Forget Pussy Riot, there is a new scandal buzzing in Moscow and it’s set to be a stinger! Beekeepers throughout Russia are up in arms over the move of Moscow’s high-profile honey fair from prestigious Manezh Square in the capital’s downtown to a shopping mall on the outskirts of the city: a ruling that would appear to be yet another attempt by Moscow’s current mayor, Sergei Sobyanin to deprecate his predecessor Yuri Luzhkov. The pint-sized former mayor is a well-known beekeeping enthusiast, and during his tenure, honey fairs and festivals enjoyed his generous patronage.
Sobyanin, who often looks as if he’s just finished sucking a particularly bitter lemon, doesn’t strike me as a fan of sweets of any kind, let alone honey, so here is a culinary challenge to get our teeth into! Let’s see if we sweeten up Moscow’s pucker-faced mayor with a favorite Russian honey cake!Honey has played an important part in Russia’s culinary line up since pagan days. Long before sugar was easily available, honey was Russia’s primary sweetener, used in many different aspects of cooking: to ferment drinks such as mead and kvass (link to earlier article) and in baking cakes and cookies such as gingerbread (link to earlier article.) Honey was also a reliable medicament, both topical, as a salve, internal to relieve fevers and chills. In Russia today, honey, jam, and hot tea are still considered the first line of defense for a range of ailments.
Recipes for honey cakes abound in Russia. Along with gingerbread, Western Russian traditional honey cakes are often prepared with walnuts and apples, bringing together the flavors of the three August harvest festivals, known in the Christian liturgical calendar as the three “Saviors.” August 14 is “Medoviy Spas,” or “Honey Savior” considered the first day when honey can be gathered from the hives and combs. August 19 marks “Yablochniy Spas” when apples and other fruits are ripe for picking. These are followed on August 29 by the oddly named “Not Made by the Hands Savior,” during which nuts take center stage.
I conducted an informal straw poll amongst my Russian friends to determine the most popular honey cake and the results made me a bit nervous. Everyone’s favorite honey dessert was the seemingly complicated and time-consuming “Medovik” tort. I shouldn’t have been surprised: almost every office party I’ve ever been to in Russia included a Medovik front and center: a multi-layered cake of flat biscuit and a creamy, caramel filling topped with walnuts. Like most store-bought cakes in Russia, they always looked flawless and mouth-watering, but invariably tasted like sawdust. I knew from classic French cookbooks that the biscuit/filling combination could be a winning one, so my challenge was to tweak the flavors and textures.
The journey to my final Medovik was a long and circuitous one. Traditional Russian cookbooks make little or no mention of Medovik, from which I deduced that Medovik gained its intense popularity during the Soviet era. This hunch was confirmed when I began to compare recipes from Soviet-era culinary tomes – never very reliable or easy to use. Opinions differed wildly on ingredients, but all had in common a very Soviet era ingredient: a tin of sweetened condensed milk, boiled, in the tin, for two and a half hours! Skeptical, I boiled one up, and then I understood where the caramel flavor came from: the heat gently caramelizes the sugar in the condensed milk and produces a pudding-like substance, which, unfortunately is also very slippery and hard to handle. The flavor was also very tinny. After a few frustrated attempts to keep the biscuit layers from slipping and sliding, I headed to the pantry for additional ingredients and equipment. Adding sour cream and cream cheese to the condensed milk and butter solved the slipping and sliding and greatly enhanced the flavor of the finished product. A spring form pan and wooden skewer helped to keep it all together in the refrigerator overnight as biscuit slowly absorbed the creamy filling. The result was far cry from sawdust, and who knows, might just be enough to sweeten up the mayor!
A Note on Timing: Making Medovik is a multi-stage process, involving cooking the separate cake layers one by one in the oven. It also requires chilling the tort overnight in the refrigerator. Plan accordingly.
Note: This post first appeared on La Russie D’Aujourd’hui in French under the title, Controverse autour de la tarte au miel.