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Monday, 11 February 2008

Блинчатый пирог: Russian Pancake cake

Last October I was lucky enough to visit Russia. It was a great trip all in all, once I developed a healthy sense of humour and a tolerance for inane bureaucracy (England has trained me well). Everyone looked like they wanted to kill me, but that turned out to be a false impression, and Russians are actually very friendly once you chisel your way through the frosty exterior.

From a culinary perspective, I approached the trip with great trepidation. I tried to imagine what it would be like to survive on boiled potatoes and bootleg vodka for 10 days. I even thought about packing food alongside my thermal underwear.
As it turned out, the food was fantastic. We had some great hearty soups like barley vegetable, cream of mushroom and of course borscht, lovely salads with lots of dill, a few wild mushroom-type dishes. We were lucky enough to make it there just before the proper winter set in, while the restaurants were still using fresh produce.

After this time they use mostly frozen food. We visited a supermarket (one of my favourite things to do whilst in another country) and found this pick n mix frozen aisle that had all kinds of fruit and veg - from mushrooms and broccoli to strawberries and blueberries.

One of the highlights was a very popular blini cafe (Russkie bliny ul. Gagarinskaya 13; 15-20 mins from Nevskiy Prospekt metro) on the outskirts of central St Petersburg. It wouldn't win points for ambiance, it was like someone had set up a makeshift cafe in their front room by throwing in couple of chairs and tables with complete with plastic tablecloths. It was perfect.

Carters had a blinchiki (deep-fried folded pancake) with egg and shallots while I went for a Blinchaty cake (pancake pie) - think lasagne but with pancakes instead of pasta, layered with light buttery potato mash and gamey wild mushrooms. The perfect lunch for a very cold and hungry person.

Several months later back in London, Miriam and Ross hosted a Foods of the World Russian lunch, and seeing as it was the perfect occasion for it, I decided I'd give the ol Blinchaty cake a whirl.

I used the same ingredients as the one I had in St Petersburg but with the addition of spinach for some greenery.

Блинчатый пирог: Pancake cake
What you need
a frying pan and springform tin of approximately the same diameter

For the crepes
3 eggs
1.5 cups flour
2 cups soy milk
half a teaspoon cornflour
2 tbsp oil
1 pinch salt

For the filling
2 small handfuls of dried porchini mushrooms, soaked in hot water
750g of fresh mushrooms, diced finely
750g bag of organic frozen spinach
7-8 medium sized potatoes
2 onions, diced finely
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
a few springs of dill, chopped
supermarket breadcrumbs
parmesan cheese
soy milk

The do
Boil the potatoes in salted water until soft and then mash with soy milk and butter. Season with lots of salt and pepper. Set aside.

crepe mixture: combine 1 egg and a half glass of milk in a mixing bowl. Add sifted flour, salt and cornflower. Slowly whisk in the rest of the milk. Add 2 tbsp of oil. Whisk until thoroughly combined. The batter should be quite runny, like the consistency of pouring cream. To prevent lumps, add all the ingredients gradually. Allow to stand for half an hour.
Heat a frying pan on high until it's very hot, throw a small knob of butter in the pan. With ladle in one hand, and the pan tilted at an angle with the other, put a ladleful of batter onto the top part of the pan. Move the pan quickly in a circular motion so the batter covers the whole surface before it sets.
When the edges start to lift away from the pan, flip the pancake over, cook for about 5-8 seconds then transfer to a plate. Repeat, stacking one on top of the other until all the mixture is gone.

mushroom filling: Drain the mushrooms, making sure you keep the water. Finely dice them and then sieve the water to remove any grit.
In a pan over medium heat, fry the onion and garlic, then after a few minutes, add all the mushrooms and the water. Fry until mixture is dry, season with salt and pepper.

spinach filling: in a frypan over medium heat, fry frozen spinach lumps until thawed. Remove from heat and push into a sieve to remove excess water.

Putting it all together: Line a springform cake tin with tin foil and sprinkle a thin layer of breadcrumbs onto the base. Lay a crepe on top of the crumbs, then a thin layer of potato (use your fingers, it's easier) spinach, grated parmesan, crepe, mushrooms, dill, grated parmesan, crepe, potato, spinach, dill, parmesan, crepe, mushroom, dill, parmesan, crepe. Continue until you run out of ingredients, finishing on a crepe with cheese on top. Press down firmly. Cover with foil, then bake for 40 mins or until a knife stuck into the centre comes out hot. Slice up and serve.

The Russian Table of Food was a sight to behold. Delicious salads and borscht. Little aubergine and sour cream blinis. Gorgeous freshly baked Georgian cheese bread.
And the desserts were A M A Z I N G.
There was a sweet plum pizza with nuts on top, and a creamy pudding with almonds which had to be set in a flower pot. Oh, and the pear, rhubarb, quince and lime favoured vodkas!
(At this point, I have to admit that I have been an irresponsible blogger and while I should have been writing down the names of these dishes I was eating them instead! Fingers crossed that their creators will be reading and be kind enough to email the recipes to so I can post them. Watch this space...)

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