Honeycakes (Medenjaci) and Bakers Ammonia

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Happy New Year! The last few weeks have been great. Gramercy Tavern was busier then ever this holiday season, especially the last couple weeks of 2017.  For New Year's I managed to escape for a few days to Lisbon, Portugal where I met my Serbian family for a little reunion. It was an amazing trip, fun seeing family, walking around the beautiful city, enjoying the fresh, plentiful seafood and scoffing dozens of Pasteis De Nata (commonly known as Egg Tart). I even got the tart molds back with me, so there will be some of those in the near future!

Todays recipe is Medenjaci, or when translated, Honeycakes (not to be confused with Russian Honey Cake). These are slightly cakey spicy cookies, covered in a thick sweet glaze with the slight tang of sour cream, perfect with your morning coffee or afternoon tea. 

These cookies are available all year long in Northern Balkan countries, but are particularly popular during Christmas time. Not surprising since they are snowy white and full of fragrant and warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. 

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What's interesting about this recipe is the use of an old fashioned leavener called baker's ammonia. I became particularly interested in this ingredient during my last trip to India, when I had some plain looking cookies with my tea. They were not particularly tasty but had a very interesting texture to them. They were thick and crispy, but not hard. Each bite of cookie practically dissolved in my mouth before I could even chew. I later learned it was baker's ammonia that gave the cookies this particular texture.

Baker's ammonia, also know as ammonium bicarbonate or ammonium carbonate, was the leavener of choice before baking soda and baking powder entered the scene. Though this leavening agent is fairly unknown in Western countries today, it is still widely used in many Eastern and Northern European countries as well as in the Middle East and India. It is always used in low moisture items like dry cookies and crackers. Ammonia needs to evaporate fully from baked goods due to its noxious smell and that wouldn't be possible in a high moisture environment like a cake, for example. 

When using baker's ammonia it's important to dissolve it in liquid for proper distribution.  Do not eat the raw dough, no matter how tempting, as it might give you a tummy ache. 

You might wonder why use this product when it sounds so scary? Well in cookies and crackers it really produces superior results that cannot be matched by substituting baking soda or baking powder. It creates a much lighter and crispier texture and when used correctly there is no metallic/soapy aftertaste that sometimes occurs with other leaveners.

At Gramercy Tavern we use baker's ammonia in several cookies throughout the year. Currently on our cookie plate we have two cookies using this leavener, these Honeycakes that I'm sharing recipe with you today, and a delicious pistachio and dried blueberry biscotti. 

SERBIAN HONEYCAKES (MEDENJACI)

Cookies:

  • 7oz/ 200g lard, room temp *
  • 10.5 oz/ 300g organic powder sugar, preferably Wholesome 
  • 1.5tsp/ 8g kosher salt
  • 1tsp/ 5g cinnamon powder 
  • 1/2tsp/ 3g ground cloves
  • 1/2tsp/ 2g ground nutmeg 
  • 1/2tsp/ 3g ginger powder 
  • 1/4tsp/ 1g cayenne pepper 
  • 7oz/ 200g buckwheat honey, local preferably*
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 7oz/ 200g whole milk
  • 2tsp/ 10g bakers ammonia
  • 18oz/ 510g all-purpose flour, preferably King Arthur 
  • 14oz/ 400g unbleached cake flour, preferably Bob's Red Mill Super-Fine

Sour Cream Glaze:

  • 17.5oz/ 500g organic powder sugar, preferably Wholesome Sweetners 
  • 5.5oz/ 155g sour cream, preferably Organic Valley  
  • 1 vanilla bean 
  • generous pinch of kosher salt 

Preparation: 

Combine lard, powder sugar, salt and spiced in the bowl of a stand mixer and cream with paddle attachment on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. See picture for texture of the creamed mixture. 

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Add honey to creamed butter and mix just to come together. As you see in the picture, the mixture will start to curdle once the honey is added. This is due to the acidic nature of honey. Not to worry. Add the eggs and yolks one at a time and cream to combine. 

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Combine milk and baker's ammonia in a small bowl and mix well to dissolve. Sift together the flours (an important step to insure lightness of final product). Add the milk-ammonia mix to creamed mixture and paddle to combine. Your mix will look even more curdled at this point, but don't worry, once you add flour it will all come together. Add the flour and mix just enough to be fully combined. Transfer cookie batter to an airtight container, cover and refrigerate overnight. 

The following day, scoop cookie batter using 1.25 oz cookie scoop. Roll between your palms until smooth and glossy looking. At this point you can freeze cookies for future use, or bake immediately.

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Preheat oven to 325°F. Place cookies on a parchment lined sheet tray, with at least 3 inches of space between each as the cookies puff handsomely when baked. Bake for 18-22 minutes, depending on your oven. The cookies should be golden brown and fully baked in the middle. When under-baked, it tends to be raw/wet on the very top of the cookie. When cookies are done, remove from oven, let it cool for a few minutes on the tray, then transfer to a wire rack to fully cool down. 

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While the cookies are cooling, make the glaze. Combine sugar, sour cream, scraped seeds from the vanilla bean and salt and mix vigorously with a whisk until thick, shiny and lump-free.

When cookies are fully cool, use a fork to dip them in the sour cream glaze. The cookies should be fully submerged in the glaze. Fish it out with the fork and tap to remove excess glaze. Place on a wire rack and let it sit for at least an hour so the glaze can crystallize and be dry to the touch.

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Notes:

  • Lard is traditionally used in these cookies, as butter was considered an expensive item and was rarely used in former Yugoslavian countries. It was almost impossible to lay your hands on some butter after World War II as most communist countries including Yugoslavia considered butter a "luxury, elitist" ingredient. So people used lard that was commonly available, especially in Northern Serbia, which was and still is a big farming community. Later on as the health craze raged on, unknowing customers replaced lard with margarine. Thankfully, people are now realizing the folly of eating fake fats like margarine and shortening and are turning to butter and lard once more. When sourcing lard, make sure it's NOT HYDROGENATED and preferably get it from a local source like your farmer's market where there's a greater chance that it came from animals with a better quality of life. 
  • I like to use buckwheat honey in this cookie for its strong taste. After all the cookie is called Honeycakes, so it has to live up to its name! You can most definitely use other types of honey, but don't forget all honey is not equal. Some honeys are not always 100% honey, especially imported ones (see the groundbreaking documentary series Rotten on Netflix!). Wildflower and linden honey's tend to be milder and the flavor will be more subdued in these cookies. Chestnut is another good choice in this preparation, due to it's bold and rich flavor.