Sunday, March 12, 2017

Ruining a Russian Count's Castle

David Plotz, CEO of Atlas Obscura and longtime host of the Slate Political Gabfest, wrote a cracking review of Samarkand and Taste of Persia the other day in the Piglet, but one line stopped me cold:

“I ended up cooking a full meal from each book: A soup, a vegetable, a starch, and a meat.”

Pardon? What kind of “full meal” has a soup course, but no dessert?

I wondered if perhaps Taste of Persia and Samarkand didn’t contain any appealing sweets, but feast your eyes, my friends

That is a photo from the pages of Samarkand of an Uzbek cake called Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle. The very existence of cake called Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle makes me glad to be alive. 

I decided to make one.

I haven’t learned the origins of the Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle cake, nor the source of its name, as research materials on Uzbek cakes are scant, even online. But then I only spent about seven minutes looking. What I do know about Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle: You can use a base of profiteroles, meringue, torte, or sponge cake. Atop whatever base you opt for, heap a mound of cream, stud with meringues (cocoa-flavored or plain), and drizzle chocolate over all. Here’s the range of ways a Ruining a Russian Count’s Castle might look. What a world. 
flat as a pancake, loaded with prunes
I had my doubts about the Samarkand recipe. The base cake was dense and flat, barely an inch tall, and full of prunes and walnuts. The whipped cream topping called for heavy cream and sour cream but no sugar. This felt wrong, so I added sugar (and would do so again.) The instructions have you slather some of this cream on the cake, then crush a few of the cocoa meringues into the remainder of the cream so you can create a stiff mound that will hold the rest of your little meringues. You end up with a wonderful monstrosity of a cake. 

This seemed like a novelty cake, a stunt cake, and I didn’t expect it to taste good. But we loved it. There’s so much going on. You’ve got your little crispy meringues to nibble on, then a layer of cream with delectable bits of sugary crushed meringue. Beneath this you get to the layer of pure, tangy cream and then the dense, nutty torte. As soon as you get tired of any one element, you can move on to another, and they're all delicious. Mark asked if the fruit in the torte was cherry. It’s a good sign when someone thinks a prune is a cherry. I was sorry to have to tell him otherwise.

Total delight this cake, both the idea of it and the thing itself.

I also made an easy sesame-ginger brittle from Samarkand and have spent the last few days trying not to eat it all up at once. You boil honey, sugar, and water together, add sesame seeds and whole almonds, cook for a bit, add butter, candied ginger and baking soda, pour over a cookie sheet, cool, break into shards, eat a caramelly, crunchy piece, try to resist eating a second piece, eat a second, try to resist. . .  and so on. Ten minutes to produce this tasty treat. Fifteen max.

Plotz made a good call on Samarkand.


  1. I want to make that cake! I love meringue in whipped cream. The British call it Eton mess, and it is an eatin' mess, but so delicious! I left you a little valentine at Food52.

    1. Yes! I went on to remind the group about Eton Mess and saw you had beaten me to it. Lovely mixture of strawberries, heavy cream and crushed meringues. It makes you wonder about all the tales of horrible food at English public schools.

  2. Ah, reminds me a bit of that Italian dessert confection with meringues, whipped cream, chocolate chips and chestnuts.

  3. That cake looks fabulous! As a bit of an aside, if you have the time I would highly, highly recommend the book Intuitive Eating. It talks a lot about how dieting messes with our internal signals of hunger, fullness, satiety, and pleasure around eating. It explains why the minute we start restricting something (like the brittle) it's all we can think about and we immediately crave more. Anyway, it's a wonderful book, fairly easy to read, and for me was a real eye-opener about how to have a healthier relationship with food and free myself from the "I really shouldn't have that" mentality around certain foods.

  4. That cake! I don't know how I feel about that cake without having the luxury of eating some. My husband is a peanut brittle lover. That brittle looks more my style. I will have to look up that recipe. It's nice to see you comment on the Piglet!

  5. I lived for two years in Uzbekistan, but sadly haven't heard of this cake-- unsurprising, since the unfortunate homogenizing, despoiling Soviet influence also extended to food. The local dessert that stands out most to me is Chak Chak-- individual curls of dough, fried until crisp, mounded high-- toweringly so-- and bound together with a sticky honey glaze. Someone (who had never been on a plane before and didn't care a whit about carry on regulations) gave me an enormous mountain of it as a going away present. I am going to start asking friends about the Ruining a Russian Count's Castle Cake-- it sounds wonderful and the name is sublime.

  6. I'll go read the review. I am enormous fan of the Slate Political Gabfest (less because of Plotz, who often voices opinions I find wrong-headed and sometimes even dumb), but because of Emily Bazelon, and also because all three hosts work very well together. That is a fun fun fun-looking cake.

  7. That cake looks like fun to make and fun to eat -- what a nice change from serious food/food whose chefs want you to take it seriously. It's like the anti-minimal plating cake! And anti-whatever the name is for that style of menu listing that just gives a few ingredients: "Russian Torte. prunes, meringue, cream". I am so over that. Thank you for this delicious antidote. Also bookmarking the brittle for holiday presents this year as a change from my usual sunflower seed/hot smoked paprika brittle.

  8. Interesting! I was disappointed Persia didn't go through, though I own neither cookbook - something about Persia interested me and the flatness of the recipes made me sad.

    Did you have strong feelings about the unexpected early knockout of Simple? I do own that cookbook...

  9. This sounds like it was worth making, and I may tackle it for my 70th birthday, which is coming up in June! I made the Chicken, Prune, and Potato Hotpot, which is absolutely delicious. DELICIOUS. I used 2 cups of chicken broth, rather than 2-½, and I did not let the chicken be submerged because I didn't want to lose the crispy skin. I browned the chicken legs well in a black iron skillet, removed them, added the apples and potatoes to the skillet, cooked them for the 8 minutes suggested, then lifted them out with a slotted spatula and moved them to a 3-quart sauté pan that had a lid. I proceeded with the recipe from there. About 20 minutes before it was finished, I put the chicken in a 400 °F oven to crisp it even more, and at the ten-minute mark, I turned the heat on the pan up to thicken the sauce a little. I will be making this again - and again. I think skin-on, bone-in thighs would work as well as whole legs. I also think it will be a great dinner party dish.

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  12. This cake is looking so delicious. I am glad to have this post as this made me learn the new way to bake a cake. I just love to try new tastes. This cake will definitely be the next in my taste list.

  13. Thanks for the recipe. Delicious food is something everyone is willing to try and I am sure this recipe will gave me a great experience and best to try for this weekend.

  14. Nice recipe looks healthy. In summers we usually feel the craving of eating some sweet and this makes this recipe a must try during such time. What more important is to consume healthy and delicious always and for this xtreme no supplement must be the wise pick.

  15. That cake! I don't know how I feel about that cake without having the luxury of eating some. .. . .
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