For the birthdays of each of her grandchildren, Babulinka used to bake a krendel, a traditional Latvian cake in the shape of a B. The classic shape was really a figure eight; it just looked like a B to Babulinka's youngest grandchild, and so it became "the B cake."
The cake isn't what most children might imagine for a birthday cake. After all, it has no frosting, no layers, and no candles. Krendel (pronounced kryen-dzel) is low and yeasty with a streusel topping, more like coffee cake or a babka.
On the day of the celebration, the cake would sit on a wooden board on my grandmother's kitchen counter, covered by a white dishtowel. Once the table was set and the guests arrived (usually a small gathering of family), we would sing a song reserved only for birthdays. It was a Russian ditty that, roughly translated, went like this: "One time for Gabi's birthday we baked a birthday cake. Look how wide it is, look how narrow it is! Look how high it is, look how low it is! Birthday cake, birthday cake, choose whomever you desire. Of course, I like everybody here, but I love this person most of all...."
I can't remember the last time we ate a krendel on a birthday, or the last time we sang that song, but I'm sure it wouldn't sound the same without Babulinka's enthusiasm and her thin Yiddishe trill.
Gurevich Family Krendel
1 1/4 cup of milk
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs lightly beaten at room temp
1 cup golden raisins
4 1/2 to 5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for brushing on top
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Melt one stick of butter in 1 1/4 cup of milk and set aside to cool to a temperature between 105 F and 115 F. Sprinkle one tablespoon of yeast into the cooled milk mixture, and whisk it in. Set aside for about five minutes, or until the yeast has dissolved.
In a large bowl, whisk in the milk mixture, sugar, cardamom, salt and eggs. Switch to a wooden spoon, add 2 cups of the flour and beat it until smooth. Mix in 1 cup of raisins, then add as much of the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until the dough is stiff. (It will still be sticky.)
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead, adding flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it is smooth and no longer sticky, about 10 minutes.
Shape the dough into a ball. Place it in a lightly greased bowl, turn the bowl to grease the entire surface and cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at room temperature 45 minutes to one hour.
While the dough is rising, make the streusel topping. Mix the flour and sugar, working the butter into the flour mixture with your fingers until large moist clumps form.
When your dough has risen, punch it down and let it rest. On a lightly floured surface, form the dough into a long rope, about 20 inches, stretching it gently and rolling with your hands. Place on the buttered baking sheet in the shape of a big pretzel (a figure eight). Butter the outside of two soufflé ramekins (or empty tuna cans), and place them in the open parts of the pretzel to prevent them from closing during baking.
Cover the krendel loosely with plastic and let it rise until almost double in bulk. Brush the top with egg wash and scatter streusel over the top.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 375 F. Bake the krendel for about 45 minutes, or until it is golden.
Transfer to a wooden board to cool, then cover with a clean dish towel to rest until ready to eat. It tastes best the next day.
Gabriella Gershenson is a restaurant reviewer and food columnist with the New York Press -- and a sometime-compulsive eater.