Karpatka (Carpathian cream cake) is one of those baked goods that are hard to resist. The combination of two layers of choux pastry and fluffy vanilla-flavored custard cream makes us often crave more right after tasting it. People who have baked it at least once are eager to make it again right after the last crumb vanishes, and not (only) because of the powder on top. Its popularity skyrocketed after Pope John Paul II during one of his visits to Poland mentioned he was fond of this cake. Now it is known in every corner of Poland. Despite its established position on the Polish menus, its history is actually not that long.
History in the baking
Karpatka is mentioned for the first time in the scripts of Polish philology students from 1972. The name was inspired by Karpaty, the Polish term for the Carpathian Mountains. Back then, the name referred to some cookies. In the meantime, the recipe for this unusual cake appeared in one of the textbooks for the Technical (High) School of Food Industry students. Since the rugged and sugar-dusted peaks of choux pastry perfectly mimic the snow-covered mountain range, it is no wonder that the name stuck to this particular confection. If the choux fits…
A /Karpatka/ by any other name…
A Carpathian cream cake consists of custard or vanilla milk pudding cream sandwiched between two layers of pastry. According to some catering textbooks, marmalade should be spread on the lower part of the cake when it cools down, and then covered with the cream. Further, only the top should be made from choux pastry while the short-crust dough should act as the base.
As it happens often in life, textbooks have little in common with reality, at least in my immediate circle of friends and family. Every time I have eaten this glorious creation, there was no talk about spreading marmalade and both the top as well as the bottom part of it were made of choux pastry. So don’t feel discouraged if you encounter such a version. It is still a karpatka.
In both cases, when the cake is assembled, its top is sprinkled with powdered sugar. The dessert is served cut into rectangular pieces.
It is similar to more refined kremówka (literally: cream cake, also called napoleonka) in which the choux pastry is replaced with puff pastry. This variant is even more special to Poles as it was the favorite dessert of pope John Paul II. Sometimes it is even called a papal cream pie.
How to prepare
In Poland, you can buy the ready-made mixes needed to make both the pastry and the cream. As a matter of fact, the first product of this kind appeared in 1986! It does save a bit of time, however, I do not recommend using them. It’s more rewarding to make it from scratch!
The number of steps necessary to prepare this dessert might seem a bit intimidating to beginners, but don’t worry! It’s not that difficult to make a karpatka. And it’s so worth it!
Choux pastry (2 layers)
- 250ml of milk
- around 100g of butter
- 150g of flour
- 5 medium eggs
Vanilla milk pudding cream
- 750ml of milk
- 130g of white sugar + 2tbsp
- 16g of vanilla sugar or 3 tbsp of vanilla extract
- 1 whole egg and 4 egg yolks
- 4 tbsp of potato flour
- around 2 tbsp of regular flour
- 350g of room-temperature butter
- powdered sugar (sprinkle on top)
Let’s start by making choux pastry:
- In a saucepan or a small pot heat on medium the milk and butter in a saucepan or a small pot.
- After the butter melts, bring the mix to a boil. Now add in the flour and reduce the heat.
- Whisking time! You need to whisk it continuously up until it thickens and forms a (hopefully) lump-free mass that comes off the sides of the pot. Turn off the heat and set the mass aside to cool down.
- In the meantime, you can work on your cream.
Vanilla milk pudding cream:
- Start by heating slowly 500ml of milk as well as the two kinds of sugar (vanilla and white).
- In a cup, combine the rest of the milk (250ml) with a whole egg, 4 yolks, potato starch, and regular flour. Add it to the boiling milk and continue whisking (on heat) until the mixture thickens and custard forms. Now you can turn the heat off. Set the cream aside to cool down entirely.
- In another bowl, blend the room-temperature butter with two tablespoons of sugar until you achieve a light and fluffy mass. Next, gradually add the custard while blending. The cream is ready! Put it to the side
Back to the pastry part:
- Combine the cooled pastry mixture with eggs. Add them one by one mixing as you go. The dough should be smooth (no lumps!) and a bit sticky. Let’s divide it into two.
- Grease a large rectangular cake tin (the best would be 23×33 cm) generously with butter and sprinkle with flour so the dough doesn’t stay in the tin.
- Spread half of the dough on the cake tin evenly. You can use a butter knife or a spatula to do so.
- Bake at 200ºC for around 30 minutes, until the cake turns lightly golden. Do not open the oven while it bakes! Otherwise, the mountain ranges will become lowlands.
- Take it out of the oven and repeat steps 9 and 10 with another portion of the dough. Leave to cool.
How to assemble:
- Transfer one layer of baked choux pastry onto a serving plate. If you prefer, you can of course keep it in the cake tin used earlier for baking.
- Spread the custard cream on top evenly and place the second layer of baked choux pastry on top.
- Chill in the fridge for a few hours (the cream needs some time to settle).
- Upon serving, sprinkle each portion generously with powdered sugar.