November 01, 2014

A Russo-Finnish Delicacy

A Russo-Finnish Delicacy

When i was in college, it was nearly impossible to get a visa for extended study in the Soviet Union. So I spent a semester at the University of Helsinki instead, figuring I could always visit Leningrad on a tourist visa. In Finland I discovered all sorts of culinary delights, including candies called Pihlaja, rowanberry-flavored fruit jellies. They soon became a favorite treat. Later that semester, when I was able to travel to Leningrad, I discovered something else: Tort Tyanushki, a luxurious caramel-glazed cake, its topping as sleek as marble. It, too, became a favorite, especially after I found it for sale in Helsinki. Little did I suspect that these two very different sweets shared a rich history.

Both were the brainchild of Karl Fazer, the founder of Finland’s great confectionery empire. The youngest son of Eduard Fazer, a Swiss émigré furrier, Karl didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps; against his family’s wishes, he became a confectioner. He apprenticed in Paris, Berlin and – most important for our story – St. Petersburg, where he moved in 1866. It was in Russia’s capital that Fazer discovered the marvelous array of marmelady, or fruit jellies, so beloved by Russians. They included one made from ryabina, the rowanberry, prized for its tart, musky taste. In St. Petersburg Fazer also discovered tyanushki, Russian caramel. After returning to Helsinki in 1891, Fazer opened a pastry shop in the city center, which he billed as “French Russian.” Its elegant offerings, which included a tyanushki torte (tjinuski in Finnish Swedish), were a revelation to Helsinki’s urbane population, and his business became a huge success.

Traditional Russian tyanushki is a confection similar to our soft, chewy caramels, except that it relies solely on heavy cream rather than butter. Its name comes from the Russian tyanutsa, “to stretch.” Even though tyanushki is poured rather than stretched, the etymology connects it to taffy, which is stretched to achieve the proper consistency. Old tyanushki recipes call for boiling sugar and sometimes a little honey with heavy cream until thick, then pouring it onto a slab and allowing it to thicken before being cut into pieces. Fazer adapted this traditional candy for use as a topping, turning it into the company’s signature cake.

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