baking: 13 posts

Ukrainian Apricot Cheesecake (Syrnyk)

If I had to choose a favorite dessert, it would be cheesecake. If I had to choose a favorite fruit, it would be apricot. So, why not put the two together? The creamy cheese filling contrasted with the luscious fruit and crumbly pastry makes for a perfect summer treat.


Syrnyk, from the Ukrainian word for cheese, syr, is a local favorite. There are hundreds of variations, from the sumptuous Lviv-style syrnyk covered with chocolate glaze to the crustless cheesecake usually baked for breakfast. (Yes, Ukraine is the place where cheesecake can be had first thing in the morning.) But when I found a recipe in my great-grandmother’s cookbook for an apricot syrnyk, I was tempted enough to brave the heat wave and fire up the oven. The result was worth it.

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Chocolate Cake with Pistachios and Apricots

The romance that appeals to me has a dark side, such as the poetry of Paul Verlaine, novels by Mary Shelley, gowns by Elsa Schiaparelli and Alexander McQueen, and music by Modest Mussorgsky. In perfume, dark romance is expressed in fragrances like Serge Lutens La Fille de Berlin, Caron Nuit de Noël, Arquiste Nanban, and Guerlain Vol de Nuit. If I extrapolate this idea even further into flavors, then it would be my dark chocolate pound cake with pistachios and apricots. It’s darkly romantic and decadent.

Bitter chocolate is complex enough to be paired with a variety of other flavors, but the combination with pistachios and apricots is one that I love for its harmony. Apricots give a tart floral note, while pistachios hold their own. Their sweetness becomes more pronounced against the dark chocolate foil.

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Rum Raisin Cake

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.

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Apricot Poppyseed Cake

The smell of a ripe apricot is mesmerizing enough to make me want to give up perfumery and tend an orchard instead.   It smells of cream, sweet orange, bitter almond, and a hint of rose. Unfortunately, unless you have access to an apricot grove, finding such a perfect specimen is difficult. Apricots are invariably picked green, and even if they soften, they never develop the perfume of tree-ripened fruit.

apricot-poppyseed2

There is, however, one technique to unlock some of the apricot’s fragrant potential. It’s to cook it. Even the hard supermarket variety becomes luscious and perfumed, especially if you add a touch of vanilla. I often sprinkle apricots with vanilla sugar and rosewater and roast them just until they start to turn jammy and tender. You can add cream, but that’s already gilding the lily. Or I make a poppyseed cake topped with apricots, an ideal late summer-early fall dessert.

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Persian Rice Cookies (Nan-e Berenji)

One of the best things I tasted in Iran was a cookie. On the tray next to the rosewater flavored walnuts, almond baklava, salty dried cherries and pistachio nougat, little pale rounds topped with poppyseeds looked the least impressive of the lot. But when I bit into one biscuit, and it melted into buttery cream in my mouth, I was instantly smitten. That’s how I discovered rice cookies, Nan-e Berenji, the classical Iranian pastries.

nan-e berenji

Nan-e Berenji has a delicate sablé-like texture and a rich perfume of cardamom. Throughout my trip, I looked for this simple confection in every town I visited, but none have rivaled the version I found in Yazd, a city famous for sweets. Yazdi rice cookies were the same golden color as the adobe walls of the ancient town, and a simple shape belied their decadent flavor.

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