Despite my former corporate lawyer lifestyle, I’ve always loved to entertain and to cook and bake. Some of my happiest childhood memories are standing on a chair turned around backwards at my Nanie’s kitchen island, learning to crack an egg or pouring one cup of sugar at time into the kitchenaid stand mixer, using a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. There was nothing better than getting to lick the cake batter off one of the beaters of the hand mixer or the reserve of chocolate chips that were for snacking while we waited for the cookies to cool.
Here in Moscow, cooking, and especially baking has been a challenge for me for a couple of reasons. First of all, I did not move my kitchen over, and I’m limited in equipment to what my landlord provided me or the few things I’ve splurged on at Ikea or Ashaun (knowing that this posting is temporary, I’m not restocking an entire kitchen). This means one very small pot, one very small frying pan, one cookie sheet, a soup pot I splurged on, and fortunately, a good set of knives provided by the landlord (he’s in the kitchen ware business and believes in good knives, but also believes that as a single woman, I don’t need more than one plate or bowl).
Second, I’m limited in ingredients. When I go back to Wegmans or even Jewel or Dominicks, I’m amazed at the variety of things that you can buy. No matter how exotic or out of season it is, I can seem to find it. For cooking, this limitation has made me much more adaptable. Rather than going to a store or market with a recipe in mind, I go, see what’s available and try and figure out what I can cook from that. With baking, it’s not so easy, as substitutions don’t work so well. In addition to limited availability, my lack of language skills and inability to understand packaging also hampers my ability to bake.
However, this week, a friend’s birthday fell on Purim, and she was having a party at her house before we all went to a huge klezmer concert called Yiddish Fest. Without even thinking, I volunteered to make hamantaschen for the party. Easy, right? Not a complicated recipe, a basic sugar cookie, cut in circles and folded into triangles around various fillings.
Not as easy as that. Most of the ingredients I knew I could find at the store. One key one, I had searched for, but unable to find. Baking powder. With the assistance of a Russian colleague, I learned that I was looking for: “разрыхлитель теста” or lifting powder. Armed with a print out from a website of a specific brand and a handwritten sheet of paper with the generic name I hit my local grocery store on the way home from the Chabad Purim party. Could not find it. Anywhere. Not near the spices where Y had told me to look. So, with a little bit of courage gathered from my Russian acting debut and a couple of mojitos, at 11:00 pm, I went up and asked someone for help.
“Devushka, u vas est eta?” pointing at the sheet of paper.
To my delight, two things happened. First, she understood me. Or at least through the combination of my Russian and my pointing, she got the idea I was looking for something. Secondly, she was helpful. Since there was no one in line, she left her post behind the register and walked over to the baking section with me. Unfortunately, even with her native Russian skills, she came to the same conclusion that I did. The store simply didn’t have any in stock.
The next morning, I ventured to a slightly bigger, fancier supermarket to try and find it. Once again, I couldn’t locate it on my own. Frustrated and tired, I asked the devushka for help. This time, I struck gold.
As you can see, I was stymied by two things. First of all, when written in script, a cyrillic T, looks like a Latin lowercase “m.” This is not the first time it’s happened to me, especially when signs or packaging uses fancy fonts, but even after a year and a half, my brain still reads the label as an M, and can’t identify the word. Secondly, the size of a package. Baking power in the States is sold in 8 oz. cans. Here, to preserve freshness, baking powder is sold in little packets. I’ve put the quarter in the photo for size comparison, but it was a lesson in not seeing what was right in front of you.
Immediately, there were a few issues evident. The recipe called for grated lemon zest and for sifting the dry ingredients together. I didn’t have a grater or sifter or a big mixing bowl (my Ikea one cracked during my last backing attempt) so I improvised.
My large stock pot would have to stand in for a bowl. I quickly learned that this was not the best solution as the shape and size was not conducive to mixing, and I ended up using my hands quite a bit. To sift the dry ingredients, I used a pasta strainer. And finally, to get “grated” lemon zest, I peeled the lemon with a vegetable peeler and then chopped the peelings into little bits.
The next folly came when I went to roll the dough. I have no rolling pin in Moscow, but a bottle of Australian cab seemed to do the job just fine. Another great tip — use powdered sugar instead of flour to prevent the dough from sticking to the table and the “rolling pin.” I cut the circles with a water glass bought in Finland last year.
I decided to forgo the prune or poppyseed fillings and proceed with the easier and, in my opinion, tastier fillings of raspberry and apricot jams and nutella.
In my hamantaschen research, I came across a lot of complaints about leaky hamantaschen, and found two solutions. First, don’t overfill the cookies. Seriously, a scant teaspoon for a 3″ cookie is more than enough. Second, I came across a great folding method. Instead of just folding and pinching, fold one side at a time and make sure that each side has one end under and one end over another side, as pictured below.
Once all three sides have been folded, you can then pinch the corners together. In 45 hamantaschen, I only had two leakers, both of which were clearly overfilled.
I loved the crispy, sugar cookiness of this dough, as compared to the cakey hamantaschen that seem more popular in Russia. And my Russian friends seemed to agree, as there weren’t many left by the end of the evening. I wish I had thought to save a few at home for breakfast!