Archive for February, 2012

February 28, 2012

That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles

About two weeks ago I decided to bake what I call ‘gooey bars’ for the volunteers. Back in December I made them chocolate peanut butter bars based on a recipe that I modified for my apartment and available groceries. This time I also had to crumble cookie crumbs and I currently have even less available methods in our apartment. It really has nothing to do with Moscow. In Ashan they have plenty of appliances, it just doesn’t make sense to buy any considering we are here temporarily. I want to check out their food processor options though, because every time I describe this recipe to someone here, I try to say food processor, but they say blender. I guess you can make cookie crumbs in a blender. But I want to know exactly what they are calling a blender.

This time I had to use a wooden meat mallet/tenderizer to crush the cookies…a little messier than the potato masher and colander.

So the one benefit to my husband still not having read my blog is that I can freely talk about my resourcefullness in the Moscow kitchens. I’d hate for all this to back fire and him have a reason to say it’s silly to buy fancy kitchen gadgets when I can just use a meat mallet to make cookie crumbs!! So let’s all agree to keep this a secret? 😉 Thanks!

These gooey bars of deliciousness are technically called Magic Bars on the back of the Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk can label and in google searches. I for some reason disliked this name (doesn’t Magic Bar make you think you’ll get high or something?) so I just call them gooey bars. Anyway, I have now brought them to Moscow. And they are becoming quite popular, except now we have to pause for lent (yes, again).

A girl in the volunteer group went home and made her own version. I gave our landlord a piece and he was over the moon. One church worker, who was in the kitchen while the volunteers were cooking, kept taking more during her coffee break while she thought no one was looking, and then thanked me profusely later for bringing them in.  I brought them to a dinner party and the whole plate was empty in 5 minutes. My husband’s colleague loves sweetened condensed milk so I gave Andrei a piece to pass along and then I got a call from the coworker with laughs of gratitude. Maybe they will explode in Moscow and I can become famous for introducing gooey bars to Russia. And make millions 🙂 Sounds like a Russian fairytale – making it big by making/finding something magical. Maybe I should keep the cookie’s original name. Olya and the Magic Bars. Magic Gooey Bars?

I don’t really use a recipe anymore (but you can find one on the Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk can label – they print it on the outside last time I was in the states and saw…so you can jot it down, but buy a different brand of the milk if you prefer). Like for everything else in Moscow they have several different types of sweetened condensed milk in all sorts of containers!

The quick explanation of the recipe is as follows…


-Crush/Mash/Food Process graham crackers to make crumbs (about 305 grams if you are in Europe)

-Mix with enough melted butter so if feels like it will kind of hold together and spread out the mixture on a covered baking sheet

-Top with sweetened condensed milk (400-500grams, again if you are in Europe). Try to avoid spreading with a spoon as you will move the graham cracker crust. I try to drizzle thick ribbons along the edges and as much around the center as I can, then carefully tilt the pan in different directions to spread the sweetened condensed milk over the crust.

-Top with chocolate and whatever toppings you prefer. Here I did Alyonka milk chocolate and Alpen Gold white/dark swirled chocolate chunks. At home I do a mix of chocolate chips, coconut flakes and sometimes toffee or something like that. You can also use nuts, but I don’t really like nuts in chocolate/dessert. The volunteer who made them here for her friends also put cranberries which is probably an interesting touch.

-Bake in a preheadted oven at 350F for about 20-25 minutes…or until the edges are starting to brown. Let cool, cut into squares, serve and watch everyone fall in love with you.

February 21, 2012

Simply Put

I love finding beauty in simple things. A perfectly seasoned hard boiled egg…that’s still warm, with the yolk just a touch runny. A church’s cross-topped onion dome peeking out behind an ugly concrete building. Finding that ridiculously comfortable spot next to your husband 5 minutes before the alarm goes off. A child’s sparkly eyes when looking at a Christmas tree.  Brunch eaten outside.

One time I bought a birthday cake for my aunt. It was gorgeous. I am still infatuated with this cake. It was small and adorned with flowers in an almost vintage-white frosting. I couldn’t resist pairing this cake with gold candles. It was just beautiful for so many reasons. For its simplicity. For its elegance. The fact that it was for my aunt and that the place in NYC where I bought it had ‘red hen’ in the name. We were surprising my aunt with a small get together at my cousin’s place and I thought it was beautiful that my husband and his parents were coming too. That we all love each other. All this from a white birthday cake??


But there is more! The cake inspired my design for a bread I was making for a friend’s wedding. Traditionally both sets of parents of the bride and groom greet the couple with bread and salt at the wedding reception. My mother was supposed to bake it, but my parents couldn’t attend the wedding due to last minute complications. I offered in my mother’s stead.

The bread design itself also came out rather simple, but I think beautiful. And that is not to say that more elaborate breads aren’t beautiful as well. Because they are – especially for what they represent. To me this stands for so many things. A couple for whom I could not be happier – two people that truly are fabulous togther. It also reminds me of how much I love cooking with my mom (especially for a party) How much I wish we lived in the same place so I could cook with her all the time (not via text) and learn from her amazing-ness. I love when people tell me I am following in her culinary footsteps.

Baking this bread made me so grateful for the fact that my parents didn’t let me lose my roots (just maybe some Russian grammar 🙂 ).

So it’s funny that I was recently thinking of all this when my husband and I visited a photo exhibit at St. Tatiana’s church in Moscow. The photos were all taken by Father Igor Palkin (who serves at the church) on his iPhone and printed  on silver bromide paper to create an almost faded effect. The exhibit was called ‘Happiness in Simple Things’. Although Father Igor insisted there was no deep meaning to his material, I think he captured this title perfectly. At the event, he asked that no one really talk about any hidden theme behind each photo, but he didn’t say anything about not blogging about some of them later 🙂 …

Bербное Bоскресенье/Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday. Basically anyone who celebrates Palm Sunday can relate to this photo. To me this reflects looking forward to the coming of Easter. Envigoration after long hours of church. Excitement for a coffee or piece of bread after not eating breakfast. I can taste that delightful piece of toast and cup of tea just looking at this picture. It makes me think of pussywillow pieces on the bottom of the car or branches of them left by a window for a year. And my dad’s green church vestments and the way he smells like incense all the time.

Hоводевичий Mонастырь/Novodevichy Convent

 Novodevichy Convent. I think the simple beauty that I admire here is how the church is just barely shown behind the trees. A classic photo and gorgeous. Andrei and I went here for services and the snapshot makes me remember the all-women choir. I also think of the young women that waited in line to speak with one of the old nuns. She seemed so wise and other-worldly. This convent stands so prominently amidst a busy city and parks, just like the other monasteries, convents and churches. Although the building is faded, to me it shows strength…its faintness somehow representing the past and the future at one time.
The moon looking shape was a reflection from my phone when I took a picture of the picture. I thought it added an interesting element to the entire scene.

Маша и Арбуз/ Masha and Watermelon

Masha and Watermelon. This photo was my absolute favorite. My heart felt like it jumped into my throat when I came up to it. In a good way. I don’t know if it’s because I would love so much to someday have a daughter, but this little moment speaks a million words to me in all of its simple happiness. I adore Masha’s smile and the carefree way in which she is sitting on the couch. The watermelon makes me think of summer days and children’s sticky hands and happy faces. I imagine somewhere there is a glass of juice and the sun is shining through it across the room. If I were Masha’s mother, and of course I can’t speak for her or mothers in general, but I think that amidst all the worries of raising a child, and the frustrations, this tiny snapshot, this small memory, would wash it all away, even just for a brief, beautiful moment.

And someday, I pray, Masha’s children will look at this photo and think how at one time their mother was just as small as them. And for long after they will think of her every time they bite into a juicy piece of watermelon.

more about the exhibit from the St. Tatiana website (in Russian):

February 16, 2012

Olya’s Simple Dinner in 90 Minutes Recipe

So. The other day I was craving homemade macaroni and cheese. I wanted something really cheesey and also something I could make fast. Somewhere I had seen a recipe of Rachel Ray’s for one of her 30-Minute Meals. Mac and Cheese with Chicken and Broccoli. Perfect – sounds great. A dish I really feel like eating, ready in a decent amount of time. Except that I must have forgotten I am in Moscow. And I am not used to electric stove tops (pictured below – notice the lovely bigger kitchen in our new apt)

I’ll spoil the end of the story for you now. It didn’t take me only 30 minutes to make this dish. It took a little longer…ok, like 3 times longer.

Now, as I have menionted before, some products come in such ridiculous variety, and even though I can read and understand Russian, I somehow can’t figure out which one I need to get.

For instance, yesterday I was trying to find a reasonably priced laundry detergent for colored clothes. I was standing there looking at this aisle of approximately one billion varieties of laundry detergent with my mouth gaping open. I was scanning all the words, but most of them weren’t telling me if it would be ok for color. Everytime I found something that said ‘color’ it was from the more expensive brands. I knew the cheaper brands had to have color options but why couldn’t I find them?! What do all these little pictures mean??! (Why is it that all European things explain everything in little pictures. I never understand the washing instructions on European clothes! My washing machine is not the shape of a triangle!!)

There was a worker in the aisle, organizing or cleaning or something, and I was started to get self conscious and sweaty. I had to have been standing there for at least 15 minutes. What must he think of me? Maybe I should just ask him? OMG…three people have already entered the aisle, found what they needed and left…

So same goes for flour. Which I needed for the Mac and Cheese with Chicken and Broccoli recipe. There is flour recommended for bread, flour for blini, flour with yeast, whole wheat flour…and I forget the rest. But there is a lot. And even though they have a rice that is just called “regular rice” on the bag (for the Americans I guess) there is nothing that says “regular flour”. So I grabbed flour which I believe might have been recommended for bread. Thinking if they have the yeast and the whole wheat flour this could be plain white flour. Right? Wrong. It looked more like whole wheat. But it didn’t say wheat on it. I know that word in Russian. Ugh. So it goes without saying that my roux for the recipe was kind of weird and chalky or some other texture I can’t seem to find the word for:

I have a hard time heating cream or milk on the electric stove top also…or it might just be that the products themselves are different than I am used to. I had to make the roux and fiddle with the milk several separate times which all added up and ruined the ‘quick’ appeal of this recipe. One time I turned away for a second and all the milk came boiling out over the top of the pot and all over the burners. Disastrous.

All in all though the recipe came out ok – except the roux made it taste a little bready, I thought. I used peas instead of broccoli which is a good alternative if your in the mood for one over the other.

February 2, 2012

Adventures in Russian Grocery Shopping

We recently returned to Moscow after being home for the holidays and I’ve already had my first exhausting trip to the enormous beast of a supermarket, Ashan. Going to Ashan requires mental preparation and a playbook for tackling the aisles (which I fear would take me years to create). It’s also better that you have a whole day free, just in case. As I mentioned before, sometimes the aisles are shut down for re-stocking. Inevitably it will be the aisle you are in. Just before you can grab that bag of pasta (or in my case it was chocolate), you find yourself stuck behind an orange rope wondering if they would notice you running and sliding under it, snatching the bag and running back out – a la Indiana Jones for his hat or something. If only I could be so stealthy. So anyway, if you ever go to Ashan, be sure to factor in an additional 40 minutes of aisle re-stock wait time.

Ashan reminds me almost of Ikea in size, Target in available items to purchase, and a dollar store or Ross in display/the overall look. The one that I go to has electronics, clothes, books, furniture, home goods, cleaning supplies, car stuff, etc on the first floor. The bottom floor is the supermarket. To get from one floor to the other they have flat escalators like this:

The first time I went, as happy as I was to find a good hair straightener for 30 bucks and all the sirok (a Russian calorie bomb of cheesecake-like filling covered in chocolate) I could possibly ever want to eat, I suddenly missed American grocery stores. Even the Shop Rite by our house in Jersey…the Shop Rite I say I can’t stand! The aisles at Shop Rite are equally as packed, but at least there people ask you nicely to move your cart. In Ashan if your cart is in the way they just slam right through it. One minute you are frantically trying to pick a type of rice because the aisle re-stocking police are lurking around the corner and the next minute you are picking yourself off the ground after someone pushed through you. You look up only to see the sweetest most innocent looking grandma. They are the worst.

Sirok selection

I’m always nervous that I stick out as a foreigner. Mostly because I smile and get myself stuck between people’s carts as I try to carefully squeeze between them as opposed to through them, but also because I move so slowly. I also wish I could go through the store with more efficient fluidity. Visiting each aisle I need to only once. Instead I go back and forth, returning from one side of the store to the other, going back to the same aisle 3 or 4 times, skittishly dodging little old ladies the whole way.

The different selections of products is unexpected as well. Like half the tomato sauce or spice section is all the same type. But they have almost an entire aisle of different flavors of mayonnaise. It is actually quite fascinating how many flavors of mayonnaise there are. Also, a lot of the milk is not refridgerated, but the mayo is. Milk also comes in insane variety and unfortunatley I am not sure which one I should be drinking.

All the Ashan stores are a few metro stops outside the city center and have reasonable prices compared to those right in the center – which is why I go. Unfortunately because of their distance, and because I am normally there on my own, I can’t buy too much or anything too heavy (like juice or water). I consider riding the metro and walking from the metro home with a backpack, a mini duffle bag and a reusable shopping bag full of groceries my weekly cardio session. For the heavy items or when I just need a couple things, or when I am not in the mental state of mind to tackle Ashan, we visit the city center stores. In the center there are generally two types of markets.

One type is the more ‘gourmet’ looking stores with a pretty good variety of things. You can’t necessarily get everything you need, but it’s still a very pleasant place to shop. Kind of like a little grocery store in New York City. Some have excellent cheese sections or great ready made lunch items. Produce is displayed a little more elegantly (in Ashan you just pick through huge cardboard boxes of produce that looks like it literally came out of the dirt and went right to the store…which I kind of like. Very natural feel…One time I saw  an egg in a carton that had feathers on it). These are more relaxing to me. Almost like when I browse through Whole Foods  at home because I feel like I need therapy after Shop Rite. Or Mollie Stones in California. Which I miss with all my heart.

Inside Ashan

Produce display in Ashan

The Eleseevksy Aliya Parusa Market - the more calming type of store

Meat and Cheese at Aliya Parusa

Then there is the other type of market which is basically like a 7-Eleven or a Krauzers. These are fine when you need something quick like chips (paprika flavor Pringles are the BEST and we haven’t been able to find them in the States), drinks, or candy. The only problem with these is that they always seem to have a scary outside. They just pop up on the corner of a street out of nowhere and you don’t always want to go in:

The very welcoming store front...where you can shop with inmates

The grocery store experience has been really interesting and fun. I love that we have items we like and miss when we are in the States (like the paprika Pringles). Shopping in Moscow builds character and endurance. Every time I go to Ashan I am more and more ready to face the aisles and their obstacles…right down to the very last babushka.