While I obsessively listened to the news about Nemstov’s murder, I multi-tasked my way into a struggle with my surroundings. I baked an American-style pumpkin pie in my under-furnished and unusual kitchen.
This was an endeavor planned in advance. My Russian friends are always so generous to me with their time and their food offerings. Every time I’m treated to a huge three-course meal lovingly prepared from deliciously fresh ingredients. The flowers or pastries or wine I bring can never compete. So I hatched a plan this time. I brought a pie pan, canned pumpkin and necessary spices with me from home.
I went to the grocery store to get the rest of the ingredients: flour, butter, cream, milk, brown sugar and eggs. This shopping trip taught me more than any shopping trip ever has. For example, what is brown sugar? Do you know? I mean, do you really, really know? Well, what we call brown sugar in the US, it turns out, is white sugar flavored with molasses. But molasses is a tricky product that is not universally eaten by humans. Russians use molasses to feed farm animals and for making bottom-of-the-line moonshine. Needless to say, “brown sugar,” such as I know it, was not easy to find. I had to paw through bags and boxes of raw sugar and sorghum before I finally found something that I was pretty sure was molasses-based brown sugar. The description was vague but I was running out of time so I bought it anyway.
Cream presented another problem. I always assumed cream is cream. Cream is the fattiest milk that is the by-product of making butter. But did you know that cream comes in many different percentages of milkfat? At the store I found 10%, 20%, 33%, 35%…I found out later that you can only beat cream that is at least 30% milkfat. How much fat is in whipping cream at home? What about heavy whipping cream?
I remembered from past trips that Russian milk is available in a wider range of milkfats than at home. Russians rightly eschew the disgusting blue water known as skim milk and instead drink 2.5%, 3.2%, 3.6%, or 4.2%.
But, much to my surprise, butter is also available in a wide range of milkfats. I always assumed butter was just butter. You took milk from the cow, put it in the churn, worked it until it was solid and that’s your butter. I could not have been more wrong. In Russia you can buy butter that is 72.5%, 73%, 82.5% or “fasting” butter that did not list a fat percentage. I should mention that this was during the period of the “great fast,” that is, Lent, so the “fasting” butter was probably some sort of low-fat atrocity. I bought the fattiest butter I could find since it was also the firmest.
There was nothing strange about the eggs.
Once home I mixed my flour and butter for the crust. I didn’t have any real measuring equipment but I’ve done it so many times I felt fairly confident at eyeballing it. But as I was rolling out my dough (using a wine bottle for a rolling pin)…it just didn’t feel the same as it usually does. Something was up with this flour. After-the-fact internet research revealed that the wheat flour I had purchased, called “first grade,” was actually bread flour, meaning that it contained a fair bit of gluten. One of the mortal sins of piecrust is the presence of gluten. Apparently what I needed was “highest grade,” which is nearly gluten free. (There’s also a “second grade” flour which has a substantial amount of bran in it. Whole wheat flour is not as widely available in Russia.)
I stuck the pie crust in the freezer to cool it down in preparation for the hot oven (cold crust + hot oven is a key concept in piecrust flakiness), cleaned up my big floury mess and got to work on that oven heat. Kneeling on the buckled linoleum, I peered inside the tiny oven. Where’s the pilot? I turn the gas on and I can smell it, so that’s good. I mean, it’s good if I can figure out where to put the match. Otherwise, maybe I’ll just leave my head here in this gassy oven and forget all about gluten and milkfat.
At a loss for a more logical strategy, I started throwing lit matches into all the vent holes in the oven’s floor. After all, one of them had to contain the pilot. I turned on the gas and threw, turned on the gas and threw. I had only burned myself a couple of times before I struck pay dirt (heat dirt?) and heard the whoosh! of the oven heating up.
The easiest part was the only part left: the filling. Pumpkin pie really just requires mixing all the ingredients together on the stove, heating them through, and then pouring the mixture into a partially-baked pie crust. I already had the crust in the oven, so I was over half done.
Well….so. The pumpkin was in a can. A thorough search of every nook and cranny of that kitchen revealed that there was absolutely no can opener. Huh. I take a look at the oven and notice that it’s losing temperature. Huh. Huh. I manage to stabilize the oven and get the crust appropriately browned, but I’ve still got my pumpkin problem. I slipped on my shoes and ran out the door to the store.
There must be some nuance to the word “can opener” that I don’t know because each time I asked a salesperson, “Excuse me, do you have a can opener?” They all asked me, “Why do you need a can opener?” I would then answer, “Because I have cans and I need to open them!” Then they’d tell me they didn’t have any can openers. This happened three times. While my oven stayed on back in the apartment. This farce was turning into a crisis so I headed back home to think or drink or throw myself off the balcony.
Eventually I made do with a corkscrew and some pliers. Somehow I managed to extract most of the pumpkin from the can, mixed it up with all the other slightly odd ingredients, shoved it into the oven, and washed my hands of the entire affair.
It’s kind of a blur to me now, but I hand-carried this pie on the metro, made two train transfers and rode for an hour to get to my friend’s house. I think we ate it.