I woke up this morning, the seventh of February in the [hopefully improved] year of 2021, with a latent seed of confectionary interest deposited into my consciousness from a slumber that proved itself to be necessary due to the previous night's work forestalling my usual bedtime of 10:30 pm. Granted, I usually end up staying for an hour and reading, but that's tangential to the greater, baking narrative unfolding here! In light of my attempt to learn the Russian language, I wanted to infuse my learning with some 'real-world', application-based practice, and what better way to do so than to cook, bake, and learn culture through food!
Because I like to pride myself on 'I can get you fat, but not full' [a self-chide I gladly make at my own expense], I figured the best, inaugural recipe would be found in the sweet department of the Russian cultural consciousness, and boy am I glad I chose that route! From Tula Gingerbread [Тульский пряник] and Pigeon-milk cakes [Торт "Птичье молоко"], to one of the most famous Russian desserts there is, a tendrical, fried-dough dish called Chack-Chack [Чак-Чак], the Russian culture and their diverse array of desserts, easy to eat and hard to make in some cases, rival and, in other cases, blow out of the water even the very best Georgian peach cobbler or New Orleans banana boat [two things I love btw!].
However, today I chose to attempt to create the 19th-century dessert 'Honey Cake,' originally made by a young chef looking to make his mark in the Russian Imperial Courts at the servitude of Alexander 1st. History tells us, via Russia Beyond(2017), that Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna was not fond of the flavor of honey to such an extent that it 'drove her mad,' although I must wonder how much was hysterics and how much was simply bourgeois fanaticism. Regardless, this unknown, culinary master decided to take up the duty of preparing a dessert that would finally succumb Elizabeth to the sensual deliciousness of honey and its locality-based flavors, explained by Stephanie Rosenbaum as, "the flower transmuted, its scent and beauty transformed into aroma and taste."
Considered the 'tsar of Russian cakes,' Торт Медовик was an Imperial favorite then and was a Soviet favorite as well, popular among housewives and their families due to the extremely small ingredient list [tort: only 7, spread:1-4], all which were available even during the hardest of times, i.e., milk, sugar, flour, etc. Now, with the onset of choice and exorbitant amounts of substance options available in almost every town, city, or collective across the continental US and abroad, numerous variations to the original recipe have been created. One being condensed milk and sour cream, the original using only sour cream, another being a vanilla-based custard, and another still being typical buttercream frosting.
I opted-in for the custard variation this time but, unbeknownst to me prior to the recipe's conclusion, the original does in-fact only call for a heavy layer of sour cream. This recipe, while not being technically challenging, takes well more than the prescribed 90 minutes that Zira's Anastasia Pulina stipulates as, due to the tort's 8-layer structure, one has to bake each layer in a successive fashion, this only happening after the making of the dough, a process which involves water-boiling [a newish technique for me]. BUT, once all the layers are out and cooled, one then is responsible for making the coating of their choice, Anastasia opting-in for the sour cream route while I indeed when the sweeter direction. For that recipe, I used MaryanaTastyFood's recipe via Cook Pad, a 6-ingredient custard which uses a wholly-Russian ingredient, vanilla-sugar, a type of sugar unfamiliar to me until its presence within this recipe. Essentially, it is vanilla extract-infused granulated sugar pre-mixed and packaged in one-use pockets in stores across Eastern Europe.
Skip ahead a few dozen minutes, more like a bad-try which got me all up and flustered, a needed restart, and more than a few groups of twenty minutes, and [finally] voila! I was left with eight, golden-brown, [non] circles of firm cake, although to say cake is a bit off as they are more rigid than cake but not yet graham crackers if that's cogent enough for you. Anywho, I then began on the custard which, to no one's surprise [no one being me, myself, and I] proved to be the hardest step of all as, like a smart-cookie I am, chose to use Almond milk without seeing what the adverse effects were to the overall end-product. All-in-all, things went fine, but I learned that when making custard, DO NOT water boil! Not only will it not thicken up or start to self-boil, but it will make your life harder as you'll want to add cornstarch, then water, then flour, and at some point your concoction will become saturated with non-ingredient ingredients!
After about 2-3 hours, I was left with a 'tort' by technical terminology, but it left much to be admired by way of presentation as you can see in the photo below. IN MY DEFENSE, it was my maiden voyage into the realm of Russian sweets, and as such I must commend myself for actually finishing the recipe and ending with a product that was in any capacity edible. As you can see, I added pecans on the top but take note walnuts are traditional toppings, so do what you'd like. ALSO, the patchy crumb coat was sourced from the dried and minced scraps of the tort layers which, after being trimmed to 'circles,' had their scraps pulverized and ad hoc garnished on top. The moment of truth......
So I am the first to admit what it visually looks like does not inspire a wet appetite, but trust me it tasted very much better than its visage. Thus, I would most definitely recommend this dessert for those who want to get themselves into baking Russian history one dish at a time, not only do you not need much by way of ingredients, but you practically cannot fail, no matter how hard you try or unintentionally do. The taste of the tort itself is simply a sweet, graham-cracker alternative, so the real flavor lies in the custard which, in this case, tasted akin to a vanilla custard typical of any grocer, but a tad bit more sweet with the inclusion of liquid honey and with notes of egginess, a polemic I must fix going forward.
I wish all of you a joyous 2021, and I hope to see all of you very soon! Don't forget to subscribe for updates and new posts and be sure to let me know if you try this recipe! I would love to hear your experiences and challenges/successes alike!
Update: Cross-section snapshot for interested parties! [plus a joke for a bonus]
A man walked into the district committee of the Communist Party and said, "I wish to join the Party. Where should I start?"
"Visit a Psychiatrist."