Monday, March 31, 2014

To Russia with Love


"Shiroka strana moya rodina" ("O vast is my country"), the people are singing. "There's no other country where a man breathes more freely." Swept up in the collective elation, Mom inhales as deep as she can, filling her lungs with what she will always describe as "that smell"--the Soviet institutional odor of dusty folders, karbolka cleaner, woolen coats, and feet stewing in rubber galoshes, which will haunt her all her adult life in the USSR, at offices, schools, political meetings, at work. --Anya von Bremzen (Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing)

For years my friends have asked me why I never feature Russian dishes on my blog. Sadly, I never manage to give them a real answer, which I think is because it often seems too complicated to explain. Unlike a lot of people who study (or have studied) the Russian language and culture, I don't dislike Russian food. In fact, as strange as it may sound, I love the heaviness of it all: its reliance on big dollops of sour cream and mayonnaise, the heavy sprinkling of dill that goes on soups, the simple heartiness of  pel'meni (meat dumplings) and the endless possibilities of bliny (the Russian crepe). What complicates my enjoyment of these dishes and ingredients is my relationship with Russia--and not even Russia itself, but my own experiences and impressions of this vast and often perplexing place.

One reason Russian food never quite made it onto the blog was that, while I was in graduate school, my life seemed to revolve around Russia. Or rather, my life was dominated by Russia (this verb exemplifies the true Russian experience; for proof, see current events). From morning to night (and sometimes in my nightmares, too; imagine preparing for your qualifying exams and having a character in Russian literature attempt to suffocate you on a nightly basis), at colloquia and in papers to be written and lessons to be planned, this place and its many cultural offerings were often the metaphorical main course. After so much Russia during my working hours, how could I even fathom making something Russian for dinner or for fun? Since I'm one of those people who believes that food has to capture and appeal to the imagination, Russia never quite made the cut; instead, I embraced culinary escapism, dreaming of France through steaming bowls of puy lentils and rich, eggy quiche, of Italy through delicate angel hair tossed with garlic, oil and parsley, of Greece through thick slabs of feta and ripe red tomatoes. Food was the one area that Russia couldn't touch and I liked it that way.



More importantly, when I'm in the kitchen, I sometimes like to try to recreate experiences--dishes that I ate at a nice restaurant, drinks that haunt my memory, desserts that tempted me to order seconds. In short, all moments that I would happily relive. The funny thing is, I've never had this with Russia; whenever I leave, all I want to do is forget. There's no looking back and little to no sentimentality. When I think back on the months I've spent in Russia, I often wonder if these experiences have irrevocably hardened me. I recall the doctor who, rather than treat my bronchitis, decided to play the dermatologist: "Zaichik, u tebia plokhaia kozha" [Little rabbit, you have bad skin]. Or the nurse who, when taking my blood--a thing that I fear--brutally stabbed my finger down on a needle. Or the time when my host mother's beloved parrot flew at my face and, running away in horror, I slammed the door on him only to be berated and called an "almost murderer." Or the time that the woman in the cafeteria at MGU (Moscow State University) threw my change so that it landed in my morning bowl of kasha and told me it was good luck. It's true that when I look back now, I can laugh at most of these things, but back then I would walk through the streets of Petersburg and Moscow feeling the righteous indignation (and, it must be noted, hopelessness) of all of Dostoevsky's heroes. I was also probably muttering to myself, but believe me when I say that I simply blended in with the locals.

Although I decided to take a break from Russia after filing my dissertation, I couldn't help but be extremely excited about Anya von Bremzen's "foodoir," Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, when it came out this past fall. Despite my excitement, it took a while for me to work up my courage to read it. I was enjoying the Russia-free life and wasn't sure I was ready to thrust myself back into that world. Once I read it, however, I was so glad that I did.

Not only is the book a compelling read in and of itself, but it also, for anybody who has spent time in Russia or studied it in some way, is easy to identify with. There were many pages when I would scribble "yes!" in the margins--yes to her description of the way Russia smells (the quote that opens this post), yes to her descriptions of the rampant alcoholism in Russia, yes to the kindness of Russians once you get to know them and you become svoi (one's own). While most foodoirs seem to be about one's life through food with the requisite recipe at the end of each chapter, von Bremzen bucks what seems to be the trends of the genre (if there even is such a genre) by writing a family chronicle; it is as much her story as it is her mother's, grandmother's and Soviet intelligence officer grandfather's (his story, in particular, lends a dramatic edge). These stories combine to create a layered and rich narrative, one that is reminiscent of the narrative scope and style of some of the Russian masters (her book is itself highly intertextual and literary; Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov and Tolstoy are all here).  She doesn't linger over heartbreak, nor is she overly personal. And while food is obviously at the heart of the memoir, von Bremzen almost seems more interested in "metaphorical" food--the food of longing, memory and history--than she is in the"real" food that can be prepared through the recipes provided at the end of the book.

This book also made me hungry. I suddenly hungered for Russia in a way that I hadn't in a really long time (perhaps since before I ever even went there). While I wanted to try all of the recipes and even ordered a fairly expensive copy of von Bremzen's first cookbook, the award-winning Please to the Table, so as to be able to make many of the dishes she mentions in Mastering the Art, the thing that I settled on making was the simplest and most classic of them all: bliny (crepes) made with yeast. You might think that the difference between crepes made with baking powder or soda and crepes made with yeast might be slight, but I assure you that it's not. These yeasted bliny were pillowy and flavorful, with  a welcome tangy edge. When I bit into the first one, I suddenly saw myself, younger and plumper, sitting at a tiny corner table with a red and white checked tablecloth in a drafty Petersburg apartment and eating a plateful of bliny, while my host mother bustled around the tiny kitchen, singing to her parrot. I didn't think it was possible, but these bliny actually made me feel a twinge of nostalgia.

Yeasted Bliny

Yields 6-8 servings
Adapted, ever so slightly, from Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

The changes I made were slight: rather than use granulated sugar, which I was out of, I used natural cane sugar and reduced the amounts. I used 2 tablespoons and 1 1/2 teaspoons, rather than 3 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons sugar. I also didn't do the potato trick, which says to "skewer a potato half on a fork and dip it into the oil. Rub the bottom of a heavy 8-inch skillet with a long handle liberally with the oil." To me, this seems like a bit of Russian superstition and I'm happy to report that my bliny were perfect without this additional step. Similarly, I'm one of those impatient people who can't always wait for things to come back to room temperature before frying them; although my batter was cold, the bliny fried up nicely all the same--that is, except for the first one, which will always be a bit of a dud.
Also, I should add that this recipe gives you a lot of bliny. We ended up having them for breakfast for two days and, while I was in New York, the Greek finished them off for dinner. Since bliny don't reheat well--they're definitely best when fresh--I suggest either halving the recipe or keeping the batter in the fridge until you manage to use it all up; the flavor, at least in my opinion, only improves with time.
While this recipe worked for me, I knew what I was looking for in terms of taste and texture. If you're new to making bliny, here is a tip from von Bremzen: "The texture of the blin should be light, spongy and a touch chewy; it should be very thin, but a little puffy. If a blin tears too easily, whisk in 1/4 cup more flour into the batter. If the blin is too doughy and thick, whisk in 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup water."

NB: Bliny is plural and blin is singular.


1 package active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons, plus 1 1/2 teaspoons natural cane sugar (or 3 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar)
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
2 1/2 cups milk (whole or 2%)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs, separated, yolks beaten
canola oil, for frying
For serving: sour cream, jam, Nutella, smoked fish, melted butter, etc.

-In a large mixing bowl, stir together yeast, water and 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar and let stand until foamy (about 10 minutes). Whisk in 1/2 cup flour until smooth. Cover the sponge with plastic wrap and place in a warm place (I put mine either on top of the stove or in the oven) until bubbly and almost doubled (about 1 hour)
-Beat the milk, melted butter, 2 1/4 cups flour, egg yolks, remaining 2 tablespoons natural cane sugar and salt. Whisk until completely smooth and set to rise, covered loosely with plastic wrap, either until bubbly (about 2 hours) or overnight in the refrigerator. In either case, the batter should be stirred at least once. 
-Before frying, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks and fold them into the batter. Let stand for 10 minutes. 
-Heat an 8-inch skillet with a long handle over medium heat, then add some oil to coat the pan. Using a potholder, pick up the skillet and swirl the oil around. 
-Once the pan is well coated, pour about 1/4 cup batter into the skillet and tilt and rotate the pan so that the batter spreads out in a thin layer, covering the entire surface. 
-Place the skillet back on the burner and cook until the top of the blin is bubbly and the bottom is golden brown. Gently flip the blin over and cook for another 30 seconds or until the bottom is golden. Remember that the first blin will most likely not be a success. 
-Adding more oil when necessary, continue making bliny until all the batter is gone or until you have enough for the meal. The remaining batter can be refrigerated. 
-Slide the prepared bliny onto a plate and cover with a lid or with foil; you can also stack them with wax paper in between them so that they don't stick. 
-Serve hot and with jam, sour cream or any spread that you consider blin appropriate. 

4 comments:

  1. I loved this so much, and I can so relate. After my first trip to Russia, I was in love and recreated as many Russian things as I could at home (most notably beet salad and morkovki po-koreiski..mmm). The second time I went, nothing tasted quite as good. But it's the memories I really seek to recreate, I think, rather than the food: the smile of the street vendor who sold me oranges, the sound of the kettle whistling in my host mom's apartment, the treat of her torte with raisins (made for Valentine's Day). I am not sure what really happened that second time, except that maybe I was just alone and the snow melted, exposing all the dirt and trash, but these days I hardly ever think of making anything Russian. I was trying to help my cousin think of something to make for her report on Russia, and everything I could think of was so infernally complicated for a student with only a dorm kitchen. I landed on tea and buterbrody. Can't go wrong with tea! I've been terribly spoiled by California, I think, but I have also mostly lost my taste for heavy things. However, my book club leader made a fantastic borscht a few months ago, and nothing can ever beat griliazh in my book. Or bliny. I have only made them once or twice, but they are always worth the effort! I want so much to read this book! I was on the waitlist for it, but was out of town when my number came up. Putting myself back on the list again today! Sorry for this email-length comment:) Russia inspires verbosity, does it not?

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    Replies
    1. First of all, thank you for your enthusiastic and verbose comment; Russia does inspire verbosity! :) I'm also glad that one of my friends from Slavic studies not only responded to this, but can also relate to it; I've always felt that I've had such a complicated relationship with Russia, but maybe one simply can't help but have such a relationship?

      I like that you told your cousin to make buterbrody; I think I may have gone for syrnyi salat, but only because I love cheese, mayo and garlic--so good!

      I'm glad to know via instagram that you're now reading "Mastering the Art"--the turnover at your library seems so fast; of course, this is an overdue response. Sorry! Life has gotten busy again! It really is a gem; the chapters about her grandfather and WWII are the best, in my opinion, although the book works well as a whole, too. Enjoy!

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  2. PS, did you read the New Yorker article on Svetlana Allilueva? I am reading it now!

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    1. No, not yet! But I will. The problem is I'm hopelessly behind...The only thing I've been reading in the New Yorker is the fiction; one of my tutees and I have been discussion short stories lately and the New Yorker always has good ones. I really liked the Karl Ove one; it makes me want to pick up the first few volumes of his autobiographical novels, but then I wonder should I read these when I haven't read Proust...? Oh, the quandaries of a reading woman. :)

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