Dostoevsky love it, just like Catherine the Great and Sofia, Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife and assistant, and It was once the quintessential Russian dessert: pastila.
The sweet, fluffy treat was a classic afternoon tea snack at aristocratic Russian soirees of the 19th century.
To make it, you need simply applesauce, egg whites, and sugar, leavened with lots and lots of air that’s forced into the mixture with hard whisking.
What happens next is stunning, because the earthy apple pulp literally transforms into a gleaming white cloud, light and soft.
Then, the soft cream is gently spread into pans and baked at a low temperature for hours and the the results is, for lack of a better description, a pale, caramel-colored marshmallow, or apple-flavored meringue.
Well, actually it’s not as chewy and it is not crisp like a meringue, but it has that quality of softness that you get inside some meringues.
It seems that pastila is hundreds of years old, and it started out as a sort of fruit leather, sweetened with honey and dried in an oven.
Its name comes from the Slavic word “postel”, or bed, likely due to the mixture’s fluffy appearance in the wooden trays used to dry it.
Either way its popularity springs from the long-held Russian love of apples, from a tree that can provide wood, shade and fruit, and grows really, really well, especially in chilly Russia.
Before the Russian Revolution, the apple-growing towns south of Moscow vied to produce the most glorious and delicious varieties of pastila, and It seems that the finest is made with the hardy, huge, cold-loving Antonovka apples.
But the main feature of Antonovka apples is their acid: sour and underripe apples have the most pectin, the substance that gives pastila its gummy texture.
Kolomna and Belyov are still the most famous pastila-producing cities, and apparently each claims to be responsible for one major innovation.
According to the legend, Kolomna was the first to whip pastila into airiness, sometime during the 14th century, while a Belyov merchant in the 19th century was the first to add egg whites, making the treat even fluffier.
Legends apart, in the days before electricity, making pastila was really a painful labor.
Without a mechanical mixer, beating cooked apples had to be done by hand, and one 19th-century variety had to be beaten even for an agonizing 48 straight hours!
Luckily in Russia, you had serfs who were in the kitchen and they were whipping the pastila, so it wasn’t any effort on the part of the tasters.
And then the Russian Revolution.
Under the restrictions and scarcities of the Soviet Union, pastila slowly faded away, as It wasn’t part of the necessary food groups, and many of Russia’s traditional, unusual, or unique foods met the same fate.
However recently, there has been a massive upswing of interest in recovering ancestral Russian recipes, and luckily also pastila has had a magnificent reintroduction in the country’s culture.
It was 2008 when Kolomna town council member Natalia Nikitina and her friend Elena Dimitrieva began producing the dessert again as a treat for the international crowd in town for the European Speed Skating Championships.
In the 19th-century writer Ivan Lazhechnikov’s novel “The Ice House”, the first found a reference to Kolomna’s past prominence as a pastila producer and, together with her friend, she researched how to make the ancient apple treat in the Russian State Library, finding a variety of references to Catherine the Great, Dostoevsky, and the Tolstoys who enjoyed and documented their love for the treat, which was once again a success.
In 2009, the two even opened a museum and factory dedicated to the dessert.
At the Museum of Forgotten Flavors, or “Kolomenskaya Pastila”, visitors are welcomed by costumed actors who explain the history of pastila, and a shop sells dozens of different varieties, from rosette-shaped version to a hop-and-lemon-flavored pastila with supposed hangover-curing properties.
Unfortunately, their partnership ended with lawsuits in 2015 and, in a twist worthy of a Russian novel, Elena Dmitirieva now runs another similar museum down the street by the name of “Muzeynaya Fabrika Pastily”.
Now a sort of commercial pastila is easy to find online, even outside of Russia.
But homemade or artisanal version is, of course, the best.
Unless you can plan a trip to Kolomna or Belyov, you can make pastila at home (and there’s no need to beat it for hours, as an electric mixer will do the job in minutes), in order to taste the dessert that is literally the essential taste of Russia.
I found this recipe for a Belyov-style pastila, stacked into layers, dried again, and then sliced.
But other versions recommends simply taking two layers and sandwiching them together with jam.
6 large apples
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 egg whites
Powdered sugar for dusting
1. Preheat your oven to 180º C.
Wash the apples, and place them into a shallow, oven-safe dish with a a little bit water at the bottom.
Then, roast the apples for an hour, or until they’re golden and wrinkly.
2. Now you can remove the apples from the oven, and allow them to cool completely.
Then, scrape the skins and cores until you have a mound of soft, seed-free puree and, with a blender, process the puree until smooth.
3. Put the puree, egg whites, and granulated sugar in the largest mixing bowl you have and whip the apple-sugar-egg mixture for 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, preheat the oven once again, this time to 60º C (or the lowest setting it will go), and line a cookie sheet, including the sides, with parchment paper.
5. Back at the mixer, the puree will have nearly quadrupled in size after 10 minutes, and stop the machine once you have a bowl filled with gleaming, thick white foam.
Scrape the foam, reserving about a cup and a half and putting it in the fridge.
6. Spread the remaining foam in the pan evenly, and leave it in the oven for 4 to 6 hours.
The pastila needs to be dry to the touch, and solid enough to pick up as one entire sheet.
If not, return it to the oven.
7. Now you can remove the pastila from the oven and allow it to cool completely before peeling away the parchment paper.
8. With a knife dipped in hot water, cut the pastila into three identical pieces and, using the reserved puree as glue, stack the three pieces on top of each other, using the puree also to patch any holes.
9. Then, on a baking sheet lined with more parchment paper, return the pastila to the oven once more, this time for an hour and a half and, after making sure the layers have all molded together, remove it from the oven and let it cool.
10. When it is cool, rub it with powdered sugar, and it is now ready to be eaten with a cup of tea, if you want.
Images from web – Google Research