Blueberry Pie with Sour Cream and Vodka Chiboust Cream

The idea to make a blueberry pie started with a rather prolific day of blueberry picking last summer at Fishkill Farms, which left us with way more berries than we really needed to make preserves. Having found a recipe for blueberry pie filling, I decided to give it a try.

It didn’t strike me, then, how misguided this solution was for the original problem. First off, we ended up with even more jars than we would have if we’d just done a bunch of preserves, and these jars further reduced our usable refrigerator space, sitting next to my bric-a brac of wine bottles, sausage casings, and onion jams (a piece of advice if you ever make onion jam: no matter how good it tastes, you probably won’t eat quite so much of it). Second, my regular readers — and WordPress tells me they really do exist! — will probably have noticed that opening a jar, pouring its contents into a store-bought crust, and calling it a day isn’t exactly the style we go for on this blog.

Blueberry Pie with Sour Cream and Vodka Chiboust Cream

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The Chef, the Computer, and the Baltic Apple Pie

I usually don’t speak about my day job on this blog, mostly because it has nothing whatsoever to do with adventures in Eastern Bloc cuisine. Or rather, it didn’t until recently…

About two years ago, a small team of researchers at IBM (including yours truly) started working on computational creativity. By winning on Jeopardy, IBM has shown that computers can make inferences about the world as it is. But could they also be creative, and produce quality artifacts that have never been seen before? To investigate, we built a cognitive cooking system.

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Prune and Chocolate Custard Tart

Here’s a recipe that should come in handy for the upcoming holidays. The idea for this dish stemmed from a popular dessert at family Thanksgiving dinners. The original was a plain chocolate custard tart, covered with whipped cream and cocoa powder. While most of the other desserts would be barely touched by the turkey-stuffed guests, the tart would be gone in minutes. In the face of such popularity, I became convinced that it would be worth preparing my own version from scratch.

Prune and Chocolate Custard TartThis being Food Perestroika and not, say, Martha Stewart, I had to give it an Eastern European twist. Prunes, plum brandy, and black tea to the rescue!

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Kulich and Paskha, Russian Dessert Duo for Orthodox Easter

Russian Cuisine - Kulich and PaskhaTwo and a half years after publishing my recipe for baked paskha (one of my first blog entries!), I finally posted my kulich last week. So you can now prepare the two traditional Russian desserts for Orthodox Easter — or any other day you feel like having them, of course.

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Nesselrode, Part 1: the Count, the Cook, and their Pudding

March 31, 1814. With the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian armies having defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Paris, the War of the Sixth Coalition is now over. Tsar Alexander I of Russia receives the key to the French capital from Talleyrand, and enters the city at the head of the army, cheered by the crowd. Talleyrand, master of political flip-flopping, started to distance himself from Napoleon several years earlier, and is now eager to participate in the new government. He sends a message, through the Russian diplomat Count Karl Nesselrode, offering the tsar a place to stay at his palace.

Talleyrand’s chef at this time is none other than Antonin Carême, the first celebrity chef of sorts. So impressive is his cuisine that Alexander I takes Carême with him when he moves from Talleyrand’s digs to the Elysée Palace. During these few months of Russian presence in Paris, Carême creates a luxurious chestnut ice dessert in honor of Count Nesselrode. The Nesselrode Pudding is born — or, at least, this is how the story goes according to Ian Kelly’s excellent Carême biography, Cooking for Kings.

Nesselrode Pudding

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Dalmatian Fritters

Among other things, Hippocrene Books offers an unparalleled collection of  international cookbooks. Sure, the layout is rather dry (no pictures), and the titles aren’t updated very often, but where else can you find a Belarusian or Albanian cookbook? (Amateurish, self-published booklets written by US-based church people don’t count.) Liliana Pavicic’s and Gordana Pirker-Mosher’s The Best of Croatian Cooking is Hippocrene’s entry for — you guessed it — Croatia, and it contains quite a few interesting recipes, many of which could yet provide inspiration for my dormant series of toponymic dishes.

The Dalmatian fritters are one them. Dalmatia is the southern tip of Croatia, on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. I can’t tell you much on my own about the culinary habits of the Dalmatians, but Liliana Pavicic teaches us that these sweet fritters are made around Christmas time and devoured by children and adults alike. My partner made some for a party and she did get some nice feedback, but I thought there was room for improvement.

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Cherry and Pistachio Gratin with Cherry Kompot

During cherry season, try this yummy dessert that I’ve adapted from Silvena Rowe’s Feasts — though Rowe mentions getting it from Carmel Pince, “possibly the best Jewish restaurant in Budapest.” In other words, it’s far enough removed now that if you were to show this post to Carmel’s chef, he’d probably vehemently deny having created anything remotely like it.

While cherries (especially sour ones) are very popular in Hungary, the pistachios illustrate the culinary influence of the Ottoman Empire that ruled the region in the 16th and 17th centuries. I complement this simple but delicious gratin with a cherry kompot, a beverage widely prepared in Eastern Europe as a way of preserving fruit for the winter.

The dessert makes about 6 servings, but this depends on the size of your ramekins. I’ve played with various sizes and form factors, and the top picture shows 3″ diameter ramekins (containing slightly over 3 fl oz), while the bottom one feature a 3″x5″ oval (with a capacity of about 5 fl oz).

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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.

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.