Summer Strawberry Tart with Miso

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The idea for Japanese baking had been floating around in my head since I got back, but only after a peek at David Lebovitz did I actually consider baking with miso paste. You see, in Japan miso is not used in desserts; only in sauces and soups. But in fact, miso can add rich, salty undertones to an otherwise traditional recipe. I don’t always like fruit-based desserts, preferring to get my sweet fix in the form of caramely, chocolaty, or buttery goodness. But summer fruit is just so perfect that it would be a shame to let it go to waste.

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Note that this is not a recipe for my traditional slapdashery. I had to make the dough and pastry cream twice. It was just not my day. So a word to the wise: the pastry should be very cold as you work with it. As for the pastry cream, ensure that it thickens on the stove, because the tart is not going to be baked later. But if your pastry cream looks rather thin, as mine did, you can put it back on the heat for a few minutes until it thickens, adding a slurry of 1 tsp cornstarch mixed with 1 tsp water.

Strawberry-Miso Tart (adapted from Smitten Kitchen. Ideas from David Lebovitz, and The Wall Street Journal)

The Crust:

  • 150g (1 1/2 cups) flour
  • 128g  (1 stick + 1 tbsp) cold butter
  • 100g (1/2 cup sugar)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 egg, whisked

The Pastry Cream:

  • 300g (1 1/4 cups) milk (not skim)
  • 1 tbsp white miso paste
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 100g (1/2 cup) sugar
  • 30g (3 tbsp) cornstarch
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the crust, combine the flour, sugar and salt together in a large bowl or your food processor. Blend until just mixed. Add in the butter, working it together  with your hands (or the food processor) until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Add in the egg a little bit at a time, and mix gently. Turn the mixture out onto a floured work surface and knead until it all comes together. Refrigerate the dough for about two hours or press it into a 9-inch buttered tart tin right away.

Meanwhile, make the pastry cream: In a small saucepan bring the milk to a boil and then turn off the heat. (You do not want the milk too hot or it will scramble your eggs). Then, working in as heavy-bottomed a saucepan as you have, whisk the yolks, sugar, miso and cornstarch together until they form a thick cream. Then slowly whisk about a quarter of the milk into the eggs until combined. Then whisk in the rest of the milk. Slowly bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat and keep stirring until it starts to thicken. Pour it into a bowl. It will thicken a little bit upon cooling, but you want it fairly solid right off the heat–like custard. Actually, for even better instructions you can watch this excellent video. Either way, when your pastry cream is finished, place plastic wrap tightly on the surface and refrigerate.

Now take out your tart dough and roll it out to fit a buttered your tart tin. Push any raggedy edges back into the pie crust and pierce it all over with a fork. Put the shell back in the freezer for at least 30 minutes, but more like an hour. When it’s ready, tightly place a piece of buttered foil onto the top. This should keep it from puffing up without pie weights. Turn the oven on to 375°F/190°C and put your unbaked tart shell in for 20-25 minutes. Then take the foil off and continue to bake until golden. Don’t burn it (as I did the first time!) but do let it get nice and brown.

Now to to assemble: when your tart shell and pastry cream are cool, spoon the pastry cream into the tart shell and artfully arrange your sliced strawberries on top. Serve with heavy cream, custard, or ice cream, if you like.

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In Which I Give Some Life Updates

I'll miss you, Pokrovskii Bulvar!

I’ll miss you, Pokrovskii Bulvar!

Well, my time in Moscow is coming to an end. After almost three years in Northern Europe, first in Estonia, now here, it’s time to go home. But before I do, I’ve got some big travel plans: off to the UK and Spain next week, followed by one more Moscow week, then onwards to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, China, and South Korea. The only thing that remains now is that Chinese visa!…and making a series of hotel reservations…and buying train tickets…and packing up my apartment. But it’s really soon!

Two down, one to go!

Two down, one to go!

Also, I wanted to mention that this blog has been around for almost two years, which really does blow my mind. Time flies, so I’d better get to all the things I want to do, all the things I still want to write about. Happy early birthday, Bloggie. And thanks for visiting, all of you!

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Short Trips from Moscow: Suzdal

The Convent of the Intercession. It's still a working convent, so there are signs politely reminding you not to photograph the nuns.

The Convent of the Intercession. It’s still a working convent, so there are signs politely reminding you not to photograph the nuns.

It’s hard to find a stretch of parkland in Moscow that isn’t “developed.” I love Gorky Park and Sokolniki, both gleaming after their respective refurbishments, but they function more as fairgrounds than relaxing nature preserves. Suzdal, around 3.5 hours away from Moscow, fills the need for greenery. Furthermore, after Moscow the atmosphere feels refreshingly simple–no factories, no train station, and an economy that runs on tourism and medovukho production.

Processing out of church at the Euthimiev Monastery. So many bishops.

Processing out of church at the Euthimiev Monastery. So many bishops.

Suzdal is only one city in the “golden ring” around Moscow (other famous cities include Vladimir, Yaroslavl, and Sergeev Posad). I haven’t been to the others, but Suzdal is said to be among the nicest; it was spared a lot of industrialization during Soviet days, unlike, say, Vladimir.

Euthimiev Monastery. Looks like it should be the Kremlin but, I assure you, it is not.

Euthimiev Monastery. Despite the imposing walls this is not, in fact, the Kremlin

To wrap your head around Suzdal’s geography, most of the major sites run along one street: ulitsa Lenina. At the bottom of the street are the Kremlin and the Museum of Wooden Architecture, and at the top are the Convent of the Intercession and the Euthimiev Monastery, as shown above. The street probably runs a total of 1.5 kilometres, but you can check this map for more information.

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Inside the Kremlin! It’s famous for its starry blue onion domes and apparently a very nice restaurant in the basement.

Logistically, I’d recommend taking the 3-hour train or elektrichka (commuter train) to Vladimir, then the 50-minute bus to Suzdal. You can even get on the super-fast Sapsan train to Nizhny Novgorod, which also makes a stop in Vladimir. If it’s a holiday weekend, you may want to reconsider going by car; my friends went to Suzdal the Saturday of the May long weekend, and the trip back to Moscow took nearly seven hours. Consider yourselves warned. There are loads of tours that will take you around the golden ring, but if you speak some Russian, and have the time to stay overnight, you can keep a relaxed pace and really enjoy your city break.

And this stuff! Ginger "Sbiten," which I have yet to open. Some sort of concentrated sugar syrup drink?

And this stuff! Ginger “Sbiten,” which I have yet to open. Some sort of concentrated sugar syrup drink?

 

 


How to Eat Healthily in Moscow: Restaurants

Despite what my recipes for scones, chocolate chip cookies and, um, snickers bars may suggest, I try to stay committed to healthy eating. I try to give the sweets to colleagues and guests, aside from the obligatory dough tastings. Those are mine. Most days I like to eat simply, but eating as I was used to in the West can be quite the challenge in Russia. The classic Russkii diet of vodka and cigarettes is definitely going to kill you, but even if you don’t count those most unhealthy of vices, Russian cuisine features a ton of milk fat, meat, mayonnaise, drinking, and pastries. Delicious, sure, but not for every day. I kind of don’t know how all the young Russian devushkas stay so thin…except that I do. It’s the portions: the frustratingly tiny 200-rouble cappuccinos and single scoops of ice cream.  It’s quite difficult–sometimes ridiculously so–to get some of the food that I took for granted back home. Not even my raisin-spelt bread or kamut perogies; those, I now understand, are luxuries. No. What I’m talking about are cans of chickpeas, cartons of tofu and fresh greens–kale, chard, bags of spinach. I miss those things (& almond butter) the most; they’re impossible or extremely hard to find and, when you do find them, beware that they’ll likely be imported from Italy or Germany and will cost a fortune.

Fortunately, there are alternatives, and I’ve been experimenting a lot. For protein, I may not be able to procure a lot of tofu or beans, but I’ve been eating herring, wonderful smoked salmon, buckwheat, millet and nuts. I’ve also been eating more dairy products, like milk and the tasty, ubiquitous tvorog.  There was a time when I lived on very little dairy, and drank mostly coconut or almond milk when I could. But I’m back to milk, and I feel OK about it. And as far as calcium is concerned, there are sardines and cabbage, a leafy green that is widely available here and is very, very cheap. And otherwise, there is seasonal produce: now’s the time for peaches, cherries and blueberries (maybe they’re bilberries?) from the babushka on the corner.

Photo by Sarah Britton at My New Roots

If you’re looking for actual vegetarian restaurants, sadly there are, like, two places listed on Happy Cow. Pathetic! There are over 10 million people in this city, so I am SURE there are heaps of cash to be made if they opened a Whole Foods or, like, a salad bar. There’s a place near me with a bright green sign that claims to be healthy called Focaccia-somethingorother. I never thought that focaccia would count as…health food, and also, those are tortillas. Not the same thing. I don’t know though, if we got some better places I’d probably start having convulsions. That almost happened when I got my nut butter, as documented below on my friend Stasya’s camera:

I don’t need my home comforts every single day, but it’s nice to have them as an option for when I want to splurge or when I feel homesick. With that in mind, here are some restaurants that provide food that feels healthy and fresh and is, above all else, DELICIOUS:

  • Prime Star: Not so much a restaurant, say, as a cafe. They have a location on Arbat, which I frequent a lot when I work in the area. They have a mix of old Russkii favourites like buckwheat with mushrooms, borsch, kefir, and a random array of sushi and wraps. The prices are reasonable, the food is fresh and healthy. On Arbat especially, that’s as good as it gets.
  • Dve Palochki: There is probably more Japanese food in Moscow than any other cuisine, so you can pretty much feel free to go wild. But I like this chain, and have fond memories of it from when I was in St. Petersburg. If you’re sharing, their sets for two are to die for. The service is really quite good, too.
  • Jagganath: This Indian vegetarian resto has three locations, one of which is near me, thank God. They don’t serve meat and they don’t serve alcohol, but they have a variety of tofu, bean, and paneer-based dishes, as well as lots of yummy-looking desserts. You pay by the quantity, which is reasonable, and they also have a small store where you can pick up fixings for another healthy supper.
  • Ludi Kak Ludi: This sweet restaurant serves weekend “brunch” and a good, cheap business lunch. There are vegetarian options and a ton of different smoothies to choose from. On the afternoon we went, it was packed with pretty much 100% of the Moscow hipsters.
  • Avocado: This one, on the Chistie Prudi boulevard, also looks promising, especially since it’s about ten minutes from where we now live. (LOVE this area.) They apparently use only fresh, organic produce. I find this incredibly hard to believe, frankly, but I’m going to test it out. Besides, there’s supposed to be a nice patio for use while it’s warm and beautiful.
  • Gagan: A friend of a friend here goes to India on business a lot, and when asked what his favourite Indian place in Moscow was, he mentioned Gagan without hesitation. It’s a bit far from me, by Dinamo metro, so I’ve yet to go, but I will soon. (However, I would give them a call before–their website is acting up and won’t tell me any of their information anymore.) I have been to another LOVELY Indian place, though: Maharajah on Maroseika. Not cheap, but super, super delicious.
  • Xleb i Moloko: I’ve passed this place about a million times by now on my way to and from work. It’s supposed to serve fresh farmer’s products, homemade bread, etc. It’s sort of in a strange place, right next to the Chistie Prudi metro station and some weird pharmacies, but the interior photos look extremely promising. Can’t wait to go in!

On that note, I’ll talk about Russian farmer’s products very soon, with part TWO of this article!


For the Love of Scones: Strawberry Cream & Nectarine

I’m still not entirely sure what the difference is between a scone and a biscuit. Maybe it’s that a biscuit is not really sweet (just buttery) and served with savoury food, southern style. Or is it just the American version of a scone, carried over on the Mayflower, adapted through generations of American innovation? Generally speaking, though, both traditionally involve flakiness-producing butter and a similar technique; you just cut the butter in as you would for a pie dough.  I’m not too much for chicken and biscuits, but given my obvious penchant for all things sweet, I love a good scone. I waxed rhapsodic last September over the afternoon tea I had for my birthday, and scones always seem perfect for a special occasion. I don’t add the jam and clotted cream every time (obvs. 1 teaspoon of clotted cream has close to 90 calories) but it is a nice treat. For a summertime “light” version (if the 200g of butter in the nectarine recipe–for 8 scones–can be considered light) fresh fruit scones are the way to go.

Sweet, melting fruit adds just that bit of acidity and tang to something that might be a bit heavy. We can get back to currant, raisin, candied scones in the fall; for now let’s enjoy the fresh fruit and beautiful sunshine. Try to buy the best fruit you can, as this is its chance to shine. Below are my two most recent scone experiments–a creamy strawberry scone that I made in London, and a nectarine fold-over scone I made just days ago here in Moscow. Both are super-simple to make, and either would be good with a bit of warm butter, seasonal jam or, well, some clotted cream.

Strawberry Cream Scones (adapted from a recipe by Deb at Smitten Kitchen, where they are actually referred to as biscuits)

  • 280g plain flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 50g granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 85g cold, unsalted butter, cubed
  • 130g chopped really ripe strawberries
  • 1 cup single (heavy) cream

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees Celsius and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Add the butter and work it in with a pastry blender or your fingertips until it resembles coarse crumbs. Mix in the strawberries with a light hand, then add the cream. Stir gently until everything is mixed. Don’t, however, overmix; you want these lovelies to be light!

Flour your counter really well and transfer the dough onto it. Press out (or roll) the dough until it is about 2cm thick. Cut into small circles (mine were about 5cm in diameter) with a cutter or a drinking glass, and transfer the scones to your baking sheet, leaving a few inches between each.

Bake the scones for 12-15 minutes until they are lightly golden on top. Let them stand for a minute on the baking tray, then transfer to wire cooling racks. Eat warm and enjoy!

Makes around 8 scones

Nectarine Fold-over Scones (adapted from a recipe by Joy at Joy the Baker)

  • 350g flour
  • 50g coarse cane sugar
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp fine salt
  • 200g butter, cold and cut into cubes
  • 175mL (3/4 cup) milk
  • 1 room-temperature egg, beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (or 1 tsp vanilla sugar)
  • 1 nectarine, thinly sliced
  • 2 tbsp milk, for brushing over the surface
  • 2 tbsp coarse cane sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and vanilla sugar, if using). Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, egg and vanilla extract, if using. Add the milk mixture to the dry ingredients, and stir gently until a dough forms.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead lightly, about 10 times. If the butter hasn’t become a sticky mess by now, roll it out into a disk until it is a couple of centimetres thick. Brush half of the disk with milk and place the sliced nectarines onto it like so:

Sprinkle 1 tbsp of the coarse sugar on top of the nectarines. Seal up your pastry by folding the clean side over the nectarines. Press down on all sides to seal, and try to form it into some semblance of a rectangle. Cut the dough into 8 even pieces, place them on your baking pans and stick them in the fridge for around 20 minutes. When your 20 minutes are up and the scones are a bit firm, remove them from the fridge and brush with the milk. Sprinkle over the remaining sugar.

Bake the scones for 15-18 minutes or until golden brown. (If they’re a little doughy at first, as mine were, they’ll firm up a bit when they cool.) Let them sit on the hot pan for a couple of minutes, then remove and let cool on a wire rack for around 15 minutes. Eat them warm or at room temperature later on. Either way, they’ll hit the spot.

Makes 8 scones.


6 Ideas for a St. Petersburg Summer

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:

Bright Sky at Midnight

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!

A Nice-Looking Beach in Old Russia

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?…