AROUND LA WITH AVA®: Let Them Eat Cake
Happily, life and its stages involve celebrations. Virtually all cultures celebrate with a cake of some kind. Each of us has childhood memories of cakes as part of celebrations that can bring a smile on reflection. Cakes mark a passage of time, a milestone in life, a welcome for a dear friend… .
Some cakes are for show. Some cakes are to let you know. “Let Them Eat Cake…” as some other Lady once said!
Beverly Hills Celebrates 100 Years
Lavish lifestyles and ‘over the top’ celebrations were the operative words to describe the Beverly Hill’s Centennial extravaganza. Select BH dining and shopping establishments joined to donate a portion of their proceeds to a community charitable foundation during the event.
A 4,000 pound cake made to feed 15,000 guests on Rodeo Drive stood 10 feet high with a 15 foot width and a length of 20 feet. The cake was modeled after the Beverly Hills City Tower and surrounding buildings. Carnival games and entertainment (including a band and fireworks) were fitting accoutrements. The staff of The Luxe on Rodeo Drive served the largest chocolate cake in the world to the event guests.
Strawberry Fields Forever
While bakeries in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Paris, Helsinki, and other centers of world gastronomy offer most beautifully crafted and exquisite, delicious confections, there is nothing quite as special as a token of love than a good, well-crafted, homemade cake!
The traditional American layer cake that originated in the ‘40s and ‘50s was so delicious—and popular, that it has now been duplicated with ‘store-bought’ cake mixes and ready-made frostings of unpronounceable ingredients. In this Finnish mind, dry crumbly perfect layers of cake with gobs of very thick, sweet (but fake, as if made from ‘scratch’) sugary frostings are best used for photographs, not friends! Some of those ‘manufactured’ cakes are constructed more sturdily than many American houses—some could not be knocked down in an earthquake. They stand lovely and lonely on pedestals in their high glory: the red velvet, the pound cake, the coconut concrete, the lemon whatever… .
If you are making a wedding cake perched on columns for display, go for it!! There is lots of money to be made in the cake ‘construction’ business. [As a former wedding cake hobbyist, I made quite a few tasty ‘show’ cakes as gifts for friends in my new land. From my experiences (good and bad), use a pound cake if you are doing a tiered cake. The ethereal, unctuous, wet, strawberry field of dreams featured in the special Princess Castle version pictured herein is the caveat exception!!] But, back to our focus on the Finnish spirit and sensibility that comes with our LA summer.
Fun Finnish Food for a Sweet Finish
As a token of appreciation and love for our regular readers, I am going to share my most special 5th generation family (Finns and progeny) celebration secret sweetness.
As with so many parables on the mysteries of life, there is no specific script or scientific scenario to follow. The directions, the techniques, the instructions, and the secrets you will discover are just ‘hints’ gathered along the way from generations of loving hearts and hands that have been assimilated and adapted from across the Atlantic by the best recollections of this FOB [‘fresh off the boat’ 7 year old] who packed her heritage in her heart and brain along with her pinafores in her suitcase. How else could it be? After all, my adult 6 burner/2 oven cooking equipment is not fired by burning birch logs from my front yard. Relax, enjoy, smile, be joyful; fixing fine food should be fun—sharing things we have learned from others and by our own failures (and recoveries) should be one of life’s pleasures!
Recently, I found an old article from the Finnish Kauppalehti blog about Finns’ favorite foods. The usual ‘suspect’ dishes were there such as freshly caught lake fish, new potatoes, and the like. The Dessert category highlight was the märkä mansikkavispikermatäytekakku (wet filled strawberry cream cake). Bingo! Now we are talking the same language!
The märkä mansikkavispikermatäytekakku is a moist, unctuous, fragrant, divinely flavored cake layered with a berries and fruit concoction topped with decorated whipped cream to delight us and our loved ones. Here we can create the freshest and finest flavors and textures to celebrate summer, weddings, graduations, birthdays, family, friends, foreign guests, and everything fun that Finnish nature offers in summer! How can that not be fun?!
How To/To Do
Now in the interest of Finnish greatness, culinary supremacy, and the joy that needs to be spread to make the world a better place, my intent is to share with you what has brought happiness to each and every generation of my family in the US since at least the ‘50s. This is the 7th decade that this exact same cake has been made in my family for everyone’s birthday cake [unless they ask for something different—no one has, so far]. With all of those same cakes, none was really the same. But, there is a lot of good karma in this kermakakku. I hope your family, friends, and you feel the love.
How High the Moon?
While our project works best as a ‘not-too-high’ layer cake, it has been made into a Castle for a Princess themed birthday party. A cardboard round perched on wood skewers kept the ‘second floor’ steady. This requires a PhD* as a pastry chef—you may want to stay on the ‘ground’ the 1st time around! *[piled higher and deeper]
To be my special cake, it ‘must’ have fresh strawberries, in season or not. Here and in Finland, June and July are the prime strawberry months. During the season in Finland strawberry sweepers are as bad as the mushroom maniacs in August. At my favorite place in Finland, we drive through prime strawberry field country heading from Lahti toward Jyväskylä. The local farmers of my youthful vision hunched over while berry picking with their straw baskets have aged, but they have been replaced by blond bikini-clad young female Estonian berry pickers—a startling sight the first time around! At work rain or shine, the girls wear raincoats over their bikinis as the weather warrants. Enough ‘eye candy’ for gentlemen customers already; save those crops!
Strawberry Cake Success Secrets
Before we get started, there are secrets other than the necessary strawberries you need to be aware of: timing**, some serious cognac is involved, and the supreme secret –as in so many childhood fairy tales, you learn there really is no recipe! However, there is a right way to do things. **As in life, timing is everything when making a cake.
In making Ava’s Finnish Strawberry Fields Forever Whipped Cream Cake you need to “give it time”!! Why? …because: “you can’t hurry love”. Or, as they say in Finnish, the cake must vetäytyä [try saying that three times fast!] .
A direct, functional translation of vetäytyä might be that the cake needs to “suck” or ‘sop up’, but that is not quite correct here. What really happens is an absorption or maceration process involving all of the solids and liquids of the cake, the juices, the cream, and the fruit that results in the ultimate moist and delicious product.
It is important to begin 3 to 4 days ahead of your celebration. On the first day, bake the cake layers. Once cooled, remove the cakes from their pans and wrap. Let the plastic wrapped layers rest overnight –at least.
The next day, cut the layers in half horizontally making two equal circular rounds from each baked cake. Place the first round on the serving plate upon which we are going to build the tower of taste. Follow the same process for each of the first 3 rounds as the tower grows. Moisten each round [once set on the plate or the completed lower round] with cognac and peach liquid; spread on a layer of strawberry jam [homemade, if you have it]; spread a layer of whipped cream; place sliced bananas, peaches, and strawberries onto each round except for the final (top) round. On the last (top) layer or round, drizzle the top with cognac and/or peach liquid. Wrap the whole constructed cake [tower] in plastic wrap and let it sit until the next day, at least.
It is vetäytymisaikä time!!
Who Hosts Oddities
The Finnish Birthday and Name Day traditions have an odd hosting component to them. If you are the päivän-sankari (the Birthday or Name Day person), you automatically become a host. And, you provide your own cake! Forget about being pampered, you get to do the pampering of yourself—but that means you can practice what you are learning here!!
You may get calls from people asking “…is the coffee pot on?” Some folks may just show up at your door, especially if it is a ‘big digit’ Birthday and you have not advised people that you “…are traveling” in the local news where pictures, age notations, and other personal information are freely published. [Good luck trying to stay ‘29’ forever!]
Sometimes there are benefits to staying home in the USA where protocol says you do not ask someone’s age unless they are under 10 or over 80. If, in fact, you are enjoying a Los Angeles “staycation” but dreaming of the Finnish countryside, make a nice, wet, juicy Finnish Strawberry Fields Forever Whipped Cream Cake and take it to the Hollywood Bowl when Esa-Pekka is conducting or to enjoy with the Beatles’ 50th Anniversary show this August. Of course, you can always crank up your coffee pot (or grab a cold quart of milk) and put on a Finnish CD before going out on your balcony, into your back yard, or to a local beach with your Dream of Finnish Strawberry Fields (Oma Maa Mansikka) Forever —‘poof’ and you are there, just like the Princess!!
Keep on Dreaming Oma Maa Mansikka –and keep on baking.
Ava’s Finnish Strawberry Fields Forever Whipped Cream Cake
1 teaspoon baking powder [this recipe]
The first three ingredients are in equal amounts [Practiced pros may use ‘eyeball’ or ‘hand’ measures, but I recommend using 3 matching measuring vessels (see picture). Did I mention that baking is an ‘art form’?]
The cake pictured has 6 large eggs and, therefore, the same equivalent volumes of sugar and flour.
Grease and flour two 8 or 9 inch cake pans. Cut parchment paper circles to fit the bottom of the pans. Grease and flour those also. Whip room temperature eggs and sugar until light yellow, voluminous, and airy.
Fold flour and baking powder together gently into the egg mixture with a spatula, lifting as you fold so as not to lose air from the batter.
Pour equal amounts of batter into each pan.
Bake at 350º F for approximately 20 minutes or until tops are golden to slightly brown. Let cake cool in pans. Remove cakes from pans carefully. Then, wrap each cake in plastic wrap. [Cakes can be frozen at this point.] The wrapped cakes can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a day or two.
2 cups whipping cream, whipped
½ cup strawberry jam (cloudberry jam is also divine)
2 to 3 bananas, depending on their size and your interest
1 cup sliced strawberries
½ cup cognac (preferable; but juice of fruits can be substituted)
1 15 oz. can of sliced peaches in heavy syrup (saving the liquid and about 6 peach slices for later top decoration, if desired)
Combine cognac (or juices) and peach liquid to make the liquid drizzle (kostutus liemi)
Cut the 2 cakes to make 4 equal circular layers or ‘rounds’ using a serrated knife
Put the first layer round down on a serving plate [Don’t worry if the cake breaks during assembly, just ‘pat’ the piece(s) back in place—the cake is very forgiving at this stage!]
Slice 1/3 of the bananas and place on the round with1/3 of the peaches and 1/3 of the strawberry slices—distribute evenly
Repeat the same assembly instructions on the remaining cake rounds, except the top round
Place the top layer round and drizzle the remaining liquid over that top segment. Finish top layer with whipped cream Cover the whole cake with cling film Let the cake rest (preferably overnight) covered and refrigerated
Day of the Event
Frosting and Garnishing
2 cups whipping cream, stiffly whipped
2 tablespoons granulated sugar (use powdered sugar for stability if the cake needs to sit out for a long time)
1 teaspoon of vanilla (optional)
Frost the top and the sides of the cake, setting aside some cream for piping/decoration, if desired
Use whole or sliced strawberries and/or the reserved peach slices for decoration. Often I use fresh blueberries for ‘writing’ a name or message on the cake top. CONGRATULATIONS! You have made Ava’s Strawberry Fields Forever Whipped Cream Cake now in its 5th generation of pleasing my extended family! At its core, this is a basic 4 layer cake. Someone [—was it Marie Antoinette or Ben Franklin??] said “…necessity is the mother of invention”. Sometimes you just need a large, special sheet cake for a lot of people. Then, use the same processes, but bake the batter in 4 rectangular baking sheet pans by quadrupling the ingredients—no cake slicing needed! This works well for a huge birthday or other event.
A more adventurous and courageous soul (my daughter-in-law) made a Castle Cake with a second tier built on the standard base for a ‘Little Princess’ birthday party. It even featured a coconut path and a moat. She had fun successfully using her imagination to build on a good/known base, her daughter was ecstatic with the glorious resulting presentation, and her daughter’s friends thought the whole thing was awesome! All of that –and great taste and texture too!!
If you do try to tier, be sure to cut and place dowels on the bottom layer to support a cardboard round the size of your top layer. Party on like the little birthday Princesses did!
Family Cake Back Story
I always look forward to visiting my Aunt Kaija’s home in Finland. She is my lifelong culinary muse and idol. She and my uncle are my Godparents. As such, they may have felt obligated to take me under their wing when my parents shipped me off to Finland to spend summers as a child. I was delighted and excited to be there with them!
My favorite childhood ‘thing’ was to watch my Aunt Kaija in her kitchen. My uncle (as former Head of the French School in Helsinki) is much revered at home and abroad –and was often honored by the French. [He still wears a beret when he gardens.] They often had French visitors, so Aunt Kaija had to excel in French, as well as, Finnish cuisine. And, does she ever! She is the only person I have visited and been served foie gras and Chateau d’Yquem at a Finnish lakeside cottage. Aunt Kaija is tré chic et tré magnifique!
Aunt Kaija always has her special Whipped Cream Berry Cake as the piece de résistance when she has Coffee guests. She must have trained for pastry skills under Lenôtre in Paris. The cake she served on our last visit is pictured here. Do you know anyone else who can make a basket weave design out of pure whipped cream? (Try that in LA when we are in “triple digit” heat and you will have “hanging baskets”, guaranteed!! Take it from this ‘basket case’ of an LA baker who tried recently.)
Just as every Finnish hostess has her special pulla recipe, Aunt Kaija has her celebratory cake recipe. These family recipes are usually very secret and are passed on as tradition from generation to generation. Each of you Finnish or Finnish American readers probably has this as part of your inherited tradition and kitchen repertoire —if not, welcome to mine!
When/How/Where to Serve the ‘Prize’
There is so much to be said about the Finnish Coffee tradition. It is the 15:00 [3 p.m.] rival counterpart of/to the British 4 p.m. Tea. In the Anttila family Coffee, the five distinct Courses are not immediately discernible to the novice observer, but they unfold in inexorable fashion culminating in the divine Whipped Cream Cake at the end. My Strawberry Fields Forever version of that special celebration cake is our topic herein.
In another column one day, we will delve into what is also an incredible edible from our Finnish heritage, the celebratory sandwich cake (voileipäkakku). When I served this to my great friend Mona, she was excited to serve it for her San Marino friends at a ladies tea—perfect choice. I can’t wait to share my recipe and special California technique soon.
Back to the special celebration cake from my family: I first learned much of what I know from my paternal grandmother [Pih-Mummi of Makkara fame from a previous column] when I was so small that I sat on the table she used for baking so I could see every fascinating thing she was doing. That table was on the porch of the family summer home—a birch forest ‘path’ away from Aunt Kaija.
Baking day converted into a ‘little bakers’ wonderland. My compatriot toddlers and Pih-Mummi’s sous chefs were my cousins Aarne and Marja. We were all under the age of three. We loved these simple and delicious lessons. And, it was a great way to pass the rainy days so frequent in the Finnish summer. [Somewhere there is an old photograph of three of us sitting topless in our skivvies in the summer heat on the green painted table that was used for meals in the old house. So much for our adult dignity aims!] Aarne (especially) loved the sessions involving pulla dough where he could make long ‘snakes’ out of the dough using raisins for eyes. I was more interested in the piece de resistance with the “wow factor” for the Coffee Ritual soon to follow: the divine Whipped Cream Cake With Fresh Fruit!
I can tell you that as a little kid sitting through the Coffee courses of pulla, cookies, dry Bundt type cakes (all homemade and quite delicious, of course), I behaved nicely knowing that the moist, multilayered, creamy, fruity sweet, beautifully decorated taste of Finnish summer soon to come was worth waiting for—even worth the long plane ride from California. As a child, you felt special and knew that your hosts were really glad to see you if they showed their welcome with this most awesome treat!
The berries (often wild) were usually just handpicked from the forest or newly purchased from the local tori for your arrival celebration. What the Finns lack in words speaking their welcome they certainly make up in communicating with their handpicked, hand chosen, handmade treats that become their special cake for you.
Strawberry season is winding down now in our Homeland. In prime season, not only are the toris (the farmer’s markets) full of berry perfections, literally at the entrance to every grocery store there are booths and stands offering nature’s beautiful bounty picked from local fields, farms, and gardens. The summer harvest cycle moves from strawberries to blueberries, to lingonberries, and, at the end of summer, to the glories of mushrooms.
Strawberries are an essential part of “the cake”, both fresh and as jam. In the off-season, the price of fresh strawberries often seems as if they flew ‘1st Class’ into town. Frozen berries offer an economical alternative, but I usually splurge for a few beauties to glamorize the top.
Suomi Kerho Midsummer Party
Birch branches decorated the club house space, divine snap worthy makkara grilled on an open fire, delicious salads were chilled and waiting, while freshly baked pulla graced the buffet table to help make for a great Midsummer celebration party at the North Hollywood Suomi Kerho location. There was a great energy in the room as people gathered to celebrate the bright Midsummer sunshine lasting long into the night. Even non-Angelenos know that the seasonal ‘marine layer’ of high level fog rolling in from the Pacific in many parts of our City of Angels this time of year (sometimes referred to as “June Gloom”) can put a damper on early summer celebrations. Not this year. This special night was calm, balmy, and perfect. While all present thought fondly of nights in our Homeland and our loved ones there, we did not miss the rained out grilling or mosquito invasion experienced this year in Finland for Midsummer.
Strawberry Fields Revisited and Beatle Beetle News
The Hollywood Bowl will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles’ first Bowl performance this August 22-23-24. Plan your Strawberry Fields Forever baking schedule now! [Information and tickets @ HollywoodBowl.com]
Did you know the Beetles killed the Beatle tree?
A tree in honor of Brit Beatle George Harrison planted in LA’s Griffith Park has been killed by a beetle infestation. “With a little help from my friends…”, quick response forces were utilized and a replacement tree was planted in its place —“…no worries”, as the songs go!
Suomi Soldiers Summer Session Almost 50 Friends of Finland assembled at my house on Sunday, July 27th for a casual, fun afternoon. The beautiful Finnish flag flew proudly from our 35’ flag pole to properly greet our Guests of Honor.
This was the second Soldier Summer Session—a follow-up to last year’s luncheon built around a visit and presentation by Olli Kivioja, former Surgeon General of Finland and a President of Pilvenveikot (the Finnish War Pilots’ organization) who was traveling in the US with his daughter and granddaughters last July. The local Finnish War Veterans and Lottas had such a great time last year, a follow-up seemed worth doing. When Jim and Sirkka Aldridge agreed to present a program focused on our Vets’ Russian wars, the party was on!
Sirkka and Jim Aldridge brought much of their extensive archive collection of Finnish military material and memorabilia from the days of the Winter War and the Continuation War for guests to see firsthand. Sirkka wore an authentic Lotta uniform and Jim gave an informative presentation on the history, geography, and tactics of the Wars. Jim’s presentation used an enlarged map of the War Theatres which served as a remembrance trigger for the Veterans and the Lotta who were the honored guests. Consul General JP Markannen extended greetings to the Friends assembled and offered the Finnish government’s special thanks to the Veterans and Lotta for their role in preserving Finland’s independence. One American present suggested that the event was the equivalent of having lunch with the US’s 18th Century Minutemen who responded to Paul Revere’s cry “…the British are coming!!” What a thought! What a day! Big smiles –and a few proud tears!
Happy summer celebrations!! I hope you have been busy making memories and Dreaming of Strawberry Fields –wherever you are!
Southern California is a fabulous and fun place to be –if you cannot be in Finland during the summer. Really stimulating things happen here, if you know where. Seek them out. Your scribe has lived, raised my family, and worked in Los Angeles for a lot of years. I learned so much from so many as a youngster in Finland that I cannot look at a strawberry today without thinking of my dear mentors and muses: Pih-Mummi and Aunt Kaija. Still, an escape to the Homeland [even if it happens in my LA backyard with an illustrated Finnish history lesson] permits bridging both worlds and I cherish that opportunity. Sharing the good, the bad, and the fabulous/ugly is what AROUND LA WITH AVA® seeks to do. All things Finnish are celebrated wherever and whenever just ‘because’.
ALWA topics are catholic—history, culture, traditions, work, play, sight-seeing/sightings, local ‘hang-outs’, public/social service, travel, faith, food, people, LA/Finnish life, fun, events past and pending, politics, the history and the future of the world…whatever. Whether you are an intellectual, a food critic or just one of us regular tasty food loving folks; a Strawberry Sweeper or a Mushroom Maniac or just one of us little observers sitting on a baking table; a ‘mover’ or just one of us ‘squiggly’ kids on the table in our ‘skivvies’, welcome to AROUND LA WITH AVA®.
We applaud those who learn how to make the Finnish Strawberry Fields Forever Whipped Cream Cake! We love those who share their final product!