8.24.2010

St. Petersburg (more!)



I’ve received a few requests in the comments and via e-mail for more details about our St. Petersburg trip, including the names and addresses of restaurants and our hotel. I’m more than happy to tell you about where we happened to lay our heads and fill our stomachs while we were there. Just please keep in mind that, having only visited for a few days, I’m probably not the best person to ask if you’re looking for authoritative touring information! If you’ve lived in St. Petersburg, or visited, and you have your own tips to share, please do leave a note in the comments section.

As for us, we stayed at Hotel Vera in the Liteyny/Smolny neighborhood, just east of the so-called “historic heart” of the city. It’s a mid-range hotel, clean, air conditioned, walking distance to the center of town, and a block away from major bus lines. There are mini-refrigerators in the rooms, which come in handy if you happen to pick up a bag of homemade string cheese at the farmers’ market.



The kind people at the reception desk spoke English quite well. They answered all of our questions about how to get around, and nodded politely when, late one night, I went on for a full two minutes about the virtues of a certain standout pickled tomato before Eli dragged me off to bed. The complimentary breakfast included a selection of breads (the black bread was my daily pick), cheeses, meats, hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, yogurts, packets of something that I think may have been instant strawberry-flavored oatmeal (does this ring a bell to any St. Petersburgers out there?) and, as you’ve already seen, fancy butter. Just one word of caution if you happen to stay there: That green foil-wrapped square on the dresser may look like a mint, but it’s not. It’s bug food. And it’s poison.


Every day of our trip, we ate pelmeni – soft, ravioli-like dumplings filled with all manner of things – at a variety of eateries, from the high-end to the national chain. Our favorite pelmeni, the pelmeni that I want to tell you about, were from a hole-in-the-wall place called, appropriately enough, Pelmeni Bar. They’re the ones in the photo that I showed you last time. What sets these pelmeni apart is their impossibly thin, smooth dough. Unlike the thicker-skinned versions splashed with broth instead of butter, these pelmeni just barely hold together from plate to fork to mouth; they split open as soon as they hit the teeth, and slide right down the throat. The pelmeni that we ordered were stuffed with mushrooms and creamy potatoes, and Eli said that they reminded him of chicken soup. I didn’t exactly follow, given that there was nothing remotely chicken- or soup-like on the plate, but I know enough about how he feels about chicken soup to understand that this was a compliment of the highest order. If Eli compared me to chicken soup, I’d take it. We also had an order of pickled mushrooms, but if I were you – or if I were me, there with the wisdom of future me – I’d skip them. Pelmeni Bar doesn’t have a website, at least not one that I can find by searching in English, but it’s located at Gorokhovaya ul 3 in the center of town, a block away from the Admiralty and the surrounding gardens. The phone number (though, unless you speak Russian, I can’t imagine what you might say if you called) is 570.0405. That’s a photograph of the storefront up there on the left.

The site of the ultimate pickled tomato, and the best all-around meal that we ate in St. Petersburg, was a place called Molokhovets’ Dream. The restaurant was inspired by Elena Molokhovets, the author of a 19th-century treasury of traditional Russian recipes and household advice called A Gift to Young Housewives. There are all kinds of Russian specialties on the menu, including three different types of borscht (beet soup), both hot and cold, and a variety of koulibiaca (fish-stuffed pastries). Elena Molokhovets dreamt mostly of meat, it seems, but there is more than enough vegetarian fare on the menu to cobble together a meal if you decide to go that route. With the soup course came brioches, mildly sweet, the size of small fists, and swollen with fresh cranberries. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about a mini-dessert served mid-meal. Then I sank my teeth into it, and I quickly figured out that how I felt about it was good. Cold beet soup, I am now convinced, is meant to be enjoyed between bites of a sweet-tart, cranberry-stuffed brioche.

Bushe Bakery, the one bakery that we visited in St. Petersburg, was not particularly exciting. Unless you count our run-in with that creepy pinching man, but that wasn’t exactly the kind of excitement we were after. It’s never fun writing about a disappointing bakery, and it’s especially frustrating when, according to reputable sources, the bakery is typically quite good. Perhaps we were there on an off day, or ordered the wrong things. All I know is that the jam-filled pastry was dry, and the apple strudel-like thing tasted only of sugar. We didn’t finish either one, and not because we were full. I’ve been thinking that I should have gone for the almond horn instead. An almond horn has never let me down.

There’s only one thing that I would have done differently during our stay in St. Petersburg (well, two things, if you count the almond horn): I would have eaten more blini. We had them just once, at a restaurant called Matrosskaya Tishina, on our last day in St. Petersburg. That day also happened to be Eli’s birthday, and I think birthday blini could have a real future as a cake alternative. Especially for Eli, who’s not much into cake, anyway. The blini – plump, springy pancakes the size of small saucers – arrived at the end of our meal with a bowl of jammy raspberry sauce. The blini were golden brown, crisp around the edges and, unlike most American-style pancakes that are spongy on the inside, these were almost custardy.

I should also mention that Matrosskaya Tishini, according to the guidebooks, is St. Petersbug’s best seafood restaurant. I did, indeed, eat some kind of well-prepared fish there, but it was served on a bed of kasha so unusually delicious – the grains were fat, as if in full bloom, and loaded with caramelized onions and browned mushrooms; it was light on the fork as kasha very often is not, and not at all waterlogged, as it so often is –that I’ve entirely forgotten what kind of fish it was, and what was so great about it. The décor of the place was a charming, if puzzling, combination of upscale and kitsch. There were all the trappings of fine dining, including linen napkins, candlelight, and first-rate service. But there was also an ocean soundtrack (think waves crashing, seagulls crowing, and foghorns blowing) playing over the easy-listening dinner music, a Wiggling Willy on the wall (yes, the singing fish), and restrooms built Disneyworld-style into a structure that looked like the belly of a ship.



That bag of cheese up top, and the straight-from-the-comb honey that I mentioned last time, were both procured at the Kuznechny Market, where fruit and vegetable vendors literally embrace you and, with one hand on your shoulder and the other on the small of your back, steer you over to their tables to sample slivers of peaches and tomatoes from their knives. It was the most aggressive produce pedaling I had ever encountered.



Of course, when we weren’t sleeping or eating, we were doing other things. We walked up and down Nevsky Prospect, the city’s bustling main street, and wandered, wide-eyed, through the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the one with the candy-like spires. (It’s worth the price of admission to see the stunning floor-to-ceiling mosaics on the interior walls.) We sprawled out on the grass for some people watching – and pelmeni digesting – at the Admiralty Gardens; stood frozen in Dvortsovaya Square, entranced by thoughts of revolution and bloodshed; and saturated our eyeballs with art at the magnificent Hermitage and Russian Museum. (There’s an incredible Picasso exhibition at the Hermitage right now, on loan from the Musée National Picasso in Paris. All I can say is WOW, and if you’re in St. Petersburg, go!). The days were long thanks to the late, late-setting sun, and we filled them to the brim. One day, we estimated that we had covered thirteen miles on foot since morning. That night, we tucked ourselves into a corner table at the tiny JFC Jazz Club and, over drinks we weren’t sure we had ordered, hummed along to bass lines we were sure we had heard before. A few hours later, we stepped out into the blue light of the 10 o’ clock hour, walked back to our hotel, and fell into bed as the sky went, finally, black.



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To review…

Sleeping:

Hotel Vera
Suvorovsky pr 25/16
Phone: 702.7206

Eating:

Bushe Bakery
Malaya Morskaya ul 7
Phone: (7.812) 764.2927

Kuznechny Market
Kuznechny per 3
Phone: (7.812) 312.4161

Matrosskaya Tishina
Ul Marata 54/34
Phone: (7.812) 764.4413

Molokhovets’ Dream
Ul Radishcheva 10
Phone: (7.812) 929.2247

Pelmeni Bar
Gorokhovaya ul 3
Phone: (7.812) 570.0405

Everything else:

The Admiralty (and surrounding gardens)
Admiralteysky proezd 1

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Nab kanala Griboedova 2a
Phone: (7.812) 315.1636

The Hermitage
Dvortsovaya nab 34
Phone: (7.812) 571.3420

JFC Jazz Club
Shpalernaya ul 33
Phone: (7.812) 272.9850

Russian Museum
Inzhenernaya ul 4
Phone: (7.812) 595.4248

8.15.2010

A postcard from St. Petersburg

A “post” card, get it?

Eli and I are doing some traveling this week before we head home to Cambridge. We landed in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, and I thought I’d stop by to tell you what we’ve been up to. In no particular order, here are some of the highlights of our trip so far:

1. Onion domes


That’s what those swirling cupolas up there are called, but I don’t know. My first thought was butter cream. And that I’d like to eat them.

2. Crosswalks


With built-in pedestrian traffic flow maps! Brilliant.

3. Pickled vegetables


Especially that tomato hiding behind the cabbage. It was the single best thing I ate in all of St. Petersburg. I dream of that tomato. I am not even kidding.

4. Pelmeni


Stuffed with mushrooms and creamy potatoes, slicked with butter, and showered in dill.

5. Late-night light


It’s light until forever in St. Petersburg. In the last few hours before dark, everything – the sky, the buildings, the water – turns rosy blue. I took this shot at 10:30pm. 10:30!!

6. Creepy men and mediocre pastries


Okay, so this wasn’t exactly a highlight. Though it wasn’t bad enough to be a lowlight, either. It was more like a weird-light. Eli and I had just sat down at a sweet-smelling bakery, when a well-dressed, unsmiling man approached us from behind, shoved his head between the two of us, leaned into my ear, and whispered something in Russian that sounded either passionate, or angry, or both. He waited a beat to see if we might respond, and when we didn’t – we were pretty shocked – he pinched me on the arm, turned on his heels, and shot out the door. This pastry, a brioche-like specimen lined with ribbons of jam, was nothing to write home about (and yet here I am, writing home about it; go figure), but after a few bites, my heart had returned to its normal rhythm, so I guess it did the trick.

7. Fresh honey

Straight from the comb at the Kuznechny market.

8. Fancy butter at breakfast


Lurpak. In diner butter packets. And why the heck not?

I love making a new place feel like home, but being a tourist is fun, too.

[Note: I’m no longer in St. Petersburg. Due to spotty, slow, and sometimes nonexistent internet access during our travels, I’m publishing this post quite a few days after I wrote it. Though if this were an actual postcard sent by mail across the ocean, you’d all probably be receiving it right about now. So hopefully, it works!]

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Update 8.24.2010: For more stories from St. Petersburg, including details about where we stayed and what we ate , click here.

8.11.2010

No regrets



Of this I am certain: The surest way to break in a home is to turn on the oven. I could say a lot more about this, but I have other things on my mind today, namely, how to get you, a pound and a half of apricots, and a sack of oats into the kitchen as soon as possible.

The thing is, I’m worried that today’s recipe might be a tough sell. It’s a crumble. Did your eyes just glaze over when you read that word? I thought so. People have a hard time getting excited about crumbles. Often billed as little more than the lazy man’s strategy for making it through a basket of rapidly ripening peaches, or ridding the freezer of last season’s berries, crumble is the only homemade dessert I can think of that consistently comes shackled to an apology, an excuse, or some variation thereof. “I was short on time, so I just made a crumble.” Just. Ouch. Crumble is as simple as it gets, it’s true. It rivals the clafoutis, I think, for the title of humblest fruit dessert. But unlike clafoutis, which follows the same dump and bake method, it lacks a fancy French name to dress it up. By comparison, a dessert whose name means “to fall apart” doesn’t stand a chance.

I may be a crumble enthusiast, but I have a message for all of you yawn-stifling readers out there: I totally get it. Too often, crumble is just another word for boring-on-a-plate. At its worst, it’s is a soupy, soggy-topped mess. It’s too light on the topping, or too heavy. It’s gummy, or gloppy, or so sweet it makes your tongue curl. But at its best – which, as you might guess, is where we’re headed here – it’s a masterpiece. A well-executed crumble belongs at the very height of the dessert pyramid. It hits the fruit to sugar ratio spot on, caramelizes slightly in all the right places, and carries with it the promise of vanilla-flecked ice cream melting into bubbling fruit. That hot-cold combination slays me every time. A crumble done right is no clean-out-the-freezer afterthought, people. It’s a dessert worth planning for.




Broadly speaking, most crumbles fall into one of two categories, based on the quality of their topping. There’s the flour-crumbed, streusel-like variety, and then there’s the oaty kind which, if all goes well, tastes something like buttery granola. I’m not sure which of the two I was after when I turned on our oven for the first time several days into our Berlin stay. It was the first cool-ish night after a string of scorchers and, no longer fearing that our flat might spontaneously burst into flames were the temperature to creep even a single degree higher, I lit the pilot and sprang into action. It felt urgent. This was no time for recipes, and certainly no time for figuring out the equivalence between 125 grams of butter and the sticks and tablespoons to which I am accustomed. I eyed the basket of apricots from the farmers’ market, dug out the flour, sugar, and oats, and called Eli over to tap out a bit more of one ingredient or another, as I worked the block of butter into the growing heap with my hands. It was, like so many crumbles (see “strategies,” “apologies,” and “excuses,” above), a slapdash affair, but one that would prove worthy of fine-tuning.



What emerged from the oven was a specimen cloaked in a crumbly something that resembled neither streusel nor granola. Out it went to the balcony to cool, and soon after, we followed, mugs and spoons in hand. The apricots had gone all bold and buttery, as apricots do. They had brightened in color and flavor, and melted into rich, almost spreadable versions of themselves. I leaned against the wall, drew my knees up to my chin, and we ate in the kind of silence that first bites of something new and powerfully delicious have been known to inspire. Somewhere in that silence I realized that I had tasted this topping in another form many times, but before I could get the words out, Eli said it for me: “Oatmeal cookies!” Exactly. And it makes perfect sense. Whether they’re flour- or oat-based, whether the butter is cut into cubes and rubbed into the dry ingredients, or melted and poured, most crumble toppings go into the oven rather dry and, well, crumbly. This topping is different. Uncooked, it's wetter than any crumble I’ve crumbled before, thick enough to hold its shape when squeezed together in the palm of your hand, but still dry enough to form many a satisfying clump. It is, in effect, an eggless oatmeal cookie dough slapped onto a dish of unsuspecting apricots where a more traditional crumble topping might have been.



I set out to replicate it the following week, and to ramp up that oatmeal cookie feeling while I was at it. It took me three tries to get it just right, but I have no regrets. After an attempt that came out waaay too sweet, and one that was overly chewy and begging for salt, I finally nailed it. I pulled the winning dish out of the oven one morning last week, minutes before Eli and I left for St. Petersburg (did I tell you I’m in St. Petersburg? I’m in St. Petersburg!). Eli took out the ice cream; our friend, Megan, who was visiting, grabbed the spoons; and I climbed up on the table to snap these photos for you. We all have to do our parts. Then, albeit rather hurriedly – we had a flight to catch, you know – we feasted. I’m a big supporter of crumble for breakfast in any case, but with so much fruit, so many oats, and so little sugar (just half a cup in the whole thing!), this particular crumble for breakfast felt practically virtuous. It was the perfect send-off.



Apricot Oatmeal Cookie Crumble

A brief note about ingredients: Here in Berlin, butter comes in 125 (and 250) gram blocks. I have provided an approximate measurement for the butter in tablespoons, and once I’m back in the States, I’ll come up with something more precise for American kitchens. In the meantime, I have a feeling that the crumble topping will easily tolerate slight variations in butter content, so don’t worry too much about just how scant that “scant tablespoon” should be. I bet that an even eight or nine tablespoons will do the trick. I’ll try both when I get home, and report back. If you happen to give it a go one way or another, please do let us know how you fare. Also, sucanat is the closest thing to brown sugar that I can find here. You can use either one for this recipe.

For the fruit:
1 ½ lbs. (about 15) ripe apricots
1 T. cornstarch

For the topping:
1 ½ c. oats
¾ c. flour
½ t. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. baking powder
½ c. sucanat or brown sugar
125g or one stick (8 tablespoons) plus one scant tablespoon cold butter, cubed

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Wash and dry the apricots, and use your fingers to break them in half. Remove the pits, and place the apricot halves into a medium baking dish. Sprinkle them with the cornstarch, and gently stir to coat. Set aside.

Combine the oats, flour, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking powder, and sugar in a bowl, and blend well. Add the cubed butter, and rub it into the dry ingredients with your fingertips. Drop the topping evenly over the apricots, and bake at 375 degrees for about 35 minutes, until the apricot juices are bubbling, and the crumble is lightly golden. To encourage the topping to crisp and darken an additional shade, turn the heat up to 400 degrees, and bake for an extra 10 minutes. Don’t be alarmed if the topping still seems somewhat chewy when you remove the crumble from the oven. Like oatmeal cookies, it will firm up as it cools.

Serves 8.

8.05.2010

To dig in my heels

It was sometime in late February, I think, when I turned to Eli over breakfast and asked, “Want to spend this summer in Berlin?” He looked up from his paper and, as casually as if I had just asked him whether he’d like pizza for dinner, said, “Sure.” And so, a plan was hatched, one that involved a grant application on my part, and a benevolent boss who, with any luck, would allow Eli to work remotely for the summer. We did what we could to get the ball rolling, and off it went: the grant came through, permission was granted (thank you, Eric!), we found an apartment, left our own home in the hands of some friends of ours who just so happened to need a place to stay in Cambridge during the very weeks we’d be away, and on July 1st, we landed in Berlin.



I can’t tell you why, exactly, we decided to run off to Berlin. Mostly, we just needed a fix of somewhere else which, I suppose, is as good a reason as any other. Eli and I were here together once before, in 2001, when we were juniors in college. I was the music director, and he was the business director of a choir, and over our spring break that year, we traveled around Germany, singing. We were talking about that trip the other day, and I realized that I have virtually no memory of the Berlin part. And yet, I managed to leave with the strong feeling that I wanted to go back. We both did. So when it came time to make our escape, Berlin it was.

I love to travel. But even more than that, I love it when I get to dig in my heels and live, really live in a new place for a while. That way, I get to fit in all of the tourist stuff, but I still have plenty of time for very important things like finding a favorite breakfast spot, cultivating opinions about the best yogurts and breads to be had, and becoming a regular at a certain pasta stand, where the woman behind the counter knows who I am and what I’ve come for, and starts filling a bag with floury pillows of walnut-gorgonzola, ricotta-thyme, and sweet chestnut ravioli before I’ve uttered a word. This summer, we’ve visited the Pergamon, the Hamburger Bahnhof, and what’s left of the wall at Mauerpark, but we’ve also hosted new friends for dinner, washed piles of dishes, and negotiated the return of an internet router in a language that’s not our own. More than anything, we’ve been walking, talking, and walking some more, sometimes with soft, warm pretzels in hand, sometimes clutching tiny cups of hazelnut gelato and even tinier spoons. Walking, talking, and eating, I find, is the very best way to make a city – or a piece of it, anyway – feel like it’s yours.



Our apartment, by the way, is perfect. We found it on Craigslist or, rather, it found us. I have to admit, I was a little nervous when I posted a couple of paragraphs about who we are and what we were looking for. Despite the fact that you, friends, have provided all evidence to the contrary, I know that the internet can be a scary place. Indeed, we dodged a scammer or two. But then one day, I heard from a woman named Olivia, who would be traveling all summer with her boyfriend, and wanted to sublet her flat. She signed her emails, “Greetings,” which I took as a sign that I was most likely dealing with a very nice, and potentially adorable, person. Incidentally, Eli and I had a chance to meet her on the day we arrived, and I was right on both counts.



The flat itself is pretty darn adorable, too. As you can see, the building is painted a deep marigold yellow. Yes, that’s a leg up there, sticking out between the railings, and no, it’s neither attached to a body, nor is it real. It’s the first thing I see when I look out my bedroom window every morning and, strange as it sounds, I’ve grown rather fond of that leg.



In every room, there are floor to ceiling windows that swing open to Juliet balconies (which, before you get too excited, are really just guard rails designed to keep you from falling out), except for in the living room, where the floor to ceiling windows take you to an actual, glorious balcony, with a table and chairs, and a few potted plants that I’m doing my best not to kill.



I am also doing my best to spend as much time as possible out there. I thought that, between a daily balcony breakfast, and a daily balcony dinner, plus twice-weekly laundry left to balcony dry, we were doing a fine job of maxing out our balcony time. But we soon realized that we are mere rookies compared to our neighbors, whose balcony is much more than a dining room, a coffee house, a laundry room, and a garden combined. Please. That’s only the beginning. When temperatures soared, they set up their bed out there, and the next day, an inflatable pool appeared where the bed had been. Their daughter splashed around, and when it finally cooled off around here, in went the pool, and out came a tiny pink rocking horse, which you see here.



These people don’t mess around.

But enough about balconies. We’ve got some serious food matters to discuss. I thought I’d kick things off with some of my favorite discoveries from my first couple of weeks in Berlin. And so, without further ado, behold! The Schoko-Reiswaffel!



I spotted it the very day that we landed, in the hands of a little boy on the M2 streetcar that runs by our apartment. That, I thought, is a thing of beauty. A rice cake plus chocolate. It seems so obvious. Yet somehow, the combination never crossed my mind. Now, of course, there’s no turning back. When I get home, I have a date with some lightly-salted rice cakes, a jar of Nutella, and a spoon.

Next up, German bread. I have a lot to say on this topic - a lot - but I'm going to save it for another day, and give you a quick rundown of the ones I like best. First, there's Sonnenblumenkernbrot, or, sunflower seed bread.



To be fair, I should tell you that I had some help with this particular discovery. I should also tell you this: If ever you’re planning a trip to Berlin, and you have a friend who is a serious Germanophile, and especially if she happens to be married to a guy who loves Berlin perhaps even more than she does, here’s what to do. Invite them over for dinner with the promise of an insanely rich chocolate dessert, have pen and paper at the ready, and don’t let them leave until they have told you everything they know. If you’re lucky, you’ll find out all kinds of very important information, including the fact that this sunflower seed bread belongs in your market basket within twenty-four hours of your arrival on German soil, and preferably sooner. Also, if you accidentally serve that chocolate dessert I mentioned in larger-than-usual bowls, which leads to accidentally larger-than-usual servings, don't panic. While studies are inconclusive, my initial observations lead me to believe that, when procuring very important information from Berlin-loving friends, a little extra chocolate serves only to grease the wheels.

Back to the breads. A new friend of ours here in Berlin recommended this next one. It's covered in sesame seeds and shot through with hazelnuts. What happens to a slice of this baby in the toaster oven is nothing short of magic.



This same new friend and his lovely wife also gifted us a loaf of their favorite.



Things just keep getting better and better around here.

Finally, I want to tell you about Johannisbeeren, or, fresh red currants.



I mentioned last week that I’ve dubbed them The Best Thing Since Rhubarb, and I stand by that title. I don’t know where they’ve been all my life. Or maybe it’s that I don’t know where I’ve been all my life, since anyone I’ve approached with the BIG NEWS that these berries are FANTASTIC seems to have jumped on the fresh currant bandwagon ages ago. Whatever the case, now that we’re both in one place, me and the currants, that is, I can’t get enough of them. I drop them into my morning yogurt, snap them off of the vine with my teeth, or toss them into a salad with cucumbers and toasted pumpkin seeds. They’re a little sweet, a lot tart, and there’s something about the way they burst on my tongue that reminds me of caviar. I’m smitten.



We’ve only been living here for about a month, but I already feel as if this city fits us like a glove. Berlin is beautiful, in a rough-around-the-edges kind of way. You can see the seams between the old and the new, between the new and the newer, and I like that.



Looking forward to showing you more.