26 January 2010

A synonym for health

One year zipped past, but I haven’t got any cleverer than I was in the january of 2009 when I, just like now, went to Russia wearing a flimsy woolen coat, hoping that it would solely protect me against perky way-below-zero frosts and merry snowfalls.

Oh silly, silly me!

Up there is a preamble to say that last fourteen days I spent in tight embrace of a nasty cold and its bosom friend -- misery. Not too much of a good time, you understand. Especially so, when more than ever do I now need my brains crystal clear. The whole January I have been tackling a task that requires a condition of an undiluted mental concentration on my part – I had to write three academic essays before February dawns. But no, the universe thought I’d have a time of my life penning those with my mind in thick haze and my nose dripping like a leaking faucet (sorry!). It was no fun, is what I want to say.

So with all that freezing, sneezing, shivering and coughing, I found myself obsessively hankering for oatmeal raisin cookies too. Isn’t oats a synonym for health? See?

Could there be anything easier on earth than to make oatmeal raisin cookies? You only need to schlep-schlep-schlep in the kitchen to cream some butter with some sugar; to beat in some egg; to fold in some flour, oats and raisins; and to mix all that well to form the cookie dough which you’d then scoop out onto the baking dish and send into the oven for fifteen minutes. Simple?

Not so.

The problem is that I chose the wrong recipe which, as I learnt, is better suited for a dustbin than for anything else. It was no fun to make oatmeal cookies that would look as bad as I felt. It wasn’t oatmeal raisin cookies. It was oatmeal raisin spookies. I even can’t call it that, because there was so little oatmeal in the dough that the only place where you could find some was in the recipe’s title.

Terrified, but not defeated, I took the recipe and tweaked it as I pleased, which included reducing the sugar level; upping the oats contents; swapping all—purpose flour for oat flour (we are talking health here, no?); and shaking a firm no to the original instruction to add water to the flour. It took me three batches in total to bring these poor souls to their normal cozy, pretty selves: chewy in the pale center, crisp around the slightly tanned edges, sweet enough to please but not to cloy, and most importantly, cold- and stress-eliminating. And isn’t it what we want from a cookie?

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Adapted from Yuliya Vysotskaya, a russian cookbook author

Yields 8-10

100gr (1/2 cup) butter, softened
100 gr (½ cup) light brown sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla sugar
1 medium egg, at room temperature
100 gr oat flour (which you can easily make by grinding oat flakes in a coffee grinder)
100 gr (3/4 cup) raisins
70 gr (1 cup) quick oats (not steel cut!)

1. Preheat the oven to 180 C (350 F) and cover a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl – you will only need one bowl for this recipe; isn’t it sweet? -- beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugars; keep beating until fluffy. Beat in the egg.

3. Sift in the oat flour; stir. Fold in the raisins and oats and mix well. The dough will be sticky.

4. Using a tablespoon, scoop out the dough onto the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 mins; the cookies should be golden brown at the edges and pale in the center. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool. Upon exiting the oven, the cookies will be somewhat soft until fully cooled.

12 January 2010

For cake's sake!!

Sugar, I need a break from you. You are sweet and I like you to insanity. But familiarity breeds contempt, remember? So stay away from me. Not for too long though, for a while. See you very soon. Maybe tomorrow.

Holy baking powder, why only now do I see that for the past two and a half months I’ve been feverishly writing about nothing else but desserts? From this, you would think all I’ve been eating is sweets, no?

Well, yes. Sort of. Cake here, pie there, nothing much, really. But recently instead of basking in pleasure, I found myself cringe at the sight of yet another, however lip-smackingly delicious, dessert. A ‘sugarization’ syndrome, let me tell you. An awful, hair-splitting thing, that. For cake’s sake, mouth-watering desserts should be revered, not pulled a face at! So I decided I should un-sugar myself before getting loaded up again. As soon as I’m finished with this beggar, that is.

I have my priorities, don’t you know.

In other news, two years ago today I started Godful Food. Or Godful Food started me. I don’t know. I’ll try to avoid overwhelming sentimentality here, so I’ll just say oh boy, does this little blog means loads to me. Foremost, because it, quite simply, brings you, Dear Reader, into my life!

It also teaches me to share. Take this Napoleon cake, for example. Under different circumstances, I have no doubts I’d lock myself in a room, pull up the window curtains and toss the stuff down – all by myself. Instead, I hasten to log on Godful Food and share my treasures with you. True, I may stumble along the way and turn the cake into a mess, metaphorically speaking or not. Or I may turn up too late so nobody wants a dessert any more. No matter what, you keep coming back, making this place feel like home to me. Thank you, folks!

Now, I’m not going to have to deal with this Napoleon myself. Reader, please, be my ally! It has come time that this thing, this delicious bastard, finally knows where it belongs -- on our dessert plates.

Forks up, friends!

On a curious note: they say Napoleon cake, French by origin, is so named not after the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, but after Naples, a city in Italy. Whichever, Napoleon is just one of the many nicks of the mille-feuille, the puff pastry with the vanilla cream.
My Napoleon is called Russian for a reason (we always seem to want to have everything our way). Basically, Napoleon is made of three layers of puff pastry jacketed in two layers of vanilla cream, just as befitted the tradition. Russians figured it’s better to make ten or even more puff pastry layers, each blessed with the custard cream. Like I said, being so labour-intensive –and, by extension, swear-words inducing -- this one is meant for big days, like Christmas, or birthday, or blog’s anniversary, no less.

Russian Napoleon Cake

(my family recipe)

Serves 16-18

For the pastry

4 cups (500gr) all-purpose flour, sifted
3 ½ stick (400 gr) butter, cut in ½ inch (apprx. 1 cm) dices
½ cup (125 ml) crème fraiche, cold
½ cup (125 ml) ice cold water
1 large egg
a pinch of salt

For the custard cream

4 cups (1 L) whole milk
2 large eggs
2 cups (400 gr) sugar
5 Tbsp (40 gr) all-purpose flour
2 sticks (250 gr) butter, cut in small pieces
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract

To make the pastry:

1. In a large stainless-steel bowl, and using two sharp paring knives, cut the butter into the flour. The mixture should look pebbly, and lumps of butter should not be larger than a pea.

2. In a small bowl, beat the egg and the salt together. Add the crème fraiche, followed by the water; mix well.

3. Pour the crème fraiche mixture, ½ cup at a time, into the flour-butter mixture. Mix until just combined. Tap the dough out onto a floured surface and knead the dough until elastic and smooth (don’t overwork the dough!).

4. Divide the dough into 10 parts. Form balls. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours, or preferably overnight.

5. Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C).

6. Take the dough out of the fridge, one ball at a time (the butter that’s in the dough should not melt before it goes in the oven, otherwise you won’t get flaky pastry at the end). On a well-floured working surface, roll out each ball into a thin – as thin as you can -- circle, about 10 inch (24 cm) wide. Roll the dough circle onto a lightly-floured rolling pin, and then unroll it carefully on a baking sheet, covered with parchment paper. Prick with a fork and put in the oven for about 3-5 mins, or until the dough gets lightly golden. Remove from the oven and put aside.

7. Repeat with the remaining balls of dough.

8. Bake the last circle a bit longer than the rest -- until it turns brown. Later you’ll use it, crumbled, for decorating the cake.

To make the custard cream:

1. In a medium non-stick pan, bring half of the milk (1/2 L or 500 ml) to a boil over a low flame.

2. In the meantime, beat the eggs and the sugar together. Add the flour and whisk until the flour is fully incorporated (there should be no lumps left). Pour another half of the milk; stir well.

3. Starting with 1 cup at a time, slowly add the flour mixture into the boiling milk. Working on low heat, stir constantly to avoid burning of the milk. Keep stirring until the mixture becomes thick. Take off the heat. Let cool.

4. When the mixture is still warm enough to make the butter melt, add the butter and the vanilla extract. Stir well until fully dissolved. Let cool completely.

To assemble:

1. Using the back of a soup spoon, spread a ladleful of the cream evenly on every crust, except for the brown one.

2. After every two or three layers, press gently on the cake to make the cream moisturize the crusts.

3. Crush the brown crust by running it over with the rolling pin. Sprinkle the crumbs over the top and the sides of the cake. (You can also use ground walnuts for this).

4. If your Napoleon has uneven edges, you can easily fix it by cutting them off with a sharp knife. (Although I prefer my Napoleon rustic, with all its ruggedness).

5. Let stand for a couple hours. The cake keeps beautifully in the fridge for up to one week.

7 January 2010

Readying myself

For some, Christmas and New Year’s holidays have become a glowing memory by now. For some others, a festive table is still set, and a blood sugar level keeps increasing by the day. I’m writing this from Russia (visiting my family), knee-lengths in candies and baked goods, readying myself for yet another massive intake of all things sweet. Say I’m sick I won’t. It’s Orthodox Christmas around here today, after all.

[However surprising or confusing or both, but Christmas in Russia is celebrated on January 7th. Don’t blame the vicar (hello, Anthony!), blame the old Julian calendar.]

They say kutya (KOO-TYA) -- porridge made of wheat or rice grains (symbols of immortality) and honey (a token of happiness) – is an iconic Russian Christmas dish. I can’t attest to that, because in my family, it’s not Christmas without a Napoleon – many-layered cake enrobed in vanilla-scented custard cream, a symbol of my happiness.

Flaky, moist and tender, it’s the-heart-takes-a-lift-to-heaven good. It’s worth every swearing word (on Christmas Eve!) you may hiss while rolling out the gossamer sheets of dough, one by one, ten in total. Insane. Delicious.

The recipe I’ll post soon, I promise. Right now I’m rushing to my grandmother’s for a festive family gathering. But before I go, please take a piece, Dear Reader. It’s for you!