Why I’ll Never Take This Chocolate Layer Cake For Granted Ever Again

Food
There’s a lot of reasons why I look forward to going to Croatia every summer. The main one, of course, is getting to spend time with my grandma, aunts, uncles and cousins who live there. Endlessly lounging around Croatia’s beautiful beaches, isn’t too bad of a deal either. Neither is eating plate after plate of freshly caught seafood, squid ink risotto, roasted lamb with potatoes — the list just goes on and on. But perhaps more than any other dish, it’s the Mađarica (or the chocolate layer slice) that I look forward to eating most of all. In fact, I often choose to end most of the meals I eat while in the country with a piece of this crumbly, custard-filled cake.

So, I was pretty crushed when I had to cancel my trip to Croatia this summer given the current state of the world. Apart from the fact that I’ll probably have to wait yet another year before it’s safe to see my family again, the sheer idea of not being able to indulge in my favorite Croatian treat for two-weeks straight had me feeling very, very blue. And very, very hungry.

Having never made the Mađarica before — nor having seen it available for purchase anywhere in New York City, for that matter — I knew I had quite the challenge ahead of me after deciding to make it from scratch. Naturally because of this, I enlisted the help of my unofficial sous chef — aka my mom, Barbara — and we got to work. Though we had both attentively watched my aunt make this cake last summer, we ended up using a combination of YouTube videos and a Croatian cookbook my mom had received as a gift from my grandmother as our guide. Talk about “old school” meeting “new school” traditions.

After a brief caramel-making mishap (no matter what I do, adding cold milk into a heated saucepan continues to be a thorn in my side), my mom and I scraped our first filling attempt, and quickly got to work on our second one. While the base recipe for Mađarica is the same, the filling varies. Some recipes use caramel for the filling, others use a chocolate custard. Since our caramel attempt didn’t work, we decided to go with a chocolate filling our second time around. A few heaping cups of sugar, whole milk, flour and a chopped bar of baking chocolate later, we had our custardy filling.

Next came the most challenging part — the cake layers. While our custard had taken us a mere five minutes to put together, our cake layers took over three-and-a-half-hours to make from start to finish. Now, before you write the Mađarica off as not being worth the hassle, let me explain why it takes so long. Though you’ll need no more than flour, butter, eggs, sugar, baking powder and sour cream to make the dough, you’ll need to split it into four equal parts (or five or six if you’re feeling really ambitious) and roll it out into ultra-thin, almost paper-like sheets before baking them in the oven.

To do this, my mom and I used a kitchen scale to measure each piece of dough, ensuring that each one weighed the same amount as all the others. We then needed to roll out our individual dough balls, once again ensuring that each one had the same exact length and width.

In order to do this, my mom and I used a tape measure to create a square-shaped stencil out of parchment paper. We then rolled out our dough so that it met the edges of our stencil, trimming any overhanging pieces with a paring knife as we went along. We then used a fork to poke holes into the dough to dispel any extra air that may have been trapped inside and brushed it with a little bit of whole milk for added moisture. We then repeated the entire process, three more times.

Next, we moved on to the baking portion of our recipe. Since the cake layers are pretty flimsy and thin, all the videos we had found advised us that the very best way to bake them was on top of an upside-down sheet pan or jelly roll tray. This slightly elevated height helps prevent your cake layers from browning too quickly or burning accidentally. Though we only needed to bake each layer for six to eight minutes, we needed to do so one at a time to avoid overcrowding the oven and inadvertently spreading out the heat disproportionately. Talk about working for your dessert!

Once our dough layers were fully baked and cooled, we then spread out our pudding mixture over each one, and stacked them one on top of the other. Though we had some cracks in three out of our four cake layers (which caused both my mom and I to each have a miniature meltdown), the pudding acted as a super glue of sorts and brought the whole thing back together. After about an hour of firming up in the fridge, we then covered our stacked cake with a blanket of decadent melted chocolate ganache and refrigerated it for a few more hours, until it was finally time to dig in.

Words cannot do justice in describing just how incredible that first bite of our homemade Mađarica was; I swear, in that one chocolaty bite alone I was transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen in Croatia. Yes, it was just as delicious as all the ones I’ve enjoyed while vacationing in Croatia throughout the years, and yes, I was super impressed with both myself and my mom. But most important of all, I realized just how much hard work, craftsmanship, love and tradition goes into making what on paper might seem like nothing more than your average chocolate cake. As both a kid and as an adult, I had scarfed down slice after slice of this crumbly treat without actually appreciating it; now after nearly 6-plus hours of mixing, measuring, stacking, baking, filling and refrigerating, I could see for myself that it was more than just a yummy dessert, it was an important part of my own unique heritage and culture.

Though I’ll probably wait until a major holiday comes around to make it a second time, one thing’s for certain — I’ll never take eating a slice of Mađarica, or being able to enjoy it with my all my Croatian family members, for granted ever again.

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