Smoked Bacon and Birch Vodka

If you read my previous post about Nasha Rasha, you might remember that their flavored vodkas were about the only things worth spending a ruble on. There was a good blood orange vodka, but this hardly deserves a serious recipe. Take vodka, fresh blood orange juice (reduced over low heat, optionally), simple syrup, and mix to your liking, keeping at least 50% vodka, and voila! And you can replace the blood orange with pretty much any fruit juice.

More inspiring was the bacon vodka…

Smoked Bacon and Birch Vodka

I’d heard of people frying bacon and adding it to a bottle of bourbon, and I’d read about Bakon Vodka, but I’d never had a chance to try anything like it before I went to Nasha Rasha. The result is indeed quite pleasant, the flavor mostly taking advantage of bacon’s smokiness. But since I don’t really feel like patronizing the Worst Russian Restaurant In New York anymore, something else needed to be done…

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Russian Birch Cream Liqueur

Whether you want to celebrate the last day of Maslenitsa, Saint Patrick’s Day with a Russian twist, or the coming birch sugar season, this is the drink for you. The Irish-cream-like mixture dilutes the intense flavor of birch syrup, helping to reveal its complexity. This might be my favorite way to consume the syrup, in fact!

Russian Birch Cream LiqueurI originally thought I could take inspiration from Bailey’s, the mother of all cream liqueurs. The main ingredients are well known and advertised, together with the nutrition facts, on their web site. Reproducing the same proportions of sugar (from the birch syrup), fat (from the dairy) and alcohol (from the vodka) should give a similar result, right? Well, not quite. It was a starting point, but the mixture came out way too fatty and boozy. It took me a few rounds to get the balance right, but the result is very enjoyable.

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Blueberry Preserves

I’ve already posted a blueberry jam here a while back, but this recipe, adapted from Blue Ribbon Preserves, is also worth your time. And if you like picking your own berries, this is a great way to showcase the result of your efforts. (I picked mine at Fishkill Farms last summer.)

Although I’m usually against the American obsession of putting cinnamon in nearly every dessert, the spice happens to pair very well with blueberries, as long as the dosage remains very subtle: you should barely be able to taste that something’s been added.

The same applies to the amount of vodka. We’re not making blueberry liqueur; the goal is just to make the end result taste more complex, without being able to taste the alcohol.

Blueberry Preserves

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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.

Babka
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.

Assembly
Yields 6 servings

babka
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.

Vodkas from the Vanished Empire

During my recent trip to France, I spent some time unearthing forgotten vodka bottles scattered across my parents’ apartment in every possible cabinet and closet. Most of these bottles, acquired in the late 80′s and early 90′s, have been gathering dust ever since, quite often because of the dubious nature of the spirits they contained. Here’s a selection…

Let’s start with the most venerable member of today’s collection: a bottle of Russkaya vodka, purchased in the Soviet Union circa 1985 by my late great-aunt. Despite the level having dropped somewhere behind the neck label, this vodka was still surprisingly drinkable. It’s possible that at the time, the actual proof of alcoholic beverages matched the 40% announced on the label (by 1990, you were getting something closer to 35%). For a little history, the Russkaya brand was created in the 60′s, and by the early 80′s the production and sales rose to an impressive 1.68 billion liters, apparently making it the highest-selling hard liquor in the world.

Next up, here’s a pretty rare vodka that was one of my favorites, Krepkaya, which means “strong”. It contained 56% alcohol, and the bottle suffered some severe evaporation. In my opinion, 60% alcohol is about the limit that separates liquors that provide a pleasant, warming sensation from booze that burns your throat. The Krepkaya brand doesn’t seem to exist anymore, but bottles of unknown provenance can still be purchased from U.K. websites like this one or this one. Notice the Beriozka store price tag on the bottle cap, which seems to have been changed multiple times, maybe to cope with inflation. Depending on the year it was bought, the 6.50 price could have been in rubles or in dollars.

We’ll now enter the world of flavored vodkas — and serious food coloring. Zubrovka was (and still is) flavored with bison grass, and is famous for giving wicked headaches (granted, it’s not the only one). To be precise, the flavoring comes from an alcoholic extract of Hierochloe odorata. While the better-known Polish version is much lighter in color, the Russian one is a suspicious yellow. You can see on the picture the label’s transition from USSR to Russia. Both were still very drinkable.

As far as coloring goes, Limonnaya vodka is certainly the worst offender. The laughably yellow beverage is a complex mix of alcohol, lemon oil, lemon peel, lime alcoholic extract, sugar syrup, and water. I’ve never found that the result met the expectations of the recipe (regardless of whether the current recipe is the same as 20 years ago), so I preferred pouring the bottle down the drain. Notice that at the time the label was printed, inflation was already galloping, and the price exceeded 15 rubles.

I also found a couple of faux aged spirits. Starka is a curious blend of alcohol, water, sugar, port, and “cognac” (i.e. Soviet brandy), infused with apple and pear leaves. Not bad but not really worth the trouble. The Streletskaya was a sweeter beverage whose exact composition I couldn’t tell. This was a rather obscure brand, and although the name is still in use, I’m not sure the recipe’s the same.

And now for something completely different! Here’s a bottle of balsam. If you think chartreuse is vile / brilliant, try balsam, and imagine shooting the whole bottle with one or two friends. One old friend of mine probably still has cocktail recipes mixing balsam and brake fluid. There are so many wicked plants in this abomination that the resulting spirit is nearly pitch black. The most famous kind is Riga Black Balsam from Latvia, but various other regions also produce their own. This ones comes from Karelia, and the label represents the Church of the Transfiguration at Kizhi Pogost.

Finally, not quite from the Soviet Union but nearby, Orzechowka was an interesting Polish walnut cordial. Unlike many other Polish brands of the time, it is longer produced. The occasional bottles turn up, once again on U.K. websites like this one. But fear not! Former top-secret government courier Jack King has a recipe!

That’s all for now. If you’re looking for more Soviet paraphanelia of all kinds, check out this site, which has a very impressive collection of pictures!

Strawberry Liqueur

Encouraged by the success of my Crème de Cassis over the summer, I went back to Fishkill Farms to pick strawberries. Picking strawberries is tough work, choosing the ripest berries on all fours in 100 F temperatures under scorching sun, but it’s well worth the effort. Some of the berries made their way into delicious preserves, but there were still plenty left to make liqueur. And while strawberries don’t benefit from the same flavor transformation as black currants when you blend with alcohol, the result is still quite good!

Strawberry liqueur
Yields almost 1 qt

1 1/2 lb hulled strawberries
1 1/2 lb 100-proof Stolichnaya vodka
up to 1/2 lb sugar (see below)

  • Processing in small batches, briefly crush the strawberries in a food processor or a blender on low speed. You want each berry to be chopped into a few pieces to release the juices, without crushing the seeds.
  • In a large bowl, mix the strawberries and the vodka. Transfer to plastic containers, dividing the berries more or less equally and filling the containers to the top. Cover and let macerate for 1 month in a dark, cool place.
  • Pass the mixture through a chinois, pressing the berries with a spatula or a ladle. Pass the liquid through the chinois a second time without using the spatula. Weigh the liquid, and weigh 20% of that weight in sugar. Proceeding in batches, mix the liquid and the sugar in a blender on low speed for 5 minutes. Taste the result to make sure the sugar is fully dissolved.
  • Transfer the liqueur to bottles, and cork.

Crème de Cassis and Black Currant Liqueur

Black currants are very popular throughout Europe, and Russia is the world’s largest producer of currants and gooseberries. While the leaves are used to pickle vegetables, the acidic but highly flavorful berries are made into preserves, jellies, juices, wines or liqueurs. In the U.S., cultivation was banned in the early 1900′s as it became a threat to the logging industry. In New York State the ban was only lifted in 2003 — I guess it took that long for everyone to finally agree that logging was declining for good. Until recently, the packaged dried fruits known as currants were simply small raisins, and in most cases they still are.

In early July, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Fishkill Farms offered black currant picking. Berries are expensive because they’re tedious and exhausting to pick. Pick them yourself and you can get a bucket for a song (well, almost).

I can only drink so much juice and eat so much jam, but I had a different plan: crème de cassis.

Although crème de cassis is beloved enough that the Burgundy region of France hosts a museum entirely dedicated to it, there are very few serious recipes available online. A short page here explains the basic principles: lightly crushing the berries, macerating in alcohol for 2 months, pressing and adding sugar.  A recipe here follows the same method, with more details about the proportions. I made 4 important changes:

  • The amount of sugar mentioned in the recipe is very confusing and most likely incorrect. I provide clear instructions.
  • I doubled the amount of berries, as I really wanted something superior to many commercial products.
  • I macerated the berries “only” for one month. The scientist in me fails to see what more could happen during the second month. The high alcohol content of the mixture means this process is very different from wine making, for example.
  • As there will certainly be party-poopers who claim there’s nothing Eastern European about crème de cassis, I also included proportions for black currant liqueur! The only change is the amount of sugar.

The result is a rich cream with outstanding flavor. One could (and sometimes does) make a crème with any berries, but what makes crème de cassis special is the transformation of the currants’ flavor thanks to the alcohol maceration.

Enjoy with a white Burgundy or a sparkling wine. And don’t be shy: unlike what bars and restaurants seem to think, a dash of cassis isn’t nearly enough. I use around 1/4, and I’ve heard some people recommend up to 1/2! Once the bottle is open, oxidation will turn the liquor’s original bright color into a dull brown in a few months — so drink fast.

Crème de cassis and black currant liqueur
Yields almost 2 qt

3 lb black currants
3 lb 100-proof Stolichnaya vodka
up to 2 lb sugar (see below)

  • Rinse the currants and remove the stems. Processing in small batches, briefly crush in a food processor or a blender at low speed. You want each berry to be chopped at least once to release the juices, without crushing the seeds.
  • In a large bowl, mix the currants and the vodka. Transfer to plastic containers, dividing the berries more or less equally and filling the containers to the top. Cover and let macerate for 1 month in a dark, cool place.
  • Pass the mixture through a chinois, pressing the berries with a spatula or a ladle. Pass the liquid through the chinois a second time without using the spatula. Weigh the liquid, and weigh the amount of sugar you need: use 20% of the liquid weight if you want to obtain a black currant liqueur, and 45% for a crème de cassis. Proceeding in batches, mix the liquid and the sugar in a blender at low speed for 5 minutes. Taste the result to make sure the sugar is fully dissolved.
  • Transfer the crème de cassis or black currant liqueur to bottles, and cork.

Drunken Rhubarb

This recipe is a 2-in-1 kind of deal. Not only does it produce a delicious flavored vodka, it also leaves you with pieces of rhubarb you can serve with tea or use to make a cake, such as a babka.

Originally from China, rhubarb was transported along the Silk Road starting as early as the 14th century. As the usual route lay through Russia, it became known as “Russian rhubarb”. Nowadays, it’s especially popular in Northern Russia and in the Baltic states — you’ll find a rhubarb bush in every Estonian vegetable garden. Check out the countless rhubarb recipes from Estonian blog Nami-Nami.

You can use any variety of rhubarb you want, but cherry red rhubarb will give you the brightest red color.

Drunken rhubarb
Yields 1 pint

9 oz cherry red rhubarb, cut into 1″ pieces
4 oz sugar
1 oz white wine
4 oz vodka

  • Place the rhubarb in a saucepan with the sugar and white wine, and let rest for 4-5 hours.
  • Bring the rhubarb to a boil, stirring regularly, then boil for 1 1/2 minutes.
  • Transfer to a sterilized pint jar, gently stir in the vodka, seal and process in a 200 F water bath for 15 minutes.
  • Store in a cool place for at least 1 month.

Vodka-Cured Lake Trout

Following our successful Keuka Lake fishing trip, I have a few more trout recipes to share with you. Since I don’t want to freeze fish and I can only eat so much while it’s fresh, I had to come up with a number of curing and marinating plans. This one involves vodka and is particularly successful: instead of giving a marked alcohol taste to the fish, the vodka blends in and produces a very mellow result. If you want to add some smoke flavor, you can substitute half or all of the salt with smoked salt.

The cured fish can be wrapped in plastic film and kept in the fridge for a couple weeks. Serve with pancakes and sour cream.

Vodka-cured lake trout
Yields about 6 servings

1 oz salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 1/2 oz sugar
4 oz light olive oil
4 oz vodka
1 large trout fillet, skinless (about 16 oz when cleaned)

  • In a blender, mix the salt, pepper, sugar, olive oil and vodka. Place the trout and the curing mix into a plastic pouch, and refrigerate for 48 hours. Flip every 12 hours, making sure the fish remains completely coated in the liquid.
  • Take the fillet out of the pouch, rinse under cold water and pat dry. Slice very thinly and serve.

King Crab Ravioli, Caviar and Vodka Cream

King crab, caviar and vodka: are there any ingredients that better exemplify haute Russian cuisine? I served this dish as a first course on New Year’s Eve. Enjoy with champagne (just not necessarily the Soviet kind)!

For the pasta dough, I am using a modified version of Gordon Ramsay’s dough recipe. Stay away from dough recipes that skimp on the eggs, as they usually give tougher, inferior results. Note that the dough and the vodka cream discs yield more servings than the rest of the recipe because they’re hard to scale down.

You can get everything up to the assembly section ready several hours in advance, but I really recommend making all the elements on the day you plan to eat them.

Vodka cream discs
Yields 8 servings

8 oz heavy cream
1 tsp gelatin
1/2 tsp sugar
1 oz vodka

  • Combine 1/4 of the heavy cream with the gelatin and sugar in a small container. Microwave for about 45 seconds or until boiling, then mix well and reserve.
  • Whip the rest of the heavy cream to soft peaks. Stir the vodka into the gelatin mixture, then pour into the whipped cream with the mixer still on. Stop mixing.
  • Pour into 2 1/2″ diameter silicon molds (the exact size and shape of the mold isn’t too important), cover with plastic film and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Pasta dough
Yields over 8 servings

9 1/2 oz flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
3 egg yolks
1 tbsp olive oil

  • In the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the paddle attachment, place half of the flour, plus the salt, egg, egg yolks and olive oil. Mix over low speed until homogeneous, scraping down the sides with a spatula. Add the rest of the flour and mix again until it forms a smooth paste. Transfer to a floured surface, and knead with your hand for about 3 minutes. Wrap in plastic and let rest for 30 minutes.

King crab fabrication
Yields 4 servings

1 lb whole cooked king crab legs

  • Cut the shell using scissors. Take out the flesh and remove the cartilage. Reserve the meat for ravioli filling. Reserve the shells, cartilage and liquid for cooking the pasta.

King crab ravioli
Yields 4 servings (12 ravioli)

9 oz king crab meat without shell or cartilage
1 egg
1/4 tsp piment d’espelette
4 thyme sprigs, stems removed
2 tsp finely chopped parsley
1 tsp orange juice
pasta dough
1 egg yolk

  • In a blender, process 1/3 of the crab meat with the egg and the piment d’espelette to a paste. Transfer to a bowl and add the rest of the crab by shredding it into small pieces between your fingers. Add the thyme, parsley, and orange juice, and mix well.
  • Using a pasta machine, roll the dough to the finest setting. Cut 24 discs using a 3 1/2″ cutter. Mix the egg yolk with 1 tbsp water to make an egg wash. Brush two discs with the egg wash. Place a ball of crab stuffing in the center of the first disc, cover with the second one, and seal the edges with your fingers, removing any air pockets. Repeat with the rest of the pasta discs.

Assembly
Yields 4 servings

king crab shells, cartilage and liquid
salt
king crab ravioli
2 oz butter
vodka cream discs
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 oz caviar

  • Place the crab shells, cartilage and liquid into a pot, fill with water, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  • Pass the resulting crab stock through a chinois, return to the pot, add salt and bring to a boil. Cook the ravioli for a few minutes, until soft. Using a skimmer, transfer the ravioli to a bowl containing the butter. Do not drain the ravioli excessively, as some cooking liquid must remain to emulsify the butter.
  • Arrange the ravioli and the unmolded vodka cream discs on the plates. Top the cream discs with a spoonful of caviar and sprinkle the ravioli with parsley.