There are many dishes on the menus of the two restaurants I just reviewed – Omulyovaya Bochka and Chemodan – that most diners will have never encountered before, often prepared with Siberian fish, game meat, or berries. One of the most intriguing, in my opinion, is the bird cherry cake.
If unfamiliar with bird cherry (cheryomukha in Russia) it would be easy to discard as just another wild fruit with little gustatory interest, only good enough to use in a sauce or the occasional mors. But that would be quite wrong. First, bird cherries are rarely consumed as a fruit or a beverage, instead they’re turned into a flour. Because the pit is large, there’s very little flesh on the fruit, so the bird cherries are dried and then ground whole. The resulting “flour” is dark brown with a slight red hue, and its texture is usually coarse (as shown in my photos below). Then, the taste is anything but boring: it’s rich and complex, kind of nutty (a bit like apricot kernels), a bit fruity, almost chocolaty, and surprisingly addictive.
You can buy bird cherry flour in stores in Siberia or large Russian cities elsewhere, but it’s still a marginal ingredient even in Russia, and it’s pretty much unheard of anywhere else. Good luck finding a Russian online store that will ship it to the US. Fortunately, there’s eBay – I got my flour from SiberianFriend, and he even threw in a pair of woolen socks for added local color!
So what do you do with bird cherry flour? 99.99% of the time, you make bird cherry cake (White Rabbit makes a veal tongue in bird cherry dough, served with potato purée and morel sauce; I guess they’re the remaining 0.01%). Few cookbooks include a recipe for this cake, especially in English, since the main ingredient is so hard to find. The internet, however, offers some good recipes in Russian here and here (the first is more traditional, the second more elaborate). The idea is always the same: bake a simple cake with bird cherry flour, cut lengthwise into layers (often just two), spread with sour cream mixed with sugar, decorate to the best of your ability.
In fact, if you really want to stick close to the original, you could make my recipe below, cut the cake into two layers, and spread the layers with a mixture of 240 g sour cream and 60 g sugar. Or double all the proportions and make a four-layer beast that you’ll decorate to the best of your ability. Or, just serve a slice with whipped cream.
But my bird cherry cake really departs from the traditional recipe in a number of ways. This is on purpose; there’s no need to post comments saying “I’m from Siberia and this isn’t how you make bird cherry cake.” My version is a lot moister and softer, almost like a brownie, courtesy of a large proportion of butter. Eat it at room temperature or warm (or else the cake will feel denser). As a result, there’s no need to slather it with sweetened sour cream.
This cake is also a great candidate for use in a sundae, and I’ve got a fabulous recipe for you. “Call it the Pretentious Overkill Siberian Sundae,” suggested my partner upon hearing the ingredients (which did not stop her from eating serving after serving until all the cake was gone). “It looks disgusting,” declared our daughter upon seeing the greenish mousse (perhaps because it conjured the specter of vegetables, and she rarely agrees to eat anything that’s not plain pizza or pasta).
Whatever. I think the flavors (and colors!) go beautifully together, and I’ve kept a remarkably tight flavor profile with just three primary ingredients:
- Bird cherry, of course. Not only do I use cake chunks, I also make bird cherry crumbs by drying thin cake slices in the oven.
- Lingonberry. Similar to cranberries but smaller, lingonberries appear frequently in Siberian recipes. This sorbet is adapted from the cranberry sorbet recipe in Caroline and Robin Weir’s Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide. You can buy frozen wild lingonberries here.
- Dill. With its anise-like, herbal flavor, dill is an unexpected but effective complement to the bird cherry and lingonberry. What’s a sundae without whipped cream? Here, you get dill mousse instead! The mousse contains a bit of white chocolate, too (an idea I borrowed from Serious Eats). You wouldn’t necessarily notice it, but it adds some richness and mellows the dill.
One day, oligarchs will eat this dessert in Moscow restaurants and wish I was their Siberian grandmother. Or their Siberian friend. Or their Siberian barber. Mark my words.
Bird cherry cake
Yields about 12 sundae servings or 9 plain cake servings
130 g milk
90 g bird cherry flour
100 g (about 2) eggs
25 g (about 1 1/2) egg yolks
100 g sugar
100 g dark brown sugar
90 g AP flour
2 g salt
2 g baking powder
170 g butter, softened
- Bring the milk to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat (or in the microwave), then pour over the bird cherry flour in a bowl. Stir, and let rest for 30 minutes.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs and egg yolks on medium speed, until homogeneous. Add the sugar and dark brown sugar, and mix just enough to combine, scraping the bowl with a spatula.
- Combine the flour, salt, and baking powder in a container, then add to the egg mixture, with the mixer still on medium speed. Switch to low speed, and add the butter, followed by the bird cherry mixture, each time mixing just enough to combine, and scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed.
- Line a 21 cm square mold with parchment paper, keeping an overhang of paper on all sides. Transfer the batter to the mold, and bake in a 150 C / 300 F oven for 1 hour, until the cake’s internal temperature reaches 100 C / 210 F. Let cool completely on a rack.
- Unmold the cake, and wrap in plastic. Unless you plan to finish it in the next day, you might want to cut it into quarters, wrapped separately, and store some of the pieces in the refrigerator where they can be kept for up to a week.
Yield about 4 servings
340 g water
270 g sugar
175 g lingonberries (fresh or frozen)
4 g perfect sorbet powder (a blend of dextrose and cellulose gum, available here)
60 g orange juice
25 g lemon juice
- In a small saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Remove from the heat, add the sugar, and stir until dissolved. Reserve.
- Place the lingonberries with about 30 g of the above sugar syrup in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, and cook for about 2 minutes, until the berry skins begin to crack.
- Transfer to a blender, add the perfect sorbet powder and
about 1/4 of the remaining syrup, and process until smooth.
- Pass through a chinois, then add the rest of the syrup along with the orange and lemon juices. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
- Churn in an ice cream maker, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to the freezer for at least 8 hours before serving.
Yields about 4 servings
3.5 g powdered gelatin
155 g milk
40 g sugar
14 g dill
1.5 g salt
50 g white chocolate
95 g heavy cream
- Bloom the gelatin in a small container with about 1/5 of the milk.
- In the bowl of a food processor (or a blender), combine the sugar and dill, then grind until reduced to wet pulp. Transfer to a saucepan, add the salt, white chocolate, and approximately half of the remaining milk. Warm over medium heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until the white chocolate has fully dissolved and the mixture is hot to the touch, but not simmering.
- Remove from heat, add the prepared gelatin, and stir until fully dissolved.
- Pass the mixture through a chinois, pressing on the dill solids with a spatula to extract as much liquid as possible, then discard the remaining solids. Stir in the remaining milk and the heavy cream.
- Pour into a 1 liter siphon, and charge with three cartridges of N2O, shaking several times between each cartridge. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours, and up to a couple days.
Yields 4 servings
30 g bird cherry cake
- Cut the bird cherry cake into 2-3 mm thick slices, and place on a wire rack set on a baking sheet. Bake in a 175 C / 350 F oven for 20-25 minutes, until the cake starts to smell charred (the slices will still be soft).
- Transfer the cake slices to a paper towel, and let cool.
- Once the slices have cooled, they should be hard. Crumble between your fingers to get crumbs of various sizes, and reserve in a container lined with a paper towel.
Yields 4 servings
1/3 recipe of bird cherry cake
- Place the sorbet in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to soften.
- Cut the cake into 2.5 cm squares. If the cake was refrigerated, microwave the squares on a plate for about 20 seconds, until warm and soft.
- Chill sundae glasses by filling them with ice water. Then empty and dry with a towel.
- In each glass, add the following layers in this order: two cake squares, one sorbet scoop, dill mousse, cake crumbs, three cake squares, one sorbet scoop, dill mousse, cake crumbs. Serve immediately!