Baking in Russia
It’s time for the Procrasticooking quarterly report (as in, I’ve posted once since I came back to Moscow and April is almost over). But it’s a good one, I promise!
I’ve been baking a lot of cakes lately, which, as I’ll get to in a moment, is something of a challenge in Russia. First, there was this Chocolate Guinness Cake, recipe courtesy of Nigella Lawson, for St. Patrick’s Day. Then, for a friend’s birthday, I made a combination of a basic vanilla birthday cake from Joy of Baking with a vanilla bean buttercream that I sort of came up with on the spot, involving beating the hell out of a massive amount of unsalted butter, powdered sugar, whipping cream, vanilla bean scrapings and a pinch of salt. That would be the cake you see in the picture above. Finally, yesterday, I made this blueberry cake from Simply Recipes, and served it heated with a giant dollop of plombir, a type of generic milk-flavored ice cream that often comes in a bag here in Russia. Not that I’m discrediting the joy of plombir, because it’s essentially frozen whipped cream when it comes to its milk and fat contents, but the bag-0-ice-cream presentation often seems a little lacking.
Anyway, this post is about the difficulties of reproducing North American recipes in Russia and some tips for how to do so. Because, while Russia definitely has an enormous sweet tooth, what counts as cake here is slightly different in texture, sweetness, and density. Part of this is a problem of basic ingredients, which are also slightly different in terms of grind, quantity, and chemical composition. Even when you go to a Starbucks, which essentially reproduces North American desserts, you will often see baked goods that are flatter and denser. This isn’t a comment about taste, since I have to admit that Russian Starbucks’ caramel pecan brownie (usually just called пирожное брауни) is a small guilty pleasure for me, alongside an Americano. Of course, you could buy dinner with you’d spend on that here, since Starbucks is ridiculously expensive in Moscow.
In any case, here are the main differences you are likely to encounter trying to bake here:
- Baking powder (разрыхлитель теста): This is probably the most problematic ingredient, although it’s relatively widely available. When you go to a grocery store look for a little package with a picture of a cake on it. It never seems to come in anything other than an incredibly small 10 g package, which should cost around 10 rubles, maybe less depending on where you are shopping. It’s definitely more expensive than a container of Clabber Girl, I’ll tell you that much. The most important difference is the chemical composition of it. From the list of ingredients in the German brand Dr. Oetker’s baking powder: pyrophosphate acidic soda (or my rough translation of that), sodium bicarbonate, and corn starch. Clabber Girl seems to also contain a combination of baking soda and acid ingredients, minus the corn starch. I’m not a chemist, so I can’t speak to how the ratios of these ingredients in each form of baking powder behave differently, but as a baker, I can tell you that they just do. The baking powder you get in Europe definitely does its job, but it just doesn’t puff up baked goods the same way. I tried to obtain cream of tartar so I could make a homemade version of baking powder, but it is impossible to find here.
- All-purpose flour (пшеничная мука хлебопекарная): Yet again, I can’t tell you why it behaves differently but it just does. My suspicion is that all-purpose flour here is actually closer to what we would consider bread flour in the United States or Canada. Bread flour has higher protein in it, which creates more gluten and a chewier end product (think ciabatta). Most all-purpose flour in North America, I would wager, is intended for making desserts, not bread products and tends toward a lower protein count. I’m considering buying pastry flour here and experimenting with a mixture to see if I can’t achieve a lighter effect.
- Powdered sugar (сахарная пудра): If you’re not interesting in making icing for cakes or cupcakes, this probably doesn’t affect you. Powdered sugar also comes in these tiny sachets, sometimes in a larger 250 g bag. Icing a cake can be extremely pricy as a result. The main issue, I think, is that powdered sugar is understood as a decorative ingredient, something to sprinkle in tiny amounts on top of a cake or croissant, for example. Iced cake isn’t really a thing here, surprisingly, considering Russians love overly saccharine things (ahem, шампанское).
- Brown sugar: That one doesn’t exist here. You can get brown-ish unrefined sugar crystals here, but it isn’t the same soft, malleable brown sugar that you need for making perfect chocolate chip cookies. I’ve given up on making cookies here as a result. What we think of as brown sugar has a high molasses content. Theoretically, you could make your own with a fine grind of sugar and molasses, but I haven’t seen the latter anywhere here. It’s possible that it exists, and in that case I’ll give it a shot.
- Temperature settings on Russian ovens: If you’re lucky, you have an oven with celcius settings and you can google the equivalents for recipes in Farenheit (there are a zillion sites telling you how to adjust). However, Russian ovens often just have numbers 1-5 (Soviet ovens often have only 1-3), which isn’t helpful at all in trying to figure out what to set it at. I am not sure about this, but I would guess you can buy an internal oven thermometer to alleviate this problem, or just bake a bunch of things and see what turns out! The one problem I have with my oven is that the heat all comes from the bottom, which is terrible for roasting and means that the bottom of everything I bake is always a little crunchier or denser. It makes roasting chicken a pain, but this is not a post about roast chicken!
All this being said, you can easily bake here if you have a functional oven, and the basic ingredients are widely available, even if that means having to go to a few shops to find everything. A good place to start is Ashan. Actually, when I bought things for the birthday cake, they had a big promotional display of baking-related materials for the holiday (we have about a week and half of state holidays now). They even had chocolate chips. Go bake a cake!