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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Apricot Kernel Ice Cream

Every apricot pit conceals an intensely aromatic kernel. Eaten raw, this kernel is unpleasantly bitter, but once toasted its taste gets somewhat milder, reminiscent of almond. This should be no surprise, since it can contain up to 5% of amygdalin. In fact I just learned while writing this post that apricot kernels are sometimes used to make amaretto! I figured these potent nuts would be perfect for ice cream, as the cold tends to tone down the flavors.

You may wonder if you’re really going to have to spend your summer eating apricots, and then half of your fall breaking pits with a hammer, all so you can enjoy a cup of ice cream. An assholish chef once had me do just that for an entire evening, and it is indeed no fun — not to mention the many times when the hammer hits your fingers rather than the pit. Luckily, there’s a much simpler solution: buy the kernels by the pound at Apricot Power (love the name). Just don’t pay attention to their vitamin B17 mumbo jumbo: the claims aren’t backed up by any clinical evidence, and there is no such thing as vitamin B17.

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Sachertorte, Chocolate-Apricot Cake

The Sachertorte is a great example of a cake that was created nearly two centuries ago and needs a serious update to impress anybody nowadays. The original dessert was invented by Franz Sacher in 1832 and became popular in Budapest and Vienna several years later. However, similar recipes already appeared in the 18th century — after all, we’re just talking about a chocolate sponge cake with apricot jam in the middle and a coating of chocolate glaze.

The Sachertorte isn’t even that well designed, as most people agree that it suffers from being overly dry, hence the whipped cream usually served with it. And the real deal from the Hotel Sacher is now shipped worldwide (starting at 45 euro for a tiny cake delivered to the U.S.) and produced on a nearly industrial scale (about 800 cakes a day made by 20 cooks), which is rarely synonymous with quality. Seriously, that’s about 15 minutes per cake!

I didn’t have to resort to any crazy ideas to get a great dessert. I simply worked on reaching the best possible recipe for each of the 3 elements:

It all sounds simple now, and yet it took me over 10 months to get the perfect balance between the flavors! (Okay, to be fair, part of that time was spent waiting for apricots to be in season, and I was busy with other recipes, too.)

Chocolate sponge cakes
Yields about 3 individual cakes (3″ diameter)

4 oz sugar
1/4 tsp salt
0.6 oz Dutch process cocoa powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 oz water
1.4 oz canola oil
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1.9 oz flour, sifted
1 egg yolk
1/2 egg
0.5 oz sour cream
0.5 oz butter

  • Mix the sugar, salt, cocoa powder and baking soda in a saucepan. Bring the water to a boil in the microwave, then stir it progressively into the cocoa mixture. Place the saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover with a lid and let rest for at least 10 minutes.
  • Transfer the cocoa mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the whisk attachment. Add the oil and vanilla, and beat on low speed for 10 seconds. Still on low speed, mix in the flour, then the egg yolk, egg and sour cream. The batter should seem on the thin side for a cake.
  • Spread the butter on a baking tray lined with parchment paper, and on the inner side of three tall 3″ ring molds. Divide the batter between the molds. You might have a little bit of batter left at this point, as this recipe really makes 3 1/3 cakes. You can either replace one of the molds with a 3.5″ one, or just eat the remaining raw batter voraciously. Bake in a 350 F oven for about 15 minutes, until the center feels springy to the touch. Let cool on a drying rack without removing the ring molds, and reserve.

Brandied apricots
Yields filling for 3 cakes

14 oz halved and pitted apricots
3 1/4 oz sugar
1 1/4 oz water
2 oz Armenian brandy (e.g. Ararat 5*)

  • In a saucepan, mix the apricots, sugar and water, and let sit for 45 minutes.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Add the brandy and boil for 1 minute. Let cool and reserve.

Ganache glaze
Yields glaze for about 3 cakes

3 oz heavy cream
3/4 oz sugar
1 tbsp corn syrup
4 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped

  • In a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream and sugar to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Add the corn syrup and the chocolate, and let stand for 30 seconds.
  • Gently stir with a spatula until homogeneous, and start assembling the cakes immediately.

Yields 3 cakes

chocolate sponge cakes
brandied apricots
ganache glaze

  • Take the cakes out of the ring molds and cut them in half transversely. Drain the brandied apricots in a colander, and brush both sides of the cake halves with all the liquid.  Reserve 3 nice apricot halves for decoration, peel the remaining ones as best you can and spread them on the cake bottom halves, and cover with the top halves. Pour about half of the glaze over the tops of the cakes, starting at the center, and spread evenly across the top and the sides using an offset spatula. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  • Reheat the remaining glaze with 1/2 tsp water over low heat until it flows easily, then pour atop the center of the cakes again. Tilting the cake as needed, make sure the top and the edges are completely covered with the glaze (don’t use a spatula, as this will make marks). Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. You may have some glaze left — I’m sure you’ll find something to do with it. Pat dry the reserved apricot halves and place one on top of each cake.
  • The cakes can be kept in the fridge for up to 2 days.

Armenian Brandied Apricot Preserves

Related to my recent trip to Armenia, here’s a recipe for apricot preserves with a Caucasian twist. As you can see from the picture above, apricots are plentiful in Armenia. Why not combine them with some local brandy and honey? Young Armenian brandies may lack the subtlety to be enjoyed as digestifs, but they offer a robust flavor that can stand the heat of cooking applications. I’ve already mentioned the famous Yerevan Brandy Company here, and their 5-star (which means 5-year old) Ararat brandy is perfect for the kitchen — you can even find it in some U.S. liquor stores. For the honey, choose something light and mild, such as acacia honey.

This recipe is adapted from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, which covers all the aspects of canning in over 400 recipes. Try the preserves with an almond croissant!

Armenian brandied apricot preserves
Yields 1 pint

24 oz pitted apricots, quartered
6 oz sugar
1 1/2 oz light honey
2 tsp lemon juice
6 g powdered pectin
3 oz Armenian brandy (such as 5-star Ararat)

  • Toss the apricots, sugar, honey and lemon juice in a saucepan, and let rest for 45 minutes.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, then gently boil for 25 minutes, stirring regularly.
  • Mix the pectin with the brandy, add to the saucepan, and boil for 3 minutes. Skim off the foam and let cool for 5 minutes.
  • Transfer to a sterilized pint jar, seal and process in a 200 F water bath for 15 minutes.