May 12, 2021

Siberia: Land of Pines, Exile, Cold... and Bird Cherry Cake.


Siberia: Land of Pines, Exile, Cold... and Bird Cherry Cake.

To a Westerner, Siberia means exile, cold, and remoteness. To a Muscovite, it’s exile, cold, remoteness, pine nuts, pelmeni, healing products, and a long life span. To a Siberian, it’s a life close to nature: forests and rivers, foraging, delicious fish, bird cherry cake, and, overall, a rich cuisine (and yes, also cold).

London chef and food writer Alissa Timoshkina describes Siberia in Salt & Time:

Recipe bookHistorically, Siberia was a place of exile from the mid-seventeenth century until the 1950s… through its complex history of exile and other forms of resettlement, Siberia has become a melting pot of culinary traditions from Ukraine and the Caucasus, to Central Asia, Mongolia and Korea.

This description made me appreciate Siberia in a different way, and realize how stereotyped it is, even inside Russia. My understanding of the region was also helped by making a friend from Siberia.

When I was living in Georgia, I went over to Masha’s place. She was crying, because her mother had just left to go back home to Siberia. She’d been to visit and brought pine nuts and bird cherry flour to make Masha’s favorite cake: bird cherry sponge with sour cream whipped with sugar on top. “It’s a very simple cake,” she said, “but I love it. To me it tastes like childhood. Mom made it for me for every special occasion, and we could also buy it at the local bakery. It’s divine.”

To help understand the flavor of bird cherry, here is how Timoshkina describes it:

“While small in size, the berry has the most intense flavor, which can be likened to a mix between bitter almond and morello cherries. When used in a cake mix, the flour not only amplifies the flavor, but also produces a gorgeous dark color and the loveliest grainy texture, similar to that of semolina and polenta.”

Two women on a boat on Lake Baikal
Masha and her mum Galina at Lake Baikal.

Masha remembers going into the forest to forage bird cherries, which would then be milled into flour and also boiled with sugar to be served with the cake. They would also forage for mushrooms and pine cones (for the nuts). Masha would always bring some back to Georgia with her and spend many evenings biting into the shell of the tiny nuts – an endeavor her Georgian husband never partook in, as it seems to be something you need to grow up with in order to appreciate.

Foraging was a way to pass time and enjoy the taiga forest, which they could see from their place. It was also the perfect pretext to spending the whole day in the beautiful thick forest.

Masha still has some bird cherry flour from when her mum last visited, and even a few pine nuts, that she eats sparingly, conscious that it might be a while before she gets a refill. The pandemic made her miss her grandmother’s funeral (longevity stereotype met here, she lived to be 97), and seeing her mom, who still lives in a formerly secret town near Krasnoyarsk (it was a dark spot on the map in the Soviet times, and had no name), looking out at the taiga from her window. She doesn’t bake bird cherry cake when her kids aren’t around, but I have – to honor the incredible region that Siberia is, and the strength of love between families separated by the pandemic, and to satisfy my curiosity. Masha was right, it is divine, and here is her mom’s recipe.

Bird Cherry Cake

2 eggs
100 gr softened butter
1 cup sugar
180 gr wheat flour
180 gr bird cherry flour
1 cup hot milk
200 gr thick sour cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
Baking soda 1 tsp

1. Soak bird cherry flour in milk for 30 minutes.
2. Whisk eggs with sugar, add wheat flour, butter, and soda.
3. Mix in bird cherry mixture.
4. Bake at 170° C (350° F) for 40-50 minutes, then leave in the hot oven for 30 minutes.
5. Whip sour cream with powdered sugar.
6. Cool cake, cut in half, and add the sour cream on the 2 layers.

 

You Might Also Like

The Road to Irkutsk
  • January 01, 2001

The Road to Irkutsk

In the last article in our six-part series, "East Across Siberia," William Brumfield takes us from the formerly closed city of Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk and the shores of Lake Baikal.
Life in a PO Box
  • April 01, 1996

Life in a PO Box

In this modern tale of two cities, we visit a closed Russian city still getting accustomed to the new era, and a poorer town that lives in its shadow. The author's photos of the closed town, Tomsk-7, are believed to be the first of this town widely published in the West.
The Heart of Siberia
  • November 01, 2000

The Heart of Siberia

The former capital of Siberia, Novosibirsk is a thriving city that the railroad made. This fifth installment in our East Across Siberia series also takes us to Tomsk and Barnaul
The Railroad Less Traveled
  • May 01, 2007

The Railroad Less Traveled

The Baikal-Amur Mainline is the other Trans-Siberian. More northerly, it runs through a range of Eastern Siberia largely untouched by human habitation.
Siberia's Primordial Colors
  • July 01, 2019

Siberia's Primordial Colors

A journalist meets a painter in the distant outback of Siberia. They share a love for the untamed wilderness, and we learn a thing or two about the challenges of painting in the wild.
Out of Siberia
  • January 01, 1998

Out of Siberia

Vasily Surikov's flash of creative genius lasted less than a decade. But his paintings have become cherished icons for old Russian traditions.
Built on Ice and Bones
  • March 01, 2007

Built on Ice and Bones

Built by gulag internees, Norilsk is one of the world’s northernmost cities. It also sits atop one of Earth’s richest mineral lodes, in clouds of the world’s most harmful pollutants.
A Celebratory Cake
  • May 01, 2020

A Celebratory Cake

А фestive Napoleon Cake that is plenty complex to offer lots of stress baking relief.
The Teas of Russia
  • May 17, 2021

The Teas of Russia

Russian tea isn't always what you might picture it to be... neither is it always really tea. Let's have a taste of some of the unique varieties of herbal tea found in Russia. 
Meet Russia's favorite sable
  • January 28, 2020

Meet Russia's favorite sable

Siberian sable fur was once Russia's biggest luxury export, but now we can't get enough of Instagram star Umora, the sable inspiring Russians to never look at fur coats again.
Frozen Ramen Challenge
  • January 05, 2021

Frozen Ramen Challenge

Russians are taking advantage of sub-zero temperatures to participate in the frozen Ramen challenge.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

At the Circus (bilingual)

At the Circus (bilingual)

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Okudzhava Bilingual

Okudzhava Bilingual

Poems, songs and autobiographical sketches by Bulat Okudzhava, the king of the Russian bards. 
Survival Russian

Survival Russian

Survival Russian is an intensely practical guide to conversational, colloquial and culture-rich Russian. It uses humor, current events and thematically-driven essays to deepen readers’ understanding of Russian language and culture. This enlarged Second Edition of Survival Russian includes over 90 essays and illuminates over 2000 invaluable Russian phrases and words.
Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
Russian Rules

Russian Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
Chekhov Bilingual

Chekhov Bilingual

Some of Chekhov's most beloved stories, with English and accented Russian on facing pages throughout. 

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955