Author Archive

July 1, 2012

Making an Exception for Cool Whip

I’m thinking the attitude and comments in most of my posts would indicate that I wouldn’t normally prepare anything with something like Cool Whip. Which is true. Except I have recently decided that every June 28th Cool Whip will be permitted.

On June 28th, 2011 my amazing grandmother Elena, lovingly called Baba Lyalya, passed away. I can’t believe that it has already been a year. When I was in Boston for school I spent many weekends at her apartment and she fed me a lot. And many times dessert was jello with Cool Whip. Yes, you read correctly, jello with Cool Whip. How someone who serves jello with Cool Whip produced a family that includes some self proclaimed food snobs, I don’t know, but I have to say that I loved it. I was always happy after dinner when she would pull out this yellow bowl out of the fridge. Always the same yellow bowl. Followed by the Cool Whip from the freezer.

We just flew home to New Jersey from Moscow on the 28th. I was too tired to deal with Shop Rite, so I was hoping that CVS (where I had to run an errand anyway) would have the two ingredients for this very special dessert for my 1st Annual Cool Whip is OK Today Day. They ended up only having jello, which I think is weird. So I thought, OK, I’ll go to Whole Foods to say hello (it’s been 3 months!!!) and then run into the KMart next door. Surely they will have Cool Whip. I actually went to KMart first and they DID NOT have Cool Whip. So strange. Whole Foods had something call TruWhip which looked like it basically had the same ingredients (also very weird), but it wasn’t totally lenten so I didn’t buy it. Plus I felt like I needed to be true to the tradition and my grandmother’s dish. So off to Shop Rite I went. Which was awful, but I’ll spare the details. It was probably mostly due to the jetlag. But I would like to blame the woman with 27 items in the 5 item check out line. I was shocked, though, to discover that Cool Whip is not lenten. There is a tiny percentage of milk solids in it. I swear I used to eat it during lent because it was 100% lenten. So I’m not sure what happened there. I guess it makes me feel a little better though because that means it isn’t 100% chemicals. The Shop Rite brand had beta carotene for color. That made no sense since it’s unnaturally and blindingly white.

In a reflective and bittersweet moment I ate my strawberry jello with Cool Whip and thought about my Baba Lyalya.

I know I shouldn’t be sad that she died because she lived such a full life. She saw each of 5 grandchildren get married (60% of whom married someone named Andrei) and from those 5 grandchildren she saw 8 great grandchildren. My grandmother lost her husband too early, but she remained so strong about it. She happily shared stories with me about their love and their life. Despite difficulties that she faced and great losses that she suffered she told me once that given the opportunity to live her life again she wouldn’t change anything. Except not to have been so worried during my grandfather’s illness. But she knew that her life played out the way God intended it to. And she accepted that. And I look up to her for that. Because that is something brave. That takes a lot of strength and trust.

I know in the end her mind was just starting to go a little and she was scared and she wondered why God was letting her feel this way. But that wasn’t really her. Before those things started happening, my grandmother had known she was at an age where she could meet her end soon. And she was ok with it and talked about it freely and confidently. She would ask God that if she could, could she just see her next grandchild get married or have a baby. She was blessed to see us all get married. And I know that when I have kids I will wish so much that she could have seen them and held them.

I told her at my graduation from Boston University, and I repeated it at her funeral, that she gave me the best example of how to have faith, how to live and how to love. Now that we are at the one year mark, I can feel more and more how much I miss chatting with her in her Boston apartment. I miss how she would explain movies to me as we watched them – movies that were in English that I probably understood better than she did. I miss laughing together or plotting my next conversation with the most elligible bachelor at that time in church.  Or how she told me if I died my hair it would fall out. I love the way she would retell the story of how my brother broke his chair during a game of Cranium or how she would give me all the sardines that she kept buying even though she doesn’t like fish. I will never forget how much she helped me through a real gut wrenching heart break that seemed, at the time, to last forever. Or how she helped me through homesickness. I still laugh thinking about the time she tried to force me to take one of her ‘house coat’ pajama things because she was so nervous that I would wear my very short sleeping shorts to Andrei’s parents house one of the first times I was staying over at their house and would scare them and irreversably ruin my chances of winning them over. And I’ll never forget how Andrei so easily became another grandchild to her.

I have so much to tell her, and although I know that she knows it all, I can’t help wondering what she would tell me. I have so many questions and she is the one that I want to ask. I wish I could know her answers. I wish that I spent more time with her in the end, and didn’t shy away because she was losing it a little and wasn’t completely herself. I’m glad though that during one of her last visits to New York, I was able to have jello and Cool Whip with her again. And now I will remember her with jello and Cool Whip for years to come.

Memory Eternal, my darling Baba Lyalya.


June 26, 2012


I think I have determined that I really just like the idea of camping, more so than actual camping. For which, by the way, no one here can seem to provide us a confirmed translation. So before a lovely trip to St. Petersburg, Andy and I went ‘na pohode’, ‘kemping’, and/or (who knows) ‘na peek-neek’ with some of Andy’s co-workers and their friends…

“Na pohode”

“Na pohode” really means more like hiking, which we did none of, therefore we can’t really call it that. Instead we sat around and alternated between eating, drinking, escaping the rain, playing charades, getting yelled at for speaking to each other in English, bartering with the neighboring campers for fish while they tried to amaze us with magic card tricks, playing Trivial Pursuit (yes, Mama and Papa, in Russian), spraying ourselves with most likely toxic amounts of bug spray, playing Twister, and picking caterpillars off of everything.

I also irrationally sulked about not having s’mores. But for this I will blame the blog (and not entirely on my husband who just didn’t have the vision in the store where I found Russian marshmallows and somehow convinced me out of buying them). How AMAZING of a blog post could have been written about introducing s’mores to people who don’t know what they are (yes, those people exist), in a foreign country, on a wacky camping trip, using Russian marshmallows, chocolate and whatever graham cracker substitute I’d have to find. This is what happens when you start blogging. Everything is constructed into a future blog post.

“Kemping” (that’s camping in a Russian accent)

“Kemping” is not considered a word by all Russians (even though we saw it in the store by the tents) so we can’t really use that either.

Whenever I go camping (or outside in Jersey in the evening) I am always eaten alive by mosquitos. I was kind of hoping since some random Muscovites I encounter don’t seem to want to acknowledge my presence that, while kemping, Muscovian mosquitos would act the same. No such luck.

Camping in America is usually restricted to special authorized areas. In Russia you can pretty much put a tent anywhere. Even, like in our case, in a field behind a sign that marks the territory as forbidden for people. I wish I could have seen mine and Andrei’s faces as we passed that sign, already after dark, on a road with deep puddles for booby traps.

The friends of our friends had made it already, so after a several hour detour that the GPS took us on, we called for directions. Andrei and I still don’t know how our friends found the place when both parties said things like this: “After you reach the dirt road there will be a pile of rocks and a butterfly sitting on a flower, take a left and then make a right at the ladybug” or “There is a field to our right and to our left, and a tree…which way do we go?” The first group to make it could remember a chunk of wood on the ground, but not deathly puddles and a No Trespassing sign.

The car after the road of puddles was another story. But despite the fact that the bumper would probably break off at the next dragonfly to whiz by (where we had to make another left, by the way), I knew it would be ok. Men here can fix broken engines with bubblegum and bottle caps.

“Na peek-neek”

“Na peek-neek” suggests a one day leisurely picnic somewhere without sleeping overnight in a tent. But we slept in a tent (for THREE nights) and didn’t have a toilet or a shower. In our tent we sat and slept through two very scary rainstorms and in another tent a couple’s cat peed twice on their blankets. During our meals bugs took baths in and had parties on all of our food. In the back of my mind were my mother’s words “…aaaaand why do people do this?” Something she says when people participate in rugged/comfort-threatening activies, or things that involve pets…or Cool Whip.

The Cat

The Bugs – don’t worry, we let them keep the leftovers

But really it wasn’t all bad. As I mentioned in my last post, Russians seem to be more intuned with nature and their naturalness in the nature made my long ago nature-y experiences come back. And although by the last day all of us were counting down the hours left of this, and I am quoting one of the girls, ‘torture’ (insert Mama: “….aaaand why…”), all in all it was a fun experience…ahem, an experience.

We (and by we I mean the others) prepared the fresh fish from the neighbors in a smoker (delicious). And also in Uha, a fish soup, over the camp fire (also pretty tasty). I tried new flavors like smoked lard (I probably won’t eat that again), dried fish (interesting), and caviar from the fish that was prepared in the soup (weird, but good).

Looking back now I would probably go “na pohode/kemping/na peekneek” again, but with a toilet and a shower. And a bed. And a kitchen. And a house.



June 21, 2012

Almost Out For the Rest of Summer

You know how when you finally decide to quit a job that is making you miserable, the last few days will inevitably seem so easy and fun. Almost enough to make you want to stay. The clients, boss or coworkers you wanted to strangle are suddenly interesting and make you laugh as opposed to make you want to jump out the window. Or as the excitement of the end of the school year approaches you suddenly like your teacher/professor’s lame jokes and are enjoying the class immensely. You become desperate to learn more and fear you will forget everything.

Of course I am not saying that we are miserable in Moscow, but I think Andrei and I are itching to get home for a bit. The heaviness one feels sometimes from living here is getting to us. And of course we miss our families. But now that our days are coming to an end, I am suddenly not ready to go. A large didn’t-do list swims in my head (much to my husband’s dismay) and makes me anxious. Places we didn’t visit, people we didn’t call or see, restaurants we didn’t try, churches we didn’t attend.

And of course after looking everywhere for Frank’s Hot Sauce or an acceptable alternative (Tabasco doesn’t really do the trick), I find one just a few weeks before our departure (a week from today!). My husband is obsessed with buffalo wings and at a loss of what to get him for his birthday (I am usually really good at gift selection) I decided to go on a full blown hot sauce search. And there it was on a shelf in a nearby grocery store – Red Devil Cayenne Pepper Sauce. How had I not noticed it before? Before all those countless let-downs at multiple restaurants with buffalo wings on their menu. “…but maybe THIS place does it right,” we would say to convince ourselves we had to order them again.

I googled Red Devil and indeed someone compared it to Frank’s. So I made a dinner of some of Andy’s favorites for his birthday. I had to do it a couple weeks early since his birthday was during lent (yes, yes…another one is currently taking place). We have a fryer at home (one of my better gift ideas) and the grocery stores sell the correct size wingette things, but here I had to make a few compromises (regular size wings because I was too lazy to cut them, baked in oven). They still turned out pretty good. Enough that Andrei started feeling sad about leaving Moscow too. Now that we could have our beloved chicken wings here.

Andrei and I have perfected buffalo wing-making for our taste. After they come out of our fryer, he tosses them in melted butter or margarine and then adds Frank’s sauce and vinegar. For this time around I just put the margarine and hot sauce in a saucepan together and added some vinegar. Then I tossed the sauce on the baked chicken wings (which I had seasoned with salt and pepper before putting in the oven).

I also made blue cheese dressing to go with the wings. If my mom wrote the 10 Commandments one of them would certainly be, “Thou shalt not use salad dressing from a bottle”. I remember the first time she came to visit us in New Jersey. I heard the fridge door open from the other room followed by, “Umm…WHAT is THAT?!” My heart stopped. I forgot to get rid of Andrei’s store-bought bottled Italian dressing! At least that was the only time (I hope) that I have really disappointed my mother. And at least I really could blame Andrei, because that stuff was certainly not mine! Nor were the squeeze bottle jam and BacOs that entered my house when my husband went grocery shopping on his own…the last time he went grocery shopping on his own.

To make the blue cheese I just mix mostly sour cream, a little bit of PLAIN greek yogurt, mayo, a tiny bit of sugar and white vinegar, a dash of salt, garlic powder and pepper and lots and lots of crumbled blue cheese. Yes, it’s not the healthiest dressing, but it’s certainly better than what you are going to buy in the store. And it tastes SO much better too (once you work out the ratios for yourself – be very careful with the yogurt and the vinegar, they ruin the taste the fastest).

One of Andrei’s favorite dessert is brownies. I found this recipe and they came out really well! The frosting on top is especially yummy. It’s funny, they tasted better with age kind of like a soup would. The next day they were even better than the first night we ate them (which made them even more delicious for my volunteer group the next day – who liked the brownies a lot!)

Another too little too late discovery was HP Sauce. It’s British and google search told me it’s sort of, but not really, comparable to A1 sauce, another one of Andy’s favorites that he misses from home. Apparently the Brits put it on EVERYTHING. It isn’t really the same as A1, but it has the same ingredients. So I bought it to surprise him with a steak dinner.

So now leaving feels completely unnecessary, right? Besides the fact that our visas run out July 1st…

I have to admit that I feel a little guilty about my last post because I am really going to miss Moscow until we hopefully return in the Fall. And perhaps some of the checklist was a little harsh. There is a lot that Russia could teach America (if my hater-of-everything-not-USA brother is reading this, he just fell backwards in his chair).

My friend shared an article with me and though I may not agree with everything, it does make some good points. I agree that Russians are more intune with nature (more <sort of> on this in my next post), and know how to rest their soul and their bodies. And although there are PLENTY of people here who seem to only care about clothes and cars, outside the borders of the city center there are many more humble, kind and spiritual people. So we will miss that.

I will miss my new friends that welcomed me so open heartedly. I will miss being forced to speak Russian. I will miss sometimes hearing church bells on Sundays and being able to buy pelmeni, borsht, sirki, and piroshki anywhere and in extensive variety. I will miss the incredible church services, all the onion domes peeking out above the buildings, and my dear dear volunteer group. A few months away from them will feel like eternity. I will even miss the few homeless men who have proposed to me, and the one who always remembers my name and that I am from the US. And I might even miss the mean check out ladies at the store that really scare me.

And I will miss the birch trees. I hope the sounds from their rustling leaves visit me in my dreams.

June 7, 2012

How to Pass as 100% Muscovite or How to Survive Living in Moscow – a checklist

Wherever you go carry a plastic bag of items irrelevant to your activities (for example: old newspapers, a washcloth and tomato seeds to a church service). Just in case.

Never smile when asking a question. Ever.

If your to-do list has 7 items on it, be realistic and cross off the 6 least important (leave them for the rest of the week)

When walking on pedestrian sidewalks be mindful of the cars

Even a trip to McDonalds is no occasion for less than 4″ heels

Always assume the person you’re standing in line behind is saving a spot for 37 more people (in other words, there is never a short line)

If you are a woman – do not attempt to lift anything over 25lbs. You are too weak. Find the nearest man.

If you are a man – deodorant and showering is optional for you. Only ride the metro if you have NOT put on deodorant or a fresh shirt. Also you should carry a man purse.

Be prepared to fill something out a minimum of 4 times. You will do it wrong at least 3 times before it is right. Guaranteed.

Have extra cash on hand for church donation plates and bribes.

Always factor in 40 minutes of aimlessly walking around the wrong metro exit when caculating travel time anywhere.

Never smile when answering a question. Ever.

Do not pay with a 1000 ruble bill for something that is 898 rubles. You must have 98 rubles in your wallet if you want to avoid complete humiliation.

Assume anyone you are speaking to is a complete idiot. Especially if they are American…and smiling.

Write down addresses – they come in several parts: street name, building number, concourse number, entrance number, buzzer number, number of minutes the doorman will hold you hostage before allowing you to proceed to the elevator, floor number, apartment number

Know exactly where you are going if entering a large office building so you can tell the guards at each of 3 checkpoints on your way in

In the spring and summer snowsuits are acceptable outfits for children if there is the slightest hint of a breeze

Feel free to consider any open space anywhere on the street or sidewalk a parking spot (if you run into any trouble, just tap into the reserved bribe money)

My personal goals (less than a month left, oops, until we are home for the summer):

To use Russian filler words when I am speaking (instead of confusing people with ‘anyway’, ‘whatever’, and ‘so’)

Start thinking in Russian (I have already dreamt in Russian #boo-ya!)

Naturally give my telephone number the Russian way – without saying each individual number like 9-6-8, but saying ninehundred sixty eight (in Russian, duh)

Automatically start counting in Russian

To remember what wagon I should be in on the metro to be closest to the correct exit

Update (9 June): To be able to open the cardboard juice boxes that just have outlines (no spout and no opening like a usual milk box that we are used to)

Disclaimer: no offence to anyone who is actually a Muscovite!

May 17, 2012

Tomato and Onion Seduction

As spring settles in, many restaurants along our street (Noviy Arbat) and others, set up their outdoor seating. Some restaurants go for a canopy hanging over simple tables and chairs, others have a full blown construction site outside their front door and produce gorgeous decks with heating lamps, blankets, exotic flower pots, etc. Regardless, I love outdoor seating. It is one of my favorite things about sunny and warm weather.

We went to the restaurant Ristoran Barashka on Noviy Arbat – we had gone there before in the winter. I was seduced by their new outdoor seating area (this happens often) and insisted that we go there immediately. Their menu has typical ‘restaurant in Russia’ items like shashlik and borsht, etc. They also have lots of stuff with lamb (obvi – barashka is lamb) like these amazing cabbage leaves (golubtsi) stuffed with lamb meat. This time I opted for rabbit kotleti (which are like oversized Russian meatballs). My husband had chicken shashlik. Both were delicious.

A table across the seating area had ordered a salad of tomatoes and grilled onions. I eyed it as soon as the waiter put it down in front of them. My vision when looking at things that are far away is not that great. I really should wear my glasses or contacts more, but I can spot pretty looking food from great distances (also pretty tablecloths, sales at Sur La Table, and giraffe print stuff). Anyway, I was mesmerized. The colors of the salad were gorgeous – bright tomato-y red and onion-y purple jumping off the white plate. I could only imagine how simple, light and amazing it tasted. Along with mushrooms and potatoes, I love onions (just not raw). Already too stuffed from our own meal I vowed right then and there to make this dish at home. It was dramatic, but very important. I kept staring at the table. They probably thought I was nuts. But it was just about the tomatoes and onions and not them. I wonder if that makes it weirder?

If anything I would just say I’m American. Which is my excuse for all awkward moments abroad. Before, I used to think this was a bad thing. Americans are loud, obnoxious and ridiculous, right? At least that’s what we were told they thought. And you could tell by their attitude that they did. So you never wanted to admit you were American. Then people loved Americans and we all had celebrity status when traveling…and now we just meddle in everything, I guess (my knowledge of politics and history certainly doesn’t help the ‘Americans are stupid’ stereotype) so they don’t like us again.

But as the guy at the table to the right of us was self-righteously barking orders at everyone and the women to the left of us were scowling at everything, including the innocent pepper shaker, I couldn’t help thinking how nice we Americans are. Now, as a former waitress of many years, maybe I am an exception, but a restaurant really has to mess up a lot for me to get super angry or annoyed. I understand that things can happen at the worst times and I understand the stress that a server might feel when something is taking too long in the kitchen or they forgot to leave out pickles, or you forgot to bring someone’s water, or someone ordered something that the kitchen, unbeknownst to you, JUST ran out of. Or you accidentally swiped the same card twice on a split bill. Or the server coming in after you just called out and you have to stay. Great servers make mistakes and really good restaurants can have an off night. It’s life.

Anyway, that night (I can’t remember if it was night or day because it stays so light out until about 10pm) happened to be a bad night for that particular restaurant. The weather was nice and we were enjoying the sunshine as the world passed us by on Noviy Arbat so I was already in a fabulous mood. I could wait all day for my meal. It certainly felt like I did. But I was happy doing so. Smiling, being pleasant with the servers, enjoying the moment. It gave Andrei extra time to check out Twitter and sports scores on his iPhone – so we were both set.

The people around us though should have just taken a raincheck and stayed home. Guy on our left was really peeved that the hookah specialist hadn’t come up to him for 20 minutes. I wouldn’t come up to him either since he was yapping on his cell phone for that entire 20min and wouldn’t stop if any restaurant person approached him. Then he felt he had waited too long to get his hookah. Then they couldn’t bring the beer fast enough. Then he could only pay with cash (and he wanted to pay with credit card) and I was ready for my beatiful outdoor setting to come crashing down on our heads. Not only does he have to complain to them like crazy, he gets back on his cell phone to tell his friend about it. And he is loud and it is incredibly irritating.

Snippy girls on our left just couldn’t be happy about anything. Probably not about their failed facelifts either.

I’m not saying all Russians are like this. Just maybe most in Moscow. And there are certainly things here that Russia could teach America.

But in that moment I was proud to be an American. Gracious, friendly, and understanding.

The following night I re-created the tomato onion salad and it turned out great. The flavor combination of the tart tomatoes and the sweet (and in some places a little charred) onions just really hit the spot. It was really simple to make too.

I tossed sliced red onions (I later used white, which also worked well, but I think red is better) in some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of brown sugar. Then I spread them out on a lined sheet pan. I put them in a very hot oven and just kept track of them, so they wouldn’t burn. Somewhere in there I gave them a turn so they could roast a bit on the other side. While they were roasting I cut up some plum tomatoes (the ones here importated from Holland are so good!! I normally don’t prefer plum tomatoes. Early girls from California would also be amazing probably) and sprinkled them with salt to let them sit and release their flavors. Once the onions were done I added them to the tomatoes and tossed with a tiny bit more olive oil, salt and pepper. And that’s it. Such a simple dish that is so rich in flavors!

With the salad I served my very quick spaghetti alfredo. Basically I cook the pasta as per usual. Then I drain it, reserving some of the liquid and put it back on very low heat. Add a bit of butter, cream, and parm cheese and mix. Cracked pepper on top adds a lovely touch.

I also prepared some simple and tender chicken thighs to go with the rest of the meal. I seasoned the chicken thighs, seared them on a frying pan and them put them into a pot with simmering broth  until they are done (maybe about 20min? – they stay pretty tender so even if you go over you’ll be fine). I normally like to add some fresh herbs to the pot and maybe some white wine. I didn’t have either, but I had some leftover lemons so I sliced those and through them in. It really added some depth to the flavor.

We didn’t eat it outside but it was a very pleasant, light and airy dish. And no one complained that they had to wait a little to eat it.

May 4, 2012

The Most Expensive Chocolate Chip Cookies I Ever Made

One of the reasons I went ahead and bought the electric hand mixer to bake kulich was because I figured I could then make chocolate chip cookies and other mixer required recipes after. Recipes I couldn’t really do before because I was having an inner battle with myself over whether it was really worth it to go out and buy one I would only be using temporarily. The thought of trying to mix the kulich dough by hand in a very weak plastic bowl (the only big one I could find) was overwhelming so I gave in and bought the mixer (It was all of $12 – I’m not really sure what my problem was. Maybe it’s that I am used to having more cabinet space and I hate extra things on the counters). I was excited for the baking doors it would open afterwards. Well, If you read my post about kulich you will know that my mixer did not survive (duh, because it was $12).

Determined to make an American classic for my volunteer group, but not planning to go back to Ashan that week, I googled ‘How to Make Chocolate Chip Cookies Without a Mixer’ and found a recipe on the website/blog(?) theKitchn. Which is one of those websites/blogs(?) that make you want to be cooler/change your whole life so you try commenting on it and usually end up sounding more lame. I opted to Tweet instead, but that didn’t produce any earth shattering changes, fame, or even a retweet…oh, well. I’m bad at Twitter and worse at Pininterest, anyway. I was pretty excited about the recipe. Maybe I don’t even need the mixer after all!!…Psh, of course I’ll get it anyway. I was so good at talking myself out of it and then I got a taste of having one again.

So Problem #1 happened while collecting ingredients. Brown sugar in most stores here is what at home we call raw sugar. So, not brown sugar. I finally found some in the fancy store across the street. It came out to about $7.50 for 1lb. These have now become very fancy cookies.

Next, I was unable to find vanilla extract. I probably should have just bought a vanilla bean since I didn’t know how to replace the extract with vanilla sugar, vanilla powdered sugar, vanillin, and every other vanilla option on the planet that these stores carry besides extract. I opted for just skipping it all together. Hold your gasps, the cookie flavor was actually fine! The other apparently exotic item in Moscow is chocolate chips. I have seen them once. In a tiny little packet around kulich baking time – and then they disappeared forever. Fine, I can chop chocolate bars into little chunks. Makes them even more homemade in my book! After all was said and done I got about 7 oz of chocolate chips for almost $4. That’s more than the cost of chocolate chips at home (where Nestle Tollhouse might cost about $3.59 for 12oz). So now these have become the Most Expensive Chocolate Chip Cookies I Ever Made.

This is how I followed the recipe (including the way I have to measure my ingredients in Moscow), but you can use the link I posted before for the original recipe: First mix 12 tbsp of granulated sugar and 12 tbsp of brown sugar until well combined. Smush out any clumps. In globs add/mix in the 114(ish) grams of softened butter (Here I got inspired and distracted by the idea of compound butter and daydreamed about what other ingredients I could make it with). Taste test a bunch of the butter/sugar mixture…I mean, what?
Add the two eggs one at a time, lightly beating the egg with a whisk (in the bowl but off to the side) first. Telepathically add some vanilla extract and hope that works. Add 1 tsp of salt and 1 tsp of baking soda (Sigh of relief that I needed baking soda because there doesn’t seem to be baking powder in any store either). Mix this well. Add all 36 tbsp of flour at one time (try not to lose count). Carefully mix the dough as few times as possible until there is no flour visible in the dough or anywhere on the bowl. Fold in 200 grams of homemade chocolate chunks.
Next is the part that inexplicably makes me so irritated…roll tablespoons of dough and space them out on a lined or greased baking sheet about 2 inches apart. I can’t stand this part and sometimes resort to spreading the mixture out in the baking sheet and just cutting it into Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars after baking. I can’t be the only one who has this revulsion because the cookie bars are actually an alternative option on the back of the Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chips package. I am not really sure what makes me so annoyed. I love cooking and baking and I like cookies. I’m assuming it’s because not many globs of dough fit on the baking sheet when you space them out so outrageously far (why 2 inches, Recipe, why?!) so you have to bake so many batches. And you have to wait for the cookies and baking sheet to cool before you can roll out another set. Yes, I am starting to realize how insane and impatient I must sound.
I decided to selflessly put myself through the torture of scooping and rolling because I wanted the volunteers to have chocolate chips cookies. Also I could lick any of the batter that sticks off of my fingers and the spoon…I mean…what? I stubbornly only spaced them out like an inch and a half though. Barely. And fully expected to get a big cookie blob in the end. But I didn’t. The cookies came out brilliant. The first (top rack) tray came out amazing. They even had a store bought shape to them. (Oh, I baked at 190(ish)°C for 10(ish) minutes). I stared at them in awe. Fascinated that the best ‘American-classic’ cookies I ever baked were in Moscow. With no vanilla. And less than 2-inches of separation!
Now, we won’t talk about the other trays that accidentally stayed in the oven too long. It’s crazy how fast cookies go from golden brown to charcoal (usually this happens in the 5 seconds that it takes me to nonsensically set the timer for just 1 more minute – the third time). I ALWAYS second guess and take out the cookies just a tad too late. This recipe has a great tip though – take the cookies out of the oven when the sides are set and the tops are dry to the touch. This really helps as my overbaked ones weren’t as bad as usual.
In fact, they were fine. Just a little crunchier. And the beauty of it all was that I was serving the cookies to a group of people that aren’t familiar with them. So how would they know, really? I made them the following week again and their doneness was even better. The second time I added a tiny bit of cinnamon (still no vanilla) and mixed dark and milk *homemade* chocolate chunks. Yum. The cookies were all eaten.

(PS: There is one volunteer, whom I adore and think is a very generous person, who, every time I bring something in, likes to lecture me about how American sweets/foods are full of crap and that Russians aren’t used to that and prefer things that are less salty or sweet. I just smile and nod as I watch him take seconds, thirds, fourths…)

April 27, 2012

Easter: Part III

The last item on the Easter list was dying eggs.

When Andrei and I arrived in Moscow after a ten day trip in Jersey it was a couple of days before (Orthodox) Palm Sunday. We popped into the grocery store to grab some essentials and were excited to find a bunch of Easter stuff – egg dye, chocolates with XB (Hristos Voskrese = Christ is Risen) written on them, faux (but beautiful) pussywillow branches and shrink wrap egg decorations that were either spring-y or religious-y. We went a little crazy and bought a bunch of the egg decorations/dyes. I was excited to see some all-natural dyes that were made from greens, carrots, beets etc (Don’t worry Sis, I grabbed an extra container or two for you). It was fun to see Easter stuff that reflected the religious aspect of this holiday (Christ’s Resurrection) as opposed to in the States where, as my aunt pointed out, next to the Passover/Sader books, you have a Peter Rabbit display.

Nothing crazy fancy was done with the eggs. I tried sticking sprigs of parsley on them for some special design elements, but that did not work out at all and was quickly given up. Unfortunately the green dye in the box we opened was a little funky. Too bad because that’s my favorite color. Although our orange ones came out gorgeous! We had white and brown eggs so we were able to get two different shades from each dye.

Andrei was in charge of the shrink wrap eggs. I think he was into helping me decorate, but I sort of made it mandatory since I felt like I would be too lonely doing it on my own. He claimed to be an expert and veteran at the shrink wrap method (basically you put this decorated sheet of plastic over the egg and hold it in steam and it shrink wraps around the egg), but none of them came out. I’ll let him blame the Russian eggs (they come in cartons of 10 and some still have feathers on them, so that’s enough to unsettle anyone).

I think I like dyed eggs more, but I’m glad we did the shrink wrap too. The first time I tried doing shrink wrap was for Easter 2008. That year, while I was standing over the steam messing up every single egg (it’s much harder than you think), Andrei walked into my parents’ kitchen. He had flown in from the East Coast for a surprise visit for Easter. He later proposed after the Easter night services. So as funny as it may sound, shrink wrapping eggs is what I was doing the moment my entire life changed.

Easter is an incredibly important and special time for any Orthodox Christian and Andrei made it even more so with such a happy memory. Only days before that I was guided by my spiritual father to pray to St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco (whose relics are in the cathedral in San Francisco) to help me find my next steps in life. My graduation from Boston University was approaching and I was getting that slightly nervous/clueless feeling of what I was supposed to do after. Standing by the Saint’s relics, I did as instructed and felt more at ease. Four days later, Andrei was kneeling in front of me with a ring and I had my answer.

And in addition to the Easter We Got Engaged, we have the Easter We Were In Jerusalem, and now the Easter We Were In Moscow (Somewhere in there is also the Easter Papa Accidentally Yelled Christ Is Born).

Easter in Russia is pretty much the same as Easter at home. Just…more. More people, more services, more red. Everything was red. At home the clergy serves in white. Here it’s red. Candles are red. Flowers are red. Women’s scarves are red. It’s SO red. And very beautiful. We were lucky to attend services at St. Tatiana’s church at the Moscow State University campus near the Kremlin. The main priest there knows us by name so we felt very at home. Which is nice, because you want to feel at home if you are away from home on Easter.

A Few Other Differences Between Russia & The States on Easter:

-In Russia, it’s normal to walk by a huge office building with an enormous pixilated projection of Jesus Christ on it

-In the States we have an “Italian Shower” where in an attempt to save time or energy you skip a shower and spray lots of perfume. Here I started practicing the “Russian Shower” where you throw on a bigger scarf to make sure it covers all of your hair

-In Russia, no one looks at you funny when you sit down at a restaurant right after church and place a basket on the table that has frosted ‘cake’ in it with a candle sticking out of it and don’t sing Happy Birthday

-In Russia, there isn’t a long awkward pause after you answer the phone with, “Xpuctoc Bockpece!” (“Christ is Risen!”)

-In Russia, you must stay out of the way of old ladies when any priest starts spraying holy water. Unless you like the taste of gravel.

A week after Easter, in answer to recent vandalism and riots againts the Church, Patriarch Kyrill called for a service in defence of the Russian Orthodox Faith. 65,000 people showed up and filled the streets in front of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. Andrei and I being two of them. Before heading out Andrei had asked, “Do you think we should get there really early?” We had no idea what to expect. The answer was yes. Most of the people had gathered by the time we got there and it was packed. But we peacefully stood on the outskirts of the crowd and watched the service, which was held primarily outside, on a jumbo screen. I don’t even think I have the right words to describe how blessed I feel that we were able to be a part of this. The happiness that exploded out of us as we joined 65 THOUSAND people in exclaiming “Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!” and recited the Symbol of Faith. The joy still lingers on and goosebumps visit my arms every once in a while when I remember some moment from that day. Despite my lapses of laziness, God continues to bring me these amazing experiences. This one came with a renewed and strengthened confidence in our faith.

I hope to be back in Burlingame for Easter next year, but if I am not, a piece of my heart will be there anyway. And a piece will be in Jerusalem and a piece will be in Moscow. And a piece will say yes all over again to the man of my dreams.

April 26, 2012

Easter: Part II

For some reason I decided to make sirnaya pascha (think cheesecake filling, but maybe a little less sweet) the same day as I made the kulich. I felt like I was on a pretty good roll, so why not just whip it up? Right, Olya, because it can be ‘whipped right up’. My excuse is that I was a rookie at sirnaya pascha so I had no idea – even though the recipe told me everything that was involved before hand. It’s not like it was hiding anything.

To make things even easier (sarcasm) I decided to follow a recipe in Russian that a new found friend on facebook shared with me – to go along with my naive ‘whip it up’ attitude.

First you squeeze 2.8 kilograms (roughly 6 pounds) of farmer’s cheese through a fine mesh seive and set aside. Psh, who needs pilates this week? – this was a serious arm workout. And I almost had to bury my new sieve next to my new mixer in my quickly growing kitchen appliance graveyard.

I was dorkily excited to buy the farmer’s cheese at a regular grocery store in Moscow. I kind of splurged on it as there were cheaper brands available – I had overheard a woman in the store ask a salesperson where their ‘amazing farmer’s cheese’ was so I really wanted to use it. Plus it looked like it was packaged and sent over from a farm. I just couldn’t resist. It came in little packages of anywhere from an inconsistent 264 to 311 grams so I may or may not have looked super silly standing there for 20 minutes with my cell phone calculater trying to gather the exact amount I needed over several pre-packaged containers 🙂 (Does anyone have a simpler way to do that, by the way??)

Anyway, with the ‘sifted’ cheese to the side, separate 10 egg yolks into a metal bowl (or double boiler), add a 1/2 cup of milk, 2 cups of sugar and one packet of vanilla sugar. Now, I wanted to use fresh vanilla beans so I opted to just replace regular sugar for the vanilla sugar. Having seen different sizes of packets of vanilla sugar, I wasn’t really sure how much regular sugar to substitute. I don’t think I put enough because the result was not as sweet as I would have liked.

The yolk, milk and sugar mixture gets heated over a pot of simmering water. You must stir constantly (and avoid making scrambled eggs) until the mixture becomes a thick cream. Take it off the heat and add 400 grams (or a little over 4 sticks) of butter that have been cut into cubes. Mix until the butter melts, and let it cool.

Add the milk-egg-sugar cream and 1 cup of heavy whipping cream to the farmer’s cheese and mix it very well. The recipe suggests using a blender. Probably even an immersion blender would work. I have neither so I got another bonus arm workout. Add some grated lemon zest. I used a vegetable peeler and a knife, which was fine, but it made me sincerely miss my microplane zester. Seriously, I miss it…like number one after family and friends.

Then the recipe says to add raisins, dried fruits, and/or nuts. We all know how I feel about this, so I will move on.

Line an upside down pascha form with gauze/cheesecloth (which I purchased at the pharmacy like a true local!) and fill it with your (totally fat free, I swear 😉 ) sirnaya pascha mixture.

Some forms come with pegs that will hold it over a bowl to drain. Mine didn’t, so I put one in a pasta strainer over a bowl and the other in my mesh seive over another bowl. If you can, add some kind of weight on top – I stacked a couple plates on each. They should drain for 12 hours or more in the fridge. Then you can flip it over and take it out of the form. If you don’t have a form at all, you can just put it in a bowl and let it set in the fridge. The XB on the side of mine (and most) stands for “Hristos Voskrese”, which is “Christ is Risen!” To which one would answer, “Truly He is Risen!”

My sister and I always had a theory that if you eat ice-cream in a giant spoonful, taken right out of the carton, without using a bowl, then the calories and fat do not count. It used to drive my brother absolutely insane. Not even sure why – it’s not like sticky drops of something on the floor by the refridgerator were uncommon in our house. In any case, I have chosen to apply this theory to eating sirnaya pascha as well. So skip the bowl and you’ll skip the calories too.

Andrei will not eat sirnaya pascha unless it’s spread across the top of a piece of kulich. That is also a tasty (soul-healthy) snack.

***(When making the sirnaya pascha, I revised the measurments recorded in the blog for 2 kilograms of farmer’s cheese. That gave me enough for 2 sirnaya pascha forms plus some extra in a bowl)***

April 25, 2012

Easter: Part I

April 15th this year was Russian Orthodox Easter. And we got to be in Moscow. It was a tremendous blessing really, especially since last year we were in Jerusalem. Two years in a row spending Easter somewhere meaningful – Jerusalem because that’s were everything happened, and Moscow because you are celebrating with a good chunk of the city/country.

I do have to admit that it was still a little sad to be away from Burlingame, where I grew up. Every priest kid (PK) will say this because being where your dad is serving on Easter is always special. I shouldn’t really say that Burlingame is the best place to be on Easter, but…let’s be honest, it is. When we got married the fine print stated that since I was moving to New Jersey every Easter would be spent in California (life permitting). I was happy to make an exception for Jerusalem and Moscow.

Last year we were staying in a hotel so I couldn’t make the traditional Easter fare – Kulich (Easter bread) and Sirnaya Pascha (a caloric bomb of happiness made with farmer’s cheese and lots of sugar and eggs – kind of similar to cheesecake filling). This year, abroad but equipped with a kitchen, I didn’t want to miss out. I actually had never made sirnaya pascha before so why not now when I have access to all sorts of brands of farmer’s cheese just steps out my front door (back home it’s not always easy to find the right kind). It would be very silly and careless of me to miss out on this opportunity. Especially since special sirnaya pascha forms were also on sale at the grocery store. I mean, we just don’t get that in the States. What kind of born-and-raised-in-America-but-considers-herself-Russian-so-please-stop-offering-me-the-English-menu Russian would I be if I didn’t do it? Even if here you can also buy ready made kulich in almost every store, and even on the street!

For the kulich I used a simple recipe that my mom gave me the first year that I baked them on my own. That first year, I had my electric stand mixer mixing the dough as I cleaned up. Everything felt like a breeze. And there was only one dough rising. I know some people follow recipes that require several dough risings and strenuous attention to detail. I felt guilty that I was gliding across my kitchen in ease as I imagined in other kitchens there were women/men biting their nails in anxiety, sweating in overly heated houses and locking their kids in closests so as not to disturb the dough. Oh the horror those children must have felt when a ball they were secretly playing with went rolling down the stairs. In the end my kulich were only ok. The next year I used a more complicated recipe and again my kulich were only ok. Despite my mom’s culinary fame in parishes across the USA, Canada and beyond, she too has a kulich achilles heel. So I feel ok about it. This year was no different.

I decided to use that simple recipe since my results are basically the same. The recipe involves making a sponge by dissolving about 2 packets of yeast in 1 1/2 cups warm milk adding 1 cup of flour, a tablespoon of sugar and letting that rise until it’s bubbly (about 30min). Then you beat 12 egg yolks and 2 egg whites until light and creamy, add 1 1/2 teaspoons of cardamom, 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, some fresh vanilla, saffron that has been steeped in vodka or brandy, and lemon zest. Next add the sponge, 2 sticks of melted butter, and 2 lbs of flour.

I only have measuring spoons for measuring out ingredients according to American recipes. I used to psych myself out and re-count 7 cups of an ingredient, afraid I messed up the amount. Now I have to count out 16 tablespoons for each cup…it can get a little confusing. I bought a measuring cup here, but of course it’s marked with grams. Which is a little annoying, because it only has sugar and flour on it really. So it would be better to have a kitchen scale. I have been managing with the conversions though – no serious mishaps yet (knock on wood)!

Knead/mix the dough until it doesn’t stick anymore. I grew up in an age I will call BSM – Before Stand Mixer. Kneading the kulich dough with my mom was a crazy job. We would have a huge tub of dough balancing on a kitchen bar stool, the furniture around us dusted in flour, my sister, mom and I taking turns dunking our hands in the super sticky mass. When you tried pulling your hands out, the tub would lift up off the stool. It was messy and time consuming, but it was fun. When the stand mixer came, everything changed – except the kitchen was still covered in flour (This was a Pavlenko kitchen, afterall). That’s why when I first did this recipe on my own it was also so easy, having the mixer work on the dough while you prepare the next steps or wipe up the layer of flour on your counters. But I look back fondly on bonding over a tub of sticky kulich dough. I bought a hand mixer this year to help out. It came with dough hooks so I was pretty confident. Well, I killed it. RIP hand mixer.

At this point you can add raisins too, but I really prefer kulich without them. Just like I don’t like raisins in my zhavoranki. Andrei likes raisins in kulich. Same situation goes for sirnaya pascha too – Andrei is for, I am against. I think spring time for us should just be called The Raisin Troubles. Sometimes I will do part of the kulich batch with raisins to be a better wife, but this year I didn’t.

…Divide the dough into your kulich forms (about 1/3 of the way up). Now, in the States we usually use old food/coffee cans lined with parchment paper or foil. The new kulich trend that is quickly spreading across Russian Orthodox America is to use glass beakers – the chemistry kind that can withstand high heat. These are great because you just have to grease the beakers, you can see the dough through them, and they make smooth edges (I plan to do this the next year I bake kulich at home). With aluminum you have those ripples which will sometimes bake into the side of the kulich. Some reporter one time did a piece on Orthodox Easter traditions and tried to explain a special meaning for the ripples in the sides of the kulich. Unfortunately, he was mistaken. The only things those ripples represent is how many bowls of tomato soup or cups of coffee that family had to get through before they had a working kulich form.

Anyway, I bought kulich forms in Ashan – because I can! 🙂 Greased and floured them, divided the dough into them and then covered them in a makeshift kulich incubator by a heater and let them rise for about an hour and a half. And they did rise so that was very exciting.

 Then you bake them at 350F for about 45 minutes to an hour. I overbaked mine a little. They still came out good, but a bit dry and crumby (as in it would fall apart into crumbs, not crummy, as in they sucked). They weren’t as dense as most kulich. But we are still happily eating leftovers so I think we’re ok.

To decorate, I usually just make a quick royal icing with powdered sugar, a bit of lemon juice and some water. Then pour it on the kulich and add sprinkles. For some reason my royal icing was coming out way too thin. I really think it was the sugar and not me, but who knows :). I went out once to get more sugar and try again, but then I gave up. So we had glazed kulich instead of iced. I like the big gold sprinkles I found.

April 10, 2012

The Adjustment Period

I am the type of person that will attempt to grab all the grocery bags out of the car, despite their weight or number, and carry them up the stairs to the front door, risking breaking everything (and incurring a possible dreaded extra visit to the West Orange Shop Rite) just to avoid taking more than one trip. Even though it would be so much simpler (and safer) to just take two trips. Or gasp…even three. I think this all began when my spoiled little self had one chore growing up: after my mom would pick up everyone’s abandoned items downstairs and place them on the staircase, I had to deliver them to each individual’s room on the second floor. To cut my chore duty time in half, I would try to do this all in one shot. I would throw on any jackets, put on my brother’s hats, drape my sister’s clothes over my arms, all while balancing stacks of my mother’s food magazines and my father’s thirty seventh all-in-one mini tool set from Walgreens. I remember being pretty good at this; however, I also have distinct memories of being yelled at after tiny screwdrivers and wrenches that turn into nail clippers would inevitably come tumbling down the stairs.

The one good thing about this is it was practice for apartment living. I don’t really have the comfortable option of two short trips from my car to the front door since my only choice really is to drag all the bags at once for several metro stops and a good 30 minutes total of walking on the street. Sure I could hail a gypsy cab, but what’s the fun in that? For some reason I choose to nervously reach for my key while holding two slipping bags on my shaky and sweaty pinky (not sure why I can’t put the bag down in the hallway, but just go with it), praying I don’t drop the one with the carton of eggs in it and crack them all. Yes, that has happened. I wouldn’t be a Pavlenko if it didn’t…Flash back to several trips to the grocery store: my mom holding an empty container on top of 7 others in her hand. Around her, salad, dressing, or blueberries spread (or bounce) across the entire produce aisle while my mother quietly, but forcefully, tells me to ‘just turn around, and walk away’. I think I’m starting to understand where I get this from…

…I am letting myself get distracted. The point here is that this little habit has at least eased me into one of the adjustments of apartment living in Moscow. Really having to carry your groceries in one shot. But please, I’m a pro. Just ignore the coffee dripping down my hair and into my face. Yes, that has happened too. The harder change for me was mastering shoe removal upon entering the apartment. In the beginning I was tripping over groceries and overheating in my coat (when does that come off??) while balancing on the tiny entrance rug, afraid to step off until I took of my shoes. Russians From Russia (RFR), will take their shoes off upon entering their or a friend’s apartment. It makes sense since Moscow is a very dirty city, but it raised so many questions for me I kind of stressed myself out. Do I need to provide slippers for guests? Will they understand we are here temporarily and don’t have extra slippers? Should I bring my own slippers to a friend’s apartment? – or would BYOS have been on the Facebook invite? What happens if I didn’t bring my own slippers and the ones they have are too small? Do I still wear them? And if I stretch them out? Make them smell?

A lovely change is how great RFRs think our Russian is. They are fascinated that we speak any at all since we weren’t born here, didn’t live here before, and grew up in the States. And our parents weren’t even born in Russia/nearby (except Andrei’s dad). So I speak more confidently even though I know I am making mistakes. Because it’s a wonder I speak any Russian at all. But when I return home or talk to Russians Like Me (RLM) I revert immediately back to English. Because I feel like my Russian to them is much less impressive. Silly. But it’s the truth.

I think my Russian has been getting a tiny bit better. The accents here can sometimes be hard to understand. Or people also just talk really fast. I am taking pilates and the instructor speaks pretty quickly. It’s funny though because even in American fitness classes the instructor could be screaming, ‘Bend your knee!’ in your face and you will still be staring at your very stretched out and straightened knee trying to figure out what to do. But anyway, for the whole first class  I kept thinking she was randomly saying toilet. Pelvis in Russian is taz. A toilet bowl/toilet in Russian is oonitaz. When she would say to stand pelvis width apart, the combination of her sentence really sounded like oonitaz. Made for a confusing first pilates class.

Another difficulty, which sometimes happens to me in New Jersey or mostly in New York City, is not being able to find a lot of things in one grocery store. I feel it more here though. And the stores in the city center, of even Ashan, won’t always carry the same thing, even the next day. There seems to be less consistency.

Hence I used whole, instead of ground, cumin and elbow macaroni instead of orzo in this Spicy Chickpea and Lemon soup (which was almost identical to the delicious Hale & Hearty version):

So, I recently went to four grocery stores in one day in preparation for making traditional Easter (and one more lenten) sweets. Not sure if either store would carry all the spices I need, I picked up any that I saw along the way at each grocery store visit. When I got to the last place on my agenda, I still needed cardamom. I found it. It came in a convenient combo pack with the other spices I had already bought seperately. So if you need ground cinnamon or ground nutmeg…I have plenty to give away.

Because of all the prep for Easter and church services taking place during this last week of our Great Lent (hello, WHERE did the time go?!), our meals won’t be very creative this week. Plus I’m too exhausted from my full day spice hunt to come up with some brilliant dishes to close out this lenten season (no worries though, another lent is lurking just around the corner). So it’s soup, spaghetti, leftover soup, and more spaghetti on the schedule.

But I’ll very quickly share a meal I made (that I thought tasted pretty fabulous) from before our short trip to New Jersey. Judging by the busy week ahead, I don’t think I will be able to work this into another post before Lent ends, and I wanted to get it out there. Maybe someone sick of spaghetti and shrimp can use this (you know, since you would never dare to eat this outside of a lent 😉 ). A little twist on my mushroom patties:

Mushroom & Tomato Sandwiches served with Arugula & Orange Salad

For two sandwiches: Boil a medium size beet until tender (or buy pre-boiled beets). Meanwhile, dice 1-2 tomotoes. Toss in a bowl with 1 chopped garlic clove, fresh chopped basil, olive oil, white balsamic, salt/pepper to taste. Set aside and let the flavors soak. Chop about 3/4 lb of mushrooms (large slices of portobello would probably also work every well). Saute them until tender and liquid has evaporated. While they are still warm, season with salt/pepper and mix in some lenten mayo (I do try not to rely on fake this and that, but the lenten mayo in Moscow is actually quite delicious). Spread some of the mayo plus dijon mustard on one or both sides of some bread, preferably a baguette. Top with the mushrooms then the tomatoes and greens of your choice.

For the salad: Make a dressing with olive oil, lemon juice, a splash of white balsamic, salt/pepper. Toss two handfuls of arugula with some of the dressing, reserving the rest of the dressing. Remove peel and pith from one orange and one blood orange carefully with a knife along curves of the fruit – keeping it intact. Slice crosswise. Peel and slice the beet. Top bed of dressed arugula with orange and beet slices, and some black olives. Drizzle remaining dressing (to taste).