May 12, 2021

Siberia: Land of Pines, Exile, Cold... and Bird Cherry Cake.


Siberia: Land of Pines, Exile, Cold... and Bird Cherry Cake.

To a Westerner, Siberia means exile, cold, and remoteness. To a Muscovite, it’s exile, cold, remoteness, pine nuts, pelmeni, healing products, and a long life span. To a Siberian, it’s a life close to nature: forests and rivers, foraging, delicious fish, bird cherry cake, and, overall, a rich cuisine (and yes, also cold).

London chef and food writer Alissa Timoshkina describes Siberia in Salt & Time:

Recipe bookHistorically, Siberia was a place of exile from the mid-seventeenth century until the 1950s… through its complex history of exile and other forms of resettlement, Siberia has become a melting pot of culinary traditions from Ukraine and the Caucasus, to Central Asia, Mongolia and Korea.

This description made me appreciate Siberia in a different way, and realize how stereotyped it is, even inside Russia. My understanding of the region was also helped by making a friend from Siberia.

When I was living in Georgia, I went over to Masha’s place. She was crying, because her mother had just left to go back home to Siberia. She’d been to visit and brought pine nuts and bird cherry flour to make Masha’s favorite cake: bird cherry sponge with sour cream whipped with sugar on top. “It’s a very simple cake,” she said, “but I love it. To me it tastes like childhood. Mom made it for me for every special occasion, and we could also buy it at the local bakery. It’s divine.”

To help understand the flavor of bird cherry, here is how Timoshkina describes it:

“While small in size, the berry has the most intense flavor, which can be likened to a mix between bitter almond and morello cherries. When used in a cake mix, the flour not only amplifies the flavor, but also produces a gorgeous dark color and the loveliest grainy texture, similar to that of semolina and polenta.”

Two women on a boat on Lake Baikal
Masha and her mum Galina at Lake Baikal.

Masha remembers going into the forest to forage bird cherries, which would then be milled into flour and also boiled with sugar to be served with the cake. They would also forage for mushrooms and pine cones (for the nuts). Masha would always bring some back to Georgia with her and spend many evenings biting into the shell of the tiny nuts – an endeavor her Georgian husband never partook in, as it seems to be something you need to grow up with in order to appreciate.

Foraging was a way to pass time and enjoy the taiga forest, which they could see from their place. It was also the perfect pretext to spending the whole day in the beautiful thick forest.

Masha still has some bird cherry flour from when her mum last visited, and even a few pine nuts, that she eats sparingly, conscious that it might be a while before she gets a refill. The pandemic made her miss her grandmother’s funeral (longevity stereotype met here, she lived to be 97), and seeing her mom, who still lives in a formerly secret town near Krasnoyarsk (it was a dark spot on the map in the Soviet times, and had no name), looking out at the taiga from her window. She doesn’t bake bird cherry cake when her kids aren’t around, but I have – to honor the incredible region that Siberia is, and the strength of love between families separated by the pandemic, and to satisfy my curiosity. Masha was right, it is divine, and here is her mom’s recipe.

Bird Cherry Cake

2 eggs
100 gr softened butter
1 cup sugar
180 gr wheat flour
180 gr bird cherry flour
1 cup hot milk
200 gr thick sour cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
Baking soda 1 tsp

1. Soak bird cherry flour in milk for 30 minutes.
2. Whisk eggs with sugar, add wheat flour, butter, and soda.
3. Mix in bird cherry mixture.
4. Bake at 170° C (350° F) for 40-50 minutes, then leave in the hot oven for 30 minutes.
5. Whip sour cream with powdered sugar.
6. Cool cake, cut in half, and add the sour cream on the 2 layers.

 

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