I’m in Cincinnati. Yes, Cincinnati.
I lived here in 2009 and 2010, when I had the best possible internship a little actor could have wanted at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, one of the country’s best regional theatres. I had just gotten over an extremely serious extended period of illness, when my totaled immune system had me so defeated that I’d quit my job and lay like a vegetable for a very long time while I worked with several doctors to get back on my feet again. I came to Cincy both strong yet sensitive, having had (mutually) ended a nine-year relationship (we’re still friends) and determined to get some sort of life back.
In Cincinnati I found a fresh start. I had one job, working eventually on eight shows in a ten-month period. I started figuring out who I was again, in a place where no one knew me as one crippled by my third blow of Lyme or as one half of a couple or as a workaholic actor/producer. It was a grand year, and I think sentimentally and fondly on it often.
I’m back now, three years later, to once again teach at the Playhouse for a few weeks, stretch out in the ample space here and drink in the waves of smiles around me.
Since only half my days are spent teaching, I’m writing a series of pieces for Serious Eats on the food scene here; reviews of sweets in the area (which I don’t eat but pick apart like a manic, and have an assembly of food-forward locals thoroughly sample and discuss with me), an interview, some market and area tours… it’s been fun to come back to the other city I love with this focus is mind.
One sweet I’m featuring caught my eye more than others; a karidopita cake from Areti’s Gyros down in Findlay Market. Findlay is one of my happy places. I brought all members of my family there for groceries and lunch whenever they visited, would snag a quick meal there between shows, and chatted up the proprietors to the point that, years later, I still remember them by name.
Areti I didn’t know back then, but I was drawn to her cake of classic Greek desserts. Like Michael Psilakis, the Greek chef currently slinging some amazing Greek-American food back in Astoria that I interviewed a few weeks ago, Areti pointed out that Greeks don’t take easily to change. She said this specifically about the walnut cake, which was thick and covered with a drizzle of icing. But I’d never had or heard of it, so I had to find out exactly what that “classic” was.
Doesn’t that look amazing? I took a crumb – and I mean a crumb – to nibble. I specify crumb because I don’t have Celiac disease, I have Lyme disease, and while I’ve avoided gluten completely for 20 years now I’m level-headed and have enough of a history with my illness that I know a crumb won’t kill me. And in that crumb I got exactly what I needed; a heavy dose of cinnamon, and spongy but not collapsible texture and the perfume of toasted walnut.
Traditional recipes often use crushed toast crackers instead of flour along with chopped walnuts as the flour blend. They use a massive amount of eggs whipped to a stiff peak, so that the structure is firm enough to absorb a heavy amount of spiced syrup without collapsing. Methods vary greatly, with some versions implementing an almost meringue method and others simply creaming butter and sugar. I chose to keep the butter to a minimum, and to have my hand at the egg-heavy version.
I chose as I went, honestly. I didn’t bring a slew of flours out here since I hadn’t really expected to bake, so I picked up some good ol Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour blend, which is all I found locally and whose beany taste I knew would dissolve in the heavily-scented cake. The hand mixer at the house I’m sitting at is so banging that it brought my 10 egg whites to stiff peaks in minutes. I used all organic flour, eggs, dark brown sugar and unsalted butter, as well as some Saigon cinnamon that I bought at a spice market down at Findlay. I didn’t have any of the (most commonly used) cognac or brandy on hand, so I stayed true to Cincinnati and used bourbon. And since there was no great zester here, I simply did without lemon zest or freshly grated nutmeg.
The cakes came out deliciously. The kind of deliciously you often don’t expect from a first go. I could get how cognac or brandy would enrich the taste, as well as lemon zest. And while I thought the amount of syrup was going to be way too much, it absorbed without collapsing the cake and added sweetness that was much needed. Because, actually, the cake is not sweet or buttery on its own.
I had debated posting this specific recipe, because of the lack of oil factor. But a European friend raved about it amongst the many sweets I had laid out for my group of tasters, and I realized it’s more of a matter of preference. This cake – to her and me – is perfect for a cup of coffee. You can eat an entire slice without feeling weighed down or overstuffed. It’s not dry, it’s just not extremely moist. And with the syrup it’s definitely sweet, but you taste that through the syrup and then get part of the not-soaked cake to enjoy some stability.
I am going to do a smaller batch of a sweeter and more fatty version soon for my American brethren who have sweeter teeth than mine, but if the above calls to you, go with this one.
A big wave and hug from Cincinnati where I’ll be happily teaching, writing, yoga and pilates-ing, resting, dog watching, friend squeezing, stretching and breathing deeply for two more weeks.
Gluten-Free Karidopita (Greek Walnut Cake)
This recipe makes two 8×8 inch cakes, which are best made to sit overnight before serving, and freeze well.
- 10 large eggs, separated
- 1 1/4 cup Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour (or use another blend without my 100% promise it’ll work)
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 6 tsp cinnamon, divided
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp vanilla
- 3 cups light brown sugar, divided
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 3 Tbsp brandy, cognac or sweet whiskey
- 2 cups toasted and finely chopped walnuts, divided
- 1/2 cup orange juice
- 1 1/2 cup water
- 1 2″ strip of orange rind
- zest of one lemon (optional)
Preheat oven to 350° and line two 8×8″ baking dishes with parchment. Lightly grease with olive oil and set aside.
Measure out all your ingredients separately:
- Melt butter in microwave, then add the vanilla and alcohol to the melted butter, and allow to sit and cool.
- In a small bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, 4 tsp cinnamon and salt.
- Separate your egg yolks from the whites in two large bowls.
- Separate 1 1/4 cup of the walnuts, and make sure they’re chopped extra fine.
Beat the egg whites on high speed until they expand extremely and reach stiff peaks, about 3-5 minutes depending on the insanity of your mixer.
Add 1 cup of the brown sugar to the egg yolks, and beat until the sugar is completely dissolved, about 6-8 minutes.
Sprinkle 1/2 of the flour mixture over the egg yolks, and fold in. Repeat with remaining half.
Add the walnuts and fold in.
Add the egg whites in thirds, folding in gently to keep as much volume in as possible.
Drizzle the liquid over the now incorporated batter, and gently fold in.
Divide into the two pans, and bake for 40 minutes or until a toothpick or fork inserted comes out clean.
Meanwhile, combine the orange juice, orange peel, water, remaining 2 tsp cinnamon and remaining 2 cups of light brown sugar in a saucepan on medium heat and simmer until slightly thickened, about ten minutes. Cool slightly.
When the cakes are done, cool for a few minutes and then score into eight triangles (per cake). Pour the syrup over evenly and sprinkle with remaining chopped walnuts. Allow to absorb completely before serving.
Makes 16 slices.