Ever since finishing The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson, I wanted to recreate one of the Russian recipes and foods mentioned in the book.
Inspired by the Russian folk tales about the human-bear child, flying ship, warrior princesses, evil dragons, Baba Yaga, and talking animals, Sophie writes with imagination and mastery.
This is a story about Yanka the Bear, who is big and strong. She lives with Mamochka, who has found Yanka outside the bear cave.
"I love living with Mamochka. She's the best mother I could have wished for, but I often wonder about the bear. I wonder if she remembers me. Maybe even misses me. I wonder about the bear almost as much as I wonder about my real parents. The ones who must have lost me - or left me - in the forest".
One day Yanka wakes up only to find out that she has got bear legs...
It's a magical tale of self-discovery, self-identity, our uniqueness and differentness, of what a family and friendship, and true love mean to us. It's a beautiful story, and a future classic.
Sophie Anderson did it again, she has created a story of perfect balance. She's a true tsarina of the reinvented Russian folk tales.
Sophie's descriptions of the Russian food always "taste" good.
"Mamochka pours Anatoly a cup of tea with lemon and passes him a basket of pryaniki - soft spiced cookies with a glaze as white as the snow outside".
Pryaniki are the Russian honey and spice-based cookies. The word itself pryaniki is derived from pryanyi, i.e. spicy. They are often glazed, with a nice crunch on the outside, but typically soft inside, unlike the British gingerbread (It always amuses me when the judges on the GBBO complain that the gingerbread should snap, as if the soft gingerbread is an anomaly).
This is a festive food, rich and spicy. The authentic pryaniki are made with the rye flour. You might find lots of recipes online for the Russian spiced cookies, and many of them use the standard wheat flour, mixed sometimes with cocoa powder to add the colour. But do try making them with the rye flour, the taste is very special.
Pryaniki medovye (honey spiced cookies)
2tsp+ mixed spices (ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, star anise)
80g caster sugar + water
450g rye flour
80g butter, melted
1 egg yolk
2tbsp lemon juice
1tsp baking powder
120g icing sugar + 1 egg white for icing
In a small pan heat up the honey with spices. Set aside.
Make caramel in a small frying pan, stirring caster sugar with a dash of water. The caramel should be liquid and not too thick. Once dark in colour, set the caramel aside.
Mix the honey with caramel in a deep mixing bowl, then add half of the rye flour and mix.
Melt the butter and add to the dough. Once it is cool to touch, beat in the egg and egg yolk, lemon juice, baking powder and add the remaining flour.
Mix the dough, using hands. If the dough is too stiff, squeeze a little bit more of lemon juice.
Roll the dough on a clean working surface to the thickness of 6-7mm.
To create authentic Russian pryaniki, I used a special wooden carved board. You can use either a carved board for shortbread, or a rolling pin with deisgns, and then cut out the shapes. Or just use cookie cutters, like stars.
If using a board with a carved design, place a piece of dough over the carved design (you need to oil the wood first), gently stamp the dough, and use the rolling pin over the dough, then carefully lift the stamped dough.
Cut out the shapes around the stamped image with a knife. This is how the uncooked pryanik looks.
Place the cookies on a big tray, lined with parchment paper. Put the tray in the oven preheated to 180C. Bake for about 12-15 minutes. The cookies should be slightly browned, and will still be soft to touch. If you keep them longer in the oven, they will be crisp.
Once all the cookies are cool, prepare the glaze, using the icing sugar and the egg white. Mix them gently together, but don't overbeat, you don't want a meringue.
Using a brush, add the glaze over cookies. Let the glaze set. Ideally these cookies should rest for 24 hours, but in our case, they were flying off the cooling tray even before I managed to glaze them all.
They will keep in the tin for a long time. In fact, in the "olden days" pryaniki would be made weeks in advance of all major holidays and feasts. They just need to be kept in a tin or box with a lid.
In this recipe I used a Raw Wild Flower Bulgarian Honey from Whole Foods. It's a delicious honey, rich in vitamins and minerals. "It is made from the nectar of a wide variety of wild, pollen-rich flowers, which is why it has a distinctive and unique herbal flavour".
A few days ago I applied to the Bloggers Required assignment to test some products from the Whole Foods Online range, and this delightful honey was one of the products I agreed to try in a recipe (watch this space for more recipes to come!).
As I wanted to make the Russian pryaniki, I thought this was the most wonderful coincidence.
Happy publication day to The Girl Who Speaks Bear!