Being exiled in Russia has its moments and most of those moments coincide with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Being in Petrozavodsk with my grandfather’s wife Valya has been a blessing for my taste buds and a curse for my skinny jeans. Valya’s culinary talents have kept me on a diet that has consisted of freshly foraged mushrooms sautéed with cream and buttery potatoes, homemade pork dumplings, caviar sandwiches, deep-fried herring and quail egg salad.
All of the above dishes are worth their weight in white truffles to me, but there is one that I have developed a daily dependency on that I plan to get the rest of the world hooked on. Every morning for breakfast I have a slice Smetannik, a cake that I like to think of as the Russian Tiramisu.
The main ingredient in Smetannik is smetana, a thick sour cream with a consistency close to crème fraîche. Like its Italian counterpart, Smetannik’s appeal is thoroughly soaked layers of store-bought baked goods that you get full credit for but which require no cooking on your part. I also love Smetannik because its ingredient list is open to improvisation and experimentation—you can make it sweeter, richer, caffeinated, berry-flavored or Irish.
I say, when life hands you lemons in the form of Arctic exile, trade in those lemons for some cake. Here’s how.
1 or 2 store-bought plain sponge cakes, depending on thickness, approximately 10” in diameter
3 cups sour cream or crème fraîche
1 cup sugar
½ cup crushed walnuts
Berry jam or preserves
Bailey’s Irish Crème
1.Stir sugar into your cream of choice and feel free to add some honey, rum or Bailey’s. Let sit for an hour.
2. Take the sponge cake and carefully slice across to create four ½ “ thick layers.
3. Place bottom layer in a slightly larger pan or in a deep bowl or plate. Spoon out about a third of the cream and sugar mixture onto the cake and cover completely. There is absolutely no such thing as too much cream in this recipe.
4. Stack another ½ inch layer of sponge cake on top. This time you can either repeat with another layer of cream, or substitute a mixture of condensed milk and coffee or some blueberry jam.
5. Repeat Step 4 with the third layer of cake.
6. Stack the final layer of sponge cake and spread the remainder of the cream across the top and pour it over the sides.
7. Sprinkle walnuts on top and let sit for at least two hours before digging in. You can also refrigerate your masterpiece overnight—it makes for a sweet start to the day.