Monday, October 26, 2009

A neanderthal dessert

There’s a story that my grandmother tells that has been told so many times that I can’t remember whether it was about me or my sister any more. My Savta (Hebrew for grandmother, and the only name I’ve ever known my paternal grandmother by) is a marvellous baker – she has ways with yeast that would make some of the fancy artisanal bakers popping up these days weak at the knees! So, she used to come to our primary school every now and then and do baking classes with the kids. We all loved it, but when Savta introduced herself to the class: “Hi everyone, I’m Savta”, the little girl in the story (me or my sister) became quite distressed claiming, “you’re not everyone else’s Savta, you’re only mine!”

So, we’ve obviously become more generous with our Savta-sharing over the past 20 years because last week we shared a special and all too rare baking afternoon with a couple of friends who were dying to learn her magical ways with yeast.

The cake of the day was Caveman Cake – which I think is actually supposed to be called something like Dumpling Cake – a Hungarian specialty that we have thus named because you never cut the cake, but rather rip off chunks with your hands and gobble as quickly as possible.

Thea brought along her wonderful fancy camera and was nice enough to take photos of the whole process for me – so I’ll try to illustrate the recipe as best I can with her gorgeous shots.

Caveman Cake

The thing with this cake is that it’s about perfecting the dough, which isn’t hard work but might mean a couple of failures and a couple of mediocre cakes before you get things right. The wonderful news is that when you’ve got this dough right, you can also use it to make delicious homemade donuts!


6g dry active yeast
1 tsp sugar
2tbs warm water
400g flour
2 egg yolks
50g butter (although Savta always uses margarine to make the cake suitable for eating after a meaty Friday night dinner, in accordance with Kashrut laws around mixing meat and milk)
250ml tepid water (for a richer cake you could substitute this with milk)
1 tsp salt
2 tbs caster sugar
¼ cup canola oil plus a bit more for greasing


120g walnuts
4-5 tbs apricot jam
100g sugar
Zest of 1 lemon

Mix the yeast, tsp of sugar and warm water in a large bowl and leave aside to proof.

Add all other dough ingredients to the bowl.

At this stage if you’re lucky enough to have a bench-top mixer, stick it in there with the dough hook attachment and let it go on medium for about 3 minutes.

After 3 minutes, slowly add the oil in a thin stream and let it be incorporated into the dough.

If you’re doing this by hand, it will be quite a wet, sticky and soft dough, so rub a bit of oil onto your hands as you work. You’ll probably have to knead for about 10 minutes and then slowly incorporate the oil.

Now it’s time to leave the dough alone in a warm place, let the yeast do its work and relax with “something prepared earlier” and a cup of tea.

Although there is a little bit of work to be done now – grind up the walnuts in the food processor and mix it with the sugar and lemon zest. Also, preheat the oven to 200c.

Once the dough has doubled, or even almost tripled (usually about 1 - 1.5 hours), tip it out of the bowl onto a well floured surface.

Handle the dough as little as possible because you want to keep all that precious air in there but flatten it out a bit to about an inch thick.

Using a cookie cutter or glass cut circles of dough out – make sure you use all the dough, fashioning odd shaped bits out of the cut-offs - because Savta would be very disappointed if you threw anything out!

Take a large, deep cake tin (any shape will do, Savta always uses a big square one) and sprinkle a bit of oil on the bottom.

Place a layer of the dough rounds on the bottom of the pan – they don’t need to overlap, and don’t even really need to touch because it’ll grow again before it goes in the oven.

Pop about a teaspoon sized blob of apricot jam on each round and sprinkle over half of the walnut mixture.

Repeat until all dough rounds have been used up – don’t put jam or walnut on the top layer, just brush it with some egg white or milk.

Leave the cake like this for about 20 minutes to rise a bit more and pop it into the hot oven for about 30mins or until it’s golden brown and springy to touch.

Pull it out of the oven, turn out onto a cooling rack.

Enjoy, tearing apart with your fingers as soon as it’s not going to give you third degree burns (although, even that would be worth it!)


  1. looks great and I love the name - love tearing bread apart - but your grandmother's breadmaking skills are intimidating (especially when I make bread by hand not having a mixer)

  2. Hi Johanna,

    Her skills ARE intimidating - but never fear, I also use my hands rather than a mixer, and with a bit of practice, I'm getting there (slowly)!

    The trick I think is a seriosuly soft and sticky dough - I know it seems like it will stick to your hand/the bench/everything, but just keep a bit of oil on your hands and a lot of flour on the board and you'll be right.