My late grandmother on the maternal side was very creative. In a lot of ways. But the one my younger sister and I seemed to care about the most as kids was her ability to whip up sweet treats in no time and out of very little. As long as there were sugar and flour in her pantry, the sky was the limit. With a little sprinkle of baking soda, she turned plain water into a fizzing quencher back in the early 80’s when carbonated drinks were on the rise and hard to get in the Soviet Union; white sugar was transformed into hard candy by simply melting it in a skillet over low heat long enough and then letting it cool; the leftover brine from pickles was baked up into the most scrumptious cookies that she cut out with a rim of a plain drinking glass. She had a way with food . . . Unfortunately, she passed away prematurely when we were very young, leaving behind a bits-and-pieces kind of baking heritage that I am trying to put together like a puzzle from the recollections of those who are still around.
She crossed my mind unexpectedly yesterday as I was rummaging the pantry in search of something sweet (что-нибудь вкусненькое) in the bewitching hour between 4 and 5 p.m. Think teatime! Between a tropical downpour outside, an overdue grocery shopping trip that didn’t stand a chance of happening again, and Nicole whining for cookies, a victim to the same wandering gene for starchy foods that had been striking predominantly females in our family for five generations now, I felt pretty doomed.
Yet, I gave my pantry a different look. I had some sugar, flour, 1 ½ sticks of butter, a package of farmer cheese, a cup or so of homemade strawberry syrup, and a jar of crème fraiche that I’d whipped up the night before by mixing 1cup of the leftover heavy whipping cream with 2 tablespoons of . . . again the leftover sour cream.
“Gee, there’s food for another week or so!” I concluded and reached for the syrup with a grandmotherish sorta intent to scrape up all those leftovers into something delectable.
“Эх, старуха, по амбару помети, по сусекам поскреби—вот и наберется.” Помните “Колобка”?
Nicole is in love with my strawberry syrup. The other day she wanted to pour it all over her turkey sandwich. I bet it wouldn’t be such a bad alternative to mayo and cream cheese. My sweet little chef, I hope you got hit with the baking gene as well!
Kevin loves my strawberry syrup. I might as well admit, I love my strawberry syrup. And I love making it because I am in charge of how much and what kind of sugar goes into it.
When it comes to jelling fruits, sugar undoubtedly aids in the process and acts as a preservative. Fine. But the amount of it greatly varies from recipe to recipe, thus perfectly capable of either burying or lacing the flavor of the fruit you are trying to hold on to.
I usually slash the amount of sugar specified in a recipe by a third, sometimes in half, or substitute white sugar with blonde cup for cup. Note that for proper jelling you might need to increase the amount of acid and/or pectin, especially if you are making preserves.
But back to the intent. The intent was to use the syrup to make kisel and introduce Nicole to this traditional Russian dessert of German origin that is a popular nursery food in Russian preschools (в яслях и детсадах) and a light summer dessert at the grandmother’s dacha (у бабушки в саду) where the abundance of summer fruits and berries entails creative ways to consume them.
Kisel is a smooth, starchy fruit soup that’s made from fresh or dried berries, water, and sugar and thickened with potato starch, cornstarch or arrowroot. It can be served hot or cold, on its own or as a topping for waffles, pancakes, ice cream, and kashas.
I used my mildly sweet strawberry syrup as a base, skipped sugar, and added only 3 tablespoons of potato starch to get a thinner consistency. A dollop of crème fraiche lent kisel a creamy texture and somewhat toned down the intense strawberry flavor.
In hardly any time Nicole and I were sipping our strawberry soup through straws, working on the first batch of farmer cheese cookies. No kid will resist the crunch of this cookie! Disguised as sugar cookies, these healthfully tweaked bite-size goodies deliver such important nutrients as vitamins A, D, calcium, and protein. But making these cuties seems to have as many benefits as eating them, believe it or not. From mixing and rolling to sprinkling and folding, your preschooler will have his/her hands full, honing the fine motor skills, revising shapes, and learning basic geometry. Delicious homeschooling, I must say!
When Kevin got home later that day, he had a tough time picking his dessert: strawberry kisel with crème fraiche or crème fraiche with strawberry kisel? What would you choose?
Recipe for Strawberry Kisel
1. 1 ½ cups strawberry syrup
2. 3 cups plus 2 tbsp. water, divided
3. Juice from ½ lemon
4. 3 tbsp. potato starch
1. In a medium saucepan, combine syrup, water, and lemon juice.
2. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce heat, and simmer for 3 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, in a small cup or bowl, mix potato starch with water into a paste.
4. Constantly stirring to eliminate lumps, whisk the starch paste into the strawberry mixture, return to a boil and remove from heat to cool.
5. Kisel will continue jelling as it cools down.
This dessert is also nice topped with whipped cream, sour cream, Greek-style yogurt or crème anglaise.
Recipe for Farmer Cheese Cookies
1. 7 oz. all natural, no-salt-added farmer cheese
2. 1 ½ sticks all natural butter, softened
3. 1 ½ cups all-purpose unbleached ultragrain flour
4. 1/4 cup all natural nonfat dry milk
5. 1 cup 100% natural pure cane sugar
1. In a medium-sized bowl, combine farmer cheese, flour, and dry milk
2. Cut in butter. Use your fingers to blend the ingredients together until a smooth dough ball can be formed.
3. Divide dough in half, cover, and chill for 30 minutes.
4. On a lightly floured surface, roll half the dough at a time until 1/8 inch thick.
5. Using a 2 ½ -inch round cookie cutter, cut dough into circles, reusing the scraps.
6. Sprinkle each circle with sugar, fold in half, and pat to seal. Sprinkle semi-circles with sugar, fold in half again, and pat to seal. Now, sprinkle triangles with sugar.
7. Place 1 inch apart on a cookie sheet that’s lined with parchment paper.
8. Bake at 375 F for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.
Makes about 4 dozen cookies.