Forgiveness Canapés Inspired by Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking
I thought I knew what I was getting into when I brought this book home. Anya von Bremzen is a Russian émigré and this is her memoir of food and eating weaved together with her family history and the history of the Soviet Union, each chapter representing a decade of their collective past. Just by the topic alone, I knew I was going to really, really like it. Then I read it. And bozhe moi (my god), I loved it.
Anya and her mom Larisa salivate over Chekhov short stories and Gogol’s Dead Souls. They aren’t the only Russian authors to make them smack their lips; Pushkin and Tolstoy have the power, too. I majored in Russian language and literature and I was, and still am, absolutely, completely unaware of the delicious treasures in these stories. Maybe when I was reading these authors in university I was more into chicken wings, beer and nachos (still am – for the record) and I just didn’t get it. I’m a bit more cultured now. Or I hope I’m a bit more cultured. Maybe it’s time to reread Dead Souls just for the food.
That’s not my only revelation from this book. In the chapter on the 1930’s, Stalin’s commissar of Soviet food production went to the United States to research American food. He returned with the ways and means to give the Soviet citizenry the hamburger; American hamburger grills were purchased and installed in major Soviet cities, enough to turn out 2 million orders a day. But when WWII happened, the bun got lost in the shuffle. The hamburger patty – no longer sandwiched between bread – became a kotleta. My mom used to make these when I was growing up! This failed Soviet attempt at the American hamburger had even made its way to the far western reaches of the Soviet empire. I remember wondering why we ate them with a knife and fork when it was so clearly a bizarre kind of burger. I would get two slices of bread out of the pantry, splash the kotleta with some ketchup and eat it like that. Deep down inside, I always knew its heritage was hamburger.
In the chapter “1970s: Mayonnaise of My Homeland,” we find out that mayonnaise is literally the glue that holds the Soviet Union together and its infinitely repurposed jar an invaluable vessel for anything a Soviet citizen might need to carry or contain – from spring flowers to booze (obviously) to pregnancy samples. Anya writes about the mayonnaise jar:
“Specifications of a totem: short, 250-gram, pot-bellied and made of glass, with a tight-fitting lid. If, as Dostoyevsky supposedly said, all Russian literature comes out of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat”, then what Gogol’s garment was to nineteenth-century Russian culture, the Provansal mayonnaise jar was to the domestics practices of Mature Socialism.”
She just equated a mayonnaise jar to the importance of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” to Russian culture, and name dropped Dostoevsky. I’m dead.
This book has so much to give – an embarrassment of food riches – that I was overwhelmed with choice on what to make for Food Anthology. The rightful star of the mayonnaise chapter is the famous Salad Olivier – the king of potato salads. But we’ve already covered that dish here. The first chapter, “1910s: The Last Days of the Czars,” gives us kulebiaka, the over-the-top bejeweled Fabergé egg of all fish pies, with its layers of sturgeon, blini, mushrooms, and dilled rice enveloped in a rich and buttery yeasted dough. I loathe fish pies but I was so under the spell of this book that I almost agreed to spend three grueling days cooking some Russian imperial era dish that I would never eat. The kotleta from the 1930’s chapter is a dish not worth eating. I’d rather have McDonald’s.
In the 1980’s, Anya and her mom return to Moscow, having emigrated to America the previous decade. They receive an invite to have dinner with Anya’s dad, someone who has a lot to apologize for. The care with which he created each dish and the monthly budget he spent to buy a whole chicken is meant to show how sorry he is. For dinner – a masterfully robust and savoury borscht and Georgian walnut-sauced chicken; to drink – homemade walnut-infused samagon and a lingonberry sprit. But to start – a canapé of gratinéed cheese toasts made with Friendship Cheese, cilantro and adzhika. Anya forgives him. It’s not clear if her heartbroken mom did, though.
There are different styles of adzhika, a spicy Georgian type of pesto, but it always includes hot peppers, garlic, spices and herbs. Friendship Cheese, a Soviet invention from the 1960’s, is a processed soft cheese spread.
This zakuska (Russian for little bite) is great with drinks, from cocktails to, if you’re brave enough, something as luridly strong as the home crafted lingonberry infused 100 proof ethyl alcohol Anya’s dad served for the forgiveness dinner.
Forgiveness Canapés with Walnut, Cilantro and Hot Pepper Adzhika
For the walnut, cilantro and hot red pepper adzhika:
Original recipe here. I made a quarter of this recipe.
The quantities below yield about 1 1/2 cups.
10-12 red hot peppers
20 garlic cloves, peeled
3/4 to 1 cup walnuts
a good handful of cilantro, leaves and stems
1 tablespoon dried coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons dried summer savoury
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons white vinegar
4 good pinches of kosher salt
Remove the seeds from the peppers.
Put the first four ingredients into a food processor and pulse until the mixture is a rough paste. Add the dried herbs and pulse a few more times. Pour the adzhika into a bowl and stir in the olive oil and vinegar. Season to taste with salt. I found the paste needed four good pinches of salt. You might find you need less or more.
To assemble the canapés you’ll need:
Sliced dark rye bread
Processed, spreadable cheese product (or Friendship Cheese if you can find it!)
Fresh herbs to garnish (cilantro, chives or dill are good)
Depending on how many canapés you’d like to make, that’s how much bread you’ll need. You’ll have about 1 1/2 cups of adzhika, so that can be your guide on the maximum quantity of canapés you’ll be able to make.
I cut rounds of the dark rye bread using a cookie cutter. If you don’t want to be that elaborate – and you don’t want want to have unusable bread scraps – you can always cut the bread into squares or rectangles.
I couldn’t find Friendship Cheese in Toronto but what I did end up getting is La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) brand cheese spread made with goat’s cheese. I have no idea what Friendship Cheese tastes like so I was kind of in the dark in finding something that was similar in flavour. I do know that Eastern European groceries and delis sell processed cheese spreads from a bunch of different manufacturers. It would be fun to experiment with different processed cheese! (Never thought I would say that on this blog.)
Spread some of the cheese onto the dark rye pieces and toast/broil until the the bread has toasted on the edges and the cheese is bubbling and bronzed. Top the gratinéed cheese toasts with a dollop of the adzhika. Garnish the toasts with a bit of the fresh herbs.
Serve with drinks.