From time to time, abiding by the unbending code of conduct of first generation transplants, I succumb to strong nostalgic cravings. In case you are not the first generation transplant, let me explain. I refer to craving foods I can’t have because there is no place to get them — either they no longer exist or they exist only in my country of origin and thus are not (at least not readily) accessible to me.
Some of these cravings are perfectly legitimate and can be attributed to the amazing flavor or fragrance of a specific food I am yearning for. For instance, I could never find anything in the States that would come close to the magnificent Moldovan grapes, lush, beautiful, complex and mysterious, at the very peak of their ripeness. Or a tiny tough skinned fragrant cherry-plum called alycha which was magnificent both fresh and in jams or compotes. What about a selection of pastries offered by a local restaurant of my native town — they were exquisite, each and every one of them, and trust me when I say, just as hard to reproduce at home as they were tasty. Or a weird looking fish called Ledyanaya (Ice Fish) breaded with nothing but flour and pan fried…
Other cravings, while unexplainable from the gastronomical angle, could only be attributed to the emotional connections or intense memories associated with them. It’s the only way I could explain the craving for Hematogen — a primitive nutrition bar sold in medical pharmacies. It was a chewy (and quite ugly) bar wrapped in brown paper, which in texture and looks resembled fine chewing tobacco mixed with molasses, and in flavor was a toss between dulce de leche and butterscotch caramel with hefty medicinal aftertaste. It was infused with vitamins and was designed as fine source of quality nutrition for kids. Needless to say, we kids purchased it every chance we had and gobbled it down like candy, no regard for rationing rules. Same goes to under-ripened apples growing on our neighbor’s tree, which only tasted awesome because they were fun to poach with friends. We’d stuff our pockets with these green sour bombs, climb on the nearest stone wall, count our spoils and boast about who poached the most. Then we’d chow them down like it was nothing. Those things were so sour they could burn a hole in your stomach, but so darn good!
There are, of course, some things that span both lists. Now those are truly special and shouldn’t be messed with. They can invoke a memory or create a real flood of emotions as vivid as holographic image or as intense as a movie. Depending on where you are on your spiritual journey at that moment, they can throw you for a loop — make you terribly home sick twenty years past naturalization, make you want to write a book about your childhood, conduct a spiritism seance, start a diary, dance in the rain in your pajamas (at best), join a cult, sign up for a yoga class, learn a new language, call Miss Cleo, take five-year-long sabbatical, circle the globe in chase of happiness and peace…
Over the years, I’ve discovered that some of the cravings do go away, others subside considerably, having been replaced by local food versions; many of the cravables can be found in specialty stores. Others still, can be successfully (at least with some degree of delusion) replicated at home using local ingredients… It’s not all so bad after all, and we learn to adjust for new circumstances and ingredients.
But there are some things that no matter the country, ingredients, culture, stove type or social situation, never change. They stay the same. They crown all craving lists, yet they are right there with you, just a few short hours away from being made. They endure. They transcend. They pass from generation to generation in their original form. They are equally awesome at dazzling your taste buds and memory inducing. They connect you to the past, they remind you about your roots. And because they are easy to replicate, they are also your partners in transplanting, offering you both a piece or your motherland to remember and hope for the bright future in the new place.
Yes, yes, I am still talking about food, believe it or not. Dead serious, in fact. If you think food is trifle, how would you explain scores of European immigrants bringing their sourdough bread starters and kefir grains with them, smeared on a handkerchief and dried out? How would you explain all the seeds saved and brought in from other countries? All the ethnic and specialty stores opened here? All those pizza, sushi, pierogi and pho parlors we love to visit so much?
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So here is this cake called Napoleon. No one knows when it entered our family, but it’s been with us for as long as I can remember. First my mom and then I made it for the New Year’s feast. Every year. I mean every year — the bad year and the good year; the year we were one family, and the year we were a broken family; the year we had plenty of money and the year we barely scraped by to have a feast; the year our dogs ate our entire New Year’s dinner, except for dessert and the year my aunt passed away just days before holidays; the year we had an unprecedented ice storm followed by a two months long blackout and the year when we had wet rationed sugar and there was barely enough of it to make the cake; the year when our grandpa was no longer with us and the year mom traveled abroad and couldn’t return in time for New Year; the year I discovered food dyes and decided to color the cake orange and the year we made a decision to jump over the pond; our first year in the States and the year we all went our separate ways pursuing the American dream…
This cake was passed to mom by her mother, a homemaker and a mother of three, who died of pneumonia when I was just three months old. I never had a chance to know her, though I heard many stories, most of them about her struggling to save her children during WWII. The peace time stories were mostly about her cooking skills and various things she cooked. Many times I imagined this quiet woman of very humble origins making these incredible elaborate dishes in the dimly lit communal kitchen of our apartment, where four families were cooking, washing dishes and doing laundry all at the same time, and I marveled at her skill and stamina. This is all I know really. I don’t have any trinket or token to remember her by, only a few of her photos and some recipes, this cake is among them. So see this cake is my connection, my family tie, my trinket, my heirloom. And I know I will be making it again and again, and this is how I will remember who I am.
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Napoleon cake (mille-feuille) in its original form hails from France. It’s typically made of three layers of puff pastry and thick custard, sometimes replaced by whipped cream. Russians developed their own version of Napoleon cake some time after the defeat of Napoleon in the 19th century. It features many individually rolled layers which represent many divisions of napoleonic La Grande Armée. The cake is coated with a thick layer of fine crumbs representing the snow which was a critical factor in crushing the spirit of Napoleon’s army. And the cake is traditionally cut into triangles to resemble Napoleon’s famous hat (although if you ask me, Napoleon’s hat looks more like a potsticker than a triangle). That’s all I know on the history of the cake. Isn’t it ironic that the villain and perpetrator gets the pastry named after him? It already happened to Haman of Esther’s Scrolls after whom the traditional Jewish treat Hamantaschen are named. I sure hope they don’t come up with some Hitler cupcake!
The recipe below might seem lengthy and elaborate at first, but may this not scare you. The ingredients are very few and very basic, and the method is very primitive. The only thing you need is time. I suggest you disconnect your telephone for an hour while baking the crusts, to ensure good working rhythm. The rest is ridiculously easy.
Russian Napoleon, My Family Version
- 2 sticks butter (cold)
- 1 cup sour cream
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
- approximately 3 cups all-purpose flour + about 2 cups more for rolling the dough. Don’t get stuck without flour mid-process!
- 6 cups whole milk
- 1 cup whole milk (not a mistake)
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1-1/2 cups sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 sticks butter
- 1 lemon – zest and juice
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2-3 grinds (or a pinch) of nutmeg [optional]
- 1 shot (1.35 oz) alcohol of your choosing (vodka, rum, brandy, cognac or liqueur)
There are ways to save time while working on the cake: first prepare the dough; while it’s refrigerating, prepare the custard; while custard is cooling off, make crusts. This is the most efficient way to do it.
- Drop butter, sour cream, salt and eggs into a processor.
- Mix baking soda and vinegar in a small bowl and let the foam generate and fall flat
- Add soda/vinegar mix to the processor.
- Pulse a few times to combine.
- Add 2 cups of flour at once and pulse a few more times to combine.
- Fold the dough out onto a board. Adding a little bit at a time of the remaining flour make the soft dough. Stop adding the flour when the dough stops sticking to your hands. The dough should be soft and elastic.
- Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
- Place 6 cups of whole milk in a Dutch oven or thick bottom pot. Bring to a boil gently, over medium heat.
- While milk is warming up, prepare the custard. Combine sugar, yolks, flour, salt, vanilla and 1 cup of cold milk in a bowl and stir very thoroughly, until no lumps are remaining and the mixture is silky smooth.
- When the milk boils in a pot, add the custard mix to it in a thin stream, constantly stirring with wooden spoon to prevent lumps forming.
- Gently bring back to a boil. Cook very slowly for 1 minute and turn the heat off.
- Sprinkle a pinch or sugar over the surface of freshly cooked custard to prevent skin forming. Let cool enough to be able to touch the pot with your hand.
- Add 1/2 of the lemon zest and 1/2 of lemon juice. Add alcohol, nutmeg (if using) and butter and let butter melt into the custard slowly.
- Mix well and let cool completely. The custard will be a bit runny at first, but it will thicken as it cools, final product resembling yogurt in thickness.
- While custard is cooling, prepare the crusts.
- Preheat the oven to 425F. Prepare two UN-greased baking sheets.
- Divide the cold dough into 16 equal portions.
- On a well floured surface roll each ball of dough into a circle or rectangle slightly larger than you want your final cake to be (dough shrinks slightly during baking). The crust should be thin and as even as possible. The whole operation would take about 30 seconds, no more.
- Carefully transfer the crust onto the baking sheet using your bare hands, or wrapping the crust around the rolling pin and unwrapping it over the sheet.
- Pierce the crust many times with a fork.
- Bake about 4 minutes, or until golden brown (the color being much like that of a nicely baked biscuit). First two crusts will probably take slightly longer to bake because baking sheets were cool, but the remaining crusts shouldn’t take longer than 4 minutes each.
- Remove the crusts from the baking sheet onto a cooling rack and stack them like pancakes until needed.
- Bake the last crust a little longer, until it’s nicely browned throughout — it will be used to make crumbs for coating the cake.
- When all crusts are ready and the custard is cool, you are ready to assemble the cake.
- If you are planning to serve the cake on a platter in one piece, assemble it on the serving platter.
- Place a crust on a platter. Using a slotted spoon, plop a portion of custard onto the crust and spread as evenly as you can. You can cheat by wearing a rubber glove and using your hand to spread the custard. The crust may crumble a little, but this should not bother you. Our goal is to create layers, even if they are crumbled.
- Repeat with the remaining crusts and custard, top layer will be the custard. The cake will look very shaggy and messy at this point, with uneven and ugly edges, and some areas may pucker up, while others lay flat. It’s all completely normal, no need to worry.
- Grab the nicely browned crust with your bare hands (very dry hands, please) and crumble it finely. Alternatively you could crumble it with a rolling pin. Add the remaining lemon zest to the crumbs and mix well.
- Spread the crumbs as evenly as possible over the top layer.
- Let the cake soak at room temperature for at least 2 hours. By that point the cake will soak enough to fall flat evenly, no more puckering.
- Using a sharp knife, remove the uneven edges, giving your cake its final shape. Keep the edges for yourself to enjoy later as the maker’s spoils.
- If you were assembling the cake on a serving platter, you’ll have to do a little clean up. Using a wet paper towel, remove the mess around the cake’s edges, wiping off the custard leaks and crumbs.
- Cover your cake with plastic and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
- Serve as one piece or cut into diamonds or triangles and serve nicely arranged on a platter or in a basket.