This book was on my list of books to look for in 2017, although I’m not sure where the recommendation came from. I noted that it was a debut novel, and similar to The Night Circus, a fantasy, which I liked very much. I was immediately drawn into the story which began with an old woman, Dunya, telling a much-repeated tale about the Frost King to a family huddled around the oven for warmth on a cold Russian winter’s night. I loved the Russian names and the brief history lesson about the Golden Horde, and Russia’s subservience to its Tatar overlords in the 13th and 14th centuries. The story is mainly about the Vladimirovich family, headed by boyar (ruling prince) Pyotr. I immediately liked the man when I learned that while his family was warm and entertained in the house, he had spent that same night in the barn birthing a lamb, as was his practice when a new creature came into the fold to enrich his holdings. Although we don’t get to know his wife, Marina, very well, she is a formidable presence throughout the book. I only just realized this as I write about her now. The most interesting character is Vasilisa Petrovna, Pyotr’s youngest daughter. She is a fairy tale heroine worthy of a Disney movie, although, she might be a bit too unorthodox for the squeaky clean franchise. The descriptions of the landscape resonated with me so much, that when I left my reading to take the dog out for a late afternoon walk in the freshly falling snow, I was Vasilisa, bravely navigating the cold, inhospitable forest with all of its wild strangeness, my trusty dog at my side.
One of the fantastical creatures of Russian fairy tales that inhabits this story is a “rusalka,” a water nymph. I first heard of a rusalka in Bel Canto, an Ann Patchett book about opera. The celebrated soprano in that book sang Rusalka’s song from the Dvorak opera by the same name at a very special event. At the time, I listened to a lot of sopranos singing that song, trying to find the one that I would add to my playlist. Ultimately, I opted for the “voice” of Joshua Bell’s violin. In act one of the opera, Rusalka, the daughter of a water goblin, tells her father she has fallen in love with a human prince whom she’s seen hunting around the lake. She wants to become human to embrace him. Her father thinks its a bad idea, but agrees for her to meet Ježibaba, a witch, for assistance. Rusalka sings her “Song to the Moon,” asking it to tell the prince of her love. Ježibaba tells Rusalka that if she becomes human, she will lose the power of speech and if she is betrayed by the prince, both of them will be eternally damned. Rusalka agrees to the terms and drinks a potion. The prince, hunting a white doe, finds Rusalka, embraces her, and leads her away, as her father and sisters lament. It was beautiful when I first heard it, it is still beautiful now.
In an early encounter of Vasya, she has followed her nose into the kitchen because of the the tantalizing smell of honey. Dunya promises her a cake of her own, if only she will tend to her mending while Dunya continues to take them out of the oven to cool. Vasya went to her stool where she noticed a pile of cakes already cooling on the table just out of her reach. They were so inviting, brown on the outside and flecked with ash from the oven. A corner of one cake crumbled, revealing a midsummer-gold interior, and a rising curl of steam. Being just six, and unable to wait, Vasya crept toward the steaming plate and quickly hid three cakes in her linen sleeve before running out the door to Dunya’s cries of protest.
My research led to the following recipe. It doesn’t match the description in the book, but it is a honey cake, and it’s Russian, and it’s delicious, and impressive to serve because of the layers.
Russian Honey Cake
Start the cake a day before you want to serve it because the filling needs to soften the cookies into thin cake layers overnight, just like an icebox cake. You can make the cookie layers a week in advance and store them in a container at room temperature, as you would other cookies.
½ C honey 3 large eggs
½ C sugar ¼ tsp fine table salt
½ C unsalted butter 1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking soda 3½ C all-purpose flour, divided
FROSTING AND FILLING
32 oz sour cream
1 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
The day before serving:
Preheat the oven to 350º F. Get 2 baking sheets, or 2 round pizza pans. Tear off 6 sheets of parchment paper large enough to make an 9-inch circle on them.
To make the cookie dough:
In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, honey and butter over medium heat. Once simmering, cook for 3 to 4 minutes until it gets a faint shade darker and you can smell the honey. Whisk in baking soda.The batter will foam up.
Remove pan from the heat and set aside for 2 to 3 minutes. It won’t significantly cool off, just settle a little. Lightly beat the 3 eggs in a spouted measuring cup for easiest pouring. Whisk the honey mixture vigorously in the pot the whole time while drizzling the thinnest stream, a half teaspoon at a time, of the eggs into the honey mixture. Do not stop mixing. Continue until all of the eggs are thoroughly whisked in.
With a spoon, stir in the salt and vanilla and 3 cups of flour. The dough is going to be thick like a bread. Stir in the last ½ cup of flour ¼ cup at a time.
Shape and bake the cookies:
Lightly flour your counter and divide the still warm dough into 8 even pieces. Roll the first piece between two sheets of parchment paper (no flouring needed) to a slightly bigger than 9-inch round. Remove the top sheet of parchment paper. Very lightly dust the top with flour if you’re going to put something on it (such as the bottom of an 9-inch cake pan) to trim the shape to an even 9-inch circle. Put the trimmings on one of the sheets of parchment paper (it’s fine if they overlap a little) to bake after all 8 layers have been made. If you have trouble rolling the dough into 9 inch rounds, 8 inches will be fine, but you may need to leave it in the oven longer. Just make sure that all your rounds are the same size. Dock the circle of dough all over with a fork. Slide your 9-inch round onto a baking sheet and bake for 6 to 7 minutes; it should feel firmish and get slightly darker at the edges. Slide the cookie onto a cooling rack. Meanwhile, while the first layer is baking, roll out your second piece so it’s ready to go into the oven as soon as the first comes out. If you’re making good time, get the third ready too and continue to bake them two at a time. Keep adding the unbaked cookie trimmings onto one piece of parchment paper. Keep repeating this process until all 8 layers are baked.
Finally, take that last sheet of parchment with all of the cookie scraps on it and slide it onto a baking sheet and bake it, checking in at 4 minutes, because the thinnest scraps will want to burn quickly. By 5 minutes, all should be baked until pale golden. Let cool completely and save until you’re ready to decorate the cake.
Fill and frost the cake:
Whisk the sour cream and sweetened condensed milk together in a large bowl. Once cookies are cool, place a dab of the sour cream mixture on your cake plate and place the first cookie on top of it to help adhere it.
Cut or tear one of your used pieces of parchment paper into strips and tuck them all around the underside of the cake to protect your cake plate. Do not eliminate this step. Scoop 3/4 cup sour cream mixture onto the center of your first cookie layer. Spread it only a little from the center, leaving a good 1- to 2-inch margin of unfrosted cookie. Stack the second cookie on top and repeat until you have 8 layers.
This will quickly become a huge mess. The sour cream is going to spill out and down the sides anyway. It’s also going to want to slide around and not stay neatly stacked. It’s totally okay because the filling will thicken as it absorbs into the cookies. Put the cake in the fridge for a couple hours (1 to 3) and when you come back to it, nudge the stack gently back into place and use a spoon and icing spatula to scoop the spilled-out filling back up the sides and onto the top of the cake. Don’t worry about it looking neat. Let it chill overnight.
The next day, finish the cake:
Grind your baked, reserved cookie scraps in a blender or food processor, or bash them into crumbs in a bag with a rolling pin.
Take your cake out and do one final frosting clean-up. Spread any newly puddled sour cream back up the sides and across the top. If you’d like to make a decoration on top of your cake, take one of those used pieces of parchment paper and cut a stencil with it. Place it gently on top of the cake.
Use a small spoon to sprinkle the top and sides of the cake with the crumbs. Remove the stencil and parchment paper strips to reveal the clean serving plate.
The cake can be served right away, or kept in the refridgerator for up to 5 days. Dip a knife in hot water to make clean slices.
A bunch of extra dough and cake layer tips:
• Ovens will vary, especially for such thin cookies, so keep an eye on the first round as of the 6-minute mark, checking in each minute after as it can brown very quickly, and then you’ll know how much time you need for the remaining ones.
• This dough is easiest to roll when it’s still a little warm. If yours cools quickly, put each piece in the microwave for 5 to 7 seconds to get it a touch warmer again, without prematurely baking the cookie.
• Save all of those used pieces of parchment paper for the next step and beyond.
It was a fair amount of work, but the end product is impressive and delicious.