Yeast-based cookery is something of a bugbear of mine. You see, cakes behave. Baking is just chemistry with added deliciousness, and butter (inevitably).
Yeast adds an element of speculation, a spin of the roulette wheel to your everyday kitchen science. There’s a wild animal in your baking, or a single-celled organism at the very least, and it’s unpredictable, and easily upset. It likes sugar, but not too much. But you should have something for it to eat so it farts and makes bubbles so your cake or bread rises. It hates salt, and dies on contact with it. But salt is needed to make your bread taste of stuff, so you have to balance it carefully with your picky, delicate yeast. And it needs something wet to activate it, preferably warm, but too hot and it dies. You might be Bill frickin Nye the science guy in the kitchen, but add yeast and suddenly you’re in some sort of fucked-up game of the Sims and everything you might do to your new friends kills them stone dead and you get flat, ugly cakes and breads.
I’ve practiced and practiced and can now make a reasonable bread, a pretty rad foccaccia and have even got a little batch of sourdough starter on the go (his name is Baldrick). But still, approaching the little tin of yeast makes me feel less like Delia and more like Steve Bleedin Irwin. I fuss and cosset the little bowl of bubbling batter like I’m trying to save the life of a baby hedgehog. It’s EXHAUSTING.
So, naturally on Valentine’s day I decided to selflessly deal with my yeast-fear by choosing to make one of the German classics – Bienenstich kuchen* or “Bee Sting Cake”. Lovely One has mentioned a few times how much he likes it and I figured “how hard can it be?” FAMOUS. LAST. WORDS.
To be fair, it’s not actually hard, as such. But it involves a lot of patience, a ton of washing up and a hell of a lot of custard. To white: my recipe in my classic old book (Bake: Beautiful Baking from Around the World, if you ‘re interested) called for fresh yeast. To which my response, as in most situations like this, is WHO THE HELL HAS FRESH YEAST LYING AROUND?! Christ, the only women I know with easy access to fresh yeast are currently taking vagisil for that, thank you very much. So I wandered the internet in search of something a little more practical than schlepping 6 miles to the Scandi shop (holla at me if you know of any purveyors closer to Lewishambles towers, people) and stumbled over the ever-popular and deservedly lauded Smitten Kitchen’s recipe.
Full disclosure: I hate american cup measurements but do have cups for baking. So I cheated and converted them all for my use except for the custard. I also chose not to do a whole big cake either as a sheet or a round, but do individual mini cakes instead. This was a
terrible fateful decision, as you’ll see below. Also, I doubled the custard measurements. SK’s cake looks hella good but all of the Bienenstichs I’ve seen have a towering wobble of pale cream in the middle, rather than the well-behaved smooth creme pat she’s opted for. To each her own, right?
So, with love to Smitten Kitchen and thanks to Flatmate for her words of encouragement, I present to you my Bee Sting Bars. The recipe looks intimidating but honestly, you’ll probably have most of the stuff to hand, because it’s fairly simple stuff. You may simply just need yeast, vanilla, almonds and some extra cream.
Bee Sting Bars
Makes 10 – I made 8 which produced CRAZY BIG bars. I used the cute cake bar pan, but next time might make a sheet cake in a 9 x 18 pan and trim it. To each her own.
Warning: this is a labour intensive bake. Set aside a few hours and be prepared for a lot of sitting around. 4 hours is a reasonable estimate for a novice like me.
Ingredients – cake
250g plain (all purpose) flour
2 .5 tsp instant yeast
50g caster sugar
2 large eggs
180ml whole milk, warmish (about how warm it needs to be for babies)
60g butter, unsalted and at squidgy room temperature. Blast in the micro for 20 secs. I genuinely don’t think it matters if you accidentally melt it.
3/4 tsp fine salt
Ingredients – topping
70g caster sugar
190g flaked almonds
3 tbsp honey (or a good long squeeze. Life’s too short to measure honey)
2 tbsp double cream (or a “splosh”. Life is also too short to measure cream.)
2 pinches smoked sea salt (genuinely makes a difference, but normal is fine too)
Ingredients – filling (this makes about 1/3 too much. BUT IT’S CUSTARD SO I DO NOT CARE, Or, you know. Adjust.)
480 ml whole milk
seeds from 1 scraped vanilla pod
100 g sugar
6 large egg yolks
6 tsp cornflour
2 pinches smoked sea salt
about 150ml double cream, whipped
1. First, the easy bit. Put all the ingredients for the cake mix in a bowl and beat until smooth, about 2 – 3 minutes. You’ll have a runny, smooth batter which looks a bit pancakey. Now put it in a warm place for an hour. Yup. You got that right. Put the kettle on love, this will take a while.
2. When the batter looks puffy and stuff, it’s ready. Don’t panic because it hasn’t doubled in size – it’s really not going to do a whole lot, because you’re loading this dough with butter. The key is to look for the bubbles. The astute amongst you will have noticed there’s no raising agent aside from the yeast. That’s right, bitches, we’re going OLD SCHOOL. This is where you take your pan, which you’ve buttered liberally, and whack in your mix. It will be hella weird. It stretches and oozes in a most uncake-like manner. This is because you haven’t made cake dough. You have, in fact, made a very runny milky brioche. TA-DA. You’ve made brioche without even REALISING. Scrape in, and let it rise for 30 min. Yup. Don’t worry, this time you can actually do something while waiting. Cover it up a bit, but don’t go hell for leather. A light draping of cling will do it.
3. Meanwhile, make your topping. This is really easy. Put all of the topping ingredients except the almonds in a pan. Stick over a medium heat and melt and bubble together until a biscuity shade, then tip in your almonds. You’re basically making a thick butterscotch-praline hybrid, so don’t panic if it’s clumpy rather than saucy. The idea is that you create a hard tortoise-like shell on your cake, so it needs to be a little thick. This is the moment when you preheat your oven to 180C.
4. Then, ease the topping over your waiting cakes. Be gentle, you don’t want to knock the air out. Full disclosure time – I overfilled. This meant that there was a bunch of extra topping in already full cake tins. Hence in the oven, the spring of the cake meant the almonds all ran off. It was easily fixed with a knife, scooping the melty almonds back onto the cakes once ready. But I’ll admit there was a moment of BLIND PANIC.
5. Bake for about 30 minutes. My little cakes were ready after 20min, but my oven is hotter than the surface of the sun. When they’re done, let them rest in the tin for 10 minutes (this is the moment to tidy up any stray almonds with a warm knife). Then, ease them out of the tin and onto a wire rack to go completely cold. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FILL WHILE WARM.
6. Make your filling. Smitten has done a great job on the custard but her eventual filling is a creamy pudding-like custard rather than the fluffy stand-up cream I’m familiar with. So go slow, go careful and we’ll be fine. Start with the milk. Warm it in a pan to boiling point with the vanilla seeds in. I hardly need say what boiling milk looks like, but for those of us (i.e., me until Flatmate enlightened me) who don’t know, it doesn’t actually bubble. It seethes and moves and frankly if you see bubbles thats when it’s about to go volcanic. Take the milk off the heat and pour into a little jug to keep hot. Meanwhile, wipe out the pan and put your egg yolks and sugar in, then off the heat, beat with a whisk like crazy until thickish, a bit paler and creamy-looking (custard making is a WORKOUT). Stir in the cornflour and salt and beat again, until smooth, then gradually pour the milk back in, stirring all the time. You’ll end up with a thin, sweet-tasting, yellow milk.
7. Now, put the pan back over a medium heat, and KEEP WHISKING. You’ll be all “Hey Lewishambles, why isn’t it doing anything? I’ve been whisking for 5 minutes and my arm is sore and OH MY GOD IT’S SUDDENLY THICKENING WOW THAT WAS BLOODY SUDDEN” and that’s when you whip it off the heat and keep whisking until smooth. Then pop in a bowl and let it go COMPLETELY COLD.
8. Next, CHECK THAT THE CAKES AND THE CUSTARD ARE COLD. Don’t cheat. You’ll end up with a melty horrible mess and you’ll blame me. Go for a walk. Make sweet love to your partner (or, if they’re not around, yourself). Watch a movie.
9. Now you’re ready to assemble. And it’s dark outside. And this whole process started hours ago. I did warn you. So, take your whipped cream and fold it into the custard. You’re looking for a smooth, light, but creamy custard which has airiness. Then split the cakes and pipe in a blodge (technical term) into the middle. Reassemble and serve and look AS SMUG AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. For you are a bee-sting god or goddess.
These don’t really hang around but if you must, store them in the fridge. The cakes are pretty nice without creme pat filling as well.
*Why “Bee Sting”? Well, legend has it that the cake was invented by the good people of Andernach on the Rhine to commemorate the famous day in 1474 that their townspeople repelled invaders by chucking bee’s nests at them. Which is so German I can’t even begin to explain.