Wednesday, April 22, 2009

From Russia with Love

The sun, the beach, and Russian food : my idea of a wonderful Spring afternoon.

Saturday was the warmest day I've had so far here in New York, and we only had one thing on our minds--if you can go to the beach by subway, really, why refrain from doing so? So there we were on the Q train, headed for a sunny Russian picnic in Brighton Beach. When we arrived, it was just as I'd hoped: Eastern Europeans shopping for food in places where everything was in Cyrillic, and therefore completely mysterious to the French and English speakers we were.

After deciding that the first store we stopped at had delicious looking pastries but way too much of a line, we headed down to another deli-type shop on Brighton Beach Avenue. Once inside, everything looked good, but I had no idea what half of it was. This was my first time trying out Russian food, and I was pretty excited. I ended up asking a very nice woman about some of the self-serve entrees, and she was more than helpful: she basically walked me through the whole place, with a description of all the non-obvious foods as well as recommendations. I wasn't hungry hungry, so settled for a few pirozhki--although I'm not sure they were pirozhki, because they were made from puff pastry--one pumpkin and one lamb. There was also a small variation on a cheesecake that I couldn't resist taking, so I grabbed it and decided I needed something fresh to go along with this greasy goodness. A bottle of "mineral water", first, which turned out to be incredibly salty sparkling water, and grated carrot salad.We then settled out on a quest for Russian pastries and ended up in the first store, where I excitedly bought a Hungarian beigli, a soft poppy seed-filled roll.

We were finally ready to hit the beach. I was expecting something dirty, but it was alright. Good enough for our improvised picnic, anyway.

My two puff pastry "pirozhkis" (still trying to find out what they were) were indeed delicious, but definitely satisfying. I wasn't hungry anymore after a single one, which was amazingly good, but the second (lamb) was great nonetheless. In between both, I had some of the carrot salad. The taste was completely different from the carrot salad I'm used to in France; there was a lot of oil (too much in my opinion), but also a lot of garlic and a little spiciness. From what I've read, Russian carrot salad is actually Korean by way of Siberia, which explains its distinctive taste.

This recipe from Yulinka Cooks seems to sum up the tastes I got pretty well, from the garlic to the small hint of sweetness.

Next came the "cheesecake" : tangy but not quite creamy, overall nothing that I would go looking for again. It was like a mix between a dry cheesecake and a weird gateau au fromage blanc, so not that great.

Finally came my favorite part of the meal, dessert. I was completely over-full by that time, but the thought of a poppy seed pastry was enough to make me forget about my exploding stomach for a couple minutes. I love poppy seed patries, and especially those from the Patisserie Viennoise next to the Ecole de Medecine in Paris. The sweetness paired with a little crunch is what I like most about them, even if I wish I could skip the "checking my teeth because 9 times out of 10 I have poppy seeds stuck everywhere" part.

Well, the beigli was great--the top was golden and had a nice eggy shine, while the inside was really fresh. When we bought them, they were still warm from the oven, and it really showed in the taste.

I wish I could go back to Brighton Beach every weekend to grab a couple pastries, but the weather is supposed to get even warmer this weekend, which means more beaches to explore. Now if only each country had its neighborhood at a beach in New York, it would make things even better.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins


After much consideration, I decided that my failed muffins came from a combination of me not knowing my "new" oven well enough, and the fact that my baking soda was a little old--to be honest, I used the one that was already here when I moved in, which isn't the smartest thing to do.

Once I realize this, I didn't have much of a choice, and set out to prove to everyone (well, myself, anyway) that my pumpkin chocolate-chip muffins could be as good here as they are in Paris.

And they were!

To be honest, I wasn't quite concentrated when I started to bake. I was probably thinking about dinner plans or something like that (we had guests over for the week), and I only decided to taste the batter once I had scooped it all into my muffin pan. That's when I realized they tasted strangely salty. I brushed it off, thinking I just didn't remember the taste of the batter and that this was absolutely normal. I set them in the oven, and three minutes later it hit me. I had forgotten to add sugar. Not looking for an "interesting" sweet & savory mix, I promptly removed the muffins from the oven, put everything back into a bowl, and added sugar. I noticed the chocolate chips were starting to melt, so I added another half cup or so. 

Now I wouldn't really recommend making this same mistake, but it turns out the combination of non-melted and half-melted chocolate chips was a success, at least from what I was told. The batter had a hint of chocolate, and the full chocolate chips added a little something.

OK, so they weren't like my muffins in Paris, but that's what baking is all about, right? Out with the old (or at least set it aside, unwillingly), in with the accidentally new!

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins - successful Paris version

makes approx. 30 muffins

adapted from a Nestle recipe

3 c. flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp salt
4 eggs
2 c. sugar
1 15 oz. can of pumpkin puree
1 c. applesauce or oil
1 1/2 c. chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350°F / 180°C.
Beat eggs and sugar together; add pumpkin and applesauce (or oil) and combine.
Stir in dry ingredients until combined, without overmixing.
Finally, add chocolate chips.

Fill each muffin cup 2/3 to 3/4, and bake for 20-25 minutes.