For a blog called Bread is Best, there is surprisingly little bread on this site. When I was a student, I had but a few hours a day of class time, and the rest of the day could be devoted to letting bread dough rise and fiddling around with weird cooking ideas. Now, with my all-over-the-place teaching schedule, big kitchen projects require a lot more planning. Sometimes, when I get home at 11 after spending all day with crazy children, all I want to do is catch up with Girls. But when I saw another chance to make khachapuri, I was all in.
I had seen Taste of Russia advertised somewhere, and after doing some cooking classes abroad (here and here), I wanted to try one in Moscow. I was rather keen for Caucasian cooking, seeing as how it tends not to be so meat-heavy, and is so much harder to find outside of Russia and the CIS. Oh, and did I mention the khachapuri? Adjarian-style, with the egg on top. One of the world’s most delicious dishes.
What was also funny was that I came ready to speak Russian, only to be met by a girl from California and Victoria, our lovely instructor with the perfect English. Victoria was extremely welcoming and helpful; indeed, I might finally have gotten my vegetable-cutting technique down! And the food we made with her was great: lobio, a cold walnut-kidney bean appetizer, and chicken chahohbili (chicken in spiced tomato sauce), plus lovely dolma and some wine. I had but a few sips of wine (off to teach children, remember), and had to snatch up my still-hot khachapuri to take on the metro, but let me tell you, later on that day, it was the ultimate break-time snack.
Two weeks ago my mum came to visit me in Russia. After a tour around Moscow, we moved on to St. Petersburg—the Petrograd/Leningrad of yore. No matter what you call it, the city is beautiful. St. Petersburg was my introduction to Russia way back in 2009. I visited it; I loved it; I returned two years later and never looked back. I love Moscow and am glad to stay there for the next little while, but Petersburg was a great beginning. It might also be a better place to tour than Moscow, as it’s smaller and more manageable–everything feeds off the main street, Nevsky Prospekt. Besides, it was the capital for centuries, so palaces and museums abound.
The Neva river basically runs perpendicular and through Nesky Prospekt, forming what’s essentially the backbone of St. Petersburg. I mean, Peter the Great constructed the city ON A SWAMP. Forget about the weather being anything but rainy, and the metro from being anything but 200 feet underground (doubles as a handy bomb shelter). When I was first in St. Petersburg, I lived in a crummy dorm room with cockroaches, peeling parquet and a fiery-haired roommate with a heart tattooed onto her derrière. But it also had a sweet view of the Gulf of Finland:
There’s so much to do here, especially during White Nights in June and July, that I could never include it all. But after several visits, here’s what I like best:
1. Aragvi: Have I proclaimed my love of Georgian food enough yet? There are many good places to eat Georgian in Moscow, like Elardgi and Khacha Puri. Interestingly, Aragvi in Moscow used to be Stalin’s favourite restaurant, recently re-opened after years laying dormant. My mum and I went to Aragvi St. Petersburg and had a lot of fun, getting khachapuri, soup, and whole trout stuffed with nuts and pomegranate seeds. Also, funny-shaped bread.
2. Dacha: But of course! Dacha and Fidel, right next to each other, take the cake for the diviest dive bars ever. If you don’t have tons of fun and hear Tom Jones swinging his hips with She’s a Lady, then WELL. I don’t know what to say. ❤ u, Dacha! Besides, bars and clubs in SPB aren’t nearly as snobby as Moscow’s. For more drinking fun, check out the Baltika Beer Factory or the beer festival in June.
3. Pushkin House Museum: Yes yes, you should definitely see the beautiful Hermitage (or watch Russian Ark, if you’re too lazy), but I love the Petersburg charm that comes from small house museums, where the writers (in particular) like Pushkin, Nabokov and Dostoevsky kept home and penned their masterpieces. I like Pushkin’s home especially, because you can see his hand-written manuscripts, his personal library, and the vest he was wearing when he was shot.
4. Alie Parusa (Scarlet Sails): Nobody does it better than Petersburg, where every occasion is an excuse for lots of fanfare. Alie Parusa is probably the best parade/celebration I’ve ever seen. It has celebrated the end of the academic year (late June) since the end of WWII, with fireworks and a giant red-sailed ship floating down the Neva. The celebration is based on this legend by Alexander Grin:
“A little girl Assol met a wizard and it has been foretold: “… it will be a fine sunny day when a beautiful ship under scarlet sail comes and the noble prince will take you away from here. He’ll take you to the world of your dreams, where you will be loved and happy.” The neighbours told jokes about her, children teased her, but she waited for her prince.” (Thanks, imdb!)
5. Nizhni Novgorod: I really loved visiting Nizhni Novgorod, Russia’s oldest city. It’s only three hours from St. Petersburg, but it will make you feel like you stepped back in time, like you’re part of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. When I went some three years ago, we booked from the kiosks outside of Gostinny Dvor. Those kiosks are still there, still doing brisk business–go to them if you speak some Russian. Nizhni Novgorod (not to be confused with Velikii Novgorod) is the home of the first kremlin, a fantastic monastery, and probably the nicest-looking beach I’ve seen in all of Russia. If we’d only had time to relax upon it!
6. Boris Eifman Ballet: Boris Eifman is an exceedingly cool choreographer who takes his troupe around Russia and beyond. I saw Anna Karenina a few years ago at the Alexandriinsky Theatre and enjoyed it so much I think I may have cried. The show was only two hours long, perfect for someone with no attention span, like me. It was also really original, despite the classic Tchaikovsky score; for instance, before the inevitable ending, Anna is seen in a flesh-coloured body suit, literally stripped of her imperial past. Spooky.
How to Get There: May, June and July (during the White Nights) are probably the best times to take a first trip. Take a Baltic cruise, take the train, fly—hop to it and get there! Seriously, though, take the train. For the true Russian experience, the 8-hour overnight journey in Platskartni is to die for. Essentially, you’re placed a long hall among many, many other passengers. Especially if you’re on your own, this would likely be less scary than a four berth kupé compartment–it’s a whole room full of strangers instead of just a couple. And it all works out–the first time I did this, I met a sweet Russian girl who helped me with my homework. If that sounds like too much, the Sapsan is also a really cool train, and only a 4-hour ride. It’s very comfortable, and has English-speaking staff.
Where to Stay: My Mum and I stayed at the Nevsky Forum hotel. It was very decent, but rather expensive for what you get. This is White Nights, I suppose, and it’s the most expensive point of the year. I swooned over the W and Grand Hotel Europe, so those are also options. On the cheap, try this mini hotel my colleague recommended. Or try Apartator, the AirBnB of Russia. Another qualm about Nevsky Forum below–I thought there was a reason they didn’t put hotel room numbers on key cards?…
And thus I begin my series of food to hibernate with. The weather hasn’t let up in weeks, so when I’m not teaching I tend to hole up in my apartment, watch movies (Chasing Amy and Hannah and her Sisters have been on the recent rotation), and cook. (I’m glad to be working again because it means that I can pass the extra baked goods on to my colleagues, saving me from inevitable sugar rushes.) In my time off I’ve also tried to take in as much of Moscow as possible, seeing museums (Winzavod and Garazh are next), planning parties, shopping and having adventures in even the simplest of exchanges. The cultural differences sometimes run so deep that I don’t even know when I’ve committed a faux-pas. For instance, the other day I broke the zipper on my boot and took it to the shop to get it repaired, while at the same time asking the shop-keeper if he could clean my boots up; it wasn’t until I told my colleague about the exchange that she mentioned it was a definite no-go to ask employees to clean your boots. It’s a bit of an insult here–shoe-shining is done in train stations, not in shops. Ruh-roh! Every day is a lesson here, linguistically or otherwise. In any case, there are two words we can all agree on: cheese bread.
Khachapuri is a Georgian pastry I came into contact with a year and a half ago on my last trip to Moscow. I forget which restaurant I first got it from, but I definitely came to love it, and took that love with me to Estonia. Georgian food was unlike anything I’d ever eaten, with unique spices, plentiful use of walnuts, and green herbs. I was hooked and wanted more–roasted eggplants, plates of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, mint tea, turkish coffee and this bread, which is lovely and different every place you go. In the end, khachapuri is basically a cheese-filled pie–the Pizza Hut stuffed crust that never was. It’s perfect winter food, ideal for cutting into big slices and sharing with friends. I sliced it up too quickly to photograph it whole, which gives me all the more reason to make it again.
Khachapuri (adapted from Nami-Nami). Serves four generously
- 250g sour cream
- 150g unsalted butter
- 1 beaten egg
- Around 300g flour
- A pinch of salt
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp sugar
- 200g Suluguni cheese (mozzarella will do in a pinch), grated
- 1 beaten egg (alternatively, beat just one egg and use it in the filling and the dough)
- 2 tbsp sour cream
- 2 cloves garlic, minced finally (this is optional; I didn’t have any and my khachapuri turned out just fine)
Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F)
Melt the butter on the stove and then slowly whisk in the sour cream. Whisk in the salt, baking soda and sugar, then slowly mix in the flour. I didn’t measure this but just added it slowly until the dough became uniform and only a little sticky. Knead the dough for a minute or so to bring it all together, then divide it in two and roll each piece out flat into two circles.
Mix together the grated cheese, egg, sour cream and garlic (if using).
Place one dough circle on a parchment-covered baking sheet, then spread with the cheese mixture, leaving a couple of centimetres on the sides bare. Cover with the other dough circle and press the edges together firmly. Brush the top with beaten egg yolk or leftover sour cream and poke the top with the prongs of a fork. Put it in the oven and bake for around 30 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Let it sit around 5 minutes, then slice.
Enjoy (and keep warm)!