December 15, 2018

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A festival of cream

Tortes symbolize dedication to Folklorama

The recipe for 10 lemon tortes calls for 70 eggs.

There are 72 on the counter in the basement kitchen of Our Lady of Lourdes: not much room for error.

Luckily, the crew of apron-clad women gathered at the MacDonald Avenue church on a Saturday in July to bake the layered cakes for Slovenija Pavilion are old hands at this — there will be no crying over spilled milk, or broken eggs.

The torte is the final item on their list: previous Saturdays have seen them baking dobos tortes, sugar cookies, poppyseed tortes and almond crescents to prepare for their week-long stint at Folklorama, Winnipeg’s annual cultural festival.

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The recipe for 10 lemon tortes calls for 70 eggs.

There are 72 on the counter in the basement kitchen of Our Lady of Lourdes: not much room for error.

Luckily, the crew of apron-clad women gathered at the MacDonald Avenue church on a Saturday in July to bake the layered cakes for Slovenija Pavilion are old hands at this — there will be no crying over spilled milk, or broken eggs.

The torte is the final item on their list: previous Saturdays have seen them baking dobos tortes, sugar cookies, poppyseed tortes and almond crescents to prepare for their week-long stint at Folklorama, Winnipeg’s annual cultural festival.

Hilda Terry mixes the honey biscuit dough.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Hilda Terry mixes the honey biscuit dough.

"We also made a cookie called medenjaki, which is like a gingerbread but made with honey," Pauline Tutkaluke says. "We made 1,300 of those. Then we had another day when we iced them; they’re beautiful."

So what’s the payoff for all this hard work?

"The week of," says Tutkaluke, referring to the Slovenija Pavilion’s Week 2 Folklorama slot at Sargent Park School, where the home-baked goodies are available for sale.

"That and sharing the culture and the cuisine," says Alenka Howell, her hair pulled back in a do-rag.

"Our country is a whole two million people — smaller than Toronto," she says of the Balkan nation of Slovenia, which is bordered by Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Hungary to the northeast, Croatia to the southeast and the Adriatic Sea to the southwest.

Hilda Terry mixes honey biscuit dough for the lemon torte in the basement of the Our Lady of Lourdes Church where volunteers are baking huge lemon tortes for the Slovenian pavilion.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Hilda Terry mixes honey biscuit dough for the lemon torte in the basement of the Our Lady of Lourdes Church where volunteers are baking huge lemon tortes for the Slovenian pavilion.

"So our friends or co-workers, they come back (from visiting the pavilion) and say ‘Oh geez, I didn’t know.’ There’s no monetary reward, but you get the satisfaction of people learning what Slovenia is.

As Folklorama has expanded over the years, many pavilions have taken to bringing in catered food, but not Slovenia. The savoury dishes are created fresh on-site, but the baking is all completed ahead of time and frozen.

Looking through the pass-through window into the church’s cramped kitchen, the counters are covered with jugs of milk, squares of hard margarine, containers of lard, huge bags of flour and sugar and reams of wax paper. Sets of measuring cups litter the counter.

In the church hall, long tables are set up to handle the assembly of tortes; there are mixing stations here and there for the women working on different portions of the recipe.

"There’s usually about eight to 10 of us doing a project like this," says Tutkaluke, a first-generation Winnipegger who has been "running pastry" for the past few years. "It takes a lot of hands and many stations; this is one of the most complex desserts for sure."

Alenia Howell flips the sponge for the lemon torte.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Alenia Howell flips the sponge for the lemon torte.

The baking used to be done individually, with different people handling their specialties — many of the recipes featured at the pavilion are old family treasures, the secrets of which were kept close to the vest. But when it became clear the recipes might die with their owners, efforts were made to ensure their survival; now mothers and daughters come together to grease pans, mix dough and laugh together.

"I don’t know how to make all the recipes and we don’t want to lose them," Tutkaluke says. "I called all the ladies and sat down with them to figure out the recipes. They’d say, ‘OK, two cups of this,’ and I’d say, "A cup like this?" (indicates a measuring cup) and they’d say "No, THIS cup’ and it would be, like, a teacup or serving spoon or something. So I had to re-create all these recipes so that you could actually measure it and make multiple recipes."

The lemon torte is one of the more elaborate, time-consuming creations — the recipe, broken down into six sections, fills both sides of an 8 1/2-x-11 sheet of paper — but it’s a fan favourite, so there’s no question of leaving it out.

It’s a layer of honey biscuit — there are lots of bees in Slovenia; honey is prominent in the cuisine — topped with a layer of rich lemon cream. Then comes a layer of sponge cake, called piskota, more cream, another biscuit layer and, finally, it’s topped with melted chocolate.

The sponge layer is baked first. "It’s bouncing back, but it’s not golden," yells a voice from the kitchen.

Hilda Terry (left) and Alenia Howell add a final layer of cream filling to the lemon torte.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Hilda Terry (left) and Alenia Howell add a final layer of cream filling to the lemon torte.

"Put it in for another couple of minutes," advises another voice.

It’s fiddly business and one hasty move could ruin an entire torte. Once removed from the oven, it has to be dusted with sugar and then flipped over carefully, using the bottom of another baking pan, and the wax paper peeled off, taking care not to tear the surface.

"I hate this part," Howell says, gingerly flipping the hot baking sheet over.

The sponge cake inside isn’t optimal — it’s a bit pale and not quite as fluffy as it could be. But the next one is a bit better; by the fourth one, the bakers have found their groove, turning out golden-topped, pillowy piskota as the air fills with a sugary aroma.

The cookie layer goes in the oven next and it too is proving to be finicky work. The ball of dough must be rolled out thinly to fill the baking tray to the very edges and corners; the women must pull off irregular bits and paste them into holes, then re-roll.

Hilda Terry (left) watches as Syrena Terry pours the chocolate onto the lemon torte.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Hilda Terry (left) watches as Syrena Terry pours the chocolate onto the lemon torte.

"This will be my final year — I’m telling you right now. That’s it!" says Pauline, half-jokingly.

"Everyone always says that," Howell says, laughing.

Even the lemon-cream filling is tricky — it’s done in two parts, and when they come together, texture is crucial. The recipe’s instructions indicate, in capital letters, that the mixture must be beaten "constantly and forever," until the sugar granules are entirely dissolved.

Luckily there’s a collection of KitchenAid mixers brought in for the occasion; in the old days, someone had the tedious job of holding the hand mixer until the desired texture was reached.

Once the sponge and cookie layers have cooled and the cream filling is reading, it’s time for assembly.

A cardboard box that once contained 11-x-17 office paper is lined with wax paper. The cookie is carefully placed in the bottom and coated with cream. Two women handle the delicate sponge; the room collectively holds its breath as it flips perfectly into the box atop the cream layer.

The next two layers are a piece of cake, if you will. Finally, the chocolate is poured on top, and Tutkaluke uses a flat blade to smooth it to an immaculate, glossy topping; the torte is a thing of beauty.

One down, nine to go.

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca
Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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