MORRILL MEMORIAL LIBRARY

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a-taste-of-russia-book-cover

Binging on Great British Baking and Russian Pastry

a-taste-of-russia-book-coverGerry and I binge-watched at least four seasons of the Great British Baking Show this summer. It had been recommended and once I started binging and proselytizing about my new-found crush, I realized that, as with most other hit series, I was years late to the party. Especially this British one.

During one particular B-A-A-A-A-K-E which happened to be pastries, I thought of the favorite savory pastry that had captured my fancy over 25 years ago. It was the kulebiaka (or coulibiac) – a time-consuming Russian first course. The kulebiaka boasts a flaky, buttery pastry that envelopes a filling of either cabbage and chopped hardboiled eggs or salmon, rice and dill. My finished kulebiaka’s crust is garnished with leaves and a rope closure and rises and bakes to golden perfection.

Once sliced and served with sour cream, it is always met with ooohs and aaaahs across the room. Anton Chekhov wrote in his short story The Siren that “the kulebiaka must make your mouth water; it must lie there before you, a shameless temptation! You cut off a sizable slice and let your fingers play over it. When you bite into it, the butter drips from it like tears.”

I fantasized, recently of course, that Paul Hollywood would have swooned over one of my masterpieces, the kulebiaka. I might have had a handshake.

Long before I was awarded my master’s degree in library science (or MLS) from Boston’s Simmons College, I had returned to college in the late 1980s as an undergraduate. Years earlier I had left behind three years of academic work in History and Political Science at a California university to begin raising my family. A requirement for completing my degree with distinction from a Massachusetts state college was that I must complete more than half of the total required credits (120) at a Massachusetts school. Doing the easy math, I need to complete 150 total credits instead of the normal 120 for a bachelor’s degree. Lucky for me, I had more curiosity than 120 credits anyway.

My favorite courses that second time around were in Russian Studies, which of course fell right smack within my favorite academic areas of interest: history, literature and political science. For a minor in Russian Studies I was also required to take at least a year of Russian language and I memorized the Cyrillic alphabet forwards and backwards. My studies included a tour to the Soviet Union in 1990, a year before my hero USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika helped to dismantle the Soviet Union and communism.

My interest in Russia started many years before… as a very young child. Moving to Berkeley, California at the age of six, my family rented an apartment in a big house just three houses from my new elementary school. Our absent landlady was a large, hardy and hearty block of a Russian woman who was missing most of her right arm. Her infrequent visits, her Russian accent, and her exotic right arm fascinated me. That curiosity led me to other things Russian in my youth, including a book I read my senior year in high school, We the Living by Ayn Rand. It is one I credit with many influences in my life. The young, female protagonist in the book is named Kira. It was years later, after naming my youngest daughter with the Irish version of that name (Ciara and pronounced exactly the same), when I realized just how influential the book had been.

Returning from the study tour in the Soviet Union in 1990, I took up Russian cooking with an energetic passion. My graduation party from college in 1991 was a huge affair with over a hundred friends and family feasting on Russian food and drink. I enlisted the help of some of those friends who cooked and baked with me all week. I rented tables for the backyard and placed centerpieces of pitchers of lilacs, all donated from another friend’s garden. I hired a young Russian man named Sasha who appeared dressed in traditional Slavic costume. He spent the afternoon roaming the yard with his balalaika and entertaining the crowd with lovely Russian folk music. In addition, I contracted a slick-suited pianist named Vladimir who played music by Russian composers on the piano in my living room. It was a tremendously wonderful party and I smile again remembering it nearly three decades later.

So, following that pastry episode on the GBBS, I searched for my recipe books and came across some of my old favorites on my bookshelves, A La Russe: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality by Darra Goldstein and the Art of Russian Cuisine by Anne Volokh. The copy of my favorite book, Russian Cooking, part of the Time-Life Cooking of the World Series I had collected in the 70s as a young wife, was missing. That book was the one from which I’d learned exactly how to assemble the kulebiaka, using the photographs over a two-page spread.  To my surprise, not one of the Minuteman Libraries had a copy. Thankfully, I found over a dozen copies of Russian Cooking listed in the Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Catalog (or ComCat.) Although I could have requested one through Massachusetts library delivery, I eventually unearthed my own copy.  I discovered the very worn and stained spiral-bound book of recipes and the accompanying hardcover in my basement, mixed in with a few other castaways.

Searching the library catalog, I found a more recent copy of Darra Goldstein’s book (published in 2013 as A Taste of Russia and I’ve added to our collection.) Her book is rich with recipes for Marinated Mushrooms, Baked Apple Charlotte, Baba au Rhum, and Siberian Dumplings. The recipe for Apricot Tart is one I memorized 25 years ago and use over and over again. Anne Volikh’s Art of Russian Cuisine is no longer in print, but several libraries have it on their shelves. She also includes a page of drawings illustrating assembly of the Kulebiaka and recipes from across the huge Russian and Soviet empires. Our library has a copy of Please to the Table by Anya von Kremen that includes recipes across the fifteen former republics of the Soviet Union.

If you’d like to learn the art and passion of Russian cooking, like the famed kulebiaka, there are many books in the Minuteman Library Network and across Massachusetts through ComCat. Or watch every episode of the Great British Baking Show and save those calories.

Charlotte Canelli is the Director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the August 23, 2018 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Lydia Sampson

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