Archive for ‘recipes’

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 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).

April 8, 2012

Zucchini Improv

I just got back from a fun date with my husband at a chain Italian restaurant in Moscow called Mi Piace. I enjoyed a delicious tomato soup from their lenten menu. We happily walked back home in the only slightly chilly evening to find we had walked ‘auto-pilot’ to our previous apartment building on Noviy Arbat (just one identical building over from where we currently reside). “We were due,” Andrei said as we back tracked to our current building.  We were bummed to only have discovered the lenten menu with one week to go. Last time we were there they only gave us English menus (everyone always guesses we are American) which never include the lenten options. This menu at Mi Piace is great because it includes a good variety of options instead of the typical fried potatoes with mushrooms (which I admit I could happily eat everyday for the rest of my life). Variety is key though because sometimes things can get old fast.

A great group was started on Facebook to let Orthodox friends share their favorite lenten dishes. It’s an excellent way for everyone to add some variety to their days of vegan-ness. Despite the vast vegan recipes now available, on Facebook and beyond, I find it’s easy to feel like you keep making the same things, or are ordering the same foods (raise your hands if you’ve eaten hummus, shrimp and pasta more than three times this week!).

In my Russian food magazine, Hleb i Sol (Bread and Salt), I found a nice alternative to the lenten staple of stuffed bell pepper – Stuffed Zucchini. I liked the recipe because it seemed like a hearty dish of just veggies with no rice (which also gets tiresome) in the filling.

In a very simple translation, you take two zucchinis (for two people as a main, or 4 if you are serving with a bunch of other stuff), cut off the ends and then cut them in half lengthwise. Using a spoon or melon baller, carefully scoop out the inside of the zucchinis creating a sort of boat and set aside. Drizzle the zucchini “boats” with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast them in the oven at about 390F for 8-10 minutes. Meanwhile chop the zucchini ‘meat’, fennel, garlic, and capers. Cube eggplant, peppers, and onion. Cut some green and black olives in half. Make a ratatouille with all the vegetables, some canned tomatoes with their juice (breaking them up with a spatula while they are in the frying pan). Add a bit of tomato paste, let it all cook, then stuff the zucchini boats and sprinkle with some bread crumbs. Put the stuffed zucchini back in the oven and roast for another 15 minutes. Top with fresh basil.

While I was prepping the dish, our neighbors from across the hall came by to ask if we could look after their suitcases. They were checking out of their temporary apartment but still had some time before their train. Although they were much more pleasant than the very very scary old lady in the other apartment across the hall that I swear was cooking little children in her apartment, they definitely didn’t make us doing them a favor easy! When they came back for their stuff they parked themselves in our kitchen (after 12am) and almost demanded tea. It was all easy to laugh off of course (since growing up we had all sorts of people in and out of our house all the time), except that when they were dropping their stuff off, I was cooking the ratatouille and distractedly added too much of the canned tomatoes. The result was very watery so I had to add some couscous to absorb the extra liquid. Although they didn’t come out like the picture, they were delicious nonetheless. It’s always good to be able to improvise.

…just like I had to improvise with this apple tart when I realized I had no foil. But that was easy – I guess I can’t really call greasing and flouring the sheet pan improvising :). I found a recipe that had a great tip – make a syrup by reducing water, sugar, and vanilla with the apple peels and brush the dough with it before baking. Makes for a delicious crust. I used lenten dough for this and thinly sliced apples. (before baking, top the apples with melted margarine, the syrup and sugar)

March 16, 2012

Vegetable Instincts

I am currently taking Top Chef University ‘courses’ online. I have to complete it by May (a year from when I signed up) before my registration to the site is cut off. Of course when I was in NYC working, I didn’t have the time or energy to do it, and now that I am in Moscow with lots of time on my hands, I don’t have all the gadgets in my kitchen or all the ingredients readily available. I am watching the courses anyway and just taking detailed notes. Many of the first lessons were a repeat of what I had already learned in my Fundamentals of Food Service class at Boston University. It’s been a good refresher and I have learned some new tricks as well. And it has brought on a whole bunch of kitchen tools I want to buy and culinary goals for when we are permanentaly back in the States (read: many, many more to-do lists).

At some point in one of the lessons they mentioned when boiling potatoes you put them in the pot with water and then bring them to boil, etc. Unlike pasta where you boil the water first.

I knew this already of course because I am…a person, but it’s interesting to think back to when it was that I learned that. I have no idea. I am sure it came from watching my mom cook or just being told when I was a kid. But it’s weird – I really don’t remember. I feel like there was probably one day I didn’t know how to cook pasta and then I just did. As if it’s instinct, like breathing or swallowing. It’s not like learning the hard way that you shouldn’t cool your finger in your mouth after you’ve stuck it in caramalizing sugar…or resisting the urge to try it while it’s still scorching in the first place. Somehow I just knew that potatoes (or carrots, beets, etc) go in before and pasta goes in after the water boils.

This all kind of reminded me of borsht, a traditional Ukranian/Russian beet soup that I made the other day from a recipe I found online (with the necessary changes to make it vegan). Pretty basic. I used a different recipe last summer and both were decent. I find that my soups always taste better the next day after the flavors have been able to meld together nicely overnight. What I was most excited about this time is that I julienned the vegetables (since I had nothing to really shred them with). I much prefer this over cubed…it somehow feels heartier and thicker to me.

Look how nice and uniform those veggies look. I am pretty proud of myself!

Despite my 40 different versions of the same to-do list, I managed to be lid-less and frying pan-less while making the borsht. Both were in the dishwasher and I happend to start the load already. I don’t think I would have been in the mood for washing them anyway after julienning all the vegetables, so I improvised:

I am still in search of the best recipe. The borsht in Moscow is pretty delicious, but many restaurants put meat in it, which I believe is correct according to Ukranian tradition. It’s weird for me though, because growing up I usually ate borsht during lent when meat wasn’t allowed. It was a fasting staple. In Moscow it is also a much richer/deeper looking color. I wish mine would turn out that way.

The church we sometimes go to in Spring Valley, NY has one of the best I’ve tasted, and there was a woman in Boston (who unfortunately remains a mystery to me) that would, every once in a while, bring my grandmother amazing borsht. While studying in Boston I used to spend many weekends at my grandmother’s apartment and I was always so excited when we scored a huge, delicious pot of it. We would warm it up and then dive in as we discussed school, boys, and life.  My grandmother had the best instincts for everything. I think she was just born wise. And of course it went beyond boiling potatoes and pasta. She always knew the right thing to say, and how I was feeling…and the perfect time for another bowl of borsht.

Ukranian Red Borsht (from; leave out the meat for vegan, and use vegetable stock for more flavor)


  •                     1 (16 ounce) package pork sausage
  •                     3 medium beets, peeled and shredded
  •                     3 carrots, peeled and shredded
  •                     3 medium baking potatoes, peeled and cubed
  •                     1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  •                     1 medium onion, chopped
  •                     1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
  •                     3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 medium head cabbage, cored and shredded
  •                     1 (8 ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
  •                     3 cloves garlic, minced
  •                     salt and pepper to taste
  •                     1 teaspoon white sugar, or to taste
  •                     1/2 cup sour cream, for topping
  •                     1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley for garnish


  1.                     Crumble the sausage into a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook and stir until no longer pink. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  2.                     Fill a large pot halfway with water(about 2 quarts), and bring to a boil. Add the sausage, and cover the pot. Return to a boil. Add the beets, and cook until they have lost their color. Add the carrots and potatoes, and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Add the cabbage, and the can of diced tomatoes.
  3.                     Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook until tender. Stir in the tomato paste and water until well blended. Transfer to the pot. Add the raw garlic to the soup, cover and turn off the heat. Let stand for 5 minutes. Taste, and season with salt, pepper and sugar.
  4.                     Ladle into serving bowls, and garnish with sour cream and fresh parsley.
March 11, 2012

‘Shroom Addiction

It’s always fun when you can start making dishes without recipes – either you’re repeating something you’ve made before and have mastered or, even better, you are applying stuff you have learned from cooking other things to create a new dish of your own. I did this the other day when I made mushroom patties.

First of all, let me start by telling you how much I love mushrooms…

..actually, I can’t, because I don’t know how to express just how much. But trust me, it’s a lot. It’s a weakness. I love discovering new restaurants and new food, but it is so hard not to order mushroom risotto or anything with mushroom sauce every time I see it on a menu. I pretty much have to make a pros and cons list and talk myself out of it. Kind of like my husband and buffalo wings. He just can’t stay away. When we started dating it was summer. In three months I ate more buffalo wings than the whole rest of my life before that first date. In turn, since meeting me he has probably eaten more mushrooms than he did in his life leading up to our romance. He was never a mushroom lover, but I married him anyway.

I also had a co-worker/officemate that loved mushrooms too. And we had the same hair. It’s like she and I were made for each other.

Anyway, I thought mushroom patties would be an interesting experiment given my addiction and the fact that we are back to vegan cooking. I made up my own recipe. It could definitely use some tweaking, but I think the flavor was good. But again, I love mushrooms. So from what I understand about having a child…they can almost do nothing wrong. And even when I’m sick of them, I still want them around. And when they are gone, I miss them.

First I finely chopped about a pound of washed mushrooms. (If my husband is finally reading this blog then please change that to VERY THOROUGHLY washed mushrooms…love you). Then I sauteed them with some minced garlic (I would have microplane zested the garlic into the pan if I had the microplaner with me) until all the liquid evaporated and set it aside to cool.

Next I sauteed half a chopped onion and added it to the mushrooms. In one of those sauteeing batches I added some chopped fresh parsley. I let it cool slightly before mixing in breadcrumbs and vegan mayo until the mixture became shapeable. In Moscow I haven’t been able to find regular breadcrumbs yet. I think either the dried kind or throwing a slice of white sandwich bread in your food processor would probably work much better. What I used, called smes in Russian, was more dusty…almost like flour.

I shaped the mixture into patties and rolled them in more breadcrumbs (seasoned with salt, pepper, and paprika). Then I put the patties into the fridge to allow them to get cold/harden. I pan fried them with a little olive oil, turning once or twice very carefully, until they were heated through and had a delicious crispy crust.

Serve with sides of your choice. Mine were cous cous and a very simple salad.

The next day I broke up a leftover patty and mixed it with leftover cous cous for more of a ‘pilaf’. That was delicious too.

I welcome you to tweak my recipe into something of your own!

March 5, 2012

A Week of Blini

The week before Great Lent is called Maslenitsa (known in English as Pancake Week or Cheesefare) during which you can eat everything but meat. In Russia it’s a great time of festivals and festivities. Saying goodbye to Winter (except not really because I am still freezing) and getting ready for Spring. The toppings for the blini (non-breakfast pancakes) range from fish, sour cream, caviar, etc to cheese, jam, apple puree and so on. My favorite combination is sour cream, chopped eggs and smoked salmon. Delicious.

One night I made blini for myself and my husband at our apartment. I used my friends’ recipe that I tried early last fall (sometimes blini are good outside of Maslenitsa) and they came out pretty well. I have to say my dear lady friends did a much better job than I did! Although I made them in Moscow, the first time I ate blini from this recipe, in September, it felt more like I was in a little Russia. We were at a cabin in Pennsylvania that was COVERED in little Russian chochkis. We went mushroom picking the day before and sang Russian songs around a camp fire. So it really was like both times I was in Russia 🙂 Except this time I got to use Russian ingredients – like my favorite water here (never had an opinion, but this one is delicious – Cone Forest), Russian milk AND flour that is special for making blini, as you can see by the picture of a blini stack on the front of it. And Russian eggs that sometimes still have little feathers in the carton.

The recipe is basically to beat/whisk one egg with some milk (like french toast coating), add a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of sugar. Gradually add flour (mixing/whisking between each addition) until the batter is the consistency of sour cream, then thin out with seltzer water until you are ready to fry. Then ladle into a hot pan (with some butter) and cook it like a pancake.

There is a saying “S Pervom Blinkomom” that comes from the fact that the first pancake always come out messed up. It applies to things you try the first time and it doesn’t come out great…with practice it gets better. It translates to “With the First Blin”…for me it’s “With Every Blin”.

Anyway, all the festivities we participated in were great. At our friends’ apartment we had a filling out of marscapone, smoked fish and mustard. Definitely interesting. The blini there were super thin. I want to try his recipe next year – he used butter in the batter and not in the pan. No yeast and no seltzer water.

A few parks in Moscow had great festivals that we went to with AMAZING (best I have ever had) blini made to order. I had two, and probably could have had more. One with smoked salmon and sour cream and the other with mashed potatoes, crispy onions and mushrooms. So good! Still dreaming about it. We went to three festivals the last weekend. So I had five separate blini occasions. It does get old. And then you take a break for a day and suddenly you want more…it’s a blini phenomenon.

but now we are back to lent…

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 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.