BY CATHERINE A. HAMILTON
For almost a year, I’ve been planning to bake this old-world cake in celebration of Saint John Paul II’s birthday on May 18. I learned the traditional Polish Kremówka was renamed Kremówka Papieska (kreh-MOOF-kah pah-PYESS-kah), or Papal Cream Cake, when word spread that it was Pope John Paul II’s favorite cake.
As a boy growing up in Wadowice, Poland, Karol Wojtyła and his friends would save up their money for weeks to buy a slice of Kremówka at the local bakery. The rebranding of the dessert started in Wadowice during a papal visit and it caught on in Krakow. Now all across Poland the delightful cream-filled cake is known as Kremówka Papieska. And it was voted the by Poles as one of two “National Birthday Cakes.”
As usual, I started my recipe research with my go-to Polish cookbook, Polish Heritage Cookery. It contained a very old version of Kremówka, known as Carpathian Mountain Cake because of the dusting of powdered sugar on its top resembling the snow covering the Carpathian peaks. I sifted through internet cooking sites and found no end to lovely Kremówka recipes, old and new. Some cakes are round like a pie, some are square, and some rectangular. In France the lookalike patisserie item is Napoleon’s Cake, and “Krepita” is the Serbian version.
The truth? I thought I’d overcome my fear of baking years ago. But reality is reality – Kremówkas aren’t easy to make and I was afraid of failure. While one author called the version that is now “standard” for Polish bakers “simple,” another recipe writer said, “Don’t worry, the cake will squish when you cut it.” I pictured the custard insides bulging and dripping off the pie server. Don’t worry? Yes, don’t worry it will “still taste good!”
Well, I simply refuse to make a cake that isn’t both pretty in the cake dish and on the plate.
Determined, I marched to my at-home test kitchen and got to work. My goal was to find that perfect balance between maintaining the authentic Polish cream cake and inventing a way to make it easy and attractive. Here is my version of this once unknown confection, Kremówka Papieska.
For the top puff-pastry layer:
1 sheet (half of 1.1-pound package) frozen puff pastry dough, thawed
Confectioners’ sugar for finishing.
Pre-heat oven to 400 F (204 C) degrees. Roll out puff-pastry sheet on a pastry cloth. Use your 10-inch ceramic tart dish as a cutting guide for the cake top by placing it upside down on the uncooked puff pastry. Cut all the way around the tart dish with a sharp knife, cutting through the pastry to create the perfect-fit cake topper. Lift the tart dish off the puff pastry. Using a serrated steak knife, pre-scored the pastry, cutting nearly, but not all the way through the dough. Cut into 8 to12 pie-shaped pieces, depending on desired serving size.
Place the pre-scored puff pastry on a piece of parchment paper, and carefully set on top of a cooling rack. Cover pre-scored puff pastry with another piece of parchment paper, and place a second cooling rack (upside down) on top of the second piece of parchment, sandwiching the pre-scored puff pastry between the two cooling racks.
This is necessary to keep the pastry flat during the first phase of cooking but still keep it flaky. Carefully place on middle oven rack. I keep saying carefully, because during my first attempt the pastry slid off the parchment. Thank goodness it landed on the oven door (not the floor) and I rescued it! Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the top cooling rack and the top sheet of parchment from the puff pastry. Continue baking until pastry is golden and cooked throughout (about 10 to 15 additional minutes). Remove and cool pastry on cooling rack while you make your short-cake bottom layer. Reduce oven temperature to 325F (160C).
The bottom short-crust layer:
8 ounces butter
3 cups flour
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons water
3 egg yolks
A pinch of salt
Coat your 10 inch ceramic tart dish with professional bakers spray (or butter) and dust with fine bread crumbs and set aside. Cut the butter into the flour and sugar mixture with a pastry blender. Beat the egg yolks into the water. Mix eggs into the flour with a wooden spoon. Mix well. Spread and press the short-crust mixture to cover the bottom and sides of baking dish.
Bake for 30 minutes on 325F (160C). Remove from oven and set on cooling rack while you make your cream filling.
For the easy pastry cream:
2 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
A pinch of salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons potato starch
6 large egg yolks
Combine milk, sugar, vanilla, salt, and thickening starch with egg yolks in a medium saucepan, using a whisk. Over medium heat bring the milk mixture to a boil, stirring constantly with the whisk. Reduce heat to medium low and continue to boil one minute, all the while stirring vigorously. (Use a silicon spoon to scrape the bottom from time to time to make sure the mixture isn’t sticking.)
Remove the pan from the heat and set aside for 5 minutes. Place a sheet of plastic wrap just over the top and place the sauce pan in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes. (You can place the sauce pan on a trivet or a potholder to protect your shelving.)
When the custard cream has slightly cooled, pour and spread it evenly over the short-crust layer in the tart dish.
Carefully set your completely cooled, cut-to-fit puffed pasty over the custard layer. Press down lightly. Dust lightly with confectioners’ sugar. Refrigerate until completely cool and set for several hours or overnight before serving. Re-dust with confectioner’s sugar. Cut with serrated knife. Serve with or without fresh whipped cream. Refrigerate leftovers.
Happy Birthday, Saint John Paul II!
(Original sources: Polish Heritage Cookery, European Cuisine, about.com, thespruce.com, and catholiccusine.blogspot.com)