Not boasting of a hundred and one sauces and more garnishes, Russian food can nonetheless be puzzling. I'm trying to coach Anthony on the matter before our trip to Russia (his first) in a while, and it seems like no easy task. And why should it be when there is no dearth of confusing material? Just look at what's what. Vinegret, for instance. You'd think it's a Russian deviation from vinaigrette, except that it's surely not. Vinegret happens to be a beet, potato and sauerkraut salad. Or kasha: while in English it denotes buckwheat groats, in Russian it's porridge in general, and not exclusively the one made of oatmeal as an English-spoken mind would expect. If you want pierogi, you are in with a good chance to get some if you say varenyky to a Russian cook, because similar-sounding pirog in Russian means a pie, not a dumpling. No easy feast, I'll tell you that.
The same, of course, goes for a Russian abroad, except that it can get an ounce more embarrassing, especially if one claims to have affection for cooking. It's one thing to be able to tell vinegret from vinaigrette, and quite another to have no idea how to make Beef Stroganoff, admittedly the most familiar of all Russian dishes to the Western eater. I can't even tell you how many a soul I disappointed with my incompetence in the matters of sautéed slices of beef in the sour cream sauce the way Count Stroganoff liked it and plunking gleefully in front of them a bowl of borscht followed by a plate of delicious buckwheat porridge (kasha) instead. The truth of the matter is, Beef Stroganoff is not traditional per se. You see, there is Russian food, simple and genial as most Russians know it in their homes, and there is European-influenced Russian fare, for the most part with a French accent.
Following Catherine's the Great lead, the nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy was besotted with the French culture. I don't think it would be a complete exaggeration to say that St-Petersburg was the French-spoken Russian capital at the time. Naturally, anybody who was anybody and who could afford one had a French chef over. The likes of Beef Stroganoff, Veal Orloff, Strawberries Romanoff, Charlotte Russe were the French creations through and through. Sadly, when communism plagued the country in the early twentieth century, the food the French turned in shared the misfortunes of the Russian aristocracy: a wipe-out by way of execution or immigration. Hence not so much competence in the matters of Beef Stroganoff and such on the part of an ordinary Ruskie. But interestingly, some things the Europeans brought to the table over time stayed, and how. Sharlotka is a Russian variation of Apple Charlotte, and it happens to be the most popular teatime sweet in Russia. Ironically, it's relatively unknown outside of the Russian borders.
A Russian child's baking life begins with mastering sharlotka, although mastering is a strong word here. There is nothing simpler than beating a few eggs with sugar, adding flour to the lot with a pinch of baking soda, and mixing in a heap of apples. You can even bake it in a frying pan, it's that undemanding and unpretentious. What a child (or me at the age of 27) wouldn't know, though, is that baking soda needs to be "put out" with vinegar or lemon juice first -- otherwise the crumb will be tight as a leather boot, a downfall of all my sharlotkas of yesteryear. Thanks to grandmothers for their wisdom.
There is no dairy, oil or butter to legitimately call sharlotka a cake. With the massive amount of mellow and soft apples in its pockets, I'd say it gravitates more toward the fruit pudding, but with the scarce crumb still characteristic of a moist sponge cake it's really unclassifiable. For convenience's sake, let's call sharlotka Russian apple cake, although a description in Russian would read yablochny pirog ("apple pie"). Of course, seeing there are no crusts of any kind in sharlotka, yablochny pirog will only confuse an English-spoken mind. And here we go again.
P.S. Happy Easter, dear Reader! (And since we are at it, this year Easter in Russia is in May. Differences, differences!)
Sharlotka (Russian Apple Cake)
Another description of sharlotka would be: an unprecedented amount of tart apples resting in and moisturizing the vanilla-scented billowy crumb. A scattering of (lightly toasted) walnuts to finish, and you are set. You can go on and add a touch of spices as well -- classic cinnamon or tickling ginger -- but I made it a point for myself not to this time. I'm always in the pursuit of something else, amending simple things right, left, and center, wishing for them to be more complex and mysterious. This recipe is simple as simple can be, and delicious just as is. Although, one time I didn't have enough white sugar for the bake, so I used light brown. It brought in distant caramel notes and I am a sucker for caramel notes. I've stuck to light brown sugar since.
I use a 20×20-cm (8×8-inch) square baking pan, because I like how neat and composed a square piece of sharlotka looks. It is, of course, allowable to call for service a 24-cm (9-inch) springform pan. For fear that the apples might stick to the pan (with so much fruit chances are high) I line the bottom and sides of it with parchment paper and leave an overhang on two opposite sides. When sharlotka is baked I easily remove it from the confinements of the pan by lifting up the ends of the parchment paper. Nothing stuck, nothing burnt.
It's a real wonder how with no fat at all sharlotka stays hydrated for as long as a week. No oil or butter, and moist for a week, at the very least! A week! Those apples, man. I see this sweet with plums or apricots (maybe somewhat less sugar then) in the summertime, but traditionally it's always Malus domestica.
Sharlotka only gets better with time. It is therefore not a bad idea to let the apples and the crumb sit together undisturbed for an hour or two before cutting into. But this is not to say there is no pleasure in devouring it fresh and warm.
Yield: 10-12 servings
1 kg (2 pounds) of tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled
juice of ½ lemon plus 2 tsp, divided use
200 g (6.5 oz) light brown sugar
seeds from 1 vanilla bean or 1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs
130 g (10 oz) flour, sifted
1 level tsp baking soda
60 g (2 oz) walnuts, coarsely chopped, to finish
Warm the oven up to 175 C (350 F). Line a 20×20-cm (8×8-inch) square baking pan with parchment paper (see headnote).
Cut the apples in quarters and remove the core. Cut each quarter into three wedges, and then halve the wedges and place them in a medium bowl with the juice of half a lemon. (If your apples are large, do the same, only cut up the quarters in four, and the resulting wedges in three.) Toss well and set aside.
In another bowl, beat the sugar, vanilla seeds (or extract) and eggs by hand or with a mixer until well-combined and bubbly, for about 1 minute. Mix in the flour (sift it directly into the bowl). In a small cup, combine the baking soda with 2 tsp of lemon juice (the baking soda will bubble up), and immediately stir into the eggs and flour mixture. The batter will be very thick. Fold in the apples.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly with a spoon or a spatula. The apple slices shouldn’t stick out; if necessary, slightly press the fruit down. Bake for 45-55 mins or until a tester or the tip of a knife comes out clean. Check after a 20-minute mark. If the top browns too quickly (mine did every time), cover loosely with a tent of foil and continue baking until done. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then lift up the ends of the parchment and transfer to a rack. When cool enough to handle, flip sharlotka out on a big plate and peel off the parchment, then flip back onto the rack. Evenly scatter over the walnuts.
Eat plain. Eat with a drizzle of caramel sauce on top (Anthony’s idea). Eat with unsweetened whipped cream. Make it an accompaniment to a cup of tea (coffee), a snack or an after-dinner sweet.
Keeps well wrapped up in foil or in an airtight container for up to a week.