From Russia With Love

November 1, 2017

When I first arrived in Holland ten years ago, I had only a vague idea of where I was going. Tulips, windmills, weed, and cheese—these were the things that I knew about The Netherlands, a small country of tall people.

 

I was born in Moscow, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. My family was considered middle-class: My grandparents worked for the government, my mom was an accountant at a big university, and my dad was something of an entrepreneur—a DJ at the discothèque, a professional in radio electronics, and an auto mechanic. Still, all of us were living in one small apartment, about 200 square feet, just like so many families. 

 

My mom made dinner for the whole family every night. I can't imagine how hard it was to do so much with so little choice of food, and I got the idea that cooking was drudgery. It was worse when the USSR collapsed. My mom told a story that she had two children in order to qualify for extra butter on a food card. (It was wishful thinking: Two years later, my brother was born.) One of my brightest memories is of standing with my grandma in an eight-hour queue at the first McDonalds. It was February, freezing cold, and I will never forget the taste of the cheeseburger and warming my hands from the potato pie. When I was about eight years old, my father received his first salary in dollars and brought home Nutella from a newly opened store. I stared at it and asked, "Is it really for me?"

 

I had one dream: to travel and see the world. After the borders were opened, my parents made it possible for me to attend a Spanish school and visit Spain to learn the language. Going to university was almost obligatory (for boys it was the golden ticket to stay out of the army; for girls it was a way to grow). I wanted out, but that won't bring you supper, right? Finding myself was a luxury that I didn't have, and eventually I started working on the business at my father’s garage, where I met the man I would marry.

 

I remember the moment when I realized I was going to be a mom. At that time, I couldn’t have imagined that I would now be called a single mother, a stigma in society where I was raised. But when I moved to Holland, I felt acceptance, peace, and the courage to face new challenges. I studied to become a pastry chef, even though I knew nothing about baking. I learned the basics, with strong lessons and serious teachers, leading to my own business.

 

And my Barbara, now three years old, is always next to me, often messing with my oven timer but curious and open-minded. My kid knows the differences between three types of meringue and easily operates in two languages without thinking. Someday I will show her the place where her parents came from, tell her about my childhood, and make her proud of her heritage.

 

When I was still living in Russia, we made cookies that we thought tasted like those sold in the winter markets of Europe. But something was always missing, some secret ingredient. Now I know. Love was missing. Tradition was missing—something you can't find in any pastry book. So when my daughter and I first baked speculaas together, I already knew from the aroma filing the house that I’d found my secret ingredient. We are where we want to be. 

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Kristina Zalesskaya owns the home-based patisserie and chocolaterie ZZ Sweet Studio in Alkmaar, Netherlands.

Speculaas Cookies

 

For spice powder:

1 1/2 t. cinnamon

1/2 t. ground nutmeg

1/2 t. ground cloves

1/4 t. powdered ginger

1/4 t. cardamom

1/4 t. white pepper

 

Mix ingredients together.

 

7 oz. flour, sifted

2 t. baking powder

1 1/2 t. spoons spice powder

pinch of salt

7 T. brown sugar

9 T. cold butter

1 T. water

3 – 4 oz. sliced almonds, divided

1 egg, beaten

 

Mix together flour, baking powder, spice powder, salt, brown sugar, butter, water, and half of the sliced almonds.

Roll dough between two pieces of parchment paper to a thickness of less than 1/4 inch.

Let dough rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Cut cookies to desired shapes with cutters.

Brush cookies with egg wash and sprinkle with remaining sliced almonds.

Bake on parchment paper for 15 - 18 minutes, and cool on a rack.

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