One of life’s great indulgences is a mid-afternoon tea break. At 4:00 each afternoon, my phone trills the high-pitched, reedy “Tea” melody from “The Nutcracker,” signaling that it is time for a cup of tea and perhaps a slice of something sweet. During lockdown, my family members have folded this habit into the rhythms of their own days, and, more often than not, someone is already in the kitchen, the kettle hissing on the stove, and the “something sweet,” sits on the counter, ready to be portioned out. This time of year, the sweet something is invariably the remains of a tart, galette, or cake featuring whichever berries are in season. Cake and berries are a match made in heaven, and when you add in Russia’s “white gold” or sour cream, you have a troika of sweet, tangy, and tart flavors all pulling in the same direction.
Outside of Eastern Europe, sour cream is regarded as more of a condiment than an ingredient: slathered on baked potatoes, swirled into chili to cut its spicy bite, or tucked into crunchy tacos. In Eastern Europe, this is also true: no bowl of soup is deemed ready for consumption without the obligatory dollop of sour cream. But good sour cream is also the lynchpin of many classic Russian recipes: think beef Stroganoff, which gets its signature glossy sheen and rich undertones from sour cream, or mushroom julien, which pairs two epic Russian ingredients in an iconic creamy, umami hot appetizer, popular with theater-goers. But where thick, rich Russian sour cream really shines is in desserts. In medovik, Russia’s beloved ten-layer honey cake, sour cream provides the base flavor, as it does with today’s recipe, smetannik, or sour cream cake.
I came to food writing as a very nervous and untried baker, and for a long time, cakes such as smetannik were about as far as I ventured. There is something very forgiving about this simple, but classic snack cake, which does not demand of its chef fussy culinary tour de forces such as genoise filling, tricky steps like whipping egg whites into stiff peaks, or the nail-biting exercise of babysitting an oven filled with meringues. Smetannik is easy to throw together — sure, one layer is chocolate and the other vanilla, but this is effortlessly achieved by adding cocoa powder to one half of the batter. You don’t really need a handheld or stand mixer to make smetannik, though having them makes it even easier to assemble. Smetannik is also an excellent cake on which to practice your frosting technique. Like many butter-based frostings, this version benefits from some time in the fridge between the “crumb coat” — that first layer of frosting used to prepare and smooth the surface — and added cream cheese makes this an easy frosting to handle. If you are looking to break into cake baking, look no further than this dependable, sturdy workaday cake, perfect for the after-school snack, the 4:00 pm tea break, or the unexpected guest (remember those?) who drops in mid-morning for a congenial coffee.
Although smetannik is often decorated with crushed walnuts, when they are in season, fresh berries provide the perfect foil to the cake’s dense texture and rich flavor, as well as the intense sweetness of the frosting, made slightly tangy by the sour cream. Adorned with berries, smetannik becomes a celebration of anything you like: the opening of berry season, frosting, making your own sour cream, or just the four o’clock tea break. Take your pick.
For the cake:
- 3 cups (425 grams) cake flour
- 1 ½ Tbsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 3/4-cup (177 ml) vegetable oil
- 1 Tbsp vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs, whisked together
- 1 ½ cups (300 grams) sugar
- 2 ½ cups (591 ml) sour cream
- ¼ cup (60 ml) cocoa powder (unsweetened)
- 1 Tbsp coffee extract or 3 Tbsp espresso coffee
- For the frosting:
- 1 ½ sticks (172 grams) butter, softened to room temperature
- 12 oz (340 grams) cream cheese, softened to room temperature
- ½ cup (120 ml) sour cream
- 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
- 1 ½ tsp lemon extract
- 6 cups (750 grams) confectioners’ sugar