Cakes cause a certain amount of dissension in your house.
This comes to a head every birthday, when your MiL and you husband look on in mild bemusement as you wrestle with the latest offering on the altar of declaring your love through home cooking. Why bother? They have learned not to ask.
For in Russia they are not great cake makers. This is not, however, to say that they do not have great cakes. They do. There they are, all lined up in dedicated deli counters in any food shop larger than a kiosk. Here is a picture of your favourite. It doesn’t look that impressive, but that is because you were unable to wait to take the photograph and it is in the middle of being demolished. Yes, it is essentially meringue held together with cream and nuts. Mmmmmmmmmmmm.
Of course, when you were visiting a few years ago, there seemed to be experimentation with healthy versions of the classics. Healthy cream does not taste nice. Luckily, that madness had passed by the time you arrived in Moscow this summer and it was back to business as usual with the spun sugar, the cream and the elegant fruit toppings. And more meringue.
So Russians definitely eat cake. A lot of cake. Particularly as Russians actually do afternoon tea. And elevennses. Office birthdays were also particularly spectacular, although as a hostess you always appreciated the habit guests had of turning up with large square boxes full of gooey goodness. These days you tend to get wine, vodka and chocolates instead and it’s just not the mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Chocolates. Really really good chocolates. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Where was I?
You found out why Russians don’t bake when you decided to make B a Russian classic for his last birthday, Bird’s Milk Cake.
It tasted a lot better than it looked.
It took six hours.
Admittedly, at least one of those hours was because you had run out of condensed milk and had to stop and make your own, which you highly recommend by the way as it keeps forever and tastes much better than the stuff in tins.
Still, that’s practically five hours longer than you would expect to spent on an undecorated British cake (although it was very very good).
Russian cakes are, in your opinion, meant to be constructed by professionals under controlled conditions. By contrast, most British classics are meant to be made at home. And for this reason, you very rarely buy shop-bought cakes in the UK, and wouldn’t dream of it for properly special occasions. Why bother? Well, you can do it better and with a surprisingly small amount of effort.
Well, except for the whole decoration aspect. Since you are completely without any crafting skills whatsoever, you do approach the summer months with trepidation due to the fact that you now have to regularly produce themed birthday cakes for your son… and, oh no! Soon you will be doing it for your daughter too. You really did not think this having more children thing through.
Here, for example, is the practice cake for B’s birthday a couple of years ago.
And here is the Star’s second birthday cake. Yes, that is three times the recommended dosage of food colouring in that butter icing in a vain attempt to make it red rather than pink.
(Incidently, you learned a very important parenting lesson as a result of this cake.
Do not save the birthday cake as a surprise for the end of a hard day’s partying.
You whipped it out of its cupboard to very satisfying cries of the Star’s delight.
Cries which swiftly turned to screams when, ten minutes and many candles later, you whipped it away again… in order to brutally hack it apart).
But in the end the problem with the cakes you make is not the reckless use of electricity involved in the baking time, nor the assault on aesthetic standards caused by your decorating skills.
No, the problem is that B just doesn’t really like British cakes at all. Oh he eats them if you put raisins in, but he’s not enthusiastic. And he considers the great British sponge in particular to be one big waste of good eggs, sugar and butter.
This initially came as something of a surprise to you.
Because to your palette Russian sponges, well, Russian sponges taste stale*.
And in one of those misunderstandings that only occur when two cultures collide, you smugly and quite patronisingly assumed that all that when B had a real sponge, he would fall to his knees, mouth foaming in ecstasy and declare he had seen the light. You still find it difficult to believe that B actually prefers the (substandard) taste he grew up with. But he does, and that’s all there is to it.
The Bird’s Milk Cake helped you realise why. The ‘cake’ part of the recipe is made with flour, eggs, sugar and so on… and no raising agent. The flour is plain. There’s no baking powder. Nothing. One recipe you came across called it a biscuit. And it was certainly very flat. And a bit stale tasting.
So your advice to any British person visiting Moscow is stay away from the sponges* and stick to anything essentially held together with cream and meringue.
And if serving cake to a Russian, make muffins. This is the recipe you used, and which inspired this post.
Because B ate them. All. In one day. And demanded more. You have branched out from cranberries and done blueberry muffins and even banana ones. Add cinnamon. Leave out the orange peel.
Galling that the bloody things are actually American though.
*Except the Prague Cake, which is chocolaty and lovely. Although still not terribly light or fluffy. Western versions of the recipe add baking powder.