Saturday, November 29, 2014

Pumpkin Pryaniki (Тыквенные пряники)

Photo credit: Liz

Pryaniki are the Russian equivalent of gingerbread, but unlike their American counterpart, they are not liable to break your teeth. Where the American gingerbread man is hard and flat, the Russian pryanik is soft and pillowy. I’ve had a thing for them since I tried one in Izmailovsky Park on a crisp, autumn day in 2005, but every single one I’ve had since has been store-bought, slightly stale, and mostly underwhelming. Even so, I got it into my head that I wanted to make pumpkin pryaniki, something of a Russian classic with an American twist. Problematically, there were exactly zero recipes on the internet for “pumpkin pryaniki.”

I would have had more luck if I had searched in Russian, but embarrassingly, that only occurred to me now. Instead, I started with this recipe for Pryaniki with Mint Glaze from Natasha’s Kitchen (one of my favorite Russian food blogs, and not just because she grew up in Washington, too) and then threw in a bunch of spices and pumpkin and made my own glaze because pumpkin and mint don’t really mix.

Normally, I wouldn’t bore my readers with my cooking endeavors and my terrible food photography, but there are a decided lack of pumpkin pryaniki recipes out there and I didn’t want to deprive the English-speaking world of these cookies. Both times I’ve made them, they’ve been devoured by Russians and Americans alike, and my friend Ksenia’s mother even asked for my recipe, so you know they’re the real deal. Without further ado, here’s the best thing to happen between Russia and America since…well, maybe ever.

Pryaniki Ingredients:
2 large egg yolks
2 cups sugar
1 cup sour cream
1 cup homemade pumpkin puree (you could use canned if you have no self-respect)
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon white vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
5 cups all-purpose flour

Pumpkin Glaze Ingredients:
2 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 tablespoons whole milk (3.2% milk if you live in Russia)
2 tablespoons homemade pumpkin puree

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C for those of you in Russia). Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  2. In a mixing bowl, whisk together 2 egg yolks and 2 cups of sugar. When they’re good and mixed, add 1 cup of sour cream and 1 cup of pumpkin puree and whisk until creamy. 
  3. In a small bowl, mix 1 tsp baking soda and ½ teaspoon vinegar (it will bubble). Add that to the mixing bowl as well. 
  4. Add ½ tsp salt, 1 tsp vanilla extract, and all of the spices to the mixing bowl, then whisk everything together until well blended.
  5. Slowly add the flour, about ½ cup at a time, to the mixing bowl. After the first 2 cups of flour, you’ll probably have to switch from a whisk to a spoon, and around 4 cups, you’ll just want to use your hands.
  6. Once thoroughly mixed, lightly flour your hands and form the dough into balls about the size of golf balls.
  7. Place the dough balls on the parchment papered cookie sheet and slightly flatten them. Bake at 350°F for 25-28 minutes, or until they are just beginning to turn golden brown. Remove immediately.
  8. While they are still hot, dip each cookie into the glaze, which you hopefully made while the pryaniki were baking. (To make the glaze, dump all the glaze ingredients in a small bowl and mix them up). 
  9. Spread the glaze evenly over the tops of your pryaniki (your fingers will work best here). Once glazed, place the cookies on a cool dry surface and let the glaze dry. 
  10. Once the glaze hardens, turn the cookies over and glaze the bottoms. Make sure the glaze completely covers the cookie—it will keep them moist and delicious for a few days. When the glaze sets, serve with a glass of milk or tea and enjoy! 
I told you my food photography skills are terrible

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Lesson in Profanity

I was having dinner last night with an American friend and two Russians when the American lamented the lack of мат (Russian profanity) in her vocabulary. It’s not that she wants to swear like a Russian sailor, but she does want to be able to recognize curse words when she hears them in the street. Our Russian companions refused to teach her any obscenities, so she asked me if I could help her out. Over the years, I have picked up a few Russian expletives—hockey matches were a good start when I studied abroad, and then Dima filled in the gaps (Belka is on the receiving end of a lot of insults). But while I’ve learned many of these words, I don’t actually use them. First, cursing in Russian carries more weight than it does in English. Second, and more importantly, I remember how idiotic my Spanish students sounded when they tried to swear in English. They had no idea what they were saying and their phonetics were terrible—it was all “beach” this and “sheet” that. If you’re going to swear, you have to swear right.  And that’s just not something I can do in Russian or Spanish.

Even so, I wanted to share my basic knowledge of Russian мат.  “You know the Б-word, right?” I asked.  She did not, so I leaned across the table and whispered it to her like we were children. The Russians were highly amused—by my accent, mostly—and one of them decided to share a joke that made use of the word.  I missed the subtleties, but there was a male cat, his kitten son, and a whore. When he got to the punch line, my friend and I stared at him blankly, not entirely sure he’d finished telling the joke.

“You two really need to learn Russian,” he sighed.

Perhaps to prove that I do know a modicum of Russian, I jumped in with my next inappropriate phrase: “Go to the d--k!” That’s the literal translation of the Russian, but in practice, it’s more like “Go f--k yourself.” I picked up that choice phrase from a Spaniard in Basque Country, so it may have gotten a little convoluted along the way, but I think it ends up gaining something in translation. I wish I could export that to America, but alas, I’m trying to clean up my language.

You see, after reading my novel, my older sister pointed out that two of the main characters sound way too similar.  Stephie corroborated Melissa’s claim, highlighting a specific line of dialogue as an example.  Reading the line in question, I suddenly realized why they sound so alike—both characters talk like me. And I am way too liberal with the F-word.  I did a quick “Ctrl F” to see how many times I had used “f--k” or one of its derivatives, and was horrified when I got more than 50 results. Naturally, every utterance comes from one of these two characters. Those f---ers have been spending way too much time around me.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Cool Parents

Last month, while dining at my favorite Georgian restaurant, my friends and I started chatting with the Dutch-Canadian couple at the table next to us. They were spending three weeks in Russia, and visit about three new countries a year.  They were in their 60s, but looked a good decade younger—possibly because they travel far and wide and had a sense of adventure that was inspiring. The woman said that her advice was to live life without fear and to marry a Dutchman.  So Russia might be the wrong place for me on both counts.

I was thinking about how cool this Canadian couple was when I realized that my parents are actually pretty cool too—even if I didn’t realize it until recently. Growing up, my parents were not “cool parents.” Or at least not by any pre-teen definition of the term. My dad’s “beard art” phase was not one I would like to revisit, no one wants their parent playing a banjo at their sleepovers, and his bike spandex are still renowned among my childhood social circle. His antics bothered my mother less, even though she was the parent who laid down rules and doled out punishments. Pop, white bread, and television were strictly forbidden, and I even had a curfew when I was home for the holidays my freshman year of college. Years later, my mom learned that I had still managed to get away with a little teenage fun in high school and she was not amused. I swear she almost retroactively grounded me.

Harmonicas are even worse than banjos

My first memory of parental embarrassment occurred on my first day of kindergarten. One of the items on our school supply list was a blanket to sleep on at nap time. Instead, my mom burrowed into the depths of her closet and produced a woven rug she and my father had picked up in South America. When it came time for our mid-morning lie down, everyone rolled out snuggly, fleecy things emblazoned with princesses and dinosaurs. I hid behind the cubbies with my brightly colored Inca art and hoped no one would ask about my musty sleeping mat.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so embarrassed by the rug, which actually has a pretty interesting back story.  In the 70s, my parents took a few belongings and their fairly terrible Spanish and headed down to South America for nine months. Between my dad (allegedly) getting bit by piranhas in Brazil and nearly getting arrested for public urination in Bolivia, it’s a wonder they made it back to America to get married. 

The parents before they were parents

Now that they’re retired, they’ve returned to their gallivanting ways.  They just finished the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain, and are now in the Canary Islands visiting one of my dad’s best friends from high school.  I was Skyping with one of my best friends from college last weekend, and I mentioned that I’d just talked to my whole family. Stephie had dialed in from Seattle while my parents and Melissa had called in from a riad in Morocco. Lindsay was impressed by our global reach.

“I thought my parents were cool,” said Lindsay. “They just got back from two weeks in Turkey and two weeks in Sicily, and that included a stay at a pistachio farm.

“My parents just spent a week in Menorca visiting some Spanish hippies my dad caravanned across the Moroccan desert with two years ago,” I countered.

“Yeah, your parents might be cooler.”

And she doesn’t even know about my dad’s boxcar adventures or my mom’s visit to the Soviet Union, complete with a Communist Party convention in Leningrad.  But that might require an entire blog post of its own.

My parents in Finisterre, Spain after completing the Camino