Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Russian Caravan

"Twenty kilometers to Leningrad!" barked the conductor, smacking me on the side. I rubbed the sore spot, lifted my head from the pillow, and looked down. He was setting a tray of tea glasses, each encased in a fanciful metalwork holder, on the little fold-out table between our berths. A delectable fragrance was rising.

"Annushka, u nas goryachii chai!" said my Russian teacher. Anna dear, we have hot tea. 

The night train from Moscow to Leningrad (or St. Petersburg) was, of course, the scene of another Anna's awakening. Count Vronsky declared his passion for Anna Karenina when she disembarked for a bit of fresh air along the way. When Anna got to Petersburg, all she could think about was how large her husband's ears seemed to have grown since she saw him last. Perhaps if the conductor had smacked her one as the train approached the city, things might have turned out differently.

Of such incongruities is Russian life made. Russian culture seems to this outsider always to be teetering between barbarism and warm hospitality. Brutally repressive tsars also stood in their palaces for hours at Eastertime, kissing each guest---the reception lines were thousands long---three times. The cruelty of love is a literary cliche, but Russian writers also have cause to speak of the love of cruelty. When they juxtapose historical drama with private drama, the results are, of course, worthy of cable television.

Characters in Russian literature are always gathering for tea---not the abomination falsely bandied about in 1960's cookbooks as "Russian Tea," but real, freshly brewed black tea, often from a samovar. A samovar (the word means "self-boiler") is such a potent symbol of Russian hospitality that even though it is perfectly possible to make great tea without one, people cherish them, collect them, and sometimes even buy them new. That's what Diner #1 did for me one fabulous birthday. My samovar, a Beem (of German manufacture), is a great way to serve tea to a crowd: You make an extremely strong brew called "zavarka" in the top pot and dilute it with hot water to taste from the spigot.

Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen

(From time to time I've considered making up stories about a great-great-grandmother bringing this only possession, her cherished samovar, over on the boat, but the thick electric cord betrays me.)

Even in my days as a student in Moscow, tea was valued and served with great ceremony (though not often with lemon slices, since these were a rare luxury, and sugar was rationed). I often brought tins of Twinings from the hard-currency store as presents for my Russian friends. My favorites were Blackcurrant and Russian Caravan. Twinings Blackcurrant loose-leaf, in a distinctive tin of shocking magenta, was discontinued years ago. The Blackcurrant flavor is still available in tea bags through Twinings, and other companies sell a loose-leaf blackcurrant, but these alternatives don't do it for me.

Twinings Russian Caravan has also been discontinued, but blending Keemun with a bit of Lapsang Souchong does the trick. My favorite source is Adagio Tea. There is nothing like it to brighten the gloom of late winter.


How to Make Great Russian-Style Tea without a Samovar

You will need a kettle to boil water and a teapot as well as a strainer. Don't even think about heating your water in the microwave for this; you cannot keep an eye on it, which is important.

Fill the kettle with fresh, cold water and put it on to boil. When the water is very hot but not boiling, fill the teapot with it; this warms the pot. When the kettle water is almost at a boil, dump out the water in the teapot. Add to the teapot one generous spoonful of loose-leaf black tea per guest plus one for the pot.

When the water boils, bring the teapot to it and fill it. The tea will taste better if the water has not boiled for very long at this point. Some commentators who were not paying attention in chemistry class warn against "boiling out all the oxygen," but I won't. Stir the tea, cover, and allow to steep for three to five minutes. Bring it to the table, keeping the kettle hot on the stove.

The first cup is never any good, so reserve it for your garden. The second, third, and beyond, poured through the strainer into cups, are guaranteed to cure toska, the Russian word for melancholic longing. If your teatime becomes lengthy and the tea strong, do as you would with samovar tea: add a bit of the tea to a cup, then dilute it with hot water from the kettle. Offer sugar, slices of lemon, and milk. In our family, if anyone asks for the last two together, he risks being teased, "Surely you're joking, Mr. Bendiksen!"


Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen

Friday, January 22, 2016

Biscuits



One of the pleasures of cooking is that one is free to tinker and to call the results whatever one likes. In British English, of course, a "biscuit" is what speakers of American English call a "cookie," whereas an American "biscuit" is a quick bread. Ever so slightly crusty on the outside, tender on the inside, biscuits on this side of the pond are surrounded by a certain mystique. They are notorious for being the quick bread that takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.

Diner #2 has loved American biscuits since he was old enough to eat them. Once, as a toddler, he tried to negotiate his way down a flight of stairs with a biscuit in one hand. CRASH! My sister-in-law heard him screaming bloody murder and rushed to help.

"It's OK," she said. "It's going to be OK." But it wasn't.

"BIS-CUIT!" he yelled, pointing to a pile of crumbs.

Such devotion from the Diners keeps me trying to improve. Biscuits are not the first thing I ever baked, but they are the first thing that I was required to bake as a seventh-grader in home-economics class, and as such serve as a benchmark. On days when my biscuits don't come out, I can think, well, they weren't nearly this good in 1982.

Home ec in our Midwestern town was serious business in those days. Girls, and only girls, took home ec; boys, and only boys, took shop. The pristine home-ec classroom, the size of all the science classrooms combined, had multiple cooking stations, each with an oven white as a prairie blizzard. The fluorescent lights glared at our every insecurity. We learned how to sit on the ground should it become necessary, never crossing our legs but tucking them gracefully to one side. The teacher wanted our seams sewn at exactly 5/8 of an inch, no more, no less. She also wanted our biscuits perfect.

"Help, Mrs. ___, my biscuits came out funny."

"Let's see," she would say, and walk over to peer at a pan full of lumps. "Hmmm. Are you sure that you measured exactly?"

"Uhhh..."

"Girls," she would say, turning to address the gathering crowd, "you must always measure exactly, otherwise your biscuits will not come out right."

I was later to learn that this, like so much else that one is told when one is growing up, was not true. An experienced cook can, of course, make biscuits, as well as a great many other things, without always measuring exactly. Now that I think about it, it was when I stopped measuring exactly that I started finding a sense of freedom and joy in the kitchen. However, even if my teacher had been of the same opinion, it would have been unwise of her to tell us so, not only because the words "freedom" and "joy" make any self-respecting Midwesterner think of sex, but also because our biscuits would have been inedible.

During my eighth-grade year, there was a small revolution. We were informed by the principal at an all-school assembly that a change in policy was at hand. It would now be assumed that girls would take home ec and boys would take shop. However, if one (how clearly the words ring in my memory) "wished to deviate," one might do so. Boys would for the first time be allowed to take home ec. Girls would for the first time be allowed to take shop.

I was thrilled, immediately signed up, and in no time at all established for myself, the lone girl, a solid reputation as the worst student in the class. There was baffling talk of corporations, products, supply and demand. The wood shop was full of machinery even more terrifying than those spanking-clean stoves; I was so afraid of the blades that our kind and observant teacher wound up finishing my final project for me. Meanwhile, the grapevine had it that a friend of mine who had also Wished to Deviate was making delicious biscuits, behaving with courtly manners to his adoring classmates, sewing perfectly gorgeous seams, and generally knocking expectations out of the ballpark. He remains an inspiration to me to this day.

The beauty of biscuits is that they are made quickly, with common, inexpensive ingredients, and yet satisfy the need for daily bread. Having buttermilk around helps, though I've also made them successfully with what my grandmothers would have called "sweet" (i.e. regular cow's) milk. In my home-ec days, our biscuit recipe called for Crisco shortening. Today I prefer a mixture of Crisco and butter for flakiness and flavor respectively. A light kneading improves texture, and an oven at 415 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal, though if your oven doesn't allow for such precision, 400 will work too.

Biscuits are a good companion to soups, stews, or just about any breakfast. They are particularly tasty with eggs. Often I'll see the Diners exchanging a particular look on a weekend morning and I know that I am about to be asked, "Any chance of biscuits?" Having mastered, since my middle-school days, the principle of supply and demand, I know not to answer in the affirmative too often.

---

Biscuits

Sift together into a large mixing bowl:

2 and 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 T. baking powder
2 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 t. sugar

Cut in with a pastry blender or your fingers:

1/4 c. cold unsalted butter
1/4 c. Crisco

until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. At this point, the mixture may be refrigerated overnight.

Heat oven to 415 degrees Fahrenheit. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in:

about 1 c. buttermilk

Stir with a fork until just blended, adding more buttermilk if necessary.

Turn dough out onto a well-floured board and sprinkle generously with flour. Knead lightly three times. Sprinkle with flour again and roll out, then cut into rounds. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake 10-12 minutes, or until barely golden at the edges. Serve immediately.


                                                                                         Yield: 1 dozen biscuits


                                                                                                               Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen