When my partner, tasked with finding a Russian-ish dessert recipe for me for a recent quarantine weekend, unearthed a rye bread cake in Joyce Toomre’s English translation of Elena Molokhovets’ A Gift to Young Housewives, she was intrigued but dubitative. It’s not just that recipe #985 (note: number varies depending on edition) is over 150 years old; it also doesn’t seem like one of Molokhovets’ most accomplished creations. Indeed, the recipe is full of oddities, inconsistencies, and omissions. The proportions are written for 6 people but the instructions use triple those amounts. We are told, among other things, to grind 50 cloves (a good way to finish that old jar in your pantry, but probably inedible!) and to mix the dough for a whole hour. Then all of a sudden, after baking, the cake is stacked and interlaid with jam with so few explanations that even Toomre felt forced to add a note – in which I believe she may have misinterpreted the instructions. Finally we’re told to glaze the cake, but not given any ingredients for the glaze…
Yet, despite its imperfections, I immediately took a liking to the recipe. With a little bit of imagination and a few tweaks, I could align it with my trip to the Arkhangelsk region and thus fulfill my quest for a dessert that would capture the essence of the Russian Far North. First, of course, because of the rye bread – rye flour plays an important role in baking in Northern Russia. Then, the spices reminded me of kozuli, a kind of Pomor gingerbread often made with cinnamon and clove. Finally, the vague ingredients (i.e., “jam” and “glaze” without any detail) gave me the opportunity to pack in a couple more Northern flavors: I chose blackcurrant jam because it evokes the blackcurrant tea we drank while touring the Lake Lacha countryside, and my (chocolate) glaze is spiked with Pomor or Karelian balsam.
The result is a layered cake that’s spicy, fruity, and chocolaty at the same time and goes great with a cup of black tea. Maybe it is worth tripling the proportions after all…
A word about the harder-to-find ingredients:
- Russian rye bread (not American Jewish rye bread, which is a completely different product) can be purchased from many Russian grocery stores, such as this one. For best results, get the Borodinsky kind if available. If you can’t find any Russian rye bread at all, use rye flour.
- Pomor and Karelian balsams are unfortunately not exported, but you can use Riga Black Balsam instead.
Rye bread “flour”
Yields slightly over 50 g (enough for 1 cake)
90 g Borodinsky rye bread with crust
- Slice the bread, and place the slices on a wire rack on top of a baking tray. Toast in a 175 C / 350 F oven for about 20 minutes, until the bread is crispy but not charred. Let cool on the wire rack for 1 hour.
- Place the bread in a blender, and pulverize on high speed. Sift into a bowl, and reserve.
Yields 1 cake
150 g (about 9) egg yolks
135 g sugar
50 g Russian rye bread “flour” (or regular rye flour)
20 g AP flour
1.5 g salt
1.5 g ground cinnamon
1 g ground star anise
0.5 g ground clove
270 g (about 9) egg whites
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, mix the egg yolks and sugar on medium-high speed to a pale ribbon. Add the rye bread “flour” (or regular rye flour), AP flour, salt, cinnamon, star anise, and clove, then mix on medium-low speed until homogeneous. Transfer to a clean bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Clean the bowl of the electric mixer, rinse under cold water to chill, and dry thoroughly. Whip the egg whites to medium-hard peaks on high speed, then gently fold them into the batter in a few additions.
- Line a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and grease with oil spray. Spread the batter onto the paper, and use an offset spatula to shape into a 32 cm x 40 cm rectangle, trying to get the edges as straight as possible. Bake in a 200 C / 400 F for 12-14 minutes, to an internal temp of 85 C / 185 F.
- Transfer the cake (still on the parchment paper) to a wire rack, and let cool.
Yields 1 cake (about 12 slices)
120 g 70% dark chocolate, small dice
40 g butter, small dice
40 g heavy cream
25 g Pomor or Karelian (or Riga Black) balsam
300 g blackcurrant jam
- In a small saucepan over very low heat, melt the chocolate, butter, cream, and balsam to make a glaze, stirring constantly. As soon as the chocolate has melted, remove from heat, and reserve.
- Warm up the blackcurrant jam for 30 seconds in the microwave.
- Cut the rye sponge into 6 rectangles, 10 cm x 20 cm each, trimming the edges as needed and making sure that they’re all as close as possible to the same size.
- Spread the first rectangle with 1/5 of the jam, then cover with another layer of cake. Repeat with the remaining jam and sponge rectangles, but do not spread jam on top of the cake.
- Using an offset spatula, spread the chocolate glaze on the top and down the long sides of the cake, but leave the short ends clear. Refrigerate for at least an hour, until the glaze has set.
- Trim the short ends of the cake with a knife, to make even. To serve, cut into 1.5 cm thick slices.