IS THERE SUCH a thing as too much cake? 

Polina Chesnakova, a writer and culinary director of the Book Larder cookbook store, might not think so under normal conditions. But she started intensive recipe testing for her latest cookbook, “Everyday Cake” (Sasquatch Books, $22.95), just at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Sourcing ingredients was a challenge — in the book’s acknowledgments, she thanks herself for some prescient purchases of 25-pound sacks of flour and sugar. Leftovers at that scale were another level entirely, with multiple tweaks and recipe retests. 

At the pandemic’s height, “I felt self-conscious even bringing cake over to my neighbors, because it was in my house and I touched it and I breathed on it, and they might not want to eat my cake! I think that was the biggest challenge: ‘OK; how do I get all this cake eaten without throwing it away?’ ” she recalls. 

In a fortunate collaboration, the Book Larder began cooking benefit meals for Harborview Hospital staff, so Chesnakova included cakes in the packages. Her husband also worked at a hospital, and she wrapped individual slices to share with his crew. 

“I spent a lot of time wrapping, but it was, ‘At least this is being eaten!’ ” 

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‘Everyday Cake’ Events

Polina Chesnakova will teach an online class on “Angel Food Cake Demystified” on Aug. 25 through Milk Street Kitchen. Cost: $29.95; tickets at eventbrite.com/e/angel-food-cake-demystified-with-polina-chesnakova-tickets-366747109477

The Book Larder will host an “Everyday Cake” book release event at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 30. The cost is $22.95 and includes the book. Reservations can be made at: booklarder.com/products/in-person-author-talk-polina-chesnakova-everyday-cake

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Fans like me were watching along on Instagram as Chesnakova created a mouthwatering rhubarb buttermilk Bundt cake, one of the book’s final 45 recipes, along with a super-flexible French custard cake whipped up in a blender, a brandied persimmon tea cake, raspberry-rose angel food cake and other creative new classics divvied up by the type of cake pan that serves them best. 

Chesnakova’s background as a professional baker and cooking teacher helped her judge how to translate her recipes for home cooks — as did her own experiences with food. Her parents immigrated to Rhode Island from the Republic of Georgia when she was a baby. As a teen, she devoured cookbooks and food blogs, a particular fan of leading bakers such as Dorie Greenspan. Yet gathering with extended family over dishes like shashlik (meat skewers) and khatchapuri (cheesy bread) became “the bridge” linking the family’s old life and new, she writes on her website. 

And yet, she says at her Seattle home, “I didn’t really appreciate it. Like most people, and most children of immigrants, you don’t really appreciate it until you leave home and you don’t have access to that food anymore, and you miss it. And so you call up Mom, like, ‘How do I make borscht?’ ”

Now, “Every time I go home, we have cooking and baking days … I have a notepad, and I’m being a stickler, like, ‘Measure that. How much? How much?’ … I’m writing everything down, measuring everything, trying to keep an eye on how long something cooks for, and she’s just kind of doing her thing.” 

The appreciation goes both ways. 

“The work I do, spotlighting the dishes we always grew up (with), has her see the food in a new light,” Chesnakova says. “Before, it was sort of a chore to cook. Now that she has more time, more energy, and she sees the enthusiasm I generate by writing about these kinds of everyday dishes, she’s like, ‘Maybe there is something special to the food that I don’t think twice about cooking.’ ” 

The path hasn’t always been smooth or straight for Chesnakova. She majored in Eastern European Studies and Religious Studies in college after starting out as a premed major. “Growing up in a very traditional conservative immigrant family, it’s like you can either be a doctor or a businessman or a lawyer.” 

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Knowing she wanted a career in food instead, she worked as a baker for some time, one of the jobs that informed her cake recipes. But a car accident in 2016 terribly injured one hand, requiring intensive work to function comfortably again in a kitchen. 

She worked through years of surgeries and therapies; interned at Culture, a cheese magazine; moved to Seattle with her now-husband; wrote her first cookbook, “Hot Cheese”; and began teaching cooking classes. Her background is integrated into all of it, from refining a “grated jam cake” for her book, adapted from an aunt’s Russian recipe, to leading classes devoted to Georgian foods and culture. 

“People tend to think Georgia is like the Soviet Union, just another Slavic country. But the language and alphabet predated Cyrillic, which is the Russian alphabet, by like 400 years. Their culture, their language, is very distinctly its own,” she says. 

With extended family members still living in that region, including Ukraine, the ongoing war there has added new layers of concern — and connection. 

Visiting home with her infant son recently, Chesnakova and her mother taught a joint cooking class to raise money to support family in Ukraine. On a class video, it all comes together. 

“Polina has (the) best recipes in her books, on her website,” her mother volunteers as the dish is complete. “Always when I’m cooking, I’m telling you the truth … I always look to her books or her website and it comes out perfect … Polina, you’re the best.” 

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Off camera, Chesnakova responds, “Well, I learned from the best, as well.” 

French Custard Cake
Makes 8 to 10 servings

France has all kinds of fruit-baked-in-custard cakes: clafouti with cherries, far normand with apples, flaugnarde with pears, far breton with plumped prunes or other dried fruit. This custard cake is none of these, but certainly inspired by all. The rich, booze-spiked batter comes together in seconds in a blender and lends itself to being baked year-round with any seasonal fruit — or vegetable, in the case of rhubarb — you might have on hand, though do avoid anything too juicy or overly ripe. It’s an effortless dessert that will impress any guest. So very French! 

3/4 cup (100 g) all-purpose flour 
2/3 cup (135 g) sugar 
½ teaspoon kosher salt 
5 eggs 
1 cup (235 ml) heavy cream 
1 cup (235 ml) whole milk (see Note) 
2 tablespoons brandy, cognac, rum, kirsch, Calvados or other eau-de-vie 
2 teaspoons vanilla extract 
1 to 1¼ pounds (about 3 cups) cherries, fresh berries, rhubarb, plums, peaches, apples or pears 

For assembly 
Unsalted butter, for greasing 
Sugar, for dusting and topping 
Powdered sugar, for dusting (optional) 

1. In a blender, blend all of the ingredients on medium speed until the batter is completely smooth and lump-free, 20 to 45 seconds, depending on your blender. Alternatively, in a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar and salt. Add the eggs, and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the cream, milk, brandy and vanilla. Chill the batter in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or in an airtight container for up to 3 days. 

2. Meanwhile, prep your chosen fruit: Pit cherries; trim and cut rhubarb into 1-inch pieces, and toss with 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar; pit and thickly slice plums or peaches. If using apples or pears, prep and cook according to the directions below. You will need 3 cups prepped fruit for the cake. 

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3. To assemble, first preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter a deep 2-quart baking dish — such as 11-by-7 inches or a 9-inch square — and lightly coat with sugar. Tap out any excess. 

4. Stir the batter to reincorporate any flour that has settled to the bottom. Arrange the fruit in an even layer in the baking dish, and, if using apples or pears, reserve some for the top. Slowly pour the batter over the fruit, making sure not to disturb it too much. Top with the remaining fruit, and sprinkle evenly with 3 tablespoons sugar. 

5. Bake until the cake puffs up and is a nice golden color, and a tester inserted into the center comes out relatively clean, 55 to 70 minutes. Don’t be alarmed if the cake sinks as it cools — this is normal. Dust with powdered sugar, and serve warm or at room temperature. This cake is best the day it is baked but will keep well wrapped in the refrigerator for up to 1 day. 

Note: You can substitute 2 cups (475 ml) half-and-half for the whole milk and heavy cream, or use all whole milk (no cream) for a lighter custard. 

Prepping apples or pears: Peel, core and slice them 1/8-inch thick. In a medium bowl, toss the slices with 2 tablespoons sugar and ¼ teaspoon kosher salt. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the fruit and cook, stirring often, until it begins to soften and release juices and the edges start to turn translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. The centers should still have a bit of crunch. Remove from the heat. Add ¼ cup of whichever liquor you’ve used in the batter, and toss to combine. Let the mixture cool to room temperature before proceeding with assembly. 
©2022 by Polina Chesnakova. Excerpted from “Everyday Cake” with permission of Sasquatch Books.