There is no drink more important to a Russian than his tea. Not vodka, not beer. Tea. Tea is served with breakfast, with breaks, with lunch and in the evenings. The classic is basic black, though milk oolong (my favourite), green, earl grey and all the usual suspects are also popular.
Tea is generally served black, sometimes with lemon, sugar, or even jam stirred in. (Jam makes a lot more sense when you think that it’s often quite liquidy, or consists of suspended pieces of fruit in sugar syrup.) When I mentioned to some adult students that people in Canada/Britain will often put milk in their tea, they reacted with looks of horror. Russians get it, yeah yeah, but it’s not the done thing, and if you get offered a cup of tea it won’t be coming with milk.
If it’s your afternoon or break time you might want some печенье (cookies) too. These turned out more like circles, and less ring-like, than the traditional versions, but you get the idea. Think of these as shortbread biscuits. And, unlike some of my last recipes, they are really, really easy.
This recipe came from Darra Goldstein’s amazing book A Taste of Russia. It’s 30 years old and yet still super comprehensive and a delightful read. If you have even a passing interest in Russian cooking, it is well worth the money.
Russian Almond Cookies (Миндальные Кольца), adapted from A Taste of Russia
- 225g (1 cup) butter
- 100g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
- 250g (2 cups) flour
- 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 85g (1 cup) sliced almonds
- 50g (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
Cream the butter and 100g sugar until fluffy. Mix in the eggs and stir in the flour until mixed. Wrap it up into a ball and refrigerate for 1-2 hours until firm.
Preheat your oven to 375°F/190°C. On a lightly floured counter, roll out your dough and cut some round (or fluted) shapes. Mine were largish cookies, but you could make them smaller if you wanted. You could also cut a hole in the centre if you wanted them to be true “rings.”
Transfer your cookies to a baking sheet, brush with the beaten egg yolks and sprinkle on the almonds and sugar. Bake for 12-15 minutes until the edges are golden. Let them cool on the baking sheet. And that’s it! Всë! This should yield 10-12 tasty cookies.
The weather forecast for the rest of the week reads as follows: today, high of 29; tomorrow, high of 27; Thursday, high of 28. After a freezing cold winter, this is bliss. I have spent all my free time in parks recently, and have already consumed about a bazillion ice creams. I don’t really want to be faffing about in the kitchen when it’s hot inside my un-air-conditioned apartment.
But these cookies are so easy; the only trick is to make sure that once they’re in the oven, you watch them carefully (see below for evidence of cookie death). You want the edges crispy and just set. The insides will be chewy, like a meringue-brownie combo. They’re sturdier than they look; fine fare for a picnic. Or an ice cream sandwich, perhaps?
Crispy, Chewy Chocolate Cookies (adapted from 101cookbooks)
- 310g walnut halves, toasted and cooled
- 450g confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
- 60g unsweetened cocoa powder
- 4 egg whites
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- a drop of vanilla extract
Preheat your oven to 160C and line your baking pans, or your one Soviet roasting tray, as the case may be.
Take the walnuts and chop coarsely. Set them aside. Then mix together the powdered sugar, cocoa powder and salt. Stir in the walnuts. Then add the egg whites and vanilla, and mix it all well. It may look weird and gloopy at this point, but that’s just fine. OK, then, in about 2-tablespoon amounts, drop the cookie batter onto the baking sheets. Leave lots of room between the cookies, as they’ll spread a lot.
Bake the cookies for between 12-15 minutes, until they’re glossy and crack a bit on top. Once they’re cooked, put them onto a cooling rack and let them cool completely (yeah, right).
My little sister cooks too. And bakes. By now she and I know that if one of us is in the kitchen, the other should just stay away. Or do whatever I say. But one of the things I took from her was the chocolate chip cookie. If you need to bring something sturdy to a party, or you need to make something you know people will like, this is a winner. Most def. My sister’s secret ingredient, for a while, was Crisco’s butter-flavoured shortening. Something about that artificial fat makes for really light cookies. We’ve both switched over to real butter now, and I can tell you that these biddies are just as nice. Solid, yet slightly chewy and cakey. Nice with tea and milk.
If you have a bit of Crème de marrons, as I did leftover from France, do put that in. I think it worked well with the nuttiness of the buckwheat. These started as a plain-flour cookie, but I ran out of wheat flour. It’s OK, buckwheat is a healthier, more protein-rich substitute. Don’t forget the sprinkle of salt on top at the end. Fleur de sel is nearly impossible to find in Russia, but it’s good stuff.
Chocolate Chip Buckwheat Cookies (adapted from Joy the Baker, the cutest food blog in the world):
- 200g salted or unsalted butter
- 250g buckwheat flour
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 200g demerara sugar (golden cane sugar)
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tbsp milk
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 100g dark chocolate, chopped
Melt the butter in a large saucepan, then set aside. Sift together the flour, salt and baking soda.
Add the sugar to the melted butter and whisk until combined. Slowly add in the egg and egg yolk, milk and vanilla extract. Stir again until uniform. Slowly stir in the flour, then fold in the chocolate pieces.
Chill the dough for around 4 hours (Alton Brown, whose recipe this was first, suggests 36 hours. But who can wait that long?) While it’s chilling, preheat your oven to 150C. Then scoop your dough out into medium-sized dough balls. This allows you to get a crispy exterior, with a soft and fluffy interior. Bake them for about 10-15 minutes, depending on your oven. I can’t wait to enjoy these as ice cream sandwiches, lying by Patriarch’s Pond.
Ignore the Christmas lights on Oxford Street, tempting you to head out and shop in this weather; it’s time to stay in, hibernate and dream close to the blazing oven. It’s time for some finicky recipes, the ones no one would bother with in the summer, either because it’s too hot or they require too much effort. The descent into winter also gives me the perfect excuse to cook dense, buttery food and celebrate the richness of the season.
Rugelach are one of those amazingly rich, impressive-looking, semi-elusive (at least in London) pastries. When I lived in Toronto, I walked by Harbord Bakery all the time and often couldn’t resist their delicious Jewish delicacies: blintzes, loaves of raisin-studded challah, and definitely the occasional few rugelach. I’d bring them for friends at school, but would finish half the bag before I could even begin to share.
Rugelach can be made in any way you like; the ones below are very traditional, filled with apricot jam, currants and walnuts. They’re basically miniature filled croissants, so you can fill them with anything: nutella, a different type of jam, or even leftover dulce de leche would all be very nice. The generous quantities of cream cheese and butter keep these pastries really light and moist, so they’ll keep a long time (if you can keep your hands off them). And yeah, they do have to be made in the cold weather–or at least a cold room–or you’ll end up with some very un-pretty rugelach, as per my first batch below. I was going to trash them, and then I thought, no way, they’re still good!
Traditional Rugelach (Adapted from GOOP)
This recipe comes from Gwyneth Paltrow’s weekly blog/newsletter GOOP, which I really enjoy reading. I’ve had good luck with her recipes, and I’m also a fan of her city guides; she seems to have a keen eye for what’s cool–but not too fussy–in a city.
- 8oz or 200g room-temperature cream cheese
- 250g room-temperature unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (though any flaky salt will do)
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup brown or muscovado sugar
- 6 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 3/4 cup currants (or raisins)
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
- 1/2 cup apricot jam, warmed up slightly to make it spreadable
- 1 egg beaten with 1 tsp milk
- 3 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
Cream together the cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer until it’s very light and fluffy (the fluffier this is, the fluffier your resulting pastry). Then add the sugar, vanilla and salt. Mix again. Finally, on low speed, add the flour and mix gently until the mixture comes together to form a dough.
Put the dough onto a floured surface and form it into a ball. Cut the dough into four equal pieces, flatten each piece slightly and wrap each in cling film. Leave it to rest in the fridge for 30-60 minutes or even overnight. Meanwhile, combine the dry ingredients for the filling: granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, currants and walnuts.
On the floured surface, roll out one round of dough into a 9-inch circle (this needn’t be exact). Brush about 2 tbsp of the apricot jam almost to the edges of the dough and sprinkle with 1/2 cup of the filling. Now cut the circle into 10 equal wedges.
Starting with the wide edge, roll up each wedge and place the pastries on a greased or parchment-covered baking tray, point side down. Repeat with the remaining circles and chill the fully-formed pastries in the fridge for 30 minutes (they won’t hold their shape if they’re too soft). Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Brush each pastry with the egg wash. Mix the 3 tbsp of sugar with the 1/2 tsp cinnamon and then sprinkle on the pastries. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until lightly browned. Let them cool on a wire rack.
Makes about 40 pastries