Caucasian Plombir-Apricot-Baklava Sundae

I’m not the world’s biggest dessert eater, but lately I’ve been thinking about ice cream sundaes whenever I have a craving for sweets, probably because the excessive combination of ice cream, sauce, and crunchy bits is guaranteed to deliver the goods if only in terms of quantity and sugar. During a recent dinner at Alder, I finished my meal with a delicious carrot cake sundae (even though I don’t usually like carrot cake or white chocolate). This reminded me how great a sundae can be when it’s well done, which it rarely is. Indeed, it seems that in most restaurants one always ends up with either cheap or poorly formulated ice cream, Hershey’s-like syrup, or inadequate glassware.

So of course, this means it’s time for me to come up with my own Eastern Bloc version. I already had the plombir ice cream and the apricot sauce to get started, but I needed something crunchy. And chocolate. And more Food-Perestroika-worthy flavors! Baklava seemed like the perfect solution: it’s not something you’d expect in a sundae, it’s made with honey just like my plombir, and like the apricots it can be be found in the Caucasus (where there aren’t enough desserts in my opinion). For the chocolate sauce, I opted for a dark chocolate and black tea combination, on top of whipped cream laced with more honey. Honey, nuts, apricot, chocolate, black tea: the result is sweet, sour, bitter, not too alien yet not totally hackneyed, and quite addictive.

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Plombir, Russian Ice Cream

You might remember seeing plombir ice cream in some of my restaurant reviews, such as Mari Vanna and Ariana, and wondering what makes it different. Plombir takes its name from the French glace Plombières, a vanilla ice cream mixed with bits of candied fruits marinated in kirsch. However, it bears little resemblance to the original. As explained in Russian standard ГОСТ 31457-2012, plombir is defined by its nutrient composition, not its flavor. Indeed, for an ice cream to be called plombir, the fat content must be between 12% and 20%, and the sugar content 14% or above. There’s also a threshold for the total “dry substance” content, which, I assume, represents the total amount of solids: it must exceed 37-42%, depending on the fat content. In other words, it’s much richer than your typical ice cream, especially if you err on the side of the upper bounds.

Of course, I have my own set of ice cream formulas, courtesy of Frozen Desserts. Putting it all together, I chose a fat content on the higher side, and worked backwards to find the perfect sugar content, which still turned out to be equally massive — this is definitely no diet ice cream. Next came the question of flavor. Although one can be make a plombir with pretty much anything, the most typical flavors in my experience are vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, with vanilla leading by a wide margin. So I stuck to vanilla but I also added honey, to make all that sugar somewhat more flavorful. There are no alcohol-macerated candied fruits here, but in the Russian tradition, my plombir is topped with a preserve-like sauce laced with Armenian brandy (a soviet-inspired nod to the kirsch in glace Plombières), thus creating something that’s almost half plombir and half Plombières. You can use any fruit you like, and I’m presenting both an apricot-brandy sauce (its acidity helps cut the fatty richness of the ice cream), and a booze-free strawberry sauce (because a sauce made with ripe strawberries is always delicious). The key is to go easy on the sugar.

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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.