Siberian Birch Syrup Pie and Kefir Ice Cream

If you find yourself in Canada, you might try the impossibly sweet yet addictive maple syrup pies. In New York City, Momofuku Milk Bar has the infamous crack pie, which isn’t all that different, except it’s made with cane sugar and a funkier crust. As a birch syrup lover, I wanted to come up with a similar dish for the other side of the Iron Curtain. Siberia being a little to Western Russian what Canada is to the United States, I decided to create a Siberian birch syrup pie.

One may ask: do people really eat custard pies in Siberia? Aren’t Siberians just a bunch of alcoholics who push frozen planes along their airport tarmacs while dodging meteorites? (Tupolev-134, no less.) It’s time to shake off clichés! Let it be known that modern Siberians do eat all kinds of pies. And starting from now, add birch syrup pie with kefir ice cream to the list!

Russian Food - Birch Pie

The Siberian pedigree is reinforced by the presence of pine nuts, which are found all over Siberia — more on this at siberianpinenuts.com. Once toasted, they add a nice bitterness to the dish. Compared to some Canadian recipes, I’m keeping the sugar level in check, and to balance the flavors from the birch syrup, I’m making a tangy kefir ice cream, topped with a piece of crispy bacon to add a salty note.

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Caucasian Plombir-Apricot-Baklava Sundae

I’m not the world’s biggest dessert eater, but lately I’ve been thinking about ice cream sundaes whenever I have a craving for sweets, probably because the excessive combination of ice cream, sauce, and crunchy bits is guaranteed to deliver the goods if only in terms of quantity and sugar. During a recent dinner at Alder, I finished my meal with a delicious carrot cake sundae (even though I don’t usually like carrot cake or white chocolate). This reminded me how great a sundae can be when it’s well done, which it rarely is. Indeed, it seems that in most restaurants one always ends up with either cheap or poorly formulated ice cream, Hershey’s-like syrup, or inadequate glassware.

So of course, this means it’s time for me to come up with my own Eastern Bloc version. I already had the plombir ice cream and the apricot sauce to get started, but I needed something crunchy. And chocolate. And more Food-Perestroika-worthy flavors! Baklava seemed like the perfect solution: it’s not something you’d expect in a sundae, it’s made with honey just like my plombir, and like the apricots it can be be found in the Caucasus (where there aren’t enough desserts in my opinion). For the chocolate sauce, I opted for a dark chocolate and black tea combination, on top of whipped cream laced with more honey. Honey, nuts, apricot, chocolate, black tea: the result is sweet, sour, bitter, not too alien yet not totally hackneyed, and quite addictive.

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Plombir, Russian Ice Cream

You might remember seeing plombir ice cream in some of my restaurant reviews, such as Mari Vanna and Ariana, and wondering what makes it different. Plombir takes its name from the French glace Plombières, a vanilla ice cream mixed with bits of candied fruits marinated in kirsch. However, it bears little resemblance to the original. As explained in Russian standard ГОСТ 31457-2012, plombir is defined by its nutrient composition, not its flavor. Indeed, for an ice cream to be called plombir, the fat content must be between 12% and 20%, and the sugar content 14% or above. There’s also a threshold for the total “dry substance” content, which, I assume, represents the total amount of solids: it must exceed 37-42%, depending on the fat content. In other words, it’s much richer than your typical ice cream, especially if you err on the side of the upper bounds.

Of course, I have my own set of ice cream formulas, courtesy of Frozen Desserts. Putting it all together, I chose a fat content on the higher side, and worked backwards to find the perfect sugar content, which still turned out to be equally massive — this is definitely no diet ice cream. Next came the question of flavor. Although one can be make a plombir with pretty much anything, the most typical flavors in my experience are vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, with vanilla leading by a wide margin. So I stuck to vanilla but I also added honey, to make all that sugar somewhat more flavorful. There are no alcohol-macerated candied fruits here, but in the Russian tradition, my plombir is topped with a preserve-like sauce laced with Armenian brandy (a soviet-inspired nod to the kirsch in glace Plombières), thus creating something that’s almost half plombir and half Plombières. You can use any fruit you like, and I’m presenting both an apricot-brandy sauce (its acidity helps cut the fatty richness of the ice cream), and a booze-free strawberry sauce (because a sauce made with ripe strawberries is always delicious). The key is to go easy on the sugar.

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Blueberry Pie with Sour Cream and Vodka Chiboust Cream

The idea to make a blueberry pie started with a rather prolific day of blueberry picking last summer at Fishkill Farms, which left us with way more berries than we really needed to make preserves. Having found a recipe for blueberry pie filling, I decided to give it a try.

It didn’t strike me, then, how misguided this solution was for the original problem. First off, we ended up with even more jars than we would have if we’d just done a bunch of preserves, and these jars further reduced our usable refrigerator space, sitting next to my bric-a brac of wine bottles, sausage casings, and onion jams (a piece of advice if you ever make onion jam: no matter how good it tastes, you probably won’t eat quite so much of it). Second, my regular readers — and WordPress tells me they really do exist! — will probably have noticed that opening a jar, pouring its contents into a store-bought crust, and calling it a day isn’t exactly the style we go for on this blog.

Blueberry Pie with Sour Cream and Vodka Chiboust Cream

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The Chef, the Computer, and the Baltic Apple Pie

I usually don’t speak about my day job on this blog, mostly because it has nothing whatsoever to do with adventures in Eastern Bloc cuisine. Or rather, it didn’t until recently…

About two years ago, a small team of researchers at IBM (including yours truly) started working on computational creativity. By winning on Jeopardy, IBM has shown that computers can make inferences about the world as it is. But could they also be creative, and produce quality artifacts that have never been seen before? To investigate, we built a cognitive cooking system.

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Prune and Chocolate Custard Tart

Here’s a recipe that should come in handy for the upcoming holidays. The idea for this dish stemmed from a popular dessert at family Thanksgiving dinners. The original was a plain chocolate custard tart, covered with whipped cream and cocoa powder. While most of the other desserts would be barely touched by the turkey-stuffed guests, the tart would be gone in minutes. In the face of such popularity, I became convinced that it would be worth preparing my own version from scratch.

Prune and Chocolate Custard TartThis being Food Perestroika and not, say, Martha Stewart, I had to give it an Eastern European twist. Prunes, plum brandy, and black tea to the rescue!

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Kulich and Paskha, Russian Dessert Duo for Orthodox Easter

Russian Cuisine - Kulich and PaskhaTwo and a half years after publishing my recipe for baked paskha (one of my first blog entries!), I finally posted my kulich last week. So you can now prepare the two traditional Russian desserts for Orthodox Easter — or any other day you feel like having them, of course.

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Nesselrode, Part 1: the Count, the Cook, and their Pudding

March 31, 1814. With the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian armies having defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Paris, the War of the Sixth Coalition is now over. Tsar Alexander I of Russia receives the key to the French capital from Talleyrand, and enters the city at the head of the army, cheered by the crowd. Talleyrand, master of political flip-flopping, started to distance himself from Napoleon several years earlier, and is now eager to participate in the new government. He sends a message, through the Russian diplomat Count Karl Nesselrode, offering the tsar a place to stay at his palace.

Talleyrand’s chef at this time is none other than Antonin Carême, the first celebrity chef of sorts. So impressive is his cuisine that Alexander I takes Carême with him when he moves from Talleyrand’s digs to the Elysée Palace. During these few months of Russian presence in Paris, Carême creates a luxurious chestnut ice dessert in honor of Count Nesselrode. The Nesselrode Pudding is born — or, at least, this is how the story goes according to Ian Kelly’s excellent Carême biography, Cooking for Kings.

Nesselrode Pudding

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Dalmatian Fritters

Among other things, Hippocrene Books offers an unparalleled collection of  international cookbooks. Sure, the layout is rather dry (no pictures), and the titles aren’t updated very often, but where else can you find a Belarusian or Albanian cookbook? (Amateurish, self-published booklets written by US-based church people don’t count.) Liliana Pavicic’s and Gordana Pirker-Mosher’s The Best of Croatian Cooking is Hippocrene’s entry for — you guessed it — Croatia, and it contains quite a few interesting recipes, many of which could yet provide inspiration for my dormant series of toponymic dishes.

The Dalmatian fritters are one them. Dalmatia is the southern tip of Croatia, on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. I can’t tell you much on my own about the culinary habits of the Dalmatians, but Liliana Pavicic teaches us that these sweet fritters are made around Christmas time and devoured by children and adults alike. My partner made some for a party and she did get some nice feedback, but I thought there was room for improvement.

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Cherry and Pistachio Gratin with Cherry Kompot

During cherry season, try this yummy dessert that I’ve adapted from Silvena Rowe’s Feasts — though Rowe mentions getting it from Carmel Pince, “possibly the best Jewish restaurant in Budapest.” In other words, it’s far enough removed now that if you were to show this post to Carmel’s chef, he’d probably vehemently deny having created anything remotely like it.

While cherries (especially sour ones) are very popular in Hungary, the pistachios illustrate the culinary influence of the Ottoman Empire that ruled the region in the 16th and 17th centuries. I complement this simple but delicious gratin with a cherry kompot, a beverage widely prepared in Eastern Europe as a way of preserving fruit for the winter.

The dessert makes about 6 servings, but this depends on the size of your ramekins. I’ve played with various sizes and form factors, and the top picture shows 3″ diameter ramekins (containing slightly over 3 fl oz), while the bottom one feature a 3″x5″ oval (with a capacity of about 5 fl oz).

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