During Christmas time at Sydney's Stix Marrickville, the head pastry chef Daria Nechiporenko is gearing up for a lavish seasonal display. Yule logs, reindeer gateaux, gingerbread houses and fruitcakes speckled with candied oranges, plump with brandy and sweet rum. These desserts are the stuff of white Christmas dreams – and Russian-born Nechiporenko is familiar with these tastes and smells.
Of all the festive treats, only one stays year-round on the menu: the Russian honey cake. The cafe sells 200 portions of Nechiporenko’s delicately layered, Instagram-friendly creation a fortnight. It’s also the most labour-intensive dessert in her line-up, each batch requiring the full attention of two staff prepping, baking and finely layering the hand-rolled biscuits and cream – a process that takes up to one-and-a-half days.
“In Russia, we say there are as many versions of honey cakes as there are housewives,” says Nechiporenko. “Every household, every mum has their own recipe. A lot of people use dried fruit or walnuts. You can play around with it as much as you want.”
At Stix, a house-made speculaas spice mix is added for a limited-edition festive spin. But through the rest of the year, you’ll find a classic, old-school iteration with two basic elements: whisper-thin honey biscuits and a dulce de leche and sour cream filling. The irony? Like a good sponge or fluffy scrambled eggs – the ‘easier’ something seems, the more technically intimidating it actually is.
“I like to make simple products because they are the hardest to do,” says Nechiporenko. This diligent, exacting approach sums up the self-made chef’s attitude to cooking. Details matter to her. And she’s willing to put in the patience and time needed.
Nechiporenko’s love for kitchen experiments started early. In her home town of Pyatigorsk, in Russia's south, she started cooking for her family around the age of 12 – although her formal training as a pastry chef didn’t begin until she moved to Sydney at 31.
“My parents were always busy. Mum was a federal judge and didn’t have time to cook much. I also had a little brother, so I was in charge of the house. Back then in the Soviet Union, it’s different from the way we live now. Kids have to jump in and help parents quite early,” she says.
To the budding cook, mealtimes were never a chore. “It was like my hobby. I didn’t want to go anywhere. The kitchen was my favourite place in the house,” she says. When word got out that she ran the family kitchen, her growing repertoire of stroganoffs, keks (Russian pound cakes), and buttery fruit tarts soon became the ‘talk of the town’.
“All of our family friends would tease my parents for making me cook and ask, ‘What’s for dinner today?’” she says and laughs.
“Every household, every mum has their own recipe. A lot of people use dried fruit or walnuts. You can play around with it as much as you want.”
An autodidact by nature, young Nechiporenko read every cooking magazine she could get her hands on and learnt by trial and error. “My mum bought magazines from Eastern Europe which were translated into Russian. [My favourite was] a Women’s Weekly-style magazine. They had a section on cooking, and I would cut out the recipes and put them in a little folder.”
As for her very first taste of honey cake, she attributes it to her paternal grandmother. “Dad’s mum made a lot of layer cakes like honey cake and napoleons – those were her favourite things to bake," the chef says. "In the Soviet Union, good cakes manufactured commercially were an extremely rare thing. That’s why there was a lot of home baking back then. There were very few cafes, patisseries or bakeries.”
And while her mother may not have the time for cake-making, she would make layered jelly for her and her brother when she gets a chance. Nechiporenko remembers nursing the technicolour dessert cups, sweetened with compote and natural juices – an affirmation that even ‘basic’ things require time.
From her childhood, she gained an appreciation for care, patience and precision. Attributes that she continues to call on daily as a pastry chef. “The necessity to make everything from scratch translates to my love for proper cooking today,” she says.
The same drive may have also helped her finally pursue a culinary career nine years ago, after spending her 20s working as an economist in finance and logistics. “I went to university because I knew I was supposed to. My parents didn't want to hear anything about a cooking career,” she says. A sea change and two children later, Nechiporenko finds herself returning to her first love of baking and chocolate-making, now impressing cafe regulars and chefs like Josh Niland with her weekly offerings at Stix.
Her pastries’ growing fame is proof that patience pays off – in life, as well as in the best, most exquisite cakes.
Honey cake recipe
You will need to begin this recipe the day before.
- 454 g plain flour
- 2½ tsp baking soda
- 130 g butter
- 180 g caster sugar
- 2 eggs
- 75 g honey
- ¾ tsp citric acid
- 330 g thickened cream
- 330 g dulce de leche
- 155 g sour cream
1. To make the biscuit base, sift both the flour and the baking soda into a bowl. Mix and set aside.
2. In a saucepan over low to medium heat, place the butter, sugar and eggs. Heat the mixture, stirring constantly until sugar melts.
3. Add honey, then citric acid and flour mix to the saucepan. Keep stirring until dough darkens slightly.
4. Remove dough from the saucepan, place on a working bench and let the dough cool down to room temperature. It should be sticky but supple when ready.
5. Preheat the oven to 160˚C.
6. Divide the dough into equal size balls (weighing around 80 to 100 g each). Roll the dough balls between two pieces of baking paper, until they become very thin. Remove the top piece of baking paper, prick each dough disc with a fork and place on a baking sheet.
7. Bake the biscuits at 160˚C for 5-6 minutes until golden brown.
8. Immediately after baking, trim the biscuit (you can use a plate or a saucepan lid if you are not using a cake ring). Keep the trimmings and set aside for later.
9. Repeat the process with the remaining dough.
10. Cool the baked discs on a wire rack and stack when cooled.
11. To make the cream filling, whip the thickened cream and set aside in the refrigerator.
12. Whisk together the dulce de leche and sour cream. Combine with the thickened cream.
13. Spoon a small amount of cream on your cake plate or board.
14. Place one honey biscuit on the cream and press to secure – this will stop your finished cake from sliding.
15. Spoon 2-4 tbsp cream between biscuit layers and spread evenly. After each cream layer, place another biscuit on top and press gently.
16. Repeat the process until you’ve used all of the biscuits but one, finishing with a top layer of cream.
17. In a food processor, crush trimmings and the remaining biscuit into powder. Cover the top and sides of the cake with the honey biscuit powder.
18. Refrigerate the cake for at least 12 hours. Bring to room temperature before serving.
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