Next to the cookbooks written by my great-grandmother Olena, my other beloved ones are by the Ukrainian food writer Daria Tsvek. I love her voice, advice, and of course, recipes that highlight the flavorful Galician cuisine of Tsvek’s native Lviv. Last week I tried Tsvek’s rum raisin cake that comes from a book called For the Festive Table (До Святкового Столу). Published in 1973, it offers menus and recipes for holidays and celebrations, along with suggestions on how to organize one’s time and host dinner parties.
I picked up the book for my cookbook collection, but I ended up cooking so much from it that I made a photocopy to use in the kitchen. Tsvek’s imaginative and inventive flair fill the pages. She’s able to concoct an elegant feast out of the simplest ingredients, and reading her book I’m not even aware of the endemic Soviet shortages that must have made the task of a recipe writer difficult. Her rum raisin cake turned out to be buttery, crumbly and fragrant, a recipe to add to my baking repertoire.
A few years ago I became curious about Soviet era cookbooks and little by little acquired most of them, a task made easy by the fairly small size of the cookbook publishing business in the USSR. What becomes obvious is how centralised and state-directed was even this innocuous industry. One main aspect of the Soviet policy was Russification and general standardization of culture, which meant that most cookbooks featured the identical recipes, even if they purported to showcase national cuisines. For instance, the mayonnaise laden salad of boiled potatoes, eggs, pickled cucumbers and bologna sausage appears in the Uzbek cookbook as Salad Tashkent, in the Belorussian cookbook as Winter Salad, and in the Georgian cookbook as Salad Gruzia, and so on. There are other absurdities, especially in the introductory sections that quote the Party persona de jour and their views on feeding the masses. You can still find authentic regional specialties in these books, and for all of the faults, they’re fascinating historical documents.
Daria Tsvek’s cookbooks are different. For one thing, they were published in her hometown and she, rather than a group of editors in the distant Soviet capital, oversaw all steps of the process, down to food styling. Tsvek was a respected chef and professional caterer, and her books reflect her expertise. She also longed to share her knowledge of Ukrainian customs and traditions, a politically sensitive task–and achieved it splendidly.
The raisin cake comes from the section on the October holiday marking the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. After writing the obligatory line about “the most beloved celebration of every Soviet person,” Tsvek describes Ukrainian harvest traditions and gives suggestions on decorating the table (“add a colorful leaf next to each place setting”) and making a picnic basket. Why spend holidays in the city (read, marching in those dull October Day parades)? Why not enjoy nature and autumnal colors, especially since “the forest in the fall is indescribably beautiful: everything is still and serene as if feeling the majestic approach of winter.” The cool days call for tea with a slice of cake, and Tsvek’s rum flavored loaf packed with raisins, walnuts and candied orange peel is perfect.
Tsvek offers a fail-proof method of incorporating eggs into the sugar-butter mixture in order to avoid curdling–whip sugar and butter until pale and then start adding eggs, interspersing each addition with a spoonful of flour. Once all eggs are added, perfume the batter with vanilla, cognac and fold in the rum soaked fruit. Once baked the cake can be eaten right away, but it’s even better aged for a day.
Rum Raisin Cake (Фруктовий Кекс)
You can use any proportion of dried fruit and nuts that you like. I used 3/4 of raisins, 1/4 of walnuts and 1/4 of candied orange peel. Or try a mixture of dried apricots, dried cherries and pistachios.
Feel free to use only rum or only cognac instead of the rum-cognac mixture. It’s true that using two liquors gives a more complex aroma, but the cake is so flavor packed that substitutions won’t be obvious.
200g (1 stick and 6 Tablespoons) butter
225g (1 cup + 1.5 Tablespoons) sugar
6 large eggs
300g (2 cups + 2 Tablespoons) all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
250 g (6oz) dried fruit and nuts (raisins, chopped walnuts, chopped candied orange peel)
1 Tablespoon rum
1 Tablespoon cognac
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 175C/350F.
Wash raisins, drain well, dry with a paper towel and sprinkle with 1 Tablespoon of rum. Set aside.
Sift flour with baking powder.
Whip butter and sugar with a handheld mixer until pale. Add eggs one by one, mixing well after each addition and alternating each egg with a spoonful of flour. Once all eggs have been added, mix in vanilla extract and 1 Tablespoon of cognac. Fold in the rest of the flour and mix well.
Sprinkle dried fruit and nuts with a little bit of flour and mix. Fold into the dough.
Butter and flour a 8 3/4″ x 4 3/4″ (22cm x 12cm) rectangular mold. Pour in the batter, smooth the top and make a cut in the middle with a damp knife. Bake at 175C/350F for 40min. Then reduce to 160C/320F and bake for about 30-40min or until a wooden stick plunged into the middle of the cake comes out dry. Cool in the mold. Enjoy!
Дарія Цвєк, До Святкового Столу. Видавництво “Каменяр”, Львів, 1973.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin