So my younger sister Katya (a.k.a. Kate) got married, and I got to witness a demure but incredibly powerful ritual of an authentic Russian wedding.
The St. Prince Vladimir Russian Orthodox church in downtown Miami where my sister and brother-in-law chose to strengthen their marriage vows turned out to be on the intimate side but none the less ceremonial than its huge gilded dome counterparts overseas, with the familiar church accessories of biblical wall paintings, icons of Russia’s renowned saints and martyrs, candle stands, and oil lamps adorning the interior.
The late afternoon sun that wasn’t strong enough to break through the thick layering of otherwise sheer curtains was slowly deserting the building, giving way to the frankincense-infused semidarkness.
Interrupted solely by the meek flickering of the church candles and the monotonous singing of tall, soft-spoken, gray-haired Father Daniel, it was resolutely engulfing us in the sacrament of church wedding. Even the kids, so loud and boisterous in the park just minutes before, got instantaneously quiet, comprehending on a very intuitive level that they were going to be part of a very solemn event.
As solemn as the event were the faces of my sister and her husband who no longer belonged to our secular party, caught in the divine spirit that was being bestowed upon them. They were part of Him, standing in front of Him, confirming their humble love for Him and each other, and receiving the most powerful blessings of all.
Despite the best of my intentions to maintain the focus throughout the-almost-three-hour-long praying in the Old Slavonic language, the chastity of my thoughts was every so often unceremoniously interrupted by the pronounced growling of my empty stomach. And every time it happened, I confess I sinned.
Once I looked down at my watch, trying to figure how much time we had left until the moment we would all be seated in the busy Scarpetta restaurant at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, taking quite a bit of time to finalize our choices from a stupefying list of sophisticated Italian dishes.
Another time I caught myself contemplating if we should order our desserts there or go back to the newlyweds’ place to dig into the wedding cake I baked for them.
And then there was a lot of reminiscing about the making of this very cake that turned out to be just as traditional, rich, and divine as the event it was meant for.
Leafing through my mom’s recipe book in the days after her arrival, I stumbled across a version of a long-standing Russian cake with an elegant European name Prague and got immediately smitten with the minimal list of ingredients—that called for the most basic cake components of butter, flour, sugar, and sour cream—and the generous use of cocoa powder that, if not universally acknowledged as an aphrodisiac, is certainly considered very stimulating.
The addition of canned condensed milk did raise my eyebrows, but I brushed it off as totally pertinent for modern cake making as well as greatly promising in terms of a creamy batter, a silky frosting, and many a spoon licking.
Chocolate through and through, this petite two-tier wedding cake encircled with over a dozen sensuous white and purple orchids (fresh crystallized and edible, by the way!) came as a revelation to both of us in a way.
Not only was my sis genuinely surprised to get a cake, but she also seemed amazed by the fact that the purple in the orchids perfectly matched her wedding dress accessories. How did I know?!
And I was taken aback to see that she didn’t have any cake whatsoever to mark the milestone but she happened to have the most perfect topper for mine—the chocolate bride and groom figurines that our brother had sent over to her from Russia.
How did she know?! More importantly, how did he know?! And why did I have such a hard time finding a suitable one locally and as a result decide against it altogether?
The moment Kate planted the topper and it perfectly fitted in, I knew that God’s ways were truly inscrutable—even in things as simple as making a cake.
For the cake:
1. 1 cup (250mL) sugar
2. 3 large eggs
3. 3 (45mL) tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
4. ¾ (4mL) teaspoon baking soda
5. 1 (250mL) cup sour cream
6. 1 14-oz. (435mL) can condensed milk, divided in half
7. 1 and ½ (375mL) cups all-purpose flour
For the frosting:
1. 1 3/4 (200gr) sticks butter, softened
2. 3 (45mL) tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
For the garnish:
1. Edible flowers, such as fresh orchids, pansies, borage, and/or rose petals
2. Refrigerated egg product
4. Caster sugar, available in health and specialty food stores and online
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius).
2. Allow eggs to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, grease and lightly flour two 8×1 1/2-inch round cake pans; set aside.
3. In a small bowl, stir together flour and baking soda; set aside.
4. In another large bowl, combine sugar and cocoa powder. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating with an electric mixer on medium speed after each addition until well combined.
5. Beat in sour cream and ½ can condensed milk just until combined.
6. Add flour mixture to batter, mixing until combined.
7. Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted near centers comes out clean. Cool cake layers in pans for 10-15 minutes. Remove from pans; let cool thoroughly on wire racks.
8. Once cooled, carefully level the tops until even, holding a serrated knife parallel to the cakes.
9. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the remaining half can condensed milk and cocoa powder. Add in butter and beat with an electric mixer on low to medium speed until smooth.
10. To assemble the cake, place a cake layer on a cake plate. Spread with 1/3 of the frosting. Top with second cake layer; frost top and sides with the remaining frosting.
11. If desired, garnish with crystallized flowers. Scroll down to Notes for the instructions on how to crystallize fresh flowers.
1. For a two-tier cake, double the recipe for the cake and bake two more layers. I used two 6×1 1/2-inch round cake pans for the top tier. If you choose to do the same, do not double the recipe for the frosting; 1 recipe will suffice—just use it sparingly in between the layers.
2. Since this is a chocolate cake, you can use cocoa powder instead of flour to dust your pans after greasing. Just make sure you grease them generously and evenly and cover all the greased surfaces with cocoa powder, tapping out the excess.
3. To crystallize flowers, start with gently washing them in water. Then place them on white paper towels and let air-dry. For every 1 cup flowers, stir together 2 tablespoons water and 1 tablespoon egg product. Using a small clean paintbrush, gently coat all sides of each flower with the egg mixture. Sprinkle each flower evenly with caster sugar, shaking to remove the excess. Place flowers on a wire rack and let dry completely (at least 2 hours) before using as decorations.
4. I used 17 large orchids to decorate this cake.
5. To make your own caster sugar, place granulated sugar in a food processor or blender. Pulse until it reaches a super-fine, but not powdery consistency. Allow the sugar to settle for a few minutes.