Strawberry Cake and Spinach & Cheese Pita for Mika's 80th Birthday

Friday, May 23, 2014

Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful fifteen year-old girl named Hanka, newly married to a man in the Army, named Feriz.  Communism dominated their mountainous country, dotted in villages and farms. The land was Bosnia. Food and liberties were scarce. Where produce and life had once flourished, fear and poverty had taken it's place.

The year was 1958. The man in the Army was my Grandfather, and the beautiful girl was my Grandmother, who we call Mika. Feriz, wanting a better life for his young family, escaped through the mountains on the border of Yugoslavia and Austria. He chose to go farther, all the way to Canada. One year later, he mailed enough money to Mika, for her and their son to come meet him. Soon after, they had a daughter, a beautiful green-eyed girl named Emina, my Mama, and their youngest, another baby girl named Esma. Feriz and Hanka, both incredible cooks, started a restaurant, before they settled in south Florida.

Mika has been making this pita since she was ten years old. She just turned eighty!

Back to the present day, local strawberries and huge, fragrant magnolias are in full bloom in North Carolina. Have you ever smelled a magnolia, before? As my Dad says, it's the best perfume in all the world.  Spring is being celebrated everywhere we look, in perfect timing to celebrate Mika's precious life. My family voted on my ideas for her birthday dessert, all choosing the simplest one. An almond cake, topped with homemade whipped cream and juicy strawberries that we picked that afternoon from a farm down the street. Mika loved it with her coffee and we all helped her devour it! Happy 80th birthday to one of the most special people in this world. Ya voleme tebe, moya Mika!

Strawberry Cake
{serves 6-8}

1 C unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into slices
1 3/4 C fine sugar
2 1/2 C unbleached cake flour
1 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 whole large eggs
1 C buttermilk // or 1 C milk and 1 lemon's worth of juice *squeeze lemon into measured milk and let sit for a few minutes
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons pure almond extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. (This is much easier and quicker using a hand mixer!) Set aside. Stir together flour and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
Mix the eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, almond, baking soda, and apple cider vinegar in a separate bowl.
Alternate adding flour mixture and buttermilk mixture to the butter & sugar mixture, mixing after each addition. Mix until totally combined.
Pour batter into two well-greased or 9-inch cake pans. Alternatively, you can line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until you can put a knife in the middle of the cake and it comes out clean. This cake is best when it is just cooked through and moist. Please check your cake during the last ten minutes as every oven cooks a little differently! Cool cakes on a wire rack before topping with whipped cream and strawberries. I used the second cake in a small trifle, but you can also stack the cakes with whipped cream in the center.

Whipped Cream
1 small or medium container of heavy whipping cream
1 TBS vanilla extract
1/2 C sugar
Using a handheld or upright mixer, combine all of the ingredients and whip on high speed until stiff peaks form. 

Spinach and Cheese Pita

3 C all-purpose flour + 1 C to work with
1 heaping teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
about 1 1/2 C water, around 80 degrees
1 stick of butter, melted

5 oz cottage cheese
1 pint fresh spinach
1 lb feta
5 oz goat cheese (or any soft cheese you'd like!)
2 eggs
1 heaping teaspoon fine sea salt

Mika never measures, so these are approximates. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Put the flour in a mound on a baking sheet. Mix in the salt and sugar with the flour. Slowly add in the water and mix into the flour with your hand. Continue kneading the dough with your hands, using small amounts of the extra flour as needed, and more water, if needed, a small amount at a time, until the dough is smooth. Cut in two and roll into two balls. Cover the dough with a clean dish towel and let sit for one hour. Meanwhile, combine the ingredients in a large bowl for the filling.

Lay a clean sheet over a flat surface, dust a bit of flour over it and the top of the dough, and using a rolling pin, begin stretching out the dough. Mika reminded me multiple times not to press hard on the top of the dough, be gentle! But don't be afraid to stretch it from the sides. The dough should become paper thin like filo dough. Using a brush or the back of a spoon, drizzle melted butter all over the surface of the dough and spread. Cut the dough in half, so you should have a total of four pieces. Spread the cheese and spinach mixture along the outer edge of the dough. Pick up the edge of the sheet so it causes the dough to roll over itself, until it is completely rolled. Transfer each roll to a greased baking sheet and bush the remaining butter over the top, making sure to brush the edges. Bake for 35-60 minutes or until the pita is brown on top, depending on your oven.

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