb or vanilla, warm milk, and flour. Once you get the egg in and as you add the milk, the mixture may look “broken.” In other words, the butter won’t be so smooth any more. Don’t worry; as you add the flour, first with the mixer, then with a spatula, it will all come back together in a lovely soft dough.
You need the dough til it’s smooth and satiny, then let it rest to rise. In theory, this should take about 1 and 1/2 to 1:45. Mine took closer to 2 1/2 hours. Don’t despair; if your yeast is live, the bread will rise. Just give it time, and keep it in a warmish place (but not the oven).
Gently knead the risen bread down, then separate it into 3 pieces. To make the bread into ropes, you kind of roll and pinch until you have a 24-inch rope, three times.
Braiding the braid is a little more like a French braid; the video shows how I got to kind of a false start, and frankly the end is a little messy. So tweak that to your hearts content.
Then make the indentations for the eggs. Blot the eggs like crazy; they’ll still bleed a little, but don’t worry. Press them into the little dents you’ve made in the bread. Let rise a second time, till lovely and puffy.
Bake at 350º for 20 minutes, then turn the bread and bake another 10. The finished bread should be golden and make a nice hollow sound when you tap the bottom.
You can definitely eat this bread all by itself, but a little butter, jam, honey, quark, or labneh is also lovely. And Greek coffee on the side makes it even better. Here, it’s part of a table of Greek appetizers including Greek salad and spanikopita.