November 01, 2013

A Mythical Dessert

A Mythical Dessert
Alexander Sherstobitov

This rich dessert bears the name of Count Dmitri Alexandrovich Guriev (1751-1825), Minister of Finance under Tsar Alexander I. The classic preparation is made from mannaya kasha, or semolina, best known in the US as Cream of Wheat (confusingly, this soft-wheat product is sometimes also known as farina). Semolina is used widely in northern European cooking as a sweetened porridge, often paired with fresh fruit. The Russian treatment is distinguished by the addition of nuts and dried, candied, or brandied fruits. But what really makes traditional Guriev kasha stand out is its use of golden skins, formed by baking rich milk or cream in the oven. The skin that appears on the top of the milk is lifted off and used to separate the layers of semolina and fillings. As a finishing touch, the porridge is sprinkled on top with sugar and browned under a broiler in the fashion of crème brûlée – a technique borrowed from French haute cuisine.

Guriev kasha lends itself well to individual interpretation, and this flexibility is, perhaps, one reason why the exact origins of the dessert have been lost to history. Different versions of the story abound, almost all circling around Count Guriev, who was renowned for his excellent table.

The nineteenth-century memoirist Filipp Filippovich Vigel, a confidant of Pushkin and the Arzamas group, wrote that Guriev frequently traveled abroad, where he “perfected himself gastronomically. He had a real genius for invention...” In The Food and Cooking of Russia, Lesley Chamberlain writes that Guriev created the dish in 1812 “to commemorate his country’s victory over Napoleon. Two years later it was already being shown off in Paris.” Another, more widely circulated version of the story claims that Guriev didn’t invent the dish himself, but that it was created by a serf who belonged to a retired major of the Orenburg Dragoons. When Guriev visited this major, he was so impressed with the serf’s dessert that he bought him and his family and installed him as chef of his own household. The most reliable source, the culinary historians Olga and Pavel Siutkin, believe that Guriev created the dish himself, most likely in the late eighteenth century.

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