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 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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Smoked Bacon and Birch Vodka

If you read my previous post about Nasha Rasha, you might remember that their flavored vodkas were about the only things worth spending a ruble on. There was a good blood orange vodka, but this hardly deserves a serious recipe. Take vodka, fresh blood orange juice (reduced over low heat, optionally), simple syrup, and mix to your liking, keeping at least 50% vodka, and voila! And you can replace the blood orange with pretty much any fruit juice.

More inspiring was the bacon vodka…

Smoked Bacon and Birch Vodka

I’d heard of people frying bacon and adding it to a bottle of bourbon, and I’d read about Bakon Vodka, but I’d never had a chance to try anything like it before I went to Nasha Rasha. The result is indeed quite pleasant, the flavor mostly taking advantage of bacon’s smokiness. But since I don’t really feel like patronizing the Worst Russian Restaurant In New York anymore, something else needed to be done…

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Russian Birch Cream Liqueur

Whether you want to celebrate the last day of Maslenitsa, Saint Patrick’s Day with a Russian twist, or the coming birch sugar season, this is the drink for you. The Irish-cream-like mixture dilutes the intense flavor of birch syrup, helping to reveal its complexity. This might be my favorite way to consume the syrup, in fact!

Russian Birch Cream LiqueurI originally thought I could take inspiration from Bailey’s, the mother of all cream liqueurs. The main ingredients are well known and advertised, together with the nutrition facts, on their web site. Reproducing the same proportions of sugar (from the birch syrup), fat (from the dairy) and alcohol (from the vodka) should give a similar result, right? Well, not quite. It was a starting point, but the mixture came out way too fatty and boozy. It took me a few rounds to get the balance right, but the result is very enjoyable.

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Apple, Vodka and Birch Syrup Babka with Cranberry Mors Sorbet

Here’s a recipe that gives me lots to talk about:

  • Babka is a brioche-like yeast cake found in many Eastern European countries, from Albania to Russia. It’s often baked for Easter Sunday, and it’s not infrequent that you see dried fruits added to the mix. The babka was the inspiration for the more widely known French rum baba. To make a log story short, in the 18th century, Stanisław Leszczyński — a Pole with the modest titles of  King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Duke of Lorraine, and Count of the Holy Roman Empire — had the original idea to soak a dried up babka (or similar cake) into an alcoholic mixture. Over time, the dessert travelled from Lorraine to Paris, the alcohol became rum, and today’s traditional ring form was adopted. My recipe is loosely adapted from versions I found in Darra Goldstein’s A Taste of Russia and Larousse de la Cuisine.
  • Birch Syrup is similar to maple syrup in the way it’s produced. However, it takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, while the ratio with maple is 40:1, which probably explains why birch syrup is so rare. Birch sap is commonly enjoyed as a beverage in Russia, but the only place I’ve found that bottles birch syrup is Alaska. Taste-wise, it has a rich, potent flavor reminiscent of caramel. You can purchase some here. Apparently the first run of the season has just been bottled.
  • Instead of keeping the babka whole, I cut it into smaller cake form and reshape it as a bread pudding, a little bit like the one I had at Kutsher’s Tribeca. The cake is soaked in a crème anglaise and bound with a pastry cream, both flavored with birch syrup. The apple dice on top complement the flavors of both the syrup and the cranberry. And there’s some vodka as a nod to the rum baba thing.
  • I’ve already discussed mors in a previous post. This time, I’m using it as the base for a cranberry sorbet. The recipe is inspired by something I found in Frozen Desserts by Caroline Liddell and Robin Weir. It doesn’t require an ice cream maker, so it’s more accessible. Please note that my mors sorbet here is very sweet, as it is specifically designed to accompany the babka, which is actually not that sweet. If you plan to eat the sorbet alone, you may want to reduce the sugar from 6 oz to 5 oz.

Yields about 6 servings

1 packet (1/4 oz) active dry yeast
1 oz water, lukewarm
9 oz flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 oz confectioners’ sugar
3 eggs
4.4 oz butter
3.5 oz dried cranberries

  • Dissolve the yeast in the water, and let rest for 5 minutes.
  • Sift the flour, salt, and confectioners’ sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer. Start beating on low speed with the paddle attachment, then add the eggs and the yeast mixture, and mix until smooth. Scrape the bowl with a spatula, and beat over low speed for another 2 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for 2 hours.
  • Cut the butter into cubes, and let soften at room temperature.
  • Using a spatula, gently mix the butter and dried cranberries into the dough until evenly distributed. Transfer to a 5″ x 9″ cake tin lined with parchment paper, spreading the mixture with the spatula. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for another hour.
  • Bake in a 400 F oven for 25-30 minutes, using a cake tester to check the doneness.
  • Let cool to room temperature, and unmold on a cake rack.

Apple dice
Yields 6 servings 

9 oz peeled and cored apple
1.5 oz butter
3 oz hard cider
1.5 oz sugar

  • Cut the apple into small dice.
  • Heat the butter and hard cider in a small saucepan over low heat, add the apple and sugar, then cover and cook until soft.
  • Remove the lid, and simmer until the liquid is almost fully reduced. Reserve.

Birch syrup and vodka crème anglaise
Yields 6 servings

4 1/2 egg yolks
3.3 oz birch syrup
12 oz milk
1.5 oz vodka

  • In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks with half of the birch syrup. Bring the milk and the rest of the syrup to a boil in a saucepan, and pour onto the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return to the saucepan, add the vodka, and mix over low heat to 175 F, until it coats the back of a spoon.
  • Pass through a chinois, cover with plastic film, and reserve.

Yields 6 servings

birch syrup and vodka crème anglaise
3 egg yolks
2.2 oz birch syrup
0.7 oz flour
8 oz milk
apple dice

  • Cut the babka into large dice after discarding the very top, bottom, and sides. Transfer to a bowl, pour in the crème anglaise, and let rest for at least 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. The babka should ultimately absorb all of the crème anglaise.
  • In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks with half of the birch syrup, then mix in the flour.  Bring the milk and the rest of the syrup to a boil in a saucepan,  and pour onto the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Simmer for two minutes while stirring with a spatula, then transfer the resulting pastry cream to a container placed in a bowl of ice water. Let cool for 5 minutes.
  • Carefully mix the pastry cream with the babka pieces, then pack the mixture into six 3″ ring molds, and top with the apple dice. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
  • Take out of the fridge a few minutes before serving.

Cranberry mors
Yields about 16 oz

10 oz washed cranberries
15 oz water
3 oz sugar

  • Place the berries and water in a saucepan, bring to a boil, cover and cook for 5 minutes.
  • Pass the liquid through a chinois and return to the saucepan. Add the sugar, then bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, and remove from the heat. Pass through a chinois again, let cool and refrigerate.

Cranberry mors sorbet
Yields about 22 oz

6 oz water
6 oz sugar
1 oz lemon juice
1 oz orange juice
8 oz cranberry mors (1/2 of above recipe)

  • In a small saucepan, bring the water and sugar to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat, then add the lemon juice, orange juice, and cranberry mors. Transfer to a plastic container, and keep in the freezer until almost frozen solid — this takes about 12 hours.
  • Place the mixture in a blender, and process until smooth. At this point, the sorbet should have a very thick texture. If it’s still liquid, wait a few more hours (with the mixture in the freezer, of course), and blend it again. Once the texture is right, return to the freezer in the plastic container for at least 3 hours.